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Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Portraits of Purpose series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
ARE WE HITTING PEAK-PRISON-ART-SHOW?
Of course, I’m being provocative, but the rise and rise of prison criticism and reflection (and commodification) in the cultural sphere bears consideration.
Here is not an exhaustive list but a few examples — Life After Death and Elsewhere, curated by Robin Paris and Tom Williams at apexart; To Shoot A Kite curated by Yaelle Amir at the CUE Foundation; Voices Of Incarceration at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles; Try Youth As Youth curated by Meg Noe at David Weinberg in Chicago; Site Unseen: Incarceration curated by Sheila Pinkel; The Cell and the Sanctuary put on by the William James Association in Santa Cruz, CA; and my own Prison Obscura.
This weekend, Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives will end its 10-week run at the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art at Chaffey College in Southern California. Inside/Outside is a relatively large survey of prisoner art, prison photography and visual activism that brings together the work of Sandow Birk, Camilo Cruz, Amy Elkins, Alyse Emdur, Ashley Hunt, Spencer Lowell, Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), Jason Metcalf, Sheila Pinkel, Richard Ross, Kristen S. Wilkins, Steve Shoffner, the Counter Narrative Society and students at the California Institute for Women.
It’s a great exhibition.
As many of the names in Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives are familiar, I felt a review by me would be redundant; it’d be dominated by applause to the committed artists I see as asking the right questions … because they’re the questions I’ve ask too.
Instead, I wanted to focus on the recent uptick in fine art exhibitions orbiting the issues of prisons.
Rebecca Trawick, Director of the Wignall Museum and co-curator of Inside/Outside and I were in touch a while before I realised that this should be what we should discuss. And how the cultural production of art around, and about, the prison industrial complex propels, inspires, derails (and much else besides) dialogue about mass incarceration in America.
Kindly, Trawick and her co-curator, Misty Burruel, Associate Professor of Art at Chaffey College accepted my invite to answer some questions. The Q&A is peppered with artworks from Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives.
Scroll down for our discussion.
Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Theater of Souls series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Why did you make this exhibition?
Rebecca Trawick (RT): Incarceration was an issue that I kept returning to in my research.
As a curator, I’m specifically interested in shedding light on important but difficult social issues through the lens of contemporary art. I love how artists can take an unwieldly topic and consider it thoughtfully, often personally, and in really compelling ways that allow the viewer a chance at transformation, or expansion of, thought and perspective.
Because we work at an institution of higher education, these exhibitions become a safe space to start difficult discussions about issues such as incarceration, and they become a tool to educate and inform. This kind of exhibition (if done well) can demonstrate the value of art to transform ideas, minds, and communities.
Misty Burruel (MB): Because it was a challenge. On the heels of a number of incarceration exhibitions in southern California that focused on works by incarcerated artists and artists confronting the criminal justice system, it was appropriate to look at it through the lens of education.
We are confronted daily with students that have either been incarcerated or have family who are incarcerated. It was time to have difficult discussions about the role of education in the penal system, our responsibility as citizens to each other, and how parolees reintegrate into yet another system.
Spencer Lowell, La Palma prison, Arizona
PP: Is incarceration a “hot topic” right now? Why?
RT: As Misty and I mention in our remarks in the printed takeaway, we seem to be experiencing a unique convergence of policy discussions in the US as well as popular culture interests, so we feel like the conversation is already happening in certain circles.
We hope our exhibition helps to expand the discussion and dig a little deeper into some of the topics looked at in contemporary documentary (think the recent Vice episode, Fixing the System, in which President Obama – the first sitting US President to do so – visited a federal prison) to the popularity of Orange is the New Black.
MB: Jenji Kohan’s, Orange is the New Black, portrayal of incarcerated women created a splash on Netflix and revealed through mass media the complexities of a system within a system. The women were all too real and relatable. We live in the Inland Empire and have two prisons at our footstep.
PP: California Institute for Men and California Institute for Women.
Jason Metcalf, Cheeseburger, French Fries, Iced Tea (Dwight Adanandus), 2013, archival pigment print, 16 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
PP: Is Inside/Outside about incarceration or is it about the representation of incarceration?
RT: The exhibition is about the many issues surrounding incarceration that we hope our viewers will consider more deeply after viewing the work on view. Issues include the value of rehabilitation behind bars; juveniles in justice; death penalty, segregation, prison labor, and isolation as systems of control, among others.
PP: How did you select the artists?
RT: The Wignall Museum mainly draws from Southern California for practical reasons–funding limits us to local pickups mainly. In some cases (Kristin S. Wilkins, for example) agreed to ship the work to us so we were able to include her. We’re often limited regionally, which explains the SoCal bias. We would have loved to include works outside our region, if possible. (see next question for a list of some we would have included if possible.) The one thing I remind myself is that we’re not trying to be essentialist in what we portray or explore, but rather offer some really amazing work to assist us in digging a little deeper into the state of incarceration today.
MB: We are in a human warehousing gridlock. The works collectively focus on how the system of control does not discriminate (women, men, and youth detention).
Kristen S. Wilkins, Untitled #10. From the series ‘Supplication’ (2009-2014) “Grand Ave. by Shiloh (Cemetery). Left side of water fountain. Has colorful wreath with flowers. It is where my son is @. He is the best thing that happened to me in my life. He was my world.”
PP: Were there any artists or works out there that you’d wanted in the show but couldn’t for whatever reason?
RT: Yes! Many. The list includes Deborah Luster, Dread Scott, Jackie Sumell’s The House That Herman Built, and Julie Green’s Last Supper installation all immediately come to mind. There were many others, but those three stand out for me.
MB: We wanted to have more guest speakers, but funding always seems to be a hurdle. We can certainly look at the issue, but we really wanted to talk about it.
PP: Really? From the outside that you had a phenomenal amount of programming. I applaud you. How important was programing around the exhibition?
RT: Programming is critical. Because we’re limited in many ways in terms of what we can show – due to spatial and fiscal restrictions – programming allows us to bring in experts in the field to further contextualize and expand the themes of the exhibition. It also allows community engagement and for other voices to join in the conversation, often in a public forum. That ability can’t be underestimated, I think.
MB: When the discussing an exhibition about incarceration we were most focused on programming. Rebecca and I are collaborative by nature and we were able to find others who were very interested in asking difficult questions within their own disciplines (Sociology, Philosophy, Correctional Science, Administration of Justice).
© Sheila Pinkel
PP: I’ve been asked a number of times “Who are you (a white, cis-gender, male, college graduate) to speak to these issues?” Every time by a highschooler — God, I love them. Were you ever challenged over your role and/or position while putting Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives together?
RT: As a curator at an institution situated on the campus of a Community College I feel strongly that it is our responsibility to explore a wide array of topics in our exhibitions and to look from a place of diversity – diversity of media, content, viewpoint, race, ethnicity, etc. – and through the lens of contemporary art, but it is critical that we do so in a way that is thoughtful and multifaceted.
Philosophically we try to schedule our exhibitions and programs in a way that expand outside of our own limited perspectives. We also try to use multiple guest voices – guest curators, guest speakers, etc. to expand the discourse around an exhibition. But the long and the short of it is, I try to always be conscious of my privilege and to present diverse voices. That said, my own experience/perspective was never called into question during the exhibition planning or implementation phase.
MB: The college has wholeheartedly embraced the exhibition and its programming.
Amy Elkins. 26/44 (Not the Man I Once Was), 2011. Portrait of a man twenty-six years into his death row sentence where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.
You’ve said the response so far has been positive. More than other Wignall shows? More among the student body, or beyond? How do you measure response/success?
RT: This exhibition definitely has seemed to link to something that is personal and relatable for many of our students, faculty and community visitors, evident by the verbal responses and reactions we’ve seen in the galleries. We’ve held a number of panel discussions, engagement activities, a film screening, and dozens of tours. Unequivocally, discussions always seem to lead to the personal and comments suggest that the ability to discuss a somewhat taboo topic has been relevant.
MB: This work is incredibly personal and relevant to the Inland Empire.
PP: Can you see the successes and failures of the show already? Or is it too soon for that type of assessment?
RT: Success can be measured in qualitative and quantitative ways … (as of course, can failure). Due to the high level of programming, and the sheer number of student tours we’ve conducted, we can see an increased level of engagement. Our visitor numbers are up, the number of students speaking up during tours has increased a great deal, and the unsolicited feedback from students/faculty/staff we’re getting has been remarkable.
We also ask all students who visit us as part of a tour to fill out a short survey. Results won’t be tabulated until the close of the exhibition, but I feel the results will mirror the anecdotal evidence we’re seeing. As a curator, however, I’m always thinking about what we can improve upon – from the curatorial practice, to layout and installation, to printed collateral and programming…reflection is key.
MB: I think the museum does an amazing job of allowing artists to ask difficult questions and explore relevant social and political issues.
The Wignall Museum hosted workshops and discussion led by Mabel Negrete and the Counter Narratives Society.
PP: Anything you’d like to add?
RT: We hope that Inside/Outside and the many other excellent exhibitions and artists looking at incarceration with a critical perspective will encourage the questioning of the system as it is, and that it might even encourage engagement in our communities in ways that can make real change in the world.
Two of my fave up-and-coming photographers had a chat with one another.
Zora J. Murff interviewed Isadora Kososfky, for Murff’s co-joint venture Strange Fire Collective. They’ve already an impressive archive of interviews with photographers. Murff was asking for the back story of Kosofky’s series Vinny and David.
One of the many things the interview illuminates is the different attitudes toward images subjects and photographer may hold.
Documentary photography, for me, is a journey of both loneliness and overcoming loneliness for both photographer and subject. Most people want to be seen, and, if they deny wanting to be exposed, they usually just fear being seen. As David from “Vinny and David” once said, “I’ve never really liked pictures. Pictures don’t lie. A photo is evidence.”
It’s a good read, check it out.
BACK IN THE DAY
I wrote about Murff’s work for The Marshall Project, Tracked.
I wrote about Kosofsky’s work for Vantage, Subjected To Prison, Defined by a Brother’s Love.
I was interviewed by ACLU recently: Prisons Are Man-Made … They Can Be Unmade.
The Q&A focuses around the exhibition Prison Obscura and you’ll notice a return to many of my favourite talking points. Still, the work never ends, and I know that ACLU will push out — to an expanded audience — my argument that we should all be more active and conscientious consumers of prison imagery. My thanks to Matthew Harwood for the questions.
Anonymous. Pinhole photograph made by girls incarcerated at Remann Hall, WA, in a workshop facilitated by Steve Davis.
On November 20, 1989, the United Nations passed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The treaty banned Juvenile Life Without Parole (JWLOP) and other harsh sentencing practices, such as trying children in adult courts. Along with Somalia and South Sudan, the U.S. remains one of the few nations that has not ratified the treaty. 25 years after the passage of such a landmark treaty, the U.S. incarcerates more children than any other nation.
IN CONVERSATION WITH BRYAN STEVENSON
This is the context in which we should listen to lawyer Bryan Stevenson. On the occasion of the release of his new book Just Mercy, I’ve edited and republished a Prison Photography interview with Stevenson from late 2012 on Medium. I paired Stevenson’s words with decade-old pinhole photos made by girls incarcerated at Remann Hall Juvenile Detention Facility, WA.
Stevenson is founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He has fought racial and economic inequality in the criminal justice system for a quarter of a century including wins at the U.S. Supreme Court for fair treatment of children, and successful exonerations of wrongfully convicted men. For the moneyed-class at TED, he spoke truth to power. For everyone else, he appeared on The Daily Show.
A NOTE ON MEDIUM
You can find our conversation on Medium, which is a place I’ve been experimenting with. I intend to use it mostly to republish some of the best of archive stuff on Prison Photography and to cross post relevant new articles too. The main advantage, for me, at Medium is the display of images larger than appear here on Prison Photography‘s 7-year old WordPress template!
Please, take a peek at the Prison Photography on Medium.
He went back every year for four years. Between 2007-2010, photojournalist Louie Palu made six trips to Guantanamo. Not quite a compulsion, but more of a requirement, Palu had to go. He’d photographed in Afghanistan and it made sense that he’d take opportunities to document America’s chosen *homeland* site for its Global War On Terror (GWOT). Guantanamo is another piece in the puzzling puzzle of war against an expanding list of enemies. It is more contained and less flash-bang than any theater of war, but no less violent. Inside Gitmo, coercion and so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques do the damage, replacing mortars and EIDs.
Why did Palu go? We know Guantanamo is so controlled that a photographer’s work is compromised. And yet, he returned time and time again. Perhaps he though he’d be the one reporter who’d see the nugget, catch the frame and get out of there with the shot? Not so. After every visit, all photographers are required to hand over their DSLRs. A member of the Joint Task Force will look over all images and delete any that don’t meet military rules. The photographer is given forms with each digital file number listed individually. The procedure is called an “Operational Security Review.”
Palu’s latest publication GUANTANAMO: Operational Security Review is a 24-page conceptual newsprint publication. It combines his Gitmo images with scans of the official forms. It is available at Photoeye Books.
GUANTANAMO: Operational Security Review is abstract, elusive and slippery … which I think is the point. I asked Palu a few questions about it.
Scroll down for our Q&A
[Click any image to see it larger]
Prison Photography (PP): Why did you ever want to go to Guantanamo?
Louie Palu (LP): The detention center at Guantanamo Bay is one of the most infamous results of the “War on Terror” — the most internationally known detention facility of our time. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between history, political events and the human experience. Especially, I am engaged by events or issues that define our time politically.
9-11 and Guantanamo will forever be connected. I am also fascinated by the legal and morale paradox that Gitmo, as it is known, represents in the face of the U.S. Constitution with regards to detaining people indefinitely without trial.
PP: You went many times. Why stop?
LP: Relatively speaking the access went from good, to getting better, to very poor and finally I gave up. I follow Carole Rosenberg’s reporting in the Miami Herald, she is perhaps the best source of reporting on Gitmo there is.
LP: In a recent report she did, it seems the current military public affairs unit there has become exceptionally difficult to work with. I would like to go again, but it looks impossible to work there right now.
Normally each trip lasts four-days.
Day 1: Fly in and get settled. Day 2: Tour various parts of the detention center. At the end of each day everyone goes through what’s called an “Operational Security Review”, also known as an OPSEC Review. In my case as a photographer this involves the deleting of certain photographs right off my memory cards. Basically anything that reveals security features of the prison or direct frontal views of the detainees faces is deleted. Day 3: More touring the facility and more photography and one more OPSEC Review. Day 4. Fly home.
I did do two special photo tours years ago. Most tours have writers as part of the tour group and you can spend hours in areas of no interest to photographers. One of these special photo tours in particular was I think the best access ever for a civilian photojournalist. I think I hold the record for longest OPSEC Review ever, it was an all-nighter! I don’t think they’ll give a tour like that ever again and a number of areas in the prison are now closed and access to the detainees is very limited and basically everyone gets the same photographs now.
PP: You’re a wisened, experienced photojournalist. What did you expect from Gitmo? What did you get?
LP: I try not to expect anything from any assignment, subject or project except that I will do my best and that I am personally engaged in the subject matter. Beyond that, I hoped to make pictures that would last as documents to an important subject in our history.
I think that the manner in which we are forced to take pictures with extreme control should be a part of the history. The control on how I took pictures and the limited access made the images and approach unique. That is what my concept newspaper is partly about.
PP: We’ve stopped taking about Guantanamo ever since we realized Obama couldn’t/wouldn’t close it down. Why is that? Where does it leave your work?
LP: When you say “we” I would take that as mostly the general public, many journalists keep talking about Gitmo and it’s impact and implications. Though relatively speaking I agree people seem to have disengaged from the issue.
However, we have to understand that Guantanamo Bay is a recruiting poster for many extremists and terrorists and it will continue to be especially while it is open. Take for example the video ISIS (aka ISIL, IS) made of journalists they are executing in Iraq/Syria. The journalists are on their knees in orange jumpsuits. In my mind it’s a copy of the same imagery of the first images released by the U.S. government of detainees in Guantanamo in orange jumpsuits right after 9/11. The image the detention center at Guantanamo Bay paints of America goes against every value the United States stands for in my opinion. So long as the detention center at Guantanamo remains open and the detainees are not given a trial, the United States will have a hard time holding any moral high ground on human rights. It makes it a very serious issue to continue to try and find a solution to. If I interest only a handful of people to keep talking about it I did my job.
The reason I think that we stopped talking about Gitmo is also limited access to the detainees by journalists being one reason and right now there is no shortage wars and disasters of all kinds to deal with, plenty of “fog of war” to keep us off the issue that challenges one of the core value systems of the United States, which is the constitution.
The eyes of history will judge my work years from now. For now, I am satisfied to have published the work and kept the issue in the public’s eye, no matter how small a contribution I have made. From the point of view of a photojournalist the newspaper is a part of that.
PP: Briefly, tell us about your decision to go with a newspaper format to publish the work from Guantanamo.
LP: Well, I had a fellowship with a think tank in Washington DC called the New America Foundation, which involved covering the Mexican drug war. I created a concept newspaper called Mira Mexico. I created it so you could take it apart and re-edit the order of the pictures and also hang it as an exhibition. It was meant to directly engage the viewer to understand how our images are controlled by governments and the media. It’s about the manipulation and our perception of an issue. It’s explained in this video.
Creating an object as something that goes beyond the news cycle is important to continue to engage the public in on important issues. The newspaper format is important in challenging not only traditional formats of news, but also the manner in which we consume information and the platforms we see them in. You can also hang it as an exhibition as each spread is a poster and you can turn it into an educational lesson in editing or controlling pictures. GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review is the part two to my first concept newspaper on Mexico. I am also making a statement in making a newspaper in which the only content is Guantanamo Bay. No advertising or competing content. I edited out every other story.
PP: What do you hope people take away from GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review?
LP: Well the project has a two-fold purpose. One, obviously it is meant as an artist’s concept fused with journalism to continue to engage the public in a dialogue on the issue. Second, it is meant to challenge the modes in which we are delivered our content and who the gate-keepers are to our news. We need to always ask, who are the editors, curators and or censors we don’t see or ask enough about that shape the way we understand the world through photographs?
I am about to go on a workshop/lecture tour through universities in Canada and the U.S. just as I did with the Mira Mexico newspaper. I’ll be using GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review in classes teaching visual literacy to students. It will be a workshop format where students will each have a copy of the newspaper and re-edit and present to the class why they selected the images they did on Guantanamo. I think empowering young minds to understand how their opinions are manipulated by the use or misuse of photographs is critical to our future.
PP: How does GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review relate to your other bodies of work and areas of interest?
LP: I try to create multi-platform uses for my work and always engage a topic over a long period of time, and usually beyond any news-cycle. My average project lasts between 3-5 years. My first one lasted 15-years. But that won’t happen again!
PP: You must have looked at plenty of other photographer’s work on Gitmo. Who else has done it well?
LP: Actually, I haven’t! I have seen a handful of wire photos from there that are not my style of work, but gives a base of understanding of how news photographers have had to work there. I also have seen numerous art based documentary photographers do bodies of work there, in the end they have all taken many of the same photographs because of the strict control over access. I don’t think anyone has done it “well” including myself since the access is so controlled and photos are deleted. There are sections of the newspaper that deals directly with that issue — the *age of extreme image control* is one of the main layers of meaning in the newspaper. The newspaper is, an object and document that says my access and images were controlled on this issue.
I can’t show you how Guantanmo really is. However, with the newspaper maybe I can show you how it was for me. That is why I created it.
PP: Have you any thoughts (regarding visibility, perhaps?) about how Guantanamo relates to America’s extrajudicial prisons around the globe?
LP: Digital photography is a blessing and a curse. Media campaigns and disinformation operations are easier now than ever. The newspaper is also about photojournalism. You know photojournalists control what we see as well, editing can be seen as censorship by some media critics.
Let me explain, it’s about interpretation of what we are doing, right? If I take 1000 photographs on assignment and I edit only 15 for you to see, what do you call that editing or censorship? This newspaper questions photojournalism as a whole and everyone involved in it including me.
PP: How will Guantanamo end?
LP: I don’t know how Guantanamo will end. Even if it does end as a physical structure, it has become visually symbolic for extremists, they have turned government released visuals linked to the detention center into a disturbing propaganda tool. Events and places like the detention center at Gitmo are never looked at very kindly through the eyes of history.
PP: Thanks, Louie.
LP: Thank you, Pete.
The unrest has abated in Ferguson. The quest for justice has not.
As I watched events unfold last month, I did not at any point feel I had something to add to the news coverage or commentary. I am still not convinced I do. That said, when the very soul of America is at stake, when the life of a young man has been taken, when the police turn up in military get-up, and when all this is being played out in front of the world’s media, I was aware questions needed to be asked of media-makers.
I take this opportunity not to make statements but to ask questions.
Barrett Emke, a young photographer from Kansas, was kind enough to share his photographs from Ferguson with me. He allowed me to make an edit. I publish them here alongside a short Q&A.
These are questions I’m just putting down in digital ink now, but probably come from weeks of thinking in circles. I was not brave or knowledgeable enough to write anything about Ferguson or its people when events were most immediate and raw; when people protested peacefully and faced off with law enforcement.
I want to start finding out about what photography did for the people of Ferguson and what it might do for them in the future. What might it do, or not do, for other communities wracked by racial inequities?
Barrett was in Ferguson August 19-21, I am penning this mid-September, but we know that from the tragedy of Michael Brown’s murder and from the town’s outrage must come long-term positive leaps forward; must come an accelerated and enlightened path to justice for us all as one.
Scroll down for the Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Why did you go to Ferguson?
Barrett Emke (BE): I live in Kansas City, so the events in Ferguson definitely felt close to home. As a photographer and a person, I felt I had somewhat of a duty to go there and experience what was happening firsthand – this piece of history and injustice, and the community’s response.
I had to do something other than just watch what was happening on the news or read about it on the internet; maybe my photographs wouldn’t be seen by anyone or make any difference, but at least I would be there to document a piece of it.
PP: Did you know what you wanted to do beforehand?
BE: Not really. I just dove into the situation and worked intuitively, gauging the events as they came. From the first day I got there I had a rough idea that I wanted to make pictures of as many people as I could.
PP: What does it feel like to have tank in the street?
BE: It was a little overwhelming at first, but you acclimate quickly.
PP: On your website you’ve presented a wider edit with B&W images, pictures of law enforcement who are in action or stationary.
I’m not that interested in your distant (usually nighttime) images of cops. They seem to break up the warmth that maintains throughout the portraits of Ferguson residents. Does that make sense?
BE: I can see that. Obviously, the images of the militarized police, and the tear gassing, and all of that are everywhere now, and I knew that I wasn’t going to do that. But the images I did include I feel have their place in the sequence – I think of them more as portraits of the officers who were part of the situation as well.
PP: How did you feel when your were in Ferguson?
BE: Honestly, I felt human.
The people I interacted with and photographed were open, genuine, and earnest. Beyond the conflicts and the clashes between protestors and police, I definitely felt a strong sense of community and humanity present there, among those who lived in Ferguson and others who had traveled from elsewhere to be there.
PP: How do you think your feelings compare with residents?
BE: It’s hard to say. Many people who I spoke with and photographed were totally willing to engage with me – in times of crisis, that sort of social barrier kind of breaks down. At the same time, I definitely heard residents express their anger and a certain distrust toward the media, this sentiment that after the spectacle has ended, their lives in Ferguson go on.
PP: What was the behavior of the media like in Ferguson?
BE: I think the presence of the media was essential, to record and broadcast what was happening. At the same time, it became a little gross to the see the camera crews flocking to and descending upon every little scrap of conflict each night, trying to get the scoop. It definitely seemed vulture-like at certain moments, and there were instances in which I felt like the media’s presence was exacerbating the situation.
There were times when interactions between protestors, police, and the media became problematic, with the media fanning the flames a bit. I’m not sure what the alternative would have been; if the media hadn’t been there reporting, would the militarized aggression of the police have only escalated? Would Michael Brown’s story and its larger implications have been told?
PP: How did people react to you photographing?
BE: Generally, people were receptive to me photographing. I tried to be as respectful and sensitive to the situation and individuals as possible.
PP: What did Ferguson residents think generally about the media and/or photographers?
BE: There was a certain ambivalence about the media that I picked up on. As I mentioned previously, I heard the sentiment echoed that once the media circus had skipped town, the residents still had to go on about their lives and their realities. But at the same time, I heard many people express that the situation would be worse between protestors and the police if the media wasn’t there to report on what was happening, and to check that militarized aggression.
PP: What was the overall sentiment of the people you photographed?
BE: People were there on West Florissant in solidarity and were fed up with everything that had led to this point. Those I photographed were resolute in their anger and sought justice for Michael Brown, meaning the indictment of Darren Wilson and a major shift in policy, representation, and attitudes going forward. What I heard echoed again and again from people was that this situation wasn’t just about race, it was also a human thing. Beyond that, I perceived an overwhelming amount of positivity and hope from the individuals I met.
PP: Did this sentiment match that of the media generally?
BE: As in, did the media share the same drive for justice as the residents and protestors? I’m not sure, but I would say that they seemed to be there to do their job, which was reporting.
PP: Is America a racist country? I’m not being incendiary here; it actually seems like a fair question if we consider this excerpt from this New Yorker piece The Color of Justice:
Whites support tougher criminal laws at least partly because they overestimate black and Hispanic crime rates. Blacks and Hispanics do commit certain crimes more frequently, per capita, than whites, but not all. But whites consistently overestimate the difference, according to one study, by as much as twenty to thirty per cent. That perception affects attitudes toward offenders and sentencing. Studies show that the more whites attribute higher crime rates to blacks and Hispanics, the more likely they are to support harsh criminal laws. It is less that they are consciously seeking to subordinate racial minorities than that they fail to treat the negative consequences of high incarceration rates as their problem. As the report explains, “attributing crime to racial minorities limits empathy toward offenders and encourages retribution.”
This is a damning indictment. If anyone were to admit that they preferred the death penalty, life without parole, or harsh sentences because they believe the perpetrators of violent crimes are more likely to be black or Hispanic, we would immediately condemn them as the worst sort of racist. If a prosecutor, judge, or juror expressed such a sentiment, any resulting conviction or sentence would be swiftly overturned. No one admits that they feel this way, but the studies recounted by the Sentencing Project suggest that this is precisely what many white Americans feel.
BE: America is a racist country, with its long and complicated history of prejudice that it still cannot shake.
Racism in the United States is deeply entrenched and systemic, even today, as we’ve seen. As a white person, I have tried to be consistently aware of my privilege and the way racism can be internalized by someone who would never consider herself or himself “racist.” It is a process of learning and unlearning that I still grapple with. One can always do better, listen more. It is not enough to simply not be racist; one must be anti-racist.
When a person of color in America can’t be certain that she or he won’t be shot and killed during a routine encounter with police, or a total stranger, something is utterly, intrinsically wrong. I believe it is the duty of those who benefit from white privilege, male privilege, heteronormative privilege, to fight alongside those who are disenfranchised under the law and throughout society.
PP: What did photography achieve during August for the messages coming out of Ferguson?
BE: I’ve seen an abundance of profound, earth shattering photographs come out of the events of Ferguson. I believe these photographs have been successful in demonstrating to the world what was unfolding and to preserve these moments as historical documents.
PP: Do photographers need to stay in, or return to, Ferguson soon? And/or often?
BE: Speaking for myself, I don’t feel like my work was simply done when I returned home. A situation like this is ongoing. Nothing is solved. There is still more work to be done, and I would like to return to make more photographs.
PP: Do you think that’s going to happen?
BE: I believe that to be committed and thorough in a situation like this, it has to be longterm.
PP: Thanks Barrett.
BE: Thank you, Pete.
Christopher Onstott is a freelance photojournalist, photo editor, and videographer working out of his native Portland, Oregon. Before he turned to image-making, he bounced around in various jobs — most of the sales. He was once high-interest loan officer, pizza delivery boy and used-car salesman. At the age of 24, he took a leap of faith and signed up for a college photo program.
I may have left Portland, but I still have friends there and interviews in the can, so here is Christopher and I talking about PDX, rural Oregon, disaster kits, the grounding effect of portraiture, setting up a business, and specifically setting up a business with your love.
In summer of last year, Christopher went inside Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) as part of the Oregon Project Dayshoot+30. Our discussion begins there. The two images (above and directly below) are from inside OSP. Other images included are from Christopher’s portfolio.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about your decision to shoot in Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).
CO: It was with Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 which was the 30 year anniversary of a day of photographing Oregon by 90 photographers back in 1983. I own the original book One Average Day and the images that stood out to me were the penitentiary photos. In between the usual ‘day in the life’ shots, vineyards, cattle and farmer photos were photographs of a guy in his cell smoking cigarettes.
PP: What was the intrigue?
CO: Prisoners are the under-represented group in Oregon. If you think of Oregonians, you don’t think of prisoners. But they’re residents here.
PP: There’s 14 or 15 thousand people in Oregon’s state prisons these days. Thousands more in county jails.
CO: The Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 was a good reason to get access to OSP which I wouldn’t usually get access to.
I contacted the public liaison office, told them about the project, sent them to the site, sent them a couple of photos of the book that I’d taken on my phone. “Here’s what they did 30 years ago, can I come and shoot?” essentially. They did a security background check and we set up a time. I had only an hour window to shoot. The rest of the day I photographed around Salem.
CO: When I got to the prison, the gentleman I’d been emailing with was not the man I met. The man I’d been in communication with was off work sick. So, immediately there was this disconnect between what I’d asked for and what was being presented to me.
It wasn’t a good experience.
PP: How so?
CO: I wanted to photograph the residents of OSP with a documentary approach, in the vein of the original project. But, my escort’s perception was I wanted take an updated version of the photo from 30-years-ago!
He asked, “So, you want to take this picture?” as he pointed at a print-off of a camera-phone picture of a image in a book! He walked me to a cell, there were two prisoners. He told me I could only photograph one and he gave me 3 minutes. [Laughs]
PP: You had your own art director!
CO: “The image your holding is an example,” I said. “But let’s look at the whole penitentiary.” He said we were not cleared for that, because all the prisoners were about to move for count. There was no flexibility. My escort was accountable to his boss and he didn’t know what had been said before.
PP: What did the subject think about you photographing?
CO: He was totally okay with it. He thought it was cool. I got the impression he knew he was going to be photographed. He was on LWOP (Life Without Parole). Pretty docile.
PP: You think he’s seen the photograph?
CO: I don’t know. I emailed the prison a copy of the photograph in a thank you email.
PP: when you were in OSP, did you cover your tattoos up?
CO: I wore short sleeves. I don’t really think of myself as being tattooed.
PP: Believe me, the prisoners and staff noticed! Do you think there was more to be seen at OSP?
CO: Definitely, just walking in we passed so many people. There was activity and work details everywhere. I was eyeing pictures everywhere but I couldn’t take them. It’s an entire town in there, right? A cultural complex. There’s a million photographs to be made. But I was only to capture a very slim sliver of life.
Still it’s important that there’s at least a representation of prisoners as residents of Oregon 30 years from now.
PP: Shifting gears. You grew up in Oregon.
CO: Grew up in Portland, spent a year in Texas, went to college in Washington State, spent a year in Texas, worked for 4 years at the Spectrum and Daily News in St George, Utah. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The weather sucks five months out of the year.
PP: There’s lots of buzz about Portland, right now.
CO: Oregon really is two different states of mind.
You’ve got the Willamette Valley and the city of Portland and then you’ve got the rest of the state. The one area that doesn’t get attention is Southeastern Oregon. Not a lot of roads, no freeways, hardly a population density. Very rural.
PP: How do you characterize the Portland photo scene?
CO: I think it’s really supportive. We’ve got ASMP Oregon and Newspace. Photographers will move work back and forth and offer one another help. But, on the otherhand, there’s a lot of photographers, so it can be competitive at the same time.
PP: Journalism, editorial?
CO: Magazines. There’s a lot of international attention on the city so we’ve people coming here asking for images. Those stories tend to lean the way of food, style travel; not hardcore news stories. There’s no tornadoes or hurricanes here!
PP: Maybe an earthquake?
CO: I’ve got my 72-hr disaster kit and spare film ready [laughs].
PP: Have you always been a photographer?
CO: No. I’ve been pizza delivery driver. Worked in my dad’s automotive shop. I was a used car sales man for four years. I’ve been a high interest loan officer. I was a bartender for two years. When my father passed away in 2001, I inherited his camera and I was left with “What do I do now?”
My father always told me to be a salesman. But I couldn’t stomach earning a living by getting one over on people. I’d never been to college, so after he died. I decided to go back to college. I was a freshman at 24-years-old! I did Photojournalism at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington.
I took a picture of a girl’s basketball game and they ran it big in the paper and that was me hooked. [laughs]
PP: What’s easier to sell? Photographs or used cars?
CO: They’re both really hard!
PP: How do you feel about photography. Is it as bad as it’s often made out? Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty thinker.
CO: I think the glass is awesome. The fact you can wake in the morning, pick up a camera and go make a living. I don’t care if your shooting fashion or street photography or using your iPhone, you just have to make pictures. We’re a society that is devouring images.
PP: But a photographer still has to package and shape stories. Can’t just churn them out!?
CO: You still gotta be good. My degree was in visual rhetoric; saying something with an image. Manage that and you’ve accomplished something as a photographer. If you’re a one trick pony, then you’re not gonna last.
PP: I recently met Randy Olson and Melissa Farlow recently.
CO: Randy was my mentor at Missouri Photo Workshop last year.
PP: They’re a couple. There’s a few photo couples out there.
PP: Two great photographers. Yourself and Leah Nash are a couple. Is there any element of professional competition between you two?
CO: The secret to being in a relationship with another photographer is to be open to criticism and not to take it personally. If you want to grow, take honest feedback from someone who knows you really well and how you operate.
Leah and I edit one another’s work and we don’t take it personally. There’s no relationship argument to be had over photographs.
We’ve agreed not be chasing the same jobs. We’ve formed a separate company, NashCO (Leah Nash & C. Onstott) outside of our own work stylistically that’s focused on corporate and commercial work.
PP: What you working on now?
CO: Street photography. I’m carrying my camera everyday capturing people in moments.
I’ve been working on a personal project of portraits for 5-years now. Using my Hasselblad. It’s slower. Because when I was at the newspaper I was running around photographing people but not really meeting them, you know? I was encountering into people who … I wouldn’t say were marginalized … but they were people who wouldn’t normally be paid attention to by the news. I wanted to slow down.
CO: In news you’re photographing people in the highest points of achievement in their life, or at the lowest points of their life. The big award, the win at the big race, or the battle with cancer. Most of the time, we’re overlooking the median, the mean of existence.
CO: I want to give those everyday people and experiences some attention. In Nevada, New York, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California. Any time I travel, I try to make portraits.
Pick out the person who is trying not to be photographed and ask their name and their story. Often they reply, “Why me?” and my response is “Because you’re interesting.”
I’ve been the only photographer at some of the newspapers I’ve worked at. I was shooting car accidents, house fires and high school sports. My way to decompress from that is to take pictures that I wasn’t taking on the job.
CO: Used to Instagram a lot. When I got my [digital] Leica I stopped posting on Instagram so much. I try to follow people who are making good pictures because I want to be inspired. I don’t want to see pictures of peoples kids.
PP: Where do you shoot?
CO: I’ve been shooting a lot around my neighborhood, the Alberta neighborhood, because it is a gentrified ghetto. There’s a lot of collision. Walk up Alberta or Killingsworth Streets and there’s a photograph every 10 metres. But here’s the hub of Portland’s gentrification.
PP: What else keeps your eye busy?
CO: Portland Squared. It’s a project that Leah started a couple of years ago. 50 photographers. one square mile divided up into fifty squares and you spend the day shooting a square and ASMP event. Last year, they did a bigger square. 2 x 2 miles and 70 photographers. for 24 hours.
PP: Whose work do you admire here in town?
PP: Anything else to add?
CO: Don’t move to Portland! There’s too many photographers here! [Laughs]
PP: Ha! Thanks, Christopher.
CO: Thank you, Pete.