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Sadie Barnette‘s exhibition Dear 1968 is an exploration of family and political history. Barnette uses sketches, family photos and selections from the 500-page FBI file on her father, Rodney Barnette, member of the Black Panther Party. Dear 1968 is an extension and reworking of her earlier show Do Not Destroy which focused exclusively on the COINTELPRO surveillance of her father Ronald over a ten year period.

“Barnette’s family story is not theirs alone,” says the press release. “Examining the fraught relationship between the personal and the political, the everyday and the otherworldly, the past and the present, she reveals that the injustices of 1968 have not yet been relegated to the pages of history, but live on in new forms today.”

Good stuff.

If you’re in or near Philly, catch the mainline out to Haverford and catch the show at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College.

 

 

Dear 1968 is in conjunction with the symposium “The Black Extra/ordinary,” which will be held on October 6th/7th at Haverford College, exploring the poles of black representation in historical archives, social media, fine arts, and other arenas.

 

 

 

 

 

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“I would like to receive a photo of the new world trade centre buildings, in whatever stage of rebuilding they’re in. A nice view from a nearby building would be nice. Could the photographer take the photograph from a nearby rooftop?” Terrence’s request answered by Anthony Tafuro for Photo Requests From Solitary.

Author’s note: A little under two years ago, I was quite rattled by a new contribution to the ongoing Photo Requests From Solitary project. At the time, I thrashed out some ideas with colleague Gemma-Rose Turnbull, wrote a pointed response, and then let the essay vanish. I return to it here.

Photo Requests From Solitary (PRFS) is a collaborative project that uses art to illuminate the issue of long-term confinement in U.S. prisons. I’m a fan, but I felt that the 2015 collaboration between PRFS and Vice Magazine missed the mark. Since 2015, PRFS has fallen under the stewardship of Jeanine Oleson who has worked on its expansion in New York and California, partly during an artist residency at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. In May 2017, a new round of images made in response to requests from men and women in New York’s state prisons was exhibited at the Legislative Office Building in Albany, NY.

As far as I can tell, the 2015 Vice partnership and article and gallery (the focus of this essay) was the first, last and only time PRFS assigned the creation of images directly through a media outlet. I feel my arguments apply as well now as two years ago (not a lot of new PRFS material has been released). I wanted to tidy up my original essay and tweak it to reflect the moment now in mid-2017. I think the key inquiries below will always be critical to the assessment of the relevance and impact of Photo Requests From Solitary.

— Pete Brook, 10th July, 2017


DOES THE IMAGE MEET THE BRIEF?

Photo Requests From Solitary is one of the most imaginative, expansive and effective political art initiatives of recent decades. Launched in 2009, Photo Requests From Solitary (PRFS) was one project of many pursued by the grassroots activists Tamms Year Ten (TYT) in the campaign for the closure of the notorious Tamms Correctional Facility, Illinois; a facility purpose-built to house prisoners in extreme isolation.

The core concept of PRFS is disarmingly simple. TYT sent forms to men in solitary in Tamms. The form explained that they would make an image—real or imagined—for the prisoner to have in his cell. A prisoner could, in writing, describe an image, offer specific instructions, and return the form. TYT would then coordinate with outside artists to make each image and send a copy to the prisoner.

Founded in 2008, TYT employed multiple tactics to mobilize diverse constituents in the fight to abolish solitary confinement. I’ve followed TYT and PRFS since late 2011 when I met some of the organizing activists in Chicago. One of the impressive things about PRFS was that it was able to move adeptly between artistic and political spaces and it convincingly occupied both; its message and art moved to where it’d have most effect. As far as I know, PRFS collaboration with Vice Magazine’s “Prison Issue” (October 2015) was the first time images were made by a publication’s staffers and freelancers for the project.

When I heard about the partnership, I was curious, a little skeptical (I’ll admit) but mostly I was excited to see PRFS’s latest iteration.

Although PRFS was only one of TYT’s initiatives, it cannot be overstated how important PRFS was to the success of the group’s work. PRFS served both the needs of the men languishing in solitary confinement AND the needs of a public kept largely in the dark about the brutal conditions at Tamms Supermax. It provided an essential, constant and intriguing visual hook to TYT’s efforts; it kept the fight in the limelight. PRFS galvanized activists, forged solidarity with prisoners and kept the issue at the forefront of the public conscience. This three-birds-with-one-stone efficiency is the effectiveness to which socially engaged art projects aspire.

TYT worked closely with then-Governor Pat Quinn who, in 2012, proposed closing the facility. Tamms was shuttered in January 2013. (It needs to be noted that people in Illinois remain in solitary confinement in other wings of other facilities, but no longer is a facility designed solely for extreme sensory deprivation in operation in the Land Of Lincoln.)

That success did not spell obsolesce for PRFS, nor it’s radical methodology. People remained in solitary confinement in states across the U.S. In 2013, Tamms Year Ten partnered with Solitary Watch, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Parsons The New School, and the artist Jeanine Oleson to expand the project into New York and California. In September of 2013, with support from the Magnum Foundation and the Open Society Documentary Photography Project, Photo Requests From Solitary went on public view at Photoville in New York City.

Also in 2013, one of the founding artists of TYT, Laurie Jo Reynolds was awarded the Creative Time Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change, and in 2014 Reynolds received an A Blade of Grass Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art. A new genre—Legislative Art—was defined so as to describe the artworks of TYT and those of the same ilk. Legislative Art involves unglamorous admin, spreadsheets and letter-writing as much as it does poetry, poster-making and marching. Legislative Art strategically and creatively engages with government systems, with the intent to secure concrete political change. For those who had always wondered if art could change society, TYT seemed to provide an answer. Ask the 200 men moved out of extreme isolation. Art had changed their worlds.

All this is to say, TYT and PRFS are worth constant applause. They are also worth constant attention. We should analyze closely what PRFS puts out because due to the collaborative and decentralized nature of the project, contributions and results will vary considerably. Crucial to the ongoing success of PRFS is care surrounding its core principles. All this to say, it is right to judge when and how contributing artists meet the prisoners’ requests.

In a closed call, Vice photo editor Elizabeth Renstrom invited photographers who work regularly for Vice to contribute — including Jason Altaan, Edward Cushenberry, Fryd Frydendahl, Michael Marcelle, Keisha Scarville, Molly Soda, Anthony Tafuro, Ole Tillmann, and Vice photo-editor-at-large Matt Leifheit.

“I hired a blend of new and old contributors that I felt would best carry out their assigned letters for the inmates. I did this to make sure specific requests were sure to be completed,” says Renstrom, who was largely responsible for all the photography in the 2015 Vice Prison Issue.

I think some contributors succeeded. I think some failed. I think a couple failed spectacularly. For the simple reason that they did not meet the specifics of the requests, Jason Altaan and Fryd Frydendahl failed.

Frydendahl was asked, by Sonny, to provide an image of “a woman with a smile that shines as bright as the sun. Not a model type but an ordinary woman who, perhaps, enjoys every moment of her life. Who is not biased or judgmental towards anyone but full of love and compassion for everyone and everything.”

“A face-shot of a woman with a smile that shines as bright as the sun. Not a model type but an ordinary woman who, perhaps, enjoys every moment of her life. Who is not biased or judgmental towards anyone but full of love and compassion for everyone & everything.” Sonny’s request answered by Fryd Frydendahl for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

Judge for yourselves, but I don’t think the girl flashes a smile, nor does it “shine as bright as the sun”. The only warmth to be found in this image is that inferred by the yellow haze of the filter. I wonder what Sonny thinks?

Altaan’s case is less cut and dry. In a literal sense, he did photograph “a female in black leather pants w/ the same material stitches but a different color like hot pink all which can define her figures [sic] w/ a setting of orange and blue in the sky posted up next to a Benz (powered blue) in a park. Black female with hazel eyes.” But it’s clear that Altaan was unable to divest of his trademark 80s, glamor sneer and style.

“I would like a female in black leather pants w/ the same material stitches but a different color like hot pink all which can define her figures w/ a setting of orange and blue in the sky posted up next to a Benz (powder blue) in a park. Black female w/ hazel eyes.” Dan’s request answered by Jason Altaan, for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

Even temporarily, Altann could not put down his soft-focus cynicism. As with his other portraiture, Altaan has managed to match his disdain for fashion-shoot-charade with his clear infatuation with the playfulness of said charade. The skill of Altaan’s work lies in paying homage to the palette and poses of yesteryear’s beauty while simultaneously mocking the consumption, then and now, of versions of beauty. I think Altaan’s work is smart. That he is able to mock the industry as he climbs its rungs deserves applause but I just don’t think his signature look was what Dan had in mind.

“Our hope is that some of the [magazine] issue’s visuals, generated by and for inmates, offer a better understanding of the vagaries of the confined,” writes Renstrom introducing the Vice feature. All well and good, but only if we can conclude that the contributor’s image tallies with the prisoner’s intent. It’s possible that the Prison Issue’s visuals might derail understanding too. Assessing the level of understanding among audience is a difficult task but we can look closely at the images and ask if they appear to serve the prisoner or if they appear to serve the photographer.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not interested in the cheap-and-easy dismissals of Vice we see so often. This article is not of that nature. Vice draws plenty of ire for its tone but, as I have said before, Vice looks to be shedding the snark of its fledgling years.

Regarding the Prison Issue generally: I am a fan. I was grateful to see Zora Murff’s Corrections featured because the growing use of electronic monitoring is a relatively ignored issue in criminal justice debates. I was equally pleased to see Renstrom’s interview with Mark Strandquist about his numerous projects that nurture more sympathetic views of people involved in the prison system. Indeed, Renstrom told me she actively tried to get away from images made by outsiders to the issue. She succeeded for the most part.

On the success of individual images: I admit, it’s difficult to argue with any degree of certainty that the creative output of an artist does or doesn’t meet the visual imagination of a prisoner. Especially, when the medium between them is a hundred-or-so words, a few hundred miles, and all sorts of demographic distinctions. In the cases of Altaan and Frydendahl, however, I think I can structure an argument because their images appear to be closer to their existing artistic signatures than they are to the words of Dan and Sonny.

Friend and colleague Gemma-Rose Turnbull agrees. A specialist in socially engaged methodologies, Turnbull is currently writing a PhD on co-authorship models in documentary photographic practice.

“What I think has happened here is that the artists have not always connected to the fact that the prisoner is the primary audience,” says Turnbull.

She’s right. Photo Requests From Solitary is about process as much as it is about product. PRFS prioritizes prisoners’ visual escape and the process toward realizing their escape means ego, rules and wider expectations must be actively set aside. Easy to say; not always easy to do. Artists pride themselves on individual act and independent vision. Yet, for PRFS, artists operate, effectively, as functionaries. Artists serve the prisoners and serve the politics of the project. What we have to understand is that PRFS is a communication project, not a photography project.

“Images, here,” says Turnbull, “are supposed to help prisoners transcend solitary. Help them feel like they are being heard.”

PRFS is necessarily complex in structure because it attempts to connect people who have been forcefully disconnected by institutions and discriminations. In the absence of common shared media, PRFS builds images out of, and around, the issue of solitary confinement from which we discern our social responsibility and agency. PRFS uses imagery—as a seemingly innocuous thing—so that we might rally around it. Knowing the power of images, though, we realize that this project has been anything but innocuous. It changed political course in Illinois. Described in these terms, PRFS is owned by us all. The longer PRFS exists and the wider it reaches the more shared its possession. In these terms, the insistent artist signatures of Altaan and Frydendahl are out of place.

Of course, sometimes, the artist can just miss the point entirely. Terrence asked for a photo of the new buildings replacing the World Trade Center, shot from a nearby rooftop. Instead, Anthony Tafuro made a picture of the 9/11 Memorial Pool (top image).

In the plus column, Keisha Scarville and Edward Cushenberry met their requests well, I thought.

An African American family at a Thanksgiving/Christmas Dinner, background of kids graduation, sweet sixteens, grandchildren being born, family reunion, birthdays, funerals, church attendance, aspects of a family tree. Grandparents, mother, father and sons and daughters, cousins, wives and husbands. To show/express the unity and growth of family when times are good and bad. I MISS MY FAMILY, BEING THERE FOR THEM. Keith’s request answered by Keisha Scarville, for Photo Requests From Solitary.

“Can the photograph be of my daughter ‘Daddy’s Angel’? Her name is ________ 3 years old.” Christopher’s request answered by Edward Cushenberry for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

I’m not singling out Altaan and Frydendahl so we can all just wag our fingers. I’d like this critique to be instructive. As PRFS moves onward to California, New York and potentially other states, it will not be under the guidance of one hand. Each participant is responsible for understanding the premium placed on service that is core to PRFS. Tamms Year Ten fought against a single facility, but CA and NY have dozens of secure housing units between them. PRFS must maintain prisoners as its primary audience. Those outside prison walls are the secondary audience. Don’t forget that.

“The pictures offer a new way to think about people in isolation,” writes Renstrom. She is correct.

“We don’t see,” Renstrom continues, “what prisoners see, but what they envision. Taken together, these requests provide an archive of the hopes, interests, and memories of people in the hole.”

Think of that for a moment. It is a huge responsibility for a loose cadre of artists to collectively paint the imaginations of hundreds of prisoners. The VICE feature was picked up by The Daily Mail (a right-leaning UK newspaper with a massive online footprint) and featured by an Illinois NPR affiliate. We can presume that each time PRFS puts out new images, they’ll circulate … and they’ll speak, to some degree, for prisoners. It’s an uncomfortable responsibility for a loose cadre of artists to collectively speak for hundreds of prisoners. Uncomfortable because no set of images can stand in for the experiences and thoughts of millions of Americans passing through locked facilities each year. Uncomfortable because we know images are slippery and we know the stakes are high for incarcerated individuals, their families and for anti-prison movements. Uncomfortable because inherent to the method of PRFS is the surrender of decision-making power to the artist and, frankly, we don’t want the artists to fuck up. We like artists and we like the resistance.

To be fair to the Vice contributors, their first introduction to PRFS probably differed to most before them. Renstrom emailed Vice contributors 2 or 3 weeks before the Prison Issue went to print. That email may have been the first time they had heard of the project? By comparison, in Illinois, there was a longer familiarity with the project; word-of-mouth and IRL interactions brought most contributors to the table. Some of those that conceived of the PRFS project made images too. Furthermore, publication of their images was implicit in Vice’s ask, so this may have appeared, and felt, like a standard assignment from a national publication. Altaan, Frydendahl and co. can be forgiven for not realizing that Vice readership is the secondary audience.

Despite my call to criticism here, I don’t want to discourage future collaborations between publications and the PRFS coalition of Parsons, Solitary Watch and TYT. As much as ever before, we need both PRFS’s empowering engagement across prison walls and we need alternative visual reference points for our understanding of the prison industrial complex.

“It’s really important to highlight and promote art activism so people aren’t constantly seeing the same type of photography surrounding prisoners,” says Renstrom. Hear, hear. It is precisely because I’m a huge fan of the open dialogue, the beautiful complications, the equity, and the shared responsibility that are central to PRFS’s methodology that I pay the project such close attention. PRFS cannot become a schtick. It cannot become cultural fodder. PRFS must remain rooted to its co-authorship intent. The photographers have to know they’re making work for the prisoner first, the rest of us second.

“The litmus test must be: Does the image meet the brief?” challenges Turnbull.

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Hopefully not so simple as to forget.

Cunliffe Street, Chorley

Cunliffe Street, Chorley

THE DARK FIGURE

The abuse might be going on in your town. Victims may be under coercion in your neighbourhood. Slaves and masters may be on your street. If that sounds far-fetched take a look at Amy Romer‘s project The Dark Figure* and you’ll learn that modern day slavery is diffuse throughout Britain. In recent years, cases of contemporary slavery, forced work and forced prostitution have been detected and prosecuted in villages, towns and cities in every region of the UK.

While modern day slavery is more prevalent in developing nations, it persists in (what we in the West prefer to call) advanced democratic nations. In December 2015, the UK Home Office estimated that there were 13,000 victims of slavery in Britain. The government referred to the 13,000 as “the dark figure” from which Romer’s documentary project derives its name.

Romer has travelled the UK photographing the streets that her research has uncovered as sites of slavery. I encourage you to learn more about the cases the project covers here:The Dark Figure*.

Romer wants “people to be reminded of somewhere they have lived or visited; somewhere they feel safe.” Do these places look familiar? For me these places look very familiar. I spent my formative years drinking at a pub at the bottom of Cunliffe Street, Chorley (pictured above). In recent weeks, I’ve travelled through Burnley, Batley and Blackburn. During the project, Romer discovered that two traffickers facing prosecution in Plymouth lived one street over from her.

The Dark Figure* is not an easy project to face. It is insistent on revealing the nastiness in our midst. It holds considerable visual dissonance for British audiences particularly. The act of documenting is, for Romer, a form of witness. I wonder to what degree this work propels us to learn more about the hidden issue? I wonder if any victims of contemporary slavery would ever see it? There’s a lot to unpack here, so I was happy Romer was willing to answer a few of my questions. Scroll on for our Q&A.

 

Ash Road, Horfield, Bristol

Ash Road, Horfield, Bristol

Q & A

I expect there are so many sites of imprisonment, slavery and abuse. How do you choose which to photograph?

Sadly, where I photograph is largely determined by and limited to which stories make the headlines. The 2015 Modern Slavery Act has made prosecutions of modern slavery and human trafficking easier to conduct and so we are starting to see an increase in cases and subsequent media attention. However, due to the sensitivity of the such cases, police give very limited information to press for the protection of both victims and suspects. So I’m having to initially search for the stories through the press and then do some digging of my own via the police, The White Pages and Google.

The problem is that many cases will never be known to the press, to me or to the public generally. First of all, it’s a hidden crime so uncovering it in the first place is a significant challenge, which takes a huge amount of police resources and social care. Secondly, victims are often scared of authority and have absolutely no trust to give. They’ve been mentally and/or physically controlled and threatened and are entirely dependent upon their ”employer” or “gang-master”, so even when victims are recovered it is likely they will run away from police or from care, and in a lot of cases, will return to their gang-master or get picked up by another. And we’ll never hear about it.

Putting aside the disturbing limitations, I knew early on that the project would only become effective once I was able to present an abundance of cases, becoming a kind of bleak directory of U.K. modern slavery cases. So as long as I’ve been able to piece together solid and reliable facts and have been able to get to the locations, I haven’t been too fussy about which stories I pick. It’s been more important that I capture the diversity of the problems that exist in the U.K., and to try to communicate that sense of abundance.

SOAS, Russell Square, London

SOAS, Russell Square, London
Batley Field Hill, Batley, Kirklees
Bamfurlong Lane, Staverton, Cheltenham
Bamfurlong Lane, Staverton, Cheltenham

 

What are the strengths and shortcomings of the image (as a medium) in the face of this issue?

The image of modern slavery is in most cases a troubling one. It’s hidden nature makes its reality very difficult to photograph. Instead, we tend to find images made to represent slavery, using actors or “symbols” of slavery such as hands tied with rope or a person trapped behind bars, which are not only inaccurate but are damaging to the understanding of the issue.

We may be exposed to photo stories of sex trafficking or labour exploitation in other countries, but we need to show people its right here in the UK with real pictures of real stories.

How do you describe the photographs?

There is nothing notable I can say about these images on their own. Perhaps that they are deliberately quiet. It is only when coupled with their stories that the pictures become something sinister, at which point the viewer can reconsider the world they thought was safe and familiar to them.

My ultimate goal is to spur a realisation in the audience that such crimes are likely to be happening much closer to home than they imagine.

Ringwood Road, Bournemouth

Ringwood Road, Bournemouth

You explained in the Multimedia Week podcast that when you first approached people you had the idea, the will, but not something tangible to show; no images to share. Then you went out and just started making photographs to demonstrate your commitment and skill. Can you explain how and why that order of events helped or hindered the project.

There’s no right or wrong order of doing anything. But in my case, it had to happen in that order for me to understand the reality of the work I was proposing, and to then move forward with alternative ideas. But you never know with these things until you try. All it takes is speaking to the right person and you don’t know who that person is. (I still don’t!).

I was very lucky at the beginning and experienced a great deal of openness from Devon and Cornwall Police, which possibly led me to believe others would be just as forthcoming, but I came to realise this wouldn’t be the case, which I think is fair enough. Why trust me? The problem is, I’m still battling with the access I want – but this is all part of the job.

What I will say though, is that when I started making photographs I felt a huge sense of relief. Even for someone who relishes in research, I very much reached a point where I just needed to pick up a camera and go shoot.

This style of photography was very different than what I’m used to so it was a very interesting process for me and one which allowed me to continue research from a more positive perspective, as I started shaping my ideas and understanding of the subject through pictures.

Brougham Street, Burnley
Brougham Street, Burnley
Wentloog Avenue, Peterstone, South Wales
Wentloog Avenue, Peterstone, South Wales
Farrier Road, Perivale, Ealing
Farrier Road, Perivale, Ealing

Have you spoken to survivors of modern slavery?

I have. I had one guy reach out to me via Facebook having seen my project. We’re in conversation about working together long distance.

Previous to this, I had been trying to reaching out to NGOs for access to survivors, but had found that even after I had received a “yes” from a number of them, and months worth of email and phone communication, access would eventually be denied for the protection of the survivor(s). Of course, this is understandable and I would refuse to knowingly harm or prolong the process of recovery for any survivor, but I’m not always convinced the refusal has been a decision that has involved the survivor. I think NGOs sometimes struggle to appreciate the impact of a story told first-hand, compared with stories told by actors or through written case studies, which is what readers will usually experience. I’m not sure it’s enough to really reach people.

How do you assess public opinion in Britain on the issue of modern slavery?

“Modern slavery? What’s that!?”

The problem doesn’t just end with the lack of public awareness of modern slavery itself, but deepens with dangerous misunderstandings about the differences between terms such as “sex exploitation” and “sex work”, or “human trafficking” and “smuggling”, for example. These misunderstandings are only intensified when Europe finds itself at the centre of a migrant crisis, tangled with terms such as these that are freely distributed across the mass media.

Hathway Walk, Easton, Bristol
Hathway Walk, Easton, Bristol
North Street, Bedminster, Bristol
North Street, Bedminster, Bristol
Peckford Plce, Brixton, London
Peckford Place, Brixton, London

Are the police doing good work?

There is a lack of consistency throughout the country. I have been largely based in Devon and Cornwall, where their Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, is the UK policing lead for modern slavery, making the South-West surprisingly ahead of the game … for a game that is very far behind.

The 2015 Modern Slavery Act has certainly helped raise public consciousness and agencies are beginning to make good use of the Act. More victims are being identified than ever before. In 2015, 3,266 potential victims were identified and referred for support, a 40% increase on the previous year. There have been an increased number of proactive and reactive police investigations with an increased number of prosecutions and convictions.

But despite stand-out examples of good practice, there is still a lack of consistency in how law enforcement and criminal justice agencies deal with modern slavery. Training for police officers, investigators and prosecutors is patchy and sometimes completely absent. There is also an insufficient amount of intelligence about the nature and scale of modern slavery at regional, national and international level, which hampers the operational response and ability to build knowledge and learn from mistakes.

Union Street, Plymouth

Union Street, Plymouth

Which organisations are doing work to advocate and illuminate the issue?

There are many organisations both big and small. It’s difficult to pick on individuals as I’ve become biased towards or against my own experiences, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the organisation as a whole.

I find it hard to truly know how impactful NGOS are. They seem to all be chasing money from the same pot and in some cases are actively working against each other for their own benefit.

But, to shine a positive light on something I know for sure: several NGOs act as “first responders” under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the government framework which grants 45-days of “reflection and recovery” for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. In this inexcusably short period of time, victims are expected to give evidence of the horrors they have experienced to feared authorities so that “trained decision makers” can announce whether they are to be considered victims of trafficking. During this period, first responders provide housing and support for victims; so if by some miracle a victim feels compelled to recount their experiences to the police, it is surely all thanks to the outreach specialists supporting them.

On a less positive note: this 45-day period given by the government’s NRM, reflects the lack of understanding surrounding the issue. Even if an organisation has been made fully aware what their client has been through, if they do not wish to testify within 45-days, they are not considered victims and their support cannot continue. What will happen to the victim after 45-days? If they are not deported back to the country they were likely escaping from, they will probably end up back within the trafficking system. This is very challenging for support workers and NGOs and I salute all their efforts.

Spa Road, Bolton
Ford Park Road, Mutley, Plymouth
Ford Park Road, Mutley, Plymouth

You’ve already made a newspaper. What else lies in store?

I think something I’ve had to learn the hard way is that it’s all very well making things for a project, but unless anyone sees it, what’s the point?

The reason I made the newspaper is because it would be cheaper to produce and easy to share with the community. People sometimes tell me it would look great in a book. Fine, but who is actually going to buy it other than photographers? In fact, who is going to fund it should be my first question, but it is not my first concern.

My focus for now and for the near future (at least) is to raise awareness. The work needs to be published, and the newspaper needs funding to be printed and shared in the community. It’s a slow game but I’m working on it.

How long do you intend to work on The Dark Figure*?

I’ve slowed the project for the moment as I’m currently in a state of transition, having recently moved to Vancouver, Canada with my partner for his work in science.

Saying that, I’ve had a few fresh ideas for The Dark Figure* since being over here, which I plan to follow up remotely. But naturally, I want to focus my attention towards Canada specific projects whilst I’m here for a few years.

There’s so much more work to be done and that’s partly why I felt comfortable placing The Dark Figure* to one side, as I have no doubt I’ll be exploring new avenues for it in the future.

Longworth Street, Preston
Portugal Street, Holborn, London
Wheelers Lane, Linton, Maidstone, Kent

What has been the reaction to The Dark Figure* so far?

From the people I’ve reached out to, the reaction has been very good. There have been flurries of people contacting me to buy the zine or the newspaper, mostly from the UK but also Europe, which is great.

There has been some valid criticism from news based editors explaining why they would find it difficult to publish, which I’m working on overcoming. My writing needs to be fact-checked in order to be publishable.

Also, outlets need to know I haven’t trespassed. I have never trespassed–there is no need. The Dark Figure* captures the surrounding neighbourhoods, not the actual property in question, and I’m always on the street.

Walker Street, Rawmarsh, Rotherham

Do you ever get overwhelmed? Depressed? Are you hopeful? Talk us through your self-care strategies.

I am cynical and can be full of doubt, all the time. But for me, these stories are about human survival, and despite being totally fascinated by it all, it’s what gives me hope and drives my work forward.

Tragedies exist everywhere, and I don’t think that’s a difficult idea to grasp. But what is difficult, is to believe that such tragedies are happening right in front of us. And I don’t just mean modern slavery. Domestic abuse, addiction, mental health issues and so on, are all issues that can largely exist behind closed doors. By attempting to shine a light onto a truth that otherwise may not be acknowledged, I am doing something useful and positive. It’s a self-care strategy in itself.

Saying that, the news can sometimes overwhelm me when I’m thinking specifically about this work. The migrant crisis. Immigration. I wonder whether the government’s efforts to “face up to modern day slavery” is just another way of deporting the unwanted. Europe is becoming more and more tangled with problems and I wonder what effect it will have on human trafficking, for example. 10,000 refugee children are missing. Where have they gone? Something tells my cynical mind, like all hidden tragedies, we won’t find out the easy way.

A sombre note on which to end. Thank you for sharing your work and thoughts, Amy.

Thank you, Pete.

Be sure to follow The Dark Figure* project on dedicated Twitter and Instagram feeds. Follow Amy Romer on Instagram and Twitter

 

Smart Street, Longsight, Manchester

texas

Still from video of a TDCJ officer firing a tear gas canister at a group of prisoners from just several metres. Source: ABC

If you’re in any doubt about either the power of images or the vindictiveness of prison authorities then consider this story.

Elderick Brass, a former Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) officer leaked a video in May 2015 that showed a Lychner State Jail guard firing a tear gas canister into the chest of a prisoner. The video appeared in an ABC report in August 2015.

Indicted by a grand jury in December, Brass is due to appear in court February for “misuse of official information.” The law states he could face between 2 and 10 years if found guilty.

WHY THE PUBLIC EXPOSURE?

TDCJ has already admitted the improper use of the tear gas gun, but it has not sanctioned the trigger happy guard, let alone terminate his employment. Not wanting to cause itself problems, I presume, the TDCJ is hoping the matter will be forgotten and the retraining of staff it says it has done since will prevent a repeat event. Usually, the authorities want stuff like this to go away as quietly and as quickly as possible; for it to get out and off the news. One wonders then what the prosecution of Brass does? It certainly brings the video back to public attention.

Assuming that the TDCJ are willing to tolerate the scrutiny afresh, one must conclude that they really want a prosecution for the purposes of intimidating whistle-blowers and putting staff back under the order of command. They’re bringing the boot down especially to quash internal leaks of misconduct and injustice. They’re accommodating the continued circulation of this video in order to preclude the future circulation of others.

Worth noting is that the video on ABC includes only the incident and the moments leading immediately up to it. There is a longer video depicting the before and after and giving more context to the altercation between prisoners that gave rise to this nervy cop’s point-blank violence. Get the full context of the video and the TDCJ response in the ABC August 2015 report.

NEW VISUAL PARADIGM

Between whistle-blowers, FOIA requests, court materials, leaked CCTV and contraband cellphone vids there is a wealth of visual material emerging from the Prison Industrial Complex that describes the system very differently to the descriptions of professional photographers.

Whether the video and images are amateur, operational or prisoner-made they tend to share a grain and a noise. Characterised by awkward angles, low resolution, ambient cacophony and muted tones, prisoners’ illegal vids resemble surveillance footage. Prisons and jails give rise to horrific conditions and in some ways all the images and videos in what I’m referring to as a new visual paradigm are horrifying too. Often, if a video comes to our attention it is due to the violence or injustice it includes.

Even within images and videos in which abuse is not explicit, our eyes are being trained on the aesthetics and, crucially, the psychological and existential threat of incarceration. I’m thinking this through as I write.

I’ve not put into words fully, yet, what the emergence of this distinctly new type of visual evidence means. I expect it’ll function in the courts and for journalism as it always has; to construct, confirm and dispute narrative. And so, I guess, I am more interested in what it means for us as citizens.

Are we aware that more and more of the visual representations of US prisons and jails are shifting toward raw, unpolished feeds captured by wall-mounted cameras, body cams and illicit phone-cameras?

As we are exposed to this new type of imagery do we process it with the narrative its given to us through news and Internet alongside ads and comment boards? Do we take empathetic leaps to imagine all experiences within the scenes of abuse played out on our screens? Do we appreciate that events in one prison, at any moment, may be repeating in hundreds of the other 6,000+ locked facilities in the U.S.?

Visuals are one of the key ways outside-citizens learn about prisons. They are a key tool with which authorities–and increasingly prisoners–tweak their narratives for public consumption. Being a engaged citizen means to approach this new paradigm armed with information, skepticism and visual literacy.

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In a massive 3×9-metre grid, Daniel Schwartz‘s Corrections (above) tiles a satellite view of every facility in the United States’ federal prison system. It’s a literal but effective means to describe the frightening scale of mass incarceration. If we bear in mind that the federal system houses approximately 210,000 prisoners, which is less than one tenth of the total prison population in the US only, then Corrections assumes an even more terrifying edge.

Schwartz created the images, I presume, by means of a customised script based upon the publicly available Google Map API. GPS coordinates inserted into the customised script allow for an automatically captured a satellite view and .jpg of sites (prisons in this case) when the script is run. I make this assumption because this was Josh Begley’s method in creating Prison Map, a similar project.

Corrections presents 1,218 facilities, about one fifth of the 6,000+ locked facilities in the US–including state, county, private and immigration prisons. To present all of the types of all of the United States’ prisons facilities would require a lot of wall space and a lot of double-sided sticky tape. I know this because as part of the Prison Obscura exhibition, I printed 392 images from Josh Begley’s Prison Map. and put them on walls. (See the heavily illustrated point below)

 

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Prison Map, part of the exhibition ‘Prison Obscura’ at Haverford College, PA

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Prison Map, part of the exhibitionPrison Obscura’ at the University of Michigan, MI

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Prison Map, part of the exhibitionPrison Obscura’ at Parsons New School, NY

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Prison Map, part of the exhibitionPrison Obscura’ at Scripps College, CA

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Prison Map, part of the exhibitionPrison Obscura’ at Newspace, Portland, Oregon

It was my intention to provide a visual backdrop to the computer/screen/console in the gallery at which people navigated Prison Map. Begley had, up to that point, never printed out the images from Prison Map (he did later make and sell large fine art prints), but physical objects were never the primary purpose of the project. Rather, Prison Map was an experiment how Google Earth could be manipulated to produce an image-set based upon a dataset; an experiment in how a corporation’s empire of images could be bent toward a social justice conversation. I’m speculating on this because I wonder if, after the point of automated capture, Schwartz intended to print out Corrections and stick it on a wall? There are arguments for doing so as valid as those for maintaining it as a virtual user experience. I should give Schwartz a phone-call.

I mention this, also, because there are other parellels between the work of Schwartz and Begley. In tackling the issue and enormity of the US/Mexico border, Begley made the film Best of Luck with the Wall and Schwartz made two accordion books. Both stitched together staellite images that tracked the entire border. One virtual, one physical.

On the topic of gun use, Begley made Officer Involved, which automatically captured Google Street View (GSV) scenes of the sites in which law enforcement officers killed a citizen, and Schwartz made Death By Gun, which maps firearm homicides in Los Angeles County carried out by citizens.

Both Schwartz and Begley are interested in tempting users to reimagine their smartphones’ purpose. Both are interested in having content “enter” the phone in real time. Once installed the Death By Gun app automatically saves the auto-generated images to the camera-roll. Begley’s MetaData+ app sends push notifications to your phone each time a confirmed US drone strike occurs.

Unsurprisingly, these two artists who are connecting the dots between non-human camera operation, emerging datasets and power as it relates to cyber-infrastructure, are both peering at surveillance too. Begley’s Profiling.Is usurps the photographs made by the NYPD during covert surveillance of Muslim owned businesses in New York City. While in Geo-fragments Schwartz uses GSV to automatically compose collages of sites a person (I presume himself) travels to over a 24 hour period based upon the GPS data *broadcast* by his smartphone.

What Now Then?

I’ve discussed the work of Begley and Schwartz at length because I feel they’re heading toward some very fruitful areas in which state and corporate power is challenged, if not subverted. We would do well to follow. Sure, putting the real estate portfolio of the Federal Bureau of Prison on a single wall makes for a stark visual argument–how can you not be effected by prisons filling your entire field of vision? Especially when each tile is only 4×6 inches and still the entirety towers over you.

Bringing the virtual into the real world can be a very canny strategy as Bernie Sanders showed recently in his commandeering of a Trump tweet and printing it out for the house floor. But visual effects work only in one place at one time. By contrast, superpowers’ surveillance and data gathering is non-stop. Consider that a citizen has the capacity to manipulate Google’s benign platforms but the US military has the power to plug in any data set of coordinates and launch a thousand drone strikes.

Beyond the information war in which art is essentially engaged against state and corporate malfeasance, art clearly has limited power. It is here that hacktivism and cyber-insurgence emerge as both tactic and necessity. Begley and Schwartz’s artworks reveal the gross concentrations of power inherent to astronautic surveillance but they do not fight it. They alter public perception of the oppression, but not the apparatus of oppression. Cyber-sabotage that downs, damages or compromises the apparatus is the front line of the fight. What does that mean for artists? Is hacktivism now the most crucial form of resistance? Is hacktivism art? Just spit-balling here.

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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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It’s not even December, but I’m getting my pick for photobook of the year pick out the way early. My choice for 2016 is the Apple Cabin 2016 Calendar by Sean Tejaratchi.

Advertising is super-weird, but our eyes and minds quickly become accustomed to its garish agenda. We are exposed to 5,000 ads daily. We ambulate through three dimensions constructed from image-planes urging us to buy buy buy.

Some ads are ingenious, most are not, and most follow formulas. Tejaratchi tweaks the grocery-store insert formula with nasty little words and plucky phrases. He shows advertising to be the creepy thing it is. In the Apple Cabin calendar he takes a pop at foodstuffs that are luminous, canned, mysterious. As food-desertification checkers its way across the United States, we’re reminded that many Americans eat stuff closer to Soylent Green than fresh farm greens.

Tejaratchi undermines the footings to advertising generally. The ‘Apple Cabin 2016 Calendar’ is the anti-ad; the anti-Times Square; it’s the opposite of political pantomime; it’s a gross mirror to the fact an orange man-baby tantrumed his way to the White House by means of simplistic and fear-based messaging.

In a rather humorless year, thank god for Tejaratchi.

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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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