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PenelopeUmbrico

I wanted to let you know that the blog will be quiet for six months. I’m going for a walkabout in the mountains. See you in October.

(Image: Penelope Umbrico)

paulenka

Photo: Marina Paulenka, from the series The Other Home

Photo criticism/journalism is a curious thing. I read Jacob Brookman’s BJP piece The Anatomy of Absence: Inside Croatia’s Only Prison for Women about Marina Paulenka‘s photographs at Požega Penitentiary. I was left agog. The language is another level of all sorts:

The Other Home is a patchwork of subtle symbolism: a synecdoche of nothingness. There is no home, only absence from a home. A non-existence preserved in the lies that prisoners tell to hide their state-issued confinement. An experience denied – time that can only be understood through the inverted kaleidoscope of its floccinaucinihilipilification.

Floccinaucinihilipilification.

And:

The convicts themselves are missing from the photos. We are therefore invited to examine the inmates’ status in absentia, raising questions of guilt, freedom, motherhood, femininity and the topography of the prison itself.

“Questions of guilt, freedom, motherhood, femininity and the topography of the prison.” What questions? I’m not saying that questions aren’t there, but help me, the reader, get to them. What’s at stake here? Inexact language takes us away from understanding the mechanisms and powers at play at Požega.

Despite the byzantine descriptions, I was eager to click through to learn more about Paulenka’s work. I’m glad I did. The wide edit of 58 images on Paulenka’s website is a thrilling, still and moody view of Požega Penitentiary. BJP was right to feature the work. It’s no surprise that Brookman was engaged by the images.

(Side-note: I’m surprised by the limited BJP image edit for the piece. The small edit, for me, seems to limit the audience’s capacity to understand Paulenka’s work.)

I’m grateful to Brookman for explaining that Paulenka made the images over 18-months and that the reason the photographs do not feature women is because the prison administration would not allow Paulenka to make portraits, even anonymizing portraits.

The piece closes with:

The rooms, devoid of living beings, are inhabited by their lives; simple, methodical, punitive. The Other Home is a quiet paean to suppressed femininity existing in a distant valley. It is an expression of vacancy: an anatomy of absence.

A fancy way of saying photos of stuff that’s not there.

I guess here’s the key: Paulenka’s photographs summon the atmosphere of the prison in a way Brookman’s words do not. I don’t like to throw snark at fellow writers because I’ve written plenty of flowery stuff in the past (It’s all online, forever) and this isn’t about Brookman or this review specifically. This is just an opportunity to say this:

Make words count. If words aren’t needed, don’t conjure them.

Sometimes, when dealing with photos, it’s best just to get the words out of the way.

See Marina Paulenka’s work here.

“Angola Prison, 2004,” by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick.

It was gratifying to be mentioned in Sabine Heinlein’s recent NYT article Artists Grapple With America’s Prison System which surveyed the ways artists, curators and thinkers are responding to mass incarceration. The cue for the article, I’m guessing, was the two exhibitions currently on show in NYC–Andrea Fraser at The Whitney and Cameron Rowland (covered on PP) at Artists Space.

There’s some wonderful practitioners and projects profiled, including Deana Lawson, Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, Ashley Hunt and Sable Elyse Smith among others.

The paragraph that immediately follows the mention of Prison Obscura reads:

Ben Davis, the author of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, praises artists for taking up the topic, he warned: “We should push the question beyond just consciousness-raising. There is this progressive-era style of political art where well-to-do people throw banquets for homeless people and then stand up on the balcony and congratulate themselves. There is an icky history of using the suffering of the people at the bottom as a spectacle.”

Can’t argue with that.

Keeping check of ones own interests and benefits relative to those of prisoners and prisoners’ families is critical. I believe my work has not exploited incarcerated people but I never assume that the assessment of Prison Photography, Prison Obscura or any of my other projects is fixed or final.

With criminal justice reform and prison reform emerging into the mainstream over the past, say, 5 years, I habour a continuous niggling suspicion that my writing–my blogging–has less and less effect. This is down to several factors, most of them having to do with the way we consume content on the Internet today as compared to how we consumed in 2008 when I started Prison Photography. These include, but are not limited to, the dominance of Facebook and it’s pay-to-see algorithms (I’m not on Facebook); the killing of Google Reader which in turn made RSS and the independent sources/blogs RSS aggregates more impractical to access (not to say there aren’t other RSS readers out there, but none are as elegant, or free, as Google Reader); Tumblr and the trend toward infinite scrolls of visual content, not text; and, of course, the fact that on any given day NYT, WaPo, NPR, The Guardian, The Marshall Project, The Intercept, VICE, CJR and countless other international news outlets are covering the U.S. prison industrial complex–against a backdrop of such comprehensive coverage, Prison Photography barely registers.

Some days, it feels like I’m scrapping just to stay visible. That’s an icky place to be. It’s a dangerous place too; I think it’s a place where motives and energies can be tainted and focus on the issues can diminish. For that reason, practitioners–myself included–must be subject to continuous criticism and critique.

If you ever see me standing on the balcony and congratulating myself, call me out. Shoot me down.

planet

This is mind-boggling. But perhaps not surprising. It’s another very large leap in AI/robotics/super-computing.

At Google, Tobias Weyand and his team have trained a deep-learning machine to work out the location of almost any photo using only the photo; only the pixels it contains.

They fed the neural network–which they’ve named PlaNet–126 million images along with their accompanying Exif location data. Based upon that info, when fed a new image, PlaNet analyses visual clues (buildings, topography, vegetation, weather, etc) to determine the most probable location.

“PlaNet is able to localize 3.6% of the images at street-level accuracy and 10.1% at city-level accuracy,” say Weyand and co. What’s more, the machine determines the country of origin in a further 28.4% of the photos and the continent in 48% of them.

So that’s 3 in every 100 PlaNet puts right at the front door. 1 in 10, it knows the city, and in over a quarter the neural network correctly identifies the country. Impressive.

What’s the future looking like? For the first time, I’m really fretting over the strength of the global human community to make the right–and ever-recurring–decisions on the ethics and control of AI. After a computer beat the world’s best Go player this month, the making of AlphaGo (another Google project) warned against hasty application of AI technologies. Stephen Hawking has been erring caution for decades. AI is still is a long way from applying learning from one system to another so we needn’t worry about self-driving cars learning to control markets or journalism robots changing careers and taking the reigns of power.

But who’s to say that in a few decades, you won’t be able to connect the automated detection of news events in, say, social media, to trigger the dispatch of drones pre-programmed to make photos (behind police tape/above breaking stories/inside toxic environs)? Then the images are sent images to the systems of robot journalists which in turn publish a story in a template. Possible? Maybe. Fine-tune the identifying capacity of PlaNet and you’ve accurate captioning info enough to furnish a news agency … and dispose of the photojournalist!?!

Such a scenario would take care of breaking news, but I’ll still wager on humans, not robots, to fashion the long-form documentary projects. Hell, by then, documentary photography stories might be one of the few things left connecting us!

Thanks Robert Gumpert for the tip off

KatePeters copy

© Kate Peters

Here we are at the end of the first week of 2016. How’s it going so far? I spent the holidays lying in, reading stuff and watching my team Liverpool at silly hours of the morning. When at my desk, I was putting together a series of year end proclamations for Vantage.

It was a marathon, and by marathon I mean a six-parter. Still, that was more than 10,000 words and scores of images.

Part 1: The Best Nature Photos of 2015

Part 2: The Best Photobooks of 2015

Part 3: The Best San Francisco Street Photographer of 2015

Part 4: The Best Portraiture of 2015

Part 5: The Best GIFs of 2015

Part 6: The Best Photography Exhibition of 2015

Are these actually the best of the year? Are these the most watertight objective statements? Of course not, and I admit as much in the pieces. What they are though is my strongest arguments as to why these projects and ideas are more relevant, caring (even), fruitful and connecting.

Put your feet up. Have a glance.

93 copy
© Thomas Roma
ALAN POWDRILL copy
© Alan Powdrill
IMG_8625
© Troy Holden
Opton, Suzanne - Birkholz copy 2
© Suzanne Opton
102 copy
© Thomas Roma
pc1
© Vicente Paredes
Book cover of Vicente Paredes’ Pony Congo
Tauszik
© Brandon Tauszik
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© Sara Terry + Mariam X
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© Troy Holden

turd2

“Being calm in pink and blue will deliver us from evil. Carefully-selected colour swatches, if only some paint-God would reveal itself, are the antidote to war, global warming and bigotry.”

Last week, I went all Beautiful Mind on the Pantone Colour of the Year announcement, specifically its 55-second video accompanying the announcement. Here’s my rant.

turd1

I put together a play-by-play of the vid. It was excruciating work. But the world needed to know.

Read the full piece: The Pantone Color of the Year is a Big Steaming Pile of Turd. 

turdy

rajashree

Rajeshree Roy with Carolyn Miller, a close friend, on a visit at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF).

IN SOLIDARITY

Something very significant is brewing in California right now. Female prisoners in the Yuba County Jail are organising in solidarity with immigrants in detention.

Yesterday (Monday 14th December) a group of women began a hunger strike, joining hundreds of other detainees taking part in hunger strikes at facilities across the country.

You may or may not have heard about the fasting and hunger strikes going on in immigrant detention facilities across the country. Up and down the country–in the Hutto Immigrant Detention Center in Texas; in an immigrant detention center in the high desert city of Adelanto, California; in the Krome Service Processing Center in Florida; and in Alabama, in El Paso, Texas and in Lasalle, Louisiana, too.

Vikki Law has covered these as a trend. And they are. Collectively, the strikes are known as the #FreedomGiving Strikes and they were launched on Thanksgiving by hundreds of South Asian and African detainees at three separate facilities. The movement has grown.

Never before (to my knowledge) has the political resistance of detained immigrants run in cohort with the political action of citizens in county or state facilities. The Yuba County Jail rents space to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain people. For the first time, women in criminal custody are fasting with detainees in immigration custody as an act of solidarity. Phenomenal. Principled. Inspiring.

The Yuba Co. Jail hunger strike is led by, and in support of, Rajashree Roy (above). You can read a longer detailed account of Roy’s journey here.

To be brief, Roy faces deportation back to Fiji where she has not lived since she was 8-years-old. As a child, Roy suffered sexual abuse and upon relocation to the United States never received counseling or help. By the time she was in her teens she was both attempting suicide and robbing and beating people. She was very troubled and the undelrying causes had never been addressed.

Sentenced as an adult at age 16, Rajashree spent 17-years at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). Nine years later, struggling to survive and feed her children while in an abusive relationship, she stole a garden hosepipe from a store, a misdemeanor petty theft.

Due to her priors, the District Attorney set bail at $1million and offered a 25-to-life sentence. In 2011, Roy accepted a plea bargain of seven years. In November 2014, she qualified for release under Prop 47. When Rajashree Roy stepped foot out of CCWF, she was picked up by ICE and slated for deportation back to Fiji, away from her children.

After years of silence due to shame and stigma as an abuse survivor and ‘criminal’, Rajashree Roy has gained confidence through peer and advocacy support and decided to be public with her story and fight for herself and others.

“We are locked up together and refuse to be divided into immigrants and citizens. None of us belong in this cage separated from our families. We join the brave immigrant hunger strikers across the country in fasting to force recognition of our humanity,” says the staement of Roy and her fellow hunger strikers at Yuba County Jail.

WHAT TO DO

  1. Join community organizers at ASPIRE, the nation’s first pan-Asian undocumented youth-led group, at a fast in solidarity outside Yuba County Jail.
  2. Support the #FreedomGiving strikers by signing the petition.
  3. Help raise funds for Rajashree’s $10,000 bond.
  4. Write letters of support to the women on hunger strike:

Rajeshree Roy
Booking No. 229860
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901

Jessica Bullock
Booking No. 235161
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901

Tisha Sartor
Booking No. 233892
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901

Kyra Beckles
Booking No. 234664
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901

Juanita Thomas
Booking No. 235553
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901

Ana Marquez
Booking No. 235550
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901

Gary Younge nails it again. This time on Donald Trump’s appeal among a scarily significant portion of Americans:

Trump articulates the frustration and bewilderment of that section of uneducated, unskilled, low-paid white America, whose wages have stagnated and social mobility has stalled that is nostalgic for its local privileges and global status. In recent times, they have lost wars, jobs, houses and confidence.

So when he brands Mexicans “rapists”, Chinese “cheats” and all Muslims potential threats he gives free rein to their insecurities about an increasingly cosmopolitan and less predictable world they feel they have been excluded from.

To that extent, his base is not too different from that of the Front National, which just triumphed in the French regional elections, Ukip or any of the range of far-right parties currently making headway in Europe.

Full article: Donald Trump shows hate speech is now out and proud in the mainstream

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