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In spite of the fact I am currently without home, I am deeply connected to the politics of California. When I first came to study in the US, it was in California. When I first came to live in the States, it was in California. Over the past 3 years, I’ve lived in California again. As I travel the States currently, it is with a California drivers license.

More than any of these factors though, California is important because it is a bellwether state. When policy–progressive or otherwise–is enacted in the Golden State, it is often followed by similar policy in other states. Three Strikes Laws are a prime example. One of the first to pass Three Strikes into state law (in 1994), California was also the first to offer voters the chance to repeal many aspects of the overly-punitive sentencing. Which they did in 2012 with Prop 36.

PROPS 62 AND 66

The main issue on this years ballot is the death penalty. There are two ballots that are philosophically and procedurally opposed to one another.

Prop 62 will outlaw the death penalty. Vote YES.

Prop 66 will throw money at the broken system by speeding up the legal process, which might bring about some successful appeals but will more likely send men and women to the chamber at unprecedented rates. Vote NO.

749 people are currently on death row in California. The liberally-minded state is reluctant to execute people and this has resulted in those sentenced to death to swell the cell tiers of inadequate facilities and to be held in a permanent stasis. Of the 13 people executed since 1979, the average stay was more than 17 years on death row. I would assume that the average stay of those currently on death row is slightly less than that. (For a brief history of the death penalty in California, I recommend Judge Arthur L. Alarcon’s Remedies For California’s Death Row Deadlock.)

The choice is clear. The state should not be involved in killing citizens. Vote YES on 62. This is a position held by the widow of a police officer whose murderer is the last person in the state to be sentenced to death.

At this juncture, I’d like to point out the bind in which Californian activists and prisoners find themselves over Prop 62.

If the death penalty is repealed, all those on death row will have their sentences changed to Life Without Parole (LWOP). Among activists, LWOP is referred to as Death By Incarceration. This statement, from California Coalition for Women Prisoners, made by women currently serving LWOP sentences is the most nuanced position I’ve encountered on the 2016 ballot initiatives. I quote at length:

We believe LWOP is racist, classist and ableist, condemns many innocent people to a slow living death, and neither deters violence nor promotes rehabilitation. The majority of people serving LWOP in California’s women’s prisons are survivors of abuse and were sentenced to LWOP as aiders and abettors of their abuser’s acts. We believe that LWOP relies on the intersections of racial terror and gendered violence.

For voters who oppose all forms of death sentences including LWOP, the choice between an initiative that replaces one form of death with another (Prop 62) and an initiative that speeds up executions (Prop 66) is hardly a choice at all. It is morally compromising to vote for Prop 62, which further criminalizes and demonizes our loved ones and creates a false hierarchy between forms of state-sanctioned death. However, we recognize that a decision to vote against Prop 62 is complicated by fear that Prop 66 will win. Ending the death penalty in California could be a powerful symbol for the rest of the country and represent a growing awareness of the injustices and inhumanity of incarceration and the criminal legal system as a whole. Every person who votes will need to make a difficult decision about two very problematic propositions.

We believe that both the death penalty and LWOP should be recognized as unjust and eliminated. One of our LWOP partners in prison, Amber states: “To reassure people that LWOP is a better alternative to death is misleading.” Rather than facing executions, people with LWOP will die a slow death in prison while experiencing institutional discrimination. People with LWOP cannot participate in rehabilitative programs, cannot work jobs that pay more than 8 cents an hour, and will never be reviewed by the parole board. We agree with the Vision for Black Lives policy goal to abolish the death penalty and we believe that true abolition of the death penalty includes abolishing LWOP and all sentencing that deprive people of hope.

When the death penalty was temporarily banned from 1972 to 1976 by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling all people then on death row had their sentences overturned or converted to life [with possibility of parole]. Many of these people successfully paroled and are now contributing to their communities.

That said, Prop 62 doesn’t discount the possibility of future political action against LWOP and its ultimate repeal. And I hope that happens. Therefore, I still say Vote YES on 62

PROP 57

Also on the ballot is a measure, Prop 57 to reduce sentencing for non-violent crimes, put more discretion in the hands of judges for sentencing, and limit the trying of juveniles as adults. No brainer: Vote YES.

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Hospital lobby. © Kim Rushing

Long before I started writing about prison imagery and before I even set foot in the United States, photographer and educator Kim Rushing was making images of the men at the infamous Parchman Farm, known officially as Mississippi State Penitentiary. Rushing made these photographs and others over a four year period (1994-1998). They recently been published by University Press of Mississippi as a book simply titled Parchman.

After a first glance at the photographs I was surprised to hear they were made in the nineties. Many images appear as if they could have been captured in much earlier decades, but such is the nature of prisons which either change at glacial pace or remain in a temporal stasis–uniforms replace identifiable fashion; hardware is from eras past; conditions can appear mid-century; and the vats of the kitchens and gas chamber seem permanently footed to the concrete foundations.

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Spaghetti, central kitchen. © Kim Rushing

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Gas chamber. © Kim Rushing

Rushing’s photographs are a welcome view to a past era and a brief step back in time. My overriding takeaway from the project is that time, as in all prisons, operates by its own rules.

Rushing’s contribution to the emerging visual history of American incarceration is valuable, not least because it contains some hope. Whether the absence of violence is a fair reflection of Parchman would be a worthwhile discussion but for broader research some other time. Take the images at their face value and we can identify other prevalent characteristics of prisons, namely boredom, containment, some programming, and certain longing. (I’d hazard to guess the programming such as gardening have been scaled back.)

To insist that an almost predictable perspective on prisons exists in Rushing’s work is borne out in close comparison of the work of other photographers. Rushing’s portraits are very similar to those of Adam Shemper’s made at Angola Prison, Louisiana in 2000.

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Cornelius Carroll © Kim Rushing

There are also quiet echoes of David Simonton’s 4×5 photographs of Polk Youth Facility in North Carolina made in the nineties. Except in Rushing’s images prisoners inhabit the scratched, peeling interiors. Interestingly, both bodies of work remind me of Roger Ballen‘s dark worlds, but that might be a leap too far given the specific psychological manipulations by Ballen in his native South Africa.

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Gregory Applewhite at window © Kim Rushing

In terms of touchstone and stated portraiture projects, I see fair comparisons with the incredible work of Ruth Morgan in San Quentin Prison, California made in the early eighties.

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Billy Wallace. © Kim Rushing

And in terms of predictable moments, I cannot help but think of Ken Light’s portrait of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas from 1994, when I view Rushing’s photo of Kevin Pack (below).

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Kevin Pack watching TV. © Kim Rushing

In the book Parchman, alongside Rushing’s images are the handwritten letters of 18 prisoners–ranging in custody level from trustee to death row–who volunteered to be photographed. “What does it feel like when two people from completely different worlds look at each other over the top of a camera?” asks University Press of Mississippi. In this case, I’d argue, the successful insertion of humanity into an institution that has historically crushed the spirits of those inside. Clearly adept in his art, Rushing has made a stark and sometimes touching portrait of an invisible population.

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Feeding the spider © Kim Rushing

Parchman (cloth-bound; 10 x 10 inches; 208 pages; 125 B&W photographs) is now available for $50.00 from University Press of Mississippi.

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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)

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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.

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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

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© 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.

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© Thomas Roma
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© Alan Powdrill
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© Troy Holden
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© Suzanne Opton
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© Thomas Roma
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© Vicente Paredes
Book cover of Vicente Paredes’ Pony Congo
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© Brandon Tauszik
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© Sara Terry + Mariam X
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© Troy Holden

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“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.

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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. 

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