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OPENING REMARKS

I’ve stated it before but not often or forcefully enough: The LGBTQ community nurtures many of the most effective and motivating voices in the fight for prison abolition. LGBTQ people are frequently subject to the harshest and most dehumanizing treatment at the hands of the prison system. It is from this position that activists and formerly incarcerated individuals have mobilized against the prison industrial complex.

In the news, it is the circumstances of transgender people in prison that are most often described and decried. For clear reasons: imagine being held within a male facility when you identify as female. Or in a female facility when you identify as male. Read up on the situations of Marius Mason and Vanessa Gibson. In Pittsburgh, Jules Williams, a transgender woman suffered sexual and physical assault and harassment multiple times while detained at the Allegheny County Jail, a mens facility.

Very, very few prison or jail systems place transgender folx in facilities where they are free of victimization and predation. During her three years of incarceration in the Georgia Department of Corrections, Ashley Diamond was repeatedly assaulted, once after GDC officials placed her in a cell with a known sex offender. Diamond took the radical step to appeal directly to the public via “illegal” YouTube videos from her prison cell made on a contraband smartphone.

Diamond won freedom following a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the conclusion was that the GDC didn’t want to deal with the expense and supposed inconvenience of providing the hormone treatments she’d been on for 17 years prior to her imprisonment. Similarly, in California, Michelle-Lael Norsworthy was freed unexpectedly when her lawsuit for access to healthcare threatened the CDCR with huge medical bills. Shiloh Quine won the right for sexual reassignment surgery, but hers, all too unfortunately, was an exceptional case.

(For an instructive overview of the experience of female trans prisoners, read Kristin Schreier Lyseggen’s book Women of San Quentin: Soul Murder of Transgender Women in Male Prisons which details the stories of nine women, including Janetta Johnson, Tanesh Watson-Nutall, Daniella Tavake, Diamond, Quine and others.)

While transgender people are winning more and more hard-fought recognition in open society, prisons occupy the other end of the spectrum—closed, rigid systems unable to safely house the majority of prisoners and certainly unprepared and, more often, patently unwilling to recognize prisoners with gender dysphoria and their specific needs. (Trans issues are at the forefront in the military again. The regressive and punitive White House is banning transgender personnel from service. Unsurprisingly, DJ Pee-Tape is largely at odds with much of the military command.) Historically, the marginalization and criminalisation of LGBTQ people has funneled them into the criminal justice system, too. That point needs to be made.

Transgender prisoners are just one group within the LGBTQ community. Lesbians and gays face daily vilification within the criminal justice system. The tactics for resistance of different groups within the LGBTQ community necessarily vary in specific ways, but the enemy is common.

In a push back against the homophobia and transphobia embedded within the criminal justice system we should look to leaders such as CeCe McDonaldDean Spade and Reina Gossett. Their intersectional critique of policing and prisons connects the dots between discriminations of all types. Prejudice and inequality exist within our society; certain groups, including LGBTQ and particularly LGBTQ persons of color, are valued less than others. The root causes for racism, sexism, imperialism, militarism are the same, and those root causes not only emerge out of capitalism but are, in many ways, its foundations. The complete abandonment of LGBTQ persons’ needs in prisons brings into sharp focus the fact that the systems, and our society from which they grow, deem this group more disposable than others.

“Prison abolition means no one is disposable,” says Reina Gossett. Exile is not a solution to the shortcomings of a society; exile allows wider discrimination to perpetuate.

“We should not model what the state’s logic is about who is disposable,” Gossett continues. “Challenging and dismantling structures of violence. [We need] relationships modeled on a different logic, not on the logic of white, heteronormative hegemony.”

Seen through a queer lens, the violence of the prison industrial complex is laid bare. Prisons are sites of waste and sites of survival; sites into which those outside the dominant norm are discarded. True to capitalist, carceral logic, the only economic benefits prisons bring about are for the state, law enforcement unions, corporations and craven politicians. We, the taxpayers, hand over this wealth at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of all those locked up. In the modern U.S., prisons are not about “time out” or rehabilitation; they’re about control in order to instill order. Prisons crush humanity and they assault diversity.

Prison abolition is about identifying structures of violence and working against them; about prefiguring a better world in which you want to live. In reviewing the book Queer (In)Justice (Ed. Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock), journalist and activist Vikki Law notes the authors’ contention that “deep-seated prejudices and fears of queer people cannot be dismantled via hate crime legislation.” Social attitudes are the strongest underpinning to a just society, not the latter-stage adjudications of the law.

“The authors say,” continues Law, “that ‘many of the individuals who engage in such violence are encouraged to do so by mainstream society through promotion of laws, practices, generally accepted prejudices, and religious views,’ and they note that homophobic and transphobic violence generally increases during highly visible, right-wing political attacks.

(For an introduction to community organising toward abolition, read James Kilgore’s recent piece Let’s Imagine a National Organizing Effort to Challenge Mass Incarceration.)

Prison abolition is about pushing back on all the structures that manifest the suspicion, dismissal and abuse of people who counter the white patriarchal status quo. That includes visual structures. That includes, as Critical Resistance states, “the creation of mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant.”

That is why Lorenzo Triburgo’s project Policing Gender is so important. Triburgo, a trans man, is not only advocates for the larger LGBTQ rights at stake, but also makes images that bring the weight of photographic history and analysis of images’ power to bear on his decision-making and design. His is a queer perspective. Policing Gender is enigmatic and beautiful and devastating. Triburgo’s personless portraits point us past what the images are in-and-of-themselves and toward a critique of what images have done in the past in service of, and to damage, LGBTQ-identified people.

I can make no apology for the length of these introductory remarks, because these photographs are built upon years of Triburgo’s conscientious thought, and on decades of queer activism by countless others. Context is important. From here, I’ll let Triburgo himself explain the conceptual underpinnings of Policing Gender and just add how grateful I am for our extended conversation. Scroll down for our Q&A.

 

 

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): We first met in Portland around 2012 or 13. We published a conversation in 2014. At that time you’d just picked up research for a photographic project on the topic of mass incarceration. You explained then that you’d wanted to do portraits of families, but the warden explained that the visiting room had a program for such portraits. The idea was shelved for a while, as you made Transportraits, but you knew you’d come back to it. Family portraits are very different to these curtains and aerial landscapes. How did you get from there to here?

Lorenzo Triburgo (LT): When I began Policing Gender I collaborated with the queer prison abolition organizations Black & Pink and Beyond These Walls to become pen pals with over 30 LGBTQ-identified prisoners.  I wrote and talked with my pen pals for months and months before deciding on what the project would entail visually.

Keep in mind that I also worked to gain access to various prisons and jails. I was doing my *photographer’s due diligence*. However, after getting inside, I thought, “F##k that. I’m not going to create photographs that could potentially strengthen the association between queer people and criminality.”

I kept obsessively thinking, “I want to make portraits, but not portraits. Portraits, but not portraits.” I was wracking my brain. The reasons were twofold.

First – ethically, as a queer person, feminist, and artist I am particularly sensitive to issues of representation and exploitation. I could have made the portraits but, to what end? How radical can a straightforward portrait really be? Would portraits of queer prisoners bring anything to the world besides an opportunity for viewers to gawp or sate their curiosity and voyeurism?

One of the hellish qualities of prison is the complete lack of privacy. Random administrators, politicians, teachers and students might make visits to a prison and get led on “tours” where they can peer-in on any prisoner through a tiny window and just watch. Did I want to replicate that experience with my camera lens? No.

Furthermore, how would I know for sure that I was getting informed consent from participants? In what world would our exchange be equal? Even more importantly, in what world would the exchange between any prisoner and viewer be equal?!

Secondly, conceptually, I felt my project demanded a complex approach that would embody the depth, pervasiveness, scale and abuses of the U.S. prison system. It needed to be more than a single-layered visual representation; more than a straightforward portrait.

 

 

LT: I started to think about making portraits with no figures.

What if instead of putting my incarcerated pen-pals on display, I go a quieter more contemplative route and conjure a sense of absence? The next step was to figure out what the figureless portraits would look like. I recalled a lecture by Cathy Opie where she cited renaissance portraitist Hans Holbein as a major influence. Holbein and Opie use fabric as a symbol of wealth, power and beauty.

PP: But to different ends.

LT: Yes. Opie appropriates formal aesthetics in order to queer the photographic portrait. I saw that I could use fabric and create connotations of portraiture and, for some of us, make a nod to queering the portrait through the use of form. It felt I’d found an answer to the inevitable imbalance of power between prisoner and viewer that I wanted to avoid perpetuating. Figureless portraits point toward this thorny ethical ground.

While thinking all this through, I was discussing my ideas with activists and researchers including Dr. Susan Starr Sered, co-author of Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility. Dr. Sered and I had a conversation that solidified my decisions.

PP: On your work’s figurelessness, an editor with whom I spoke recently referred to your work as “withdrawn”. It wasn’t a criticism per se, but I wonder about your reaction to that assessment?

LT: My pen-pals are trans and queer, and young and old, and out and not out, and coming out for the first time, and helping others come out for the first time all behind bars. I wrote and talked with them for months and months before deciding on what the project would entail visually. The decision to exclude people in the images is not ONLY about theoretical distancing from prisons and a challenge to photographic voyeurism. It’s also about anonymity for safety reasons and my pen-pals not always being able to come out without endangering their safety, and about recognizing that prisoners are a protected subgroup and not always able to give knowledgeable consent.

The figurelessness is about the absence of 2.3 million prisoners from society.

It’s difficult to communicate absence through photography but that was a risk I wanted to take. I believe we are at a stage when absence can be just as powerful as presence because there is so much photographic presence.

The work isn’t withdrawn. It’s emotional. It’s meditative. It’s quiet. I’m asking the viewer to take a minute and reflect: on their position in the world, on their assumption that they get to “see” whatever they want to see, and on the people who are missing from our society.

The lighting in these pieces was a meditative process for me. It was a way for me to process what I was learning about from my pen-pals. It’s not a vapid conceptual piece in reaction to the prison system. Each fabric represents a set of circumstances that was told to me by my pen-pals and is therefore named after them — each is a combination of their names.

 

 

PP: And what about the aerial shots?

The aerial images are about surveillance. The construct of imprisonment. The natural contained. Creating these was also an emotional process. I was in the hot air balloon …

PP: Wait! You were in a hot air balloon?!

LT: Ha! Yes. I photographed from a hot air balloon.

Balloons were an early method used by photography in the service of surveillance. During the U.S. Civil War, hot air balloons were used to create the first aerial reconnaissance images. I was looking for a way to undermine the idea of surveillance and to portray a grandiose notion of the ‘natural’. But once I was up there I couldn’t escape the feeling of my social position, the feeling of sadness and anger and unearned privilege and wishing that I could bring my pen-pals up in the air with me. The aerial photographs ultimately reflect these emotions and, metaphorically, the inescapable presence of surveillance.

All of my emotional experiences have a direct correlation to my conceptual interests in photography. It’s how I process the world.

I think about portraiture all the time. I feel the experiences of my various identities and ways I present myself to the world and the way I’m “seen”. I see oppression based on identities and I process that by creating photographs, and in the case of Policing Gender, audio art, too.

Photography is a way for me to make sense of the world and for me to present ideas to the world. These ideas are emotional as much as they are political and theoretical because I feel like I live them. I’ve had someone else’s camera pointed at me because I seemed “interesting” and it feels like crud.

 

 

PP: How are LGBTQ identified  people affected by the prison industrial complex?

LT: Right now there are 1.6 million youth facing houselessness in the U.S. We know that 46% of these youth are LGBTQ identified. Add to that, cities across the U.S. are increasingly passing laws that ostensibly make it illegal to be homeless. Over the last ten years, there’s been a steady increase in the number of cities that have made it is illegal to lay down, sleep, or even sit in public and (in cities like Houston) to share or give food to people. Once queer youth are arrested and detained they are more likely to be sentenced to jail time and serve longer sentences than their non-LGBTQ peers.

We also know that people who have been arrested have a higher chance of returning to jail or prison. So, these youth grow up to be LGBTQ identified adults with a much higher chance of spending time in U.S. prisons. This is especially true for people of color, youth, immigrants, differently abled, and poor people. So, are queer people in prison because they are queer? If we look at the systemic level, rather than a matter of individual choices, the answer is yes.

PP: Which LGBTQ-focused individuals and organisations are working specifically and effectively against mass incarceration?

LT: The book Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex edited by Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith is an invaluable resource for just this question. It was published by AK Press soon after I began Policing Gender; this book came to me at exactly the right moment and is an invaluable resource.

Captive Genders includes first person narratives, research, and political analysis with an emphasis on writing from current and former prisoners.

I personally worked most with Black & Pink and Beyond These Walls.

Black & Pink is a grassroots organization that has been working in support of LGBTQ prisoners and towards prison abolition with nationwide chapters for over ten years. Their website is also an incredible resource. Beyond These Walls is Portland-based and is another grassroots prison abolition effort with a focus on supporting queer prisoners.

In the intro of Captive Genders, Stanley writes, “It is also important to highlight that women, trans, and queer people (specifically of color) have done much, if not most, of the anti-PIC organizing in the United States.”

Case in point: Miss Major Griffin-Gracy has been an activist for over 40 years and was the first Staff Organizer at The Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP). TGIJP is based in California and began as a legal project with leadership by formerly incarcerated trans women of color. Miss Major is recently retired from TGIJP but continues to be a badass inspiration to us all. (I recently saw her on the panel for the release of the book Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility at the New Museum).

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, formed by civil rights activist and attorney Dean Spade in 2002, must also be mentioned here. SRLP provides legal aid to low-income trans, gender non-conforming, and intersex people and “is a collective organization founded on understanding that gender self-determination is inextricably intertwined with racial, social, and economic justice.”

 

 

PP: You once expressed an interest in photographing prison guards/correctional officers. Do you still?

LT: No, but I think someone should. The abuse that prisoners face at the hands of correctional officers is abhorrent — and — it is crucial to recognize that the job of correctional officer is basically designed to produce and enable a monstrous abuse of power. If we are to understand the prison industrial complex for what it is – an entire system of oppression upheld in part by the narrative that people of color, poor people, and queer people are dangerous – we also need to recognize systemic/social/economic conditions that lead someone to become an officer and the mental trauma associated with this job.

According to one study (Stack, S.J. & Tsoudis, O. Archives of Suicide Research, 1997) the risk of suicide for correctional officers is 39% higher than their peers in other professions and other studies show increased PTSD, divorce, and substance abuse. (See: Denhof, Michael D., Ph.D and Caterina G. Spinaris, Ph.D., Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, 2013.)

The effects of unchecked power, a career culture that encourages and rewards racism, homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia and corruption that goes all the way up the chain are traumatic. Hello Stanford Prison Experiment!?!

To go out on a limb, and to quote Michelle Alexander , I think of the job of the correctional officer as one manifestation of the many “efforts by the wealthy elite to use race as a wedge. To pit poor whites against poor people of color for the benefit of the ruling elite.”

Alexander continues, “Many people don’t realize that even slavery as an institution—the emergence of an all-Black system of slavery—was to a large extent the result of plantation owners deliberately trying to pit poor whites against poor Blacks. They created an all-Black system of slavery that didn’t benefit whites by much, but at least whites were persuaded that they weren’t slaves and thus were inherently superior to Black folks.” (‘The Struggle for Racial Justice Has a Long Way To Go’, The International Socialist Review, Issue #84, 2012.)

Keep in mind that people who take these jobs are predominantly working class, often with no other viable option for work because other industries have been (systematically) replaced by the prison industry in towns across the U.S. I feel myself holding my breath and my heart racing in anger as I say this.

 

 

PP: You have said repeatedly and in public that you’ll respond to any LGBTQ prisoner who writes to you. Kudos to you. That’s a serious commitment. It must also be quite the emotional experience—good and bad. Tell us about letter writing.

LT: So much here. I don’t know where to start exactly. In previous interviews I ducked the question out of fear of sounding schmaltzy, because it is super emotional and I don’t want to come off sounding all “we are the world” or like, neoliberal humanist or something.

That said, it has been fucking incredible.   

There’s something astonishing about getting to know someone slowly, over time, through written word. How often do we have the opportunity to get to know someone completely from scratch? With no photo to go by, no list of basic likes or dislikes, not knowing their preferred name or gender, or where they are from. I got to know my pen-pals’ handwriting and that is a specific intimacy unlike any other type of exchange.

I never ask my pen-pals why they are in prison. Instead, I ask about what they think are the most pressing needs of LGBTQ prisoners and what they think an artist can do. Very often the response is that a way to share their stories and their truth would be a huge help. In the audio for Policing Gender you hear one of my pen pals say, “At least out there you’ve got cell phones to record this stuff [abuse by officers], in here it’s complete secrecy.”

I’m not interested in “giving voice”—my pen-pals all have voices! But I am interested in giving their voices a platform outside prison.

By not asking about why they were in prison I aim to, at minimum, create a space for my pen-pals to talk to someone who didn’t see them first as a criminal and second as a person. I challenged myself, to be honest, to allow myself to be vulnerable, to share my thoughts, and to allow our conversations to develop without pre-judgements.

We talked about the prison system of course, but we also shared our coming out stories, what it was like during high school, whether our family was religious, our siblings, our parents, their kids. Some of my pen-pals were younger than me and grew up in the “Glee era” while others were baby boomers and couldn’t imagine being accepted as queer when they were younger. One of my pen-pals was really into Shakespeare. I am not. And we would joke about that. 

I love getting to know people and their stories—so it was just wonderful in that regard. I would also simply Google information and send it upon request. It is so easy to take our access to information for granted! I would send variations on photo assignments I give my college students, making them into creative writing or drawing prompts.

There was one person with whom I lost contact and that was devastating. The last I heard of her she had been raped, then left in solitary confinement for 24 hours, then finally taken to a hospital —four hours away—given antibiotics on an empty stomach, then driven back to the prison while handcuffed in the back of a van. If you’ve ever taken antibiotics you know that they are nauseating in the best of circumstances. I don’t like to talk about stories like this too much. They are important but I also don’t want to sensationalize my pen-pals’ suffering.

I wrote with over 30 people on a monthly basis for almost two years. I still write with a small number of people and I continue to pair every incarcerated pen-pal who gets in touch with me with someone to write with on the outside. So far I’ve connected about 40 people with new pen-pals.

 

 

PP: I know you’ve designed a course on gender and photo at SVA, so if it’s not revealing any too much info, can you give us a few important titles and articles from the course reading list?

LT: My course at SVA is a studio/portfolio course where we incorporate queer studies concepts in the development and critique of projects. (The class is offered online through SVA Continuing Education. Therefore, anyone interested in exploring these ideas in their artworks can register). I also developed a graduate level seminar that I teach online for Oregon State University with a focus on representations of gender and sexuality from a feminist perspective.

Here’s a greatest hits list of texts:

  • Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Image, Music, Text. Ed. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 32-51.
  • Blessing, Jennifer. “Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography.” Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1997. 7-38, 67-119.
  • Halberstam, Jack. “Technotopias: Representing Transgender Bodies in Contemporary Art.” In a Queer Time and Place. New York and London: New York University Press, 2005. 97-124.
  • Jhally, Sut. “Image-Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture.” Gender, Race and Class in Media: A Critical Reader. 3rd ed. Eds. Gail Dines, Jean M. (McMahon) Humez. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2011. 199-204.
  • Lorber, Judith. “Night to His Day: The Social Construction of Gender.” Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994. 13-36.
  • Mercer, Kobena. “Reading racial fetishism: the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.” Visual Culture: The Reader. Ed. Jessica Evans, Stuart Hall. London: Sage Publications, 1999. 435-447.
  • Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures (Language, Discourse, Society). 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 14-30.
  • Rosler, Martha. “In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography.)” The Photography Reader. Ed. Liz Wells. London: Routledge, 2003. 261-274.
  • Sullivan, Nikki. A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York: NYU Press, 2003.
  • West, Candace, and Don H Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” Gender & Society Vol. 1, No. 2. (1987): 125-151.

 

 

LT: I also want to give a shout out to these texts that strongly shaped my aesthetic and ethical decisions in Policing Gender:

  • The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Responsibility, Carol Becker.
  • Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 2011. Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
  • Queer (In) Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock.
  • Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith.
  • Are Prisons Obsolete, Angela Davis.
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander.
  • Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility, Susan Starr Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk.
  • Punishment and Social Structure, Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer.

PP: Wow, thank you, so generous. So many new texts for me. Have you a resource list of organizations working in solidarity with LGBTQ prisoners?

LT: Absolutely, these are organizations as listed in the book Captive Genders:

All Of Us Or None
1540 Market Street Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102
415.255.7036 [ext 308, 315, 311, 312]
info@allofusornone.org
http://www.allofusornone.org

ACT UP Philadelphia
P.O. Box 22439, Land Title Station, Philadelphia, PA 19110-2439
actupp@critpath.org
http://www.actupphilly.org

Audre Lorde Project
85 South Oxford St., Brooklyn, NY 11217
718.596.0342
http://www.alp.org

Bent Bars Project
P.O. Box 66754, London, WC1A 9BF, United Kingdom
bent.bars.project@gmail.com
http://www.bentbarsproject.org/

Black and Pink<
c/o Community Church of Boston, 545 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02116
http://www.blackandpink.org

BreakOUT!<
1600 Oretha C. Haley Blvd., New Orleans, LA 70113
http://www.jpla.org

Critical Resistance
1904 Franklin St, Suite 504, Oakland, CA 94612
510.444.0484
http://www.criticalresistance.org

FIERCE!
437 W. 16th St, Lower Level, New York, NY 10001
646.336.6789
http://www.fiercenyc.org

generationFIVE
P.O. Box 1715, Oakland, CA 94604
510.251.8552
http://www.generationfive.org

Gay Shame
San Francisco, CA
gayshamesf@yahoo.com
http://www.gayshamesf.org

Hearts On A Wire
(for folks incarcerated in PA)
PO Box 36831, Philadelphia, PA 19107
heartsonawire@gmail.com

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
P.O. Box 226, Redmond, WA 98073
484.932.3166
http://www.incite-national.org

Justice Now
1322 Webster Street, Suite 210, Oakland, CA 94612
510.839.7654
http://www.jnow.org

LAGAI—Queer Insurrection
lagai_qi@yahoo.com
http://www.lagai.org

Prison Activist Resource Center
PO Box 70447, Oakland, CA 94612
510.893.4648
http://www.prisonactivist.org

Prisoner Correspondence Project
http://www.prisonercorrespondenceproject.com

Prisoner’s Justice Action Committee
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
pjac_committee@yahoo.com
http://www.pjac.org

Sylvia Rivera Law Project
322 8th Ave, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10001
212.337.8550
http://www.srlp.org

Tranzmission Prison Project
P.O. 1874, Asheville, NC 28802
tranzmissionprisonproject@gmail.com

Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project
342 9th St., Suite 202B, San Francisco, CA 94103
415.252.1444
http://www.tgijp.org

Write to Win Collective
2040 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60647
writetowincollective@gmail.com
http://www.writetowin.wordpress.com

PP: Brilliant. Again, thanks so much.

LT: Thank you, Pete.

 

 

 

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KAREN, 69, in a homeless shelter four weeks after her release. East Village, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 35 years
Released: April 2017
“When I made parole plans, I thought I was going to have a good re-entry situation in the house I paroled to. I realized almost immediately that it wouldn’t work out, so I left, without anywhere else to go. Parole sent me to a homeless assessment shelter in the south Bronx. The quality of the bedding and the food was a lateral move from prison. But factoring in my freedom, there’s no question that it was an improvement. Now, I’m in a shelter run by the Women’s Prison Association. I feel safe and secure. The room is spare, with not much in it, but it’s mine. In this room, I find comfort, privacy, safety, and peace of mind.”

 

Working as a public defender, Sara Bennett has met a great many women who have faced struggle and hardship. Many serve, or have served, long sentences. Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women has increased by 800% in the U.S. There are nearly 100,000 women in state prisons and federal penitentiaries. A further 110,000 are in county jails, 80% of whom report having been the victim of sexual assault during their life time. Women who have been convicted of serious crimes have, more often than not, been the victims of serious abuse themselves. Irrespective of crime, I have consistently argued that mass incarceration does little to improve or heal. It does the opposite. It damages.

When facing conservative opposition, prison reformers often resort to arguments against the incarceration of non-violent people, women included. Reformers attempt to find sympathetic groups within the prison system for whom the public may be persuaded to support. This is all well and good, but it comes at a price; people convicted of violent crimes are left to rot, so to speak. For advocates such as Bennett, it is clear that long sentences achieve little and that the abuses of the prison industrial complex are wrought on all who it swallows. The Bedroom Project humanizes women who have recently re-entered society after serving long, multi-decade Life With Parole sentences.

Bennett has created a space for each of these women to reflect upon their post-release situation. They regale personal tales and they are photographed in their most personal spaces–their bedrooms. In some cases, a bedroom might be the only place some of these women can claim as their own.

Bennett is a former criminal defense attorney who most frequently represented battered women and the wrongly convicted. She uses photography to amplify her observations of the criminal justice system. Her first project, Life After Life in Prison documented the lives of four women as they returned to society after spending decades in prison. Bennett decries the “pointlessness of extremely long sentences and arbitrary parole denials”. The Bedroom Project is currently on show at the CUNY School of Law in Long Island City, New York until March 28th.

Keen to know more about Bennett’s process and motivations, I approached her with a few questions about The Bedroom Project. Scroll down for our Q&A in which we discuss the meaning of the work for both subjects and audiences.

 

EVELYN, 42, in an apartment she shares with a roommate five years after her release. Queens, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: 20 years
Released: April 2012
“Look where I am now. Five years ago, I came out from a little cell, started out in a halfway house, moved to an apartment, back to a transitional home, and now I’m in my own room in an apartment I share with a roommate. What can be better than this? This is happening.”

 

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Many of the women you photographed are living in a room in a community house, or an apartment building for returning citizens, or in a one bedroom apartment. So, they have a single room that is their own. While imprisoned, they may or may not have had a cellmate, and the degree to which they could personalise their cell would differ. No matter, they lived within walls for long periods. You’re photographing them also within walls. Tell us about why you focused on their bedrooms.

Sara Bennett (SB): It’s not the similarity to the prison cell that I’m trying to highlight, but the contrast. It’s true that most of the women now live in shared spaces, but still there’s a sense of intimacy, self, and pride. They all have items on display that would have been contraband in prison, including stuffed animals, wooden picture frames, patterned sheets, cellphones and computers. For decades, their cells were randomly inspected, they were locked in every evening, and they were forced to move at a moment’s notice. Now these bedrooms are their own.

 

TOWANDA, 45, in her own apartment five years after her release, with her daughter, Equanni. Bronx, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: almost 23 years
Released: October 2012
“I was in the shelter system for the first four years. It was about the same as prison. You’re confined, you can’t do anything, you don’t have your own thoughts, you’re always stressed out. It’s good to have my own apartment and pay my own bills. It’s peaceful and I feel safe.”

 

PP: What was the dynamic between you and the women.

SB: For many years, I was the pro bono clemency attorney for Judith Clark, who was serving a 75-year-to-life sentence for her role as a getaway driver in a famous New York Case—the Brinks robbery of 1981. All my subjects know her and my first photography project, Spirit on the Inside, is about the women who were incarcerated with her and her influence on their lives. (Spirit on the Inside book.)

The reaction to Spirit on the Inside—viewers were surprised that the formerly incarcerated women were just regular women—sparked my second project, Life After Life in Prison. I followed four women in various stages of re-entry, and I spent so much time with each of them that we really got to know each other. At the same time, I began work on The Bedroom Project, and the four women put me in touch with other potential subjects. So before I even walked in the door, my new portrait subjects were open to me. They’d seen my previous work; they knew some of my former subjects or clients; and they’d been told that I could be trusted.

I’ve ended up being a mentor or friend to almost all the women I’ve photographed.

PP: Why did you choose to include the women’s handwriting?

SB: My goal in all of my photography work is to show the humanity in people who are, or were, incarcerated. I believe that if judges, prosecutors and legislators could see lifers as real individuals, they would rethink the policies that lock them away forever. I want viewers to know what these women are thinking. Including their handwriting emphasizes that these are their words, these are their thoughts.

I asked all of them the same question: “When you see this photo I took of you, what does it make you think?” Their answers are varied and lead the viewer to all kinds of issues—from what it feels like to live in a cell, to educational and employment opportunities inside and outside prison, the difficulties in getting parole and being on parole, finding housing, and issues of remorse, regret, and forgiveness.

 

TRACY, 51, in her own apartment three-and-a-half years after her release. Jamaica, NY (2017)
Sentence: 22 years to life
Served: 24 years
Released: February 2014
“I imagined coming home, living in a one- or two-bedroom apartment, where one was a master and an extra room for guests. Here I have that. I call this room my “doll house,” my safe haven. I feel at peace. I’ve finally unpacked. I spend a lot of time in here. I take pride in everything. I put more into this room than into the kitchen. I know I need to eat, but my room is my nutrition.”

MIRIAM, 51, in transitional housing two months after her release. Corona, NY (2018)
Sentence: 20 years to life
Served: 30 years
Released: December 2017
“This room is my room. A place of my sanity unlike the one in prison. No one will bother me if I’m heard talking to myself. I can think clearly, I can breathe, I can live my way, dress my way, look at things my may. Move my furniture around my way. I love my room. It’s mine—all mine and no one can say anything about it.”

 

PP: What were the main victories for these women post release? What were their main challenges?

SB: Each woman’s circumstance is unique and so their challenges and victories are different. I’d say the biggest and most immediate challenge is finding housing. There are some re-entry programs that provide housing that is either temporary (up to six months) or semi-permanent, and many of the women were lucky enough to get into one of those programs. Some of the women ended up in homeless shelters and some have bounced around from place to place. I know two women who went home to live with family but both ended up moving to housing programs, in part because those programs offer a community that feels familiar and supportive.

Some of the women have completed educational degrees since coming home, some have found rewarding jobs and relationships, and unsurprisingly, the longer a woman has been home, the more stable she becomes.

But most have difficulty finding a job, let alone a decent job, and almost all of them have financial struggles. Many get benefits but that amount is paltry.

It’s mind boggling how quickly the women seem to adapt, how resilient they are, and how they take challenges in stride. Remember, my subjects spent anywhere from 15 to 35 years in prison. The outside world changed radically in that time. As Aisha, one of my subjects says, “It’s like putting a kindergartner in college”.

 

AISHA, 45, in a house she shares with 5 other women 14 months after her release. Flushing, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 25 years
Released: June 2016
“When I was released, I didn’t feel overwhelmed; I felt as though I was right where I was supposed to be. Later though, the feeling of being overwhelmed came as I found myself on the business side of life: food shopping, rent, bills, metrocards, etc. That was all new to me because I lived at home with my mom until I was arrested. My children were one and three years old when I left them and I felt as if they were one and three the whole time I was away. I feel that way about myself now. I was arrested when I was 19 and being in this big, unfamiliar, advanced world makes me feel like a 19-year-old trapped in a 45 year old body. I am both happy and grateful to be out here, but it’s like putting a kindergartener in college.”

VALERIE, 62 in an apartment she shares with a roommate. Bronx, NY (2018).
Sentence: 19 years to life.
Served: 17 years (granted clemency by Governor Andrew Cuomo).
Released: January 2017
“I got my freedom. That’s true! But it’s not the same as being free free. I like to travel. I used to go to VA, to PA, and the casinos and the boardwalk in Atlantic City. I love the beach. But I can’t go anywhere without my PO’s permission. If I want to go to a play or a concert, I need my PO’s permission. Until I get off parole, my life is messed up. I can’t do what I want.”

 

PP: Release from prison is not easy thing. Many of the women were given “numbers-to-life” sentences. Some got out on their parole date, others years after their first parole eligibility. What has been the situation in NY state for releasing persons who’ve served long sentences? Has parole and release become more common recently?

SB: When I first became an attorney in 1986, there was a presumption of parole. If, for example, a person had a sentence of 15 years to life, then she’d likely be released after serving her 15 years, provided that she hadn’t been in serious trouble in the few years prior. But when Governor Pataki took office in 1995, that presumption changed. And no matter how people spent their time in prison—working in trades, earning college degrees, setting up programs, having excellent disciplinary records, living in honor housing—they were repeatedly denied parole based on the one factor that will never change: the nature of the crime they committed.

I like to think that the parole system in New York State is starting to change. In the last six months, the number of parole grants has steadily increased, in part because Governor Andrew Cuomo has had the opportunity to appoint new parole commissioners and in part because of a culture shift that recognizes that, we, as a society, lock people up for far too long. Still, we have a long way to go.

 

CAROL, 69, in a communal residence four years after her release. Long Island City, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 35 years
Released: March 2013
“When I was inside, I dreamed of getting out, getting a job, travelling a little bit. But by the time I got out, my health was bad. Basically, that changed all plans. I wish I could do more, but I’m at peace. I have my grandson, Cecil. He’s precious.”

 

PP:  What have been the audiences’ responses to the work?

SB: The photos are currently facing out onto a busy street in Queens, NY and I’ve eavesdropped as passersby have studied the portraits and talked to each other. I’ve never heard anyone say, “you do the crime, you do the time.” Rather, passersby seem sympathetic, drawn in, and incredulous at the amount of time that the women have spent in prison. I’ve also moderated more than a dozen panel conversations with my subjects, and the audiences have been very responsive to the women. No matter what the women’s pasts might have been, today they are hard-working, loving, resilient, optimistic people, and the audience seems to understand that they have earned second chances.

PP: Do prisons work?

SB: That’s such a loaded question that I’m not sure how to answer it. Suffice it to say that in this country we incarcerate way too many people for way too long under conditions that are dehumanizing and obscene. In other countries, imprisonment itself is the punishment, but the conditions themselves are not punitive and abysmal.

PP: In extension of your photos and the women’s own testimonies, what would you like to impress upon members of the public about improvements in the criminal justice system?

SB: For a long time, most of the conversation around changing the criminal justice system has focused on non-violent felony offenders. President Obama talked a lot about non-violent felony offenders and low-level drug offenders. I’m concerned about people with really lengthy, or life sentences, those who are either repeatedly denied parole or don’t even have that possibility. That’s why my only criteria for The Bedroom Project was that the subjects had a life sentence. (A life sentence doesn’t really mean life in prison unless it’s life without parole. A sentence of say, 25 years to life, means that after 25 years a person becomes eligible for parole.) I wanted to really drive home the point: people with life sentences are ordinary (in the best sense of the word) human beings. They deserve second chances.

 

MARY, 51, with her niece, Trish, in her own apartment 19 years after her release. Brooklyn, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: 15 years
Released: May 1998
“I’ve been home 19 years, but re-entry is a lifetime process. In many ways prison is with you forever. Still, the impact is a lot less than it used to be. For years, everything I did, everything I thought about, reflected back to prison. It was about 15 years out—I did 15 years in—that I stopped connecting to that girl I was in prison. Maybe you have to do the same amount of time outside as you did inside until you feel FREE from it.

”LINDA, 70, in her own apartment 14 years after her release. Albany, NY (2017)
Sentence: 17 years to life
Served: 14 years. Granted clemency by Governor George Pataki
Released: February 2003
“I love my apartment. The building is clean. I feel safe and at peace. I been here 10 years. I been out of prison 14 years. It’s so hard when you get out. I just stayed strong. With a friend’s help I got a job as a housekeeper in a hospital. I stayed there for 9-1/2 years. Then I retired. As of now I have to try very hard to stay on my budget finance wise. I have a good family & friends in my life. I thank the life I have now. And I thank God everyday that I am alive and safe. Thank you God.”

 

PP: What effects (positive and/or negative) do prisons and reentry have on women? What are their needs that often get overlooked?

SB: One of the saddest things to me about prison is that it can be the first time a woman has found safety in her life. Most women in prison have been victims of gender-based violence. I’ll never forget a client telling me that she got her first good night’s sleep when she went to prison, no longer subject to abuse by her boyfriend. So, in that sense, prison initially brought some peace as well as a sense of community and self awareness to some of the women I know. Of course, that came at the extremely high cost of the loss of freedom.

In general, women have fewer outside contacts than men and lose touch with their families much quicker than men do. So they are very isolated from the outside world and come home to a world that has moved on without them. They find a society that puts up a series of hurdles: they are required to attend state-mandated programs, barred from inexpensive public housing and banned from voting. In addition, they face travel limitations and curfews that make visiting family and working more difficult. When they eventually become eligible to be released from parole, they are often denied without explanation.

I hope the stories of these women remind us of the countless people still in prison who, like them, deserve that same chance to build a life on the outside.

PP: Thanks, Sara.

SB: Thank you.

 

 

 

 

My end of year resolution was to avoid best of lists. My new years resolution is to write more letters on paper to actual people. Here’s 8-minutes of writing I made for the LensCulture 2017 Best Photobooks list.

I nominated three books, but only Jim Mortam’s was included in LC’s published rundown best of. By comparison, my selections look not very arty and quite concerned with real life.

Rob Stothard and Silvia Mollicchi

Removal

 

 

Impeccably researched, quietly shot, and brilliantly designed to mimic a UK Home Office report, Removal takes stock of the immigration real estate *portfolio* in Britain. Safely photographed from distance, Stothard’s unfrequented images remind us that we see virtually nothing of the insides of these sites. The extent to which private firms contract, own and operate these facilities is shocking.

Jim Mortram

Small Town Inertia

 

A long time coming (in the best way), Small Town Inertia proves that you needn’t chase the big smoke, the big names or the big bangs to make important work that speaks universally. From the town of Dereham and the surrounds, Mortram has made work that should remind us of our deep connection to, and responsibility for, our neighbours.

Jeffrey Stockbridge

Kensington Blues

 

 

A comprehensive, difficult and generous portrait of Philadelphians in some very challenged parts of the city. Stockbridge lived among his subjects and was a fixture on the blocks; that’s important to know because he has exposed some subjects while they’re engaged in risky behaviours. Subjects stand in the light, adopt body shapes and fix their stares right down the lens. Some scenes in Kensington Blues aren’t pretty but, then again, you’re not pretty. Most of the characters and their strength of character just take your breath away.

 

 

 

This week, Mimi Plumb kindly let me write about her series What Is Remembered which shows the clearing of orchards and farms for subdivisions between 1972 and 1975, in her (then) hometown of Walnut Creek. She photographed the alienated kids who reminded her of her younger self. I first met Mimi in 2014. It feels like this article has been a long time coming. I had wrote about 500 words. I wish I had 500 pages.

I adore Mimi. I posted about her series Pictures From The Valley, when her images were used in an initiative to find farmworkers involved in California labor organizing, and then to secure their oral histories.

What Is Remembered is evocative stuff fusing memory, generational differences, consumerism, fear, innocence and our place in the world–that is all to say, our responsibility to the world.

 

 

To quote:

After a career teaching photography, only recently has Plumb returned to her archive. Nostalgia, partly, accounts for the current popularity of Plumb’s work. But, frankly, it is only now that people have the stomach for it. While her college instructors at the time loved the work, it was too unadorned and too uncomfortable for many others to appreciate.

“The raw dirt yards and treeless streets, model homes expanding exponentially, with imperceptible variation. A lot of it’s pretty dark and some of it is pessimistic.”

Plumb never felt comfortable among the cul-de-sacs and manicured yards. She rarely had the words for what she was experiencing … until she discovered photography in high school.

In 1971, the two lane road to the city became four lanes. Aged 17, Plumb left for San Francisco. The bland atmosphere of the suburbs stood in stark contrast, says Plumb, to the cultural and violent upheavals taking place across the country — the shooting of John F Kennedy, the ongoing threat of nuclear war, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement.

“Suburbia felt like something of a purgatory to me,” she explains. “It was intellectually hard; you couldn’t really talk about what was going on in the world.”

“I watched the rolling hills and valleys mushroom with tract homes,” says Plumb. “To me and my teenage friends, they were the blandest, saddest homes in the world.”

More: Photos of growing up in the Bay Area suburbs tell a story of innocence and disaffection

 

 

 

    

 

For my first piece for Timeline, I put a spotlight on a collection of mugshots, rediscovered and researched by artist Shayne Davidson. This adds to a her research of hundreds of antique mugshots depicting shoplifters, grifters, counterfeiters, “a wife murderer”, pickpockets and many more.

Made by the St. Louis Police Department between 1857 and 1867, the archive, held at the Missouri History Museum, comprises the oldest extant examples of mugshots in the U.S. Davidson has compiled many of the portraits into a new e-book Captured and Exposed (More).

Quote:

It’s hard to imagine U.S. law enforcement today without its wealth of tracking and surveillance technologies. From facial recognition to the databases being populated with drivers’ license photos of non-criminal citizens, from police scanners tracking all mobile devices in a five-block radius to lampposts that are listening in, federal investigators and police departments nationwide have never had more tools to capture images, scrape data, and monitor movements of people.

But these “smart” technologies (and the laws that allow their use) have developed only relatively recently, and incrementally. It’s not always been so sophisticated. A hundred and fifty years ago, shortly after the invention of photography, some police departments began making images of convicted criminals.

 

Read the full piece and see more portraits: America’s Oldest Mugshots Show the Naked Faces of the Downtrodden, Criminal and Marginalized

 

 

 

KNIVES, BY JASON KOXVOLD

In 2004, the Schrade Knife factory in Ellenville, NY closed its doors for the last time. Operations were moved to China and, almost overnight, 500 locals lost their jobs. Suppliers and services in the area lost business too and the towns of Ellenville, Napanoch and Wawarsing where photographer Jason Koxvold lives have had to adapt to avoid massive economic injury. In 2015, Koxvold began documenting his hometown and its residents. Since the closures of factories in this pocket of the Hudson Valley, Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch is the biggest employer in the town.

The project Knives, says Koxvold, “serves as a microcosm of the larger issues facing the United States, grappling with the effects of automation and outsourcing, cuts in services, and the rise of identity politics.”

It includes portraits of prisoners, employees and former prison officers. The motif of the knife functions as a literal description of a disappeared economy and identity marker for the people of Wawarsing, but it also acts as a metaphor to the silent violence of both globalisation and incarceration. Whereas a gun mows people down in a hail of bullets, a knife cuts through and guts with a quiet, single swift action. The damage can be deep, precise. An unspectacular assault that is so often lethal.

I admire the way Koxvold has gone about peeling back the layers of his home-region. He managed to gain access into the local prison photographing prisoners. Without trying, he found many locals who had worked in the prison. He often picked up visual threads that ended up looping back to the fact of incarceration.

Koxvold is currently crowdfunding monies for the photobook Knives. We chatted about how the prison industrial complex manifests itself in his work, how it functions in the community and how exactly he got inside.

 

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Do prisons work?

Jason Koxvold (JK): As a Norwegian citizen, my answer would be yes. As a permanent resident of the United States, my answer is not as well as they should.

With that said, during the making of this project I’ve become aware of the work of the Bard Prison Initiative, and programs like that are to be applauded; but in general in this country, it’s my understanding that prisons are seen as a punishment more than an opportunity to rehabilitate. That approach is unsustainable.

 

 

PP: You’re crowdfunding to raise money for Knives book. There’s no mention of the prison in the Kickstarter video but you’ve explained to me that the prison is “woven more deeply through the work than uncaptioned photographs might suggest.” Can you flesh that out a bit?

JK: Because the prison has been a feature of the town for so long, and there weren’t many other opportunities for employment in the region, it turned out that some of the men I photographed for this project had worked as prison guards for large portions of their lives.

Specifically, one of the characters had worked in a prison for 25 years, and possessed a wealth of knowledge about the place. His is the knife with “JUSTICE” engraved into the blade, which seems perverse in some regard; he’s written comments on internet forums defending the use of the phrase “Nigger Chaser” in the name of a knife. So this history of the application of violence is etched deeply into the soul of the town, even as it now finds itself emasculated and adrift.

 

 

PP: At what point did Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch become a subject in Knives?

JK: Fairly early on in my research it became clear that it would be impossible to ignore it.

PP: Why is the prison was important?

JK: The prison looms over the town in some way; it’s an imposing, gothic style building that can be clearly seen from all approaches, despite being a secretive location. At first – not knowing much about the penal system here – I was under the impression that the prison housed inmates from the region, and assumed that would include some former Schrade employees, but primarily they are from New York City. That also changes the makeup of the town to some degree, as spouses and families move to the area to make visitation less onerous.

 

 

 

PP: What did you do to depict the prison?

JK: I made portraits of three men inside the prison, and some exteriors of how the prison relates to the landscape and the town around it.

PP: What did you do to connect (or not) with those incarcerated and working there?

JK: My initial outreach was to the NYS Department of Corrections public affairs office, to explain my project and what I hoped to achieve. I wrote letters to a group of inmates, outlining my idea and asking if they would like to participate.

 

 

PP: You say Knives raises more questions than answers. I like it when you say you’re interested in ambition, failure, hubris. But still, it seems like the failure for us to imagine a different but improving future leads people to think that jobs might come back, and I think that accounts for Trump’s appeal in the Rust Belt. Whether he could spark an impossible resurgence or not, matters less than the fact he promises he will. As best as you can estimate, what is the future for Wawarsing?

JK: The town is working to turn things around; tourism, which was a huge business in the Catskill region in the middle of the 20th century, is what people are pinning their hopes on, and the area has seen considerable growth in that regard in recent years. There’s a great theatre, Shadowland Stages, that produces several plays a year. For some time there was talk of a new casino, but ultimately another town won the bid. In place of that, there’s now a multimillion dollar sports complex in the works.

 

 

PP: What difficulties or successes did you encounter while pursuing a narrative about Eastern Correctional Facility?

JK: My original intent included making portraits of prison guards and interiors of the prison, specifically with the intent of drawing contextual lines between this secure, sanitized inner environment and the world outside, but I was limited to the visiting area and employees were off-limits.

Even determining who was currently incarcerated at Eastern was challenging; I had to file a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request, which operates under an archaic system. After some correspondence, I scheduled visits to make portraits of three inmates, not knowing what they would look like or what to expect; they were very patient and generous with their time.

 

 

JK: Interestingly, photographing the exterior of the prison was more challenging than getting inside. I tend to be quite specific about weather for my exteriors, but DOCS doesn’t necessarily have the infrastructure for rapid approvals of media visits, and certain areas that I strongly wanted to photograph were absolutely off limits.

PP: What are local attitudes toward the prison?

JK: My sense is that there’s a grudging acceptance of it. People probably wish it was elsewhere, but at the same time it provides jobs for the town.

 

 

PP: You grew up in Britain. Do you see the U.S. in a particularly different way?

JK: I grew up around Windsor and Egham, but I’ve spent the whole of my adult life in the United States. I formally arrived a few months before 9/11, and unfortunately, I think that terrible event achieved its goal. 15 years of war – which is the subject of my other major project, currently in progress – has changed the country radically for the worse, in my opinion.

PP: What next for the work?

JK: My intent is to have the book ready to go to press quite rapidly after the Kickstarter is complete; it will include some new images that haven’t been shared before; and some of the work will be shown at the Davis Orton Gallery in June and July.

PP: Good luck, Jason. Thanks for chatting.

JK: Thank you.

 

BIO

Jason Koxvold (b. 1977) is a fine art photographer based between Brooklyn and Upstate New York. Follow his activities through his website, Instagram, Twitter and Vimeo.

Support the Kickstarter for the Knives photobook.

This year marks 200 years since Auburn Prison went in to operation. Joe Librandi-Cowan grew up in the shadow of massive maximum-security prison in upstate New York. Over the past three years, Librandi-Cowan has been photographing the neighborhoods around the prison (now called Auburn Correctional Facility), has been meeting locals, diving into archives and exhibiting the work within the region. His main body of work is The Auburn System, titled after the Auburn System of prison management that added hard labour to the Philadelphia System of solitary, penitence and prayer. His photobook Songs of a Silent Wall brings together archive images of American prisons.

Librandi-Cowan has contempt for the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) in the United States and the manner in which its decentralized and embedded nature allows for its silent persistence. His work mounts a narrative that writes Auburn into the early chapters of the development of the PIC. It’s not a narrative closely examined by others in his hometown. Shaping and presenting the work has not been without its challenges.

It is Librandi-Cowan’s negotiations between critiquing the system and maintaining empathy for ordinary people who work in it–who are also swallowed by it–that fascinate me. Not least, because other image-makers focused on prisons are dealing with similarly delicate negotiations.

I’m grateful to Librandi-Cowan for making time to answer my questions.

Scroll on for our Q&A.

Q&A

PP: How did your work on Auburn Prison come about? Is it still ongoing?

JLC: The project formed into the focus of my undergraduate studies and eventually into my thesis work. The project is ongoing. The work requires a slow, long-term approach. While Auburn is my hometown, I still struggle to understand and represent it visually. My relationship to Auburn, much like the town’s relationship to the prison industry, is complex. I critique and question the history of an institution that has almost always supported the community. The fact that I am a member of the community, forces me to move slowly and carefully.

The history takes a while to sift through, the relationships I make with fellow Auburnians take a while to forge, and figuring out how to represent and combat the prison industrial complex isn’t something that is simple to figure out.

PP: When did you first start thinking of the prison as a topic for your art and inquiry?

JLC: The prison sits in the middle of the city. Many members of local families, generations deep, have been employed by the prison industry. Growing up, I was vaguely aware that some of my family had worked in the prison, but I never gave the prison – which was down the street from where I lived, always in view – much of a thought.

I knew little bits about the prison’s history – that it was one of the oldest prisons in New York State, and that it was the first place to host an execution by electrocution – but the prison, and ideas related to imprisonment, were seldom discussed or explained. I never questioned or understood the prison beyond it being a place for employment.

It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t necessarily normal to have a prison down the street or to have a family member or neighbor that worked inside a prison.

JLC: As I got older, I began to learn more about the prison system, mass incarceration, the economics involved and I began to realize that the prison had a much larger influence on my community than I had initially thought or understood. I began making images to make sense of the complicated role the prison has had with my hometown, with history, and with myself as a young person living in the town. I began photographing in an attempt to make sense of the prison system from the lens of a prison host community, but immediately I realized that it further pushed me to question it.

PP: Where have you presented this work?

JLC: I have presented this at the Cayuga Museum of History and Art, which is Auburn’s local history museum. I have also shown selections of the work at LightWork in Syracuse, NY, and I recently opened a show at SUNY Onondaga.

PP: When you showed it in Auburn itself how was it received?

JLC: Reactions varied – it was positive, negative, and also a bit static/unresponsive. Much of the feedback I received were initial aesthetic responses, and not feedback on the conceptual aspects or questions the work asked.

The prison is a top employer within the community, so people are seemingly reluctant to critique or question the role of the prison, its historical implications, or what the hosting of a prison means for a community.

While showing the work in Auburn, I made it clear within my presentation that I was questioning Auburn’s role within the prison industrial complex – past and present – and that I was interested in finding a way within our community to talk about the increasing problem of mass incarceration within the United States.

JLC: I found this information to be much more difficult to present and discuss within Auburn because so many within my community are directly involved with the correctional system. It was incredibly difficult to find ways to talk about what the work questions without the perception that I was criticizing the generations of people within my community who work or have worked at the prison. Finding productive ways to critically engage, discuss, and question the livelihood of many in my community has been very difficult.

In turn, the response to the work often ends up being extremely limited. Employee contracts won’t allow for correctional officers to discuss some of these issues with me, nor they do not want to talk ill of their work. Many people within my community have a difficult time reasoning with my questioning of the prison system; their relationships to it are complex, deep, and difficult to reckon with.

While many may generally agree that the prison system doesn’t function properly or fairly, Auburn’s relationship to its prison doesn’t seem to allow for a communal discussion on the matter.

PP: You suggested to me in an email that your worry over local reactions have effected the way you edit and present?

JLC: I wouldn’t say that I’ve necessarily changed the work, but I often worry that the project, and that the directness of my stance on the prison industry, may do damage to my community – especially when presented internally. Auburn has bore witness to much trauma. It has direct and early links to the Prison Industrial Complex, the electric chair, and to correctional practices that have helped shaped modern day incarceration. Condensing and presenting that information to the community almost produces and perpetuates this trauma. While it’s not the community’s direct fault, my questioning of these practices and histories has the potential to produce the feeling that the community itself is to blame.

While it is important to combat mass incarceration and the toxic attitudes that prison work can breed, I believe it’s also important to realize and remember that prisons have direct effects on the people who work within them and on the communities that host them.

To me, the ability of many within my community to navigate between the daily entrapment of prison walls and civilian life, begins to raise many questions about how traumas and toxic attitudes are transferred and perpetuated within my community and within society in general.

JLC: Prisons not only affect incarcerated individuals – they affect those who staff the prisons, the people close to those staff too. They affect towns that host prisons and communities from which members are extracted to then be incarcerated.

Prisons shape, and are shaped, by local and regional economies connected to the prison industry, and attitudes towards race – the list goes on. I’m trying to show that the web of the prison industrial complex, while much closer to my hometown than others, is something, often almost invisible, that is local to almost every American.

While I doubt many would pick prison work as their first employment opportunity, it is one of the only financially stable options within the Auburn area. Attacking the industry that financially provides for many within the community doesn’t seem to be the best way to have these conversations or to figure out alternatives or answers to the prison.

As I continue this project, I am attempting to find ways to properly and effectively critique mass incarceration and the Prison Industrial Complex without alienating or further damaging my subjects – whether they be community members, correctional officers, or incarcerated individuals, or returning citizens.

PP: What is gained and what is lost by such slow and reflexive approach?

JLC: Being cautious and thoughtful about how the work may impact the actual people that the work represents will only help further the project and its possible impacts.

Much of the contemporary work on prisons deals with incarcerated individuals, however, I’m becoming increasingly interested in figuring out how conversations and representations of others within the prison industrial complex can impact and change our discussions on mass incarceration. Maybe if it can be shown that mass incarceration negativity effects all within the equation, different sources of change may occur?

I believe The Auburn System functions well outside of Auburn because distance from the work allows for a more general discussion around mass incarceration. But showing the work within Auburn has made me rethink how it should function within the town.

PP: Thanks, Joe

JLC: Thank you, Pete

JOE LIBRANDI-COWAN

Follow Librandi-Cowan‘s work on Instagram, VSCOFacebook, Vimeo, Tumblr and Twitter.

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Over a period of six months, between the summer of 2014 and the winter of 2015, Amber Sowards shot 20 rolls of film in the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center in Madison, Wisconsin. The series of portraits she made is called Captured.

“The series hopes to expose the general community to what life is like for incarcerated youth in Dane County,” writes Sowards. “While at the same time creating a visual narrative that documents and puts a face to what racial disparity looks like in present day Dane County.”

The population changed over the months. Many young people left the facility during the project’s run. Others arrived. Some weeks, Sowards saw three teens. Other weeks she worked with 25.

Sowards’ directions to the youth were minimal.

“I asked if I could photograph the youth and then I picked the location of the shot,” she says. “Then we just had a conversation and photographed naturally. Most of the teens really liked having their photo taken; it made them feel valued.”

The conversations were so striking that it soon became evident that teens’ voices were central to portraying their life as those “in an unnatural environment”. The voices in aggregate challenge the audience to imagine alternatives to incarceration, something more natural.

They were collaged into a 5-minute track which you can listen to here.

“We did not intend to pair the photographs with audio [at first],” says Sowards. “That decision came later.”

As with most other portrait series of incarcerated youth, anonymity is a prerequisite. The genre of portraiture becomes a hell of a lot harder when you don’t have facial expression and eye contact to work with. The thing that strikes me about Sowards’ work (and it might just be the softer edge of analogue photography) is that the children seem to adhere to the palette of the place. The images are diffuse with the blues, beiges, grey and white light of the facility. The chess board and the green ball are sharp punctuations of color.

There’s an noticeable degree of civility in the environment too. While the interiors and hardware are unmistakably institutional there’s clearly an array of activities at the teens disposal. The viewer is left in no doubt that these prisoners are children and therefore, I hope, viewers carry with that an expectation and optimism that this is a space that will help the teens in the long term. If this seems a modest hope then consider that in many photographs of (adult) prisons a complete lack of care, protection and nurturing is most evident, and is the norm.

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Sowards says some staff at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center were fine with her presence and that of her camera. Other staff members were uncomfortable. This too suggests that the juvie depicted here might be for some therapeutic. In facilities where cameras are not welcome, where they are a considered a threat, one assumes that not all is right. Fortunately, for these teens, not the case here. Captured is a pleasant, modest look inside a previously unknown microcosm of Madison, Wisconsin.

 

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Captured was sponsored by GSAFE and delivered through its New Narrative Project. GSAFE increases the capacity of LGBTQ+ students, educators, and families to create schools in Wisconsin where all youth thrive. The New Narrative Project aims to foster self-determination through custom-designed workshops that help incarcerated youth access their potential and think analytically about the social justice issues they are impacted by.

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