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James Burn VICE La Paz Co Jail

Screengrab from the VICE webpage livestreaming James Burns’ 30 days in La Paz County Jail, Parker, AZ. Captured 02.01.2017

VICE reporter James Burns is spending 30 days in solitary confinement in La Paz County Jail in Parker, Arizona. You can watch any time. He’s into his third week. Why? Good question. Burns has many a good answer. He explains:

Unlike most of the rest of the planet, America embraces this practice at almost every level of the system—local jails, state and federal prisons, mental health facilities, you name it. By most estimates, solitary ensnares 65,000 to 100,000 people at any given time in the United States. Just this past month, a study from Yale Law School carried out in coordination with the heads of state prisons across America suggested nearly 6,000 of them have been in solitary for three years or longer. And like most layers of the American criminal justice system, solitary disproportionately impacts people of color.

It’d be one thing if this practice of confining people in cramped, isolated cells worked—if all the loneliness and human misery had a point. But report after report (and study after study) suggests solitary brutalizes the incarcerated and in some cases may even make them more likely to hurt others when they get out.

I’ve just watched 15-minutes. My immediate response was one of anxiety. Usually when I view a screen it’s with interest in a narrative (documentary film), or for clear information (news broadcast), or for the development of script and fictional character (TV), or the footage is reflexive of itself as a medium (video art), or it’s a quick, cheap laugh (cat GIFs). In other words, there’s always something happening, or about to happen. Or there’s mystery, tension or story arc; something’s coming up and something will change. The livestream puts me on edge because there’s no obvious movement in it, for it. We see everything in Burns’ world and at his disposal and it’s almost nothing. The footage not only holds no change, it inhabits the near-complete absence of any potential for change.

If the cell was to erupt in action, it’d likely be in a moment of Burns’ crisis or breakdown. Watching, I find myself simultaneously tormented by the lack of action but also fearful of anything extreme (because it’ll be very negative) actually happening. If Burns can last the 30 days and the “program” runs its full course I hope Burns can quietly survive.

I wasn’t convinced about the 30-day livestream as a form when VICE launched it on the 14th December, but having spent an hour with it I am greatly intrigued. (As I type have the feed playing in another browser tab, and the audio of Burns pacing his cell passing an orange from one hand to the other)

This isn’t active reporting but it is a full 30-day long report. It isn’t time-based art, but it is without doubt performative and requires investment by, and presence from, the audience. The slow-pace and anti-narrative are very effecting.

We cannot ignore the full cooperation of the jail administration though.  Lieutenant Curt Bagby explains La Paz Sheriff departments motives:

“Having cameras in our facility showing any part of the process is an easy thing for us to agree to because we take great care to follow the rules set forth for us by the Arizona guidelines on dealing with our incarcerated population. We are happy to show the general public the way we operate as we have nothing to hide. We understand VICE wanted to highlight the practice of solitary confinement, and we are willing to show how it is done here.”

I and many other activists could list countless prisons and jails in which a month-long live web-feed of a cell would not be considered or carried out. Merely the noise from a disturbance on the tier would be enough to put of most administrations. I don’t know the configuration of other cells and corridors in the pod or the block Burns is in, but I have heard noises from beyond his cell suggesting that a large disturbance would be clearly audible. I take Bagby at his word and I speculate he derives confidence from a belief or measurement that La Paz County Jail is less volatile than other facilities.

After years of conjecture about prison and jail administrators’ attitudes toward cameras, I’m interested to read Bagby’s statement on cameras relationship to transparency and management. It also is a clear indicator that no external factor will dictate the outcome of this experiment. Only mental stress upon Burns will end the confinement prematurely. We wait either for nothing or for total disaster. By occupying this box (at considerable risk to himself) Burns embodies the fact that confining others to solitary results either in absolutely nothing or in the complete destruction of the spirit.

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Photo: Daniel Stier, from Ways of Knowing, 2015.

A couple of my fav photo-peeps are hosting a live online chat today about photography and science in the modern era. You can be involved. Michael Shaw of Reading the Pictures and independent curator Marvin Heiferman are putting on a salon conversation to analyze a group of ten news photos of “science” of one guise or another.

Panelists include Rebecca Adelman UMBC Professor of Media & Communication Studies; Ben de la Cruz, Multimedia Editor, Science Desk, NPR; Corey Keller, Curator, SFMOMA; Kurt Mutchler, Senior Editor, Science, Photography Department, National Geographic; and Max Mutchler, Space Telescope Science Institute, Hubble Heritage Project manager. Nate Stormer, University of Maine professor will moderate.

The ten photos were selected from thousands of media images.

“If photography was invented,” writes Shaw, “so that the sciences could communicate with each other, now it’s as much about making that investigation relevant to consumers, investors and alternately curious, fearful or enthralled citizens. This discussion is interested in science as a social agenda and a media phenomenon. It’s about the popularization of science, the attitude and approach on the part of science toward its own activities and what the general public sees of it.”

It will be fascinating. The salon is free but registration is required. Register here. Kicks of today December 1st, at 7 pm EST and will go for 2 hours on Google HangOut with live audio, video and with involvement from the public via live chat.

The discussion, jointly produced with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is a featured component of SEEING SCIENCE, a year-long project that explores the role photography plays in shaping, representing, and furthering the sciences.

Sign up here.

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Screengrab from the Los Angeles Times’ interactive feature Should California execute these 749 death row inmates?

Pursuant to recent posts about California’s potential bellwether ballot vote to repeal the death penalty and about the grouping portraits of men executed by the state of Texas, here’s an important interactive feature from the Los Angeles Times on the 749 prisoners on California’s death row: Should California execute these 749 death row inmates?

Thirteen prisoners have been executed in California since 1978. A tiny figure in contrast to the 728 men and 21 women currently on its death row. With 749 prisoners, California has by far the largest number of capital convictions of any state.

The Los Angeles Times provides a close look at each condemned prisoner and the crimes that put them on death row. Crucially, for me, they’re using photographs (mugshots) of each as the entry point into the cases. This is a deliberate attempt to put a face to the statistics. I wouldn’t say it is humanizing, but it does hammer home the individuality of each prisoner. Even with each prisoner represented by only a small thumbnail, it is a long, long scroll through the portraits. The effect is chilling. There are a lot of lives at stake and they are, effectively, in our hands. The title Should California execute these 749 death row inmates? is a direct challenge to each of us.

As I outlined earlier this week, California has two competing initiatives on its ballot, Prop 66 would expedite executions whereas Prop 62 would repeal the death penalty replacing it with Life Without Parole (LWOP). For me, Prop 62 is not an ideal solution as LWOP is just another form of state-delivered death, yet Prop 62 could be a step in the right direction if future campaigning against LWOP succeeds. And it does get California out of the business of killing its residents.

In light of this vitriolic, shambolic and bilious Presidential campaign, I guess I’m also relieved to see images that are related to criminal justice being used responsibly and without spin. Of course, that’s what we should expect from journalism. The tone of this news treatment of mugshots runs counter corporate circulation of mugshots for personal, financial gain, and the abuse of people in mugshots by public officials. (Thankfully, Maricopa County in Arizona has ceased its ‘Mugshot Of The Day’ public humiliation exercise).

What do you think about the LA Times’ use of these photographs to inform public debate? Do they help California voters decide?

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Richard Wayne Jones was convicted and sentenced to death for the February 1986 kidnapping and murder of Tammy Livingston in Hurst, Texas. Photographed on Aug. 2, 2000, executed Aug. 22, 2000 (AP Photo/Brett Coomer)

Rian Dundon, photo editor at Timeline, has pieced together 20 years of Texas Death-Row Portraits, a photo-gallery depicting some of the men executed by the state of Texas since the early eighties. The images are made by a host of photographers down the years working for the Associated Press (AP).

“As the only non-local news organization with a guaranteed seat at every execution, the AP is granted special access to prisoners, and as a result the agency has accumulated an unusual set of portraits made shortly before inmates’ executions,” writes Dundon.

Never intended to be seen in aggregate, Dundon argues that the portraits assume a weight and significance when brought together. Prisons are a time capsule so regardless of who is shooting, the visiting booths, prison issue uniforms, standard spectacles and prisoners’ pallid skin are constants throughout. The lighting is artificial adding to the sense of unnaturalness in which the subject and photographer operate. Dundon makes comparison to lauded photographers of our time.

The portraits are uncanny for a wire service. Eerily intimate, carefully composed. There are echoes of Robert Bergman or Bruce Gilden,” he writes.

If art exists here, I’d argue it is not in the individual portraits per se but in Dundon’s grouping. A whole greater than its parts. Looking into the eyes of these condemned men provides a view into the soul of a nation. Here’s a gallery of American vengeance. An album devoted to violence in response to violence.

Ryan Richardson of Evergreen State College put together this lil’ promo video of Prison Obscura.

Install shots here. The larger Kept Out/Kept In program at Evergreen.

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Martin Luther King faced criticism from clergy leaders in Birmingham Alabama for his direct actions in “their” town in April 1963. They saw him as an outsider (King was based in Atlanta, GA) and as an agitator. They asked him to refrain. He did not. He led a civil disobedience action against the businesses in downtown Birmingham and was arrested for it.

From jail, King wrote a letter explaining why an “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It was a phrase he’d repeat many times. Letter From Birmingham Jail became one of the key texts of the Civil Rights Movement. Al Jazeera contends that the letter set the tone for the movement and paved the way for the March On Washington four months later, in August 1963.

In April, 1963, King wrote from jail:

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Read the letter in full here.

I did some internet digging and turned up these images of King’s 1963 arrest.

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King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy (left) led a line of demonstrators into the business section of Birmingham, Alabama on April 12th, 1963.

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Abernathy and King are taken by a policeman, Birmingham, Alabama, April 12, 1963.

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And then at Montgomery County Jail, this mugshot. You can see the date 4.12.63 in the lower right.

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And later in the jail.

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1958 + 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama

Sometimes the image below is thought to be from the same day. But it is in fact from 1958. The same Montgomery County and likely the same jail.

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King wore a white shirt on both occasions, in 1958 he also wore a tie, beige suit and hat. In 1963, King showed up (knowing he was going to be arrested) in jeans and a denim shirt over his white shirt.

As for the mugshot below, you’ve seen it … or at least versions of it. You may not be familiar with the exact version below which has been *vandalised* with a biro scrawl of the date of King’s death.

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This image here is a copy of the original file that was kept at the Montgomery Sheriff’s Department. In 2004, a deputy rediscovered the files of King and his fellow protestors from 1958. Therefore, prior to 2004, only unscrawled versions of King’s mugshot circulated.

When one pauses to think about this, it’s quite curious. And it’s quite perverse. Who scrawled on MLK’s mugshot? Someone on the Montgomery County Sheriff’s staff returned to the archive, ten years after the photo was made, to write upon the mugshot that the subject was dead.

Was this standard practice? I doubt it. Say for example, someone gets in a fist-fight, in some year in the late ’50s, in some part of Montgomery County, and was booked into jail. Then suppose, for arguments sake, that that same person died a decade later in another state. It’s not likely the Montgomery Sheriff would even know, let alone direct her or his staff to doctor an archived booking photo. Which leads me to believe that an employee took it upon themselves to return to the file to annotate the photo.

What a strange and disturbing act. Was it born of self-directed stupidity; a procedure by a bureaucrat going the extra mile to fill-in all known information in the crudest of manners? Does the act reflect a disdain for King? Keep guessing; it’s likely we’ll never know who scrawled all over this significant photographic document of the Civil Rights era.

ONE MORE THING

On today, Martin Luther King Day, may I also recommend Wil Haygood’s piece Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall and the Way to Justice.

In considering these two visionaries, Haywood outlines who then, now and our future relate. Amidst the current Black Lives Matter movement–when debate about the effectiveness (and speed) of change brought about by protest vs. legal process–is at the forefront, it pays to consider the lives of MLK, a non-violent and civil disobedient leader, and Marshall the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.

IN THE ARENA

The Prison Rodeo at Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka Angola Prison) is a controversial event. Is it an opportunity for the prisoners to be more than invisible bodies and maligned felons, or is is gladiatorial and the worst of capitalist exploitation? I veer toward the latter but I’m not inclined to yell too loudly at those that err toward the former. Indeed, as Lee Cowan find out for CBS, even prisoners hold conflicting views.

I’m posting this here because I think in 8-minutes Cowan is about as fair as fair can be on this topic.

ARCHIVE

Articles on Prison Photography about Angola, the prison I contend is the most photographed in the United States.

My own visit: The Visual Culture of Angola Prison

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Reporting on the prison industrial complex requires many tactics of approach in order to sustain audiences’ attentions and emotions. For all the constant misery, shame and violence the prison systems of America mete out, that relentless mood of defeat cannot dominate the flow of reported stories. Prisons are scary enough without giving people added fatigue and an easy option to turn away from stories heated the same beat-down drum. I guess this applies to all serious issues and is why human interest stories exist in journalism.

Human interest stories are great, but they have their place. Within the prison system are human interest stories ones that journalist find or are they ones fed to them? We’re headed into the weekend here and the sun is up so I don’t want to be a debbie-downer but I want to flag this contested context before celebrating Grant Blankenship’s latest human interest story, Say a Prayer for the Barber.

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Anthony Ponder spent many years in prison in Georgia. He was released on August 18th. Not knowing where to go he spent his first night out asleep in the truck outside his uncle’s house. While he was inside he was the prison barber.

“Population barber. So I’ve got plenty of practice. Unfortunately.”

Anthony wasn’t afforded much help when he got out form the state. But two churches in the town of Macon, GA did; Centenary Church and Vineville United Methodist Church gave him clippers, scissors and a chair and a space to cut hair. Every Sunday morning, Anthony cut the hair of men.

Every Sunday morning, Anthony cut the hair of men who are making the transition, as he did, from prison or jail back into society.

“I was attracted to the story because of its simple reciprocity. A man is given a hand up and he returns the favor,” says Blankenship. “I was not assigned the story, but when I heard about Anthony I jumped on it pretty quickly.”

The full piece, including audio is titled Say a Prayer for the Barber. Recommended.

Anthony’s “shop” is located in Centenary Church which works with a number of men, providing transitional housing and other services. Eric, an organizer at Centenary, asked Anthony if he would like to volunteer but Anthony couldn’t imagine how to without the gear he had had before his incarceration.

“So Mr. Eric, we had a conversation he said he had a way that he could buy all the tools for me if I worked so many times cutting hair he would donate them to me,” recounts Anthony in Blankenship’s story.

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Blankenship a staff audio and visual reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting is at the forefront of highlighting, through images, the issues of incarceration to Georgians.

“Public policy regarding former prisoners is shifting,” says Blankenship, who stresses he no expert on prison issues. “For example, my community of Bibb County, GA recently adopted a ban questions on job applications about felon status in an attempt to make hiring practices more immediately meritocratic.”

At the state level, new programs are slowly being introduced to aid returning citizens’ reintegration into communities and the wider economy. I’ve heard anecdotally, from photographers who’ve worked in Georgia’s prisons, that they’re below par, threatening and without significant programs. Georgia’s prisons are overcrowded. Reentry efforts will have to be redoubled to scale back on the damage done by an out of control system.

“Time will tell how those efforts pan out,” says Blankenship of reentry projects.

The state is making moves toward accountability.

“Though it has yet to be tested, a bill passed this year is touted as making the parole process, and even the granting or denial of clemency for death row inmates, more transparent,” says Blankenship who reported on the vague language of a new death penalty pardons bill here and here. “We are in the midst of a subtle but perceptible cultural shift. That’s the eight mile high view.”

 

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In the mean time, we can hope for the best for Anthony and other men and women rejoining society after long stints away. Thanks to some imaginative thinking on the part of some church leaders, Anthony can connect with others in one of their most difficult moments.

“I want to give him some hope. Like I have. That’s my aim. Give him hope. Let him know there is hope. There’s a better way. If he’s down and depressed and discouraged, let him know there’s a better way.”

It’s an uplifting story, but returning to me opening caution. We must remember that people make it out of prison and stay out in spite of the system not because of it. As heartwarming as Anthony’s story is and as easy it is to connect with his warmth and generosity, we must not be distracted from seeing the larger systemic inequalities at play that.

That said, Blankenship’s cracking images and Anthony Ponder’s words of wisdom are the hook by which we are all snagged. And here we are talking about Georgia’s prisons.

The story was only positive for Blankenship. A joy to work on.

“I am grateful to Anthony for sharing so much with me for no good reason,” says Blankenship. “I’m left wanting the absolute best for him. He’s a kind man.

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Read and listen to Blankenship’s full report Say a Prayer for the Barber.

 

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