Maria Maldonado cries hugging Ethan Arbelo, 12, as he transitions into death on July, 3, 2014, in Lehigh Acres, Fla. “In those last minutes when you know your son is taking those last breaths, all you’re doing is praying for death for you too because you can’t imagine life without your baby,” Maria said.


I was recently asked by EyeEm to select a neat piece of storytelling I’d seen in the past year or so. I thought back to Dania Maxwell‘s piece Little Man.

Here’s what I wrote.

One story from the last year that really caught my eye was Dania Maxwell’s Little Man, the story of Ethan Arbelo, who was ten when doctors diagnosed him with terminal brain cancer. This is the story of Ethan’s journey from boy to young man and his pursuit of happiness along the way.

Stories, particularly extended news stories or human interests profiles of individuals with terminal diagnoses are relatively common, but here Maxwell found in Arbelo a subject that really took the message, the impact and the emotion of the work to a new level.


Reggie Iacono, right, helps Ethan Arbelo, 12, choose a poster for his bedroom while out for a boys’ day on February 21, 2014 in Fort Myers, Fla. Reggie, the son of one of Maria’s friends, moved in with Maria and Ethan in January to act as Ethan’s caregiver for a few months while Maria was back at work.

Arbelo was between childhood and adulthood and so his bucket list was a hotchpotch of thingssome very predictable and others very surprising. For example, the photo of the woman kissing him as an 11-year-old is seriously dicey, but then you must remember that the things we see in the photos are things Ethan had discussed with his mother beforehand. Some dying wishes could be attained and others not.


Ethan Arbelo, 11, kisses Ashley Schroeder at a mud park named, The Redneck Yacht Club on May 25, 2013, in Punta Gorda, Fla. Ethan’s mom took him to the mud park as a compromise after Ethan had asked for a stripper for his 12th birthday. It was the first time Ethan had kissed a girl. “It felt like ice cream melting on my tongue,” he said.

Furthermore, over the course of the images we see the changes in Ethan’s body; we witness his death in pictures. But in each frame his personality bursts through. The story in each frame trumps the desperate circumstances Ethan is in. In that sense, Maxwell has achieved what all good photography should attempt to doto really capture the subject’s spirit. Maxwell does this without trivializing, or patronizing, or sugarcoating.

The images are made in the spirit that Ethan wanted to live out his life; they’re optimistic and try to hone in on the common optimism we all surely have.


Two days after Ethan Arbelo died, Maria Maldonado receives a tattoo of a drawing Ethan made with their initials just before losing movement in his hands, at Ink Cafe on July 5, 2014, in Cape Coral, Fla. “This way he is always with me,” Maria said.


I think our future will be better if we start to agree as a community what storytelling is. It seems now that the term storytelling is a descriptor for everything. The term has been diluted. Are casual Instagrammers storytellers? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Is Humans Of New York storytelling? Yes, but the captions do the telling and the photos are not needed. Are selfies storytelling? What about still portraits? Storytelling has become a synonym of too many things to the point I don’t know if we’re all on the same page. For me, this is to storytellers’ and audiences’ detriment.

I’d like to see more long term projects and deep reporting and less throw away image making. I’d prefer one year long well-researched story than 3 or 4 in a year. I want to see huge silences on photographers’ social media, because then I know (I hope?!) they’re away reporting. Let’s make images to make stories visible, not just to feed the channels and try to stay visible ourselves.


I think the GIF, and to a degree the looped video have huge untapped potential for telling stories in a clever way. Brandon Tauszik’s Tapered Throne is the best example I’ve seen of GIFs being used for documentary purposes but there’s all sorts of applications. Get over cat GIFs and memes and there’s a lot to be made, told and discovered.


Taylor Glascock’s feature of Little Man on Vantage: Dying Couldn’t Stop Ethan From Living.

Read the selections of four other photo editors much more expert than I: 5 Leading Photo Editors on the Most Powerful Storytelling Today


I mean really, at this point, what should we expect? I’m getting sick and tired of centrist, rightwing (and older) Americans ignoring the wonderful examples repeatedly set by youngsters about humane ways to treat one another.

Latest example? In Arizona, the students of Prescott College, a small liberal arts school focused on environmental education, recently voted by a huge majority to initiate a $30 added charge to their annual tuition fees. The $15,000 that will be raised is to pay for a scholarship for one undocumented person to attend the college.

It’s laudable. It’s community minded. It’s called the Freedom Education Fund.

A few things to note first.

  • This was a student led initiative.
  • No faculty or administrative body foisted this upon the kids.
  • This is a relatively small gesture: This fund will assist one teenager from an estimated 65,000 undocumented high-school graduates each year. (Only 10,000 of those graduates enroll in college each year.)
  • This is a massive gesture in Arizona, a state in which voters approved Prop 300, a 2006 ballot measure, that prohibits students from paying in-state tuition and receiving federal and state financial aid if they cannot prove they are in the U.S. legally. Prescott College, a private institution, is exempt from the law which polices only public colleges and universities. Here then, relatively privileged kids are acknowledging and acting upon their privilege. This is Millennials being global citizens. Meanwhile the powerful in our world are hoarding and secreting cash left, right and centre!

Really, what is wrong with rightwing media like Fox and Breitbart who cast this empowered and beautiful move by students as a “levy” and a sneaky, “mandatory” subversive maneuver? What are right-wingers so fearful of? What whinging, narrow-focus on the world do you grip when youth solidarity bothers you but bloody-minded racism you let pass? What small world does one inhabit, if youngsters’ kindness to one another is cause for contempt?

Hurrah, kudos and all the very best to the students at Prescott College. Don’t listen to the haters and don’t let them distract you from the love you bear, the values you hold and the structural tweaks you make in the cause of social justice.

More at Mic and Phoenix Times.



There’s a massive prison labor protest in the offing.

If plans go according to plan, a coordinated and rolling series of shut downs will begin September in prisons across the United States.

Prisoners are staging the walk out to protest “wages” as low as 20cents/hour. Even well paid prison jobs rarely pay more than a dollar an hour, before deductions. (The top earners in the Federal Prison Industries and UNICOR earn $1.15/hour, before deductions).

Supporters of the strike are arguing that prison labor is modern day slavery. I can’t argue with that. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, also maintains a legal exception for continued slavery in prisons. It states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”

I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of prisoners work in prison factories and the like. 21,000 alone work in the Federal system.

Prison labor is not an issue entirely ignored by artists. In the past, Sheila Pinkel shone a light on the issue. Currently, Cameron Rowland is doing the same.


There are many grievances prisoners have with their detention. If outside society humors any of them, it usually humors calls for safe and sanitary conditions. Rarely, do you find outsiders calling for fair and equitable pay for the 40 hour weeks (or more) that prisoners work for pennies on the dollar. We make calls for secure and clean conditions because we’d not want to suffer squalor. Why then can we not make calls for the abolishment of legal slavery in the form of prison labor? Perhaps because we can imagine the smell of a putrid cell tier, but we cannot picture what prison work looks like?

Well, prisoners do everything from stuff mattresses to refurbish wheelchairs; make school dinners to shape Wendy’s and McDonald’s beef patties; stitch Victoria’s Secret panties to manufacture US military uniforms. Prisoners work as outsourced and subcontracted labor for corporations such as Boeing, Whole Foods, Walmart, Starbucks and Verizon. Prisoners man call centers for any number of private companies.


Prisoners work as operators at a call center in Snake River Correctional Institution. Perry Johnson Inc., a south Michigan based consulting firm has employed SRCI prisoners for over a decade. Little has been published online about the SRCI call center in recent years. Here’s a 2004 article about it.

Prisoners organizing the strike are not making demands or requests in the usual sense. They are calling each other to action in the hope that coordinated refusal to work will cause the prison industrial complex to creak so significantly that the nation will notice.

If critical mass is achieved, creaks and cracks will occur. A significant portion of America’s prison systems are built upon the cost savings, management philosophies and bottom line economics permitted by prison labor.

The planned action is essentially a good old strike, but of course, the repercussions for prisoners could be much more severe than the average worker: lockdown, solitary confinement and/or infraction charges that might jeopardize future parole.


On Sept. 9th, 1971, prisoners shut down and took over Attica, New York’s most notorious prison. A total of 43 people were killed in the Attica prison riots—one of the darkest chapters in American penal history.


Prisoners and their supporters can take heart and inspiration from prison strikes in recent years. The most well known would be the Prisoners Hunger Strike in California (2011-2013). The Free Alabama Movement in 2014 work stoppage garnered much attention. As did the 2010 Georgia Prison Strike. Hunger strikes at Ohio State Penitentiary, Menard Correctional in Illinois and at Red Onion Prison in Virginia flew under the radar of mainstream press. In December, women prisoners at Yuba County Jail in California joined a hunger strike in solidarity with women held in immigrant detention centers in California, Colorado and Texas.

Some actions have already kicked off in Texas.

There are many threads to the argument against prison labor, but none is better than outsiders making the leap to demand an end to exploitation that they would not tolerate for themselves or their loved ones. Remember, work programs and industries often operate in replacement of legitimate education and rehabilitation services.

Learn more at the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.

Download the 2016 National Prison Strike pamphlet here.


UPDATE: You can get stickers these ways


The ability to ignore the human rights abuse that is mass incarceration is built upon millions of small omissions, denials, and blind eyes turned. A group of students and faculty from Parsons The New School are pointing out to fellow New Yorkers one such omission.

Rikers Island, New York city’s main lock-up, is an institution beset by problems–including but not limited to environmental hazards, beatings by guards, juvenile solitary, predation, inadequate healthcare, suicide, abominable pre-trial conditions and more. On any given day it holds. Consensus is building that it is a jail that cannot be reformed and must be closed.

Ignominiously, Rikers Island jail is iconic. In a strange and depressing way, it represents NYC. Other icons for the Big Apple invariably include other structures: Empire State Building, The New York Public Library, Rockefeller Building, Statue of Liberty, The Metropolitan Museum.

The system and graphics that connect NYC’s important sites and buildings is the MTA subway map. Again, no less iconic. The subway map is ubiquitous; it is a powerful dictate of information. The subway map shapes knowledge.

Estefanía Acosta de la Peña, Laura Sánchez, and Misha Volf, graduate students at The New School, and creators of #SeeRikerswrite:

The MTA and Rikers Island have a complicated relationship. Over the years the massive jailing complex has fallen on and off the subway map. An erratic absence, today Rikers Island is labeled on station maps but not inside trains, on digital versions but not in digital kiosks. #SeeRikers stickers are a simple way to acknowledge this erasure.

Whether an accidental oversight or an intentional omission – we believe it’s important to recognize a place that confines nearly 10,000 people each day and effects the lives of many more New Yorkers. So as you make your way across the city – on your morning commute or evening transfer – please help us put Rikers back on the map.


You, me, anyone can be part of a rapid, insurgent and widespread correction. Acosta de la Peña, Sánchez and Volf have developed a sticker that riffs on the MTA “You Are Here” arrow. The sticker de-centers the map.

“Whereas the MTA’s label serves as an individual way-finding tool, ours signals a collective void,” say Acosta de la Peña, Sánchez and Volf.



Stickers will be passed out during the Bernie Sanders Rally at Washington Square Park on Wednesday, April 13th

Stickers will be handed out at the #CLOSErikers rally at City Hall.


1. If you are a New York organization working on criminal justice reform email  info[at]itsamademademademadeworld[dot]com and stickers can be delivered.

2. If you are an individual, visit the States of Incarceration Exhibition at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (66 Fifth Avenue at 13th Street, New York, NY) now through April 24th.

3. DIY. Use the #SeeRikers Print Files and print on clear sticker paper.

Follow #SeeRikers on Twitter.


CAS_PeteBrook3.10 V5 copy


Taj Mahal and train in Agra, 1983. Credit Steve McCurry

I had a disagreement with a friend last week about whether Teju Cole writes well about photography. I think he does. My friend thinks he’s a very talented writer and critic but much prefers Cole’s books above his criticism. We agreed to disagree and left it at that.

I don’t know what the final verdict on Cole will be, but I sure did enjoy his skewering of Steve McCurry and Coldplay—bland, bland men—in a single article. For me, it only strengthens the argument that he’s a good writer on photography.

From A Too-Perfect Picture

In McCurry’s portraits, the subject looks directly at the camera, wide-eyed and usually marked by some peculiar­ity, like pale irises, face paint or a snake around the neck. And when he shoots a wider scene, the result feels like a certain ideal of photography: the rule of thirds, a neat counterpoise of foreground and background and an obvious point of primary interest, placed just so. Here’s an old-timer with a dyed beard. Here’s a doe-eyed child in a head scarf. The pictures are staged or shot to look as if they were. They are astonishingly boring.

[McCurry’s] photographs in “India,” all taken in the last 40 years, are popular in part because they evoke an earlier time in Indian history, as well as old ideas of what photographs of Indians should look like, what the accouterments of their lives should be: umbrellas, looms, sewing machines; not laptops, wireless printers, escalators.


The song [Hymn for the Weekend] is typical Coldplay, written for vague uplift but resistant to sense (“You said, ‘Drink from me, drink from me’/When I was so thirsty/Poured on a symphony/Now I just can’t get enough”). […] The video is a kind of exotification bingo, and almost like a live-action version of Steve McCurry’s vision: peacocks, holy men, painted children, incense. Almost nothing in the video allows true contemporaneity to Indians. They seem to have been placed there as a colorful backdrop to the fantasies of Western visitors.

It’s not so much the point that McCurry is old-hat, but that the point is made with so much panache. If I’d written such luscious take downs, I’d cart myself into retirement, all happy-like. Good stuff.

Cole, however, has other ideas. He’s not opposed to outsiders taking photos of India. He points out that Mary Ellen Mark made telling portraits of prostitutes in Mumbai which presented, with a new sensibility and focus, an ignored community.


Kemps Corner, Mumbai, 1989. Credit Succession Raghubir Singh

Ultimately, the article is a celebration of Raghubir Singh, who is the best example of an Indian photographing India. The article is Cole’s call for us to (permanently?) redirect (all?) our energies from the photographs of McCurry and those of every fetishizing (white) (usually male) photographer who has mimicked McCurry, toward the photography of practitioners such as Singh and other cracking Indian photographers. Cole names them: Ketaki Sheth, Sooni Taraporevala, Raghu Rai and Richard and Pablo Bartholomew.

I mean, really, in a world replete with images made by folks in every corner of the globe, is there any defense for the space taken up by McCurry?

Read A Too-Perfect Picture

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

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

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

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

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

Can’t argue with that.

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

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

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

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


Earlier this month, in Portland, Oregon, a coalition led by immigrants and refugees, successfully campaigned to see the city cut its ties with prison profiteer Wells Fargo. At the same time, in Los Angeles, Black students moved California State University Los Angeles (CSULA) to divest from private prisons and reinvest in services for Black students.

These victories follow on the heels of the divestment by a $25M endowment fund from the University of California and Columbia University’s decision to divest fully from prisons.

These victories demonstrate the sweeping effect that committed and targeted activism can have. Dismantling the prison industrial complex requires paradigmatic shifts, brave thinking, millions of small + incremental fixes as well as massive, infrastructural disassemblage. These divestment victories are such disassemblage, and they show that committed individuals can pressure institutions and civic authorities to enact transparency and moral judgement when it comes to invested monies, endowments and assets.

These victories feel like, if you will, a bright spot on the yard. Moments of illumination.

I’ve watched with great admiration as the divestment movement has grown in the past few years. A lion’s share of the good work has been done by Enlace, an alliance of low-wage workers, unions, and community organizations in Mexico and the U.S. Enlace’s interest began with the growth of privatized immigrant detention facilities (Under the rubric of homeland security, Federal laws have changed, and the detention of people without papers has grown exponentially.)

But of course, the capitalism and social fear that gives rise to ICE prisons, has the same roots as that which gave rise to the tumorous growth of state and federal prisons over the past four decades. Of all the factors that drive the growth of the prison industrial complex, money is the most pernicious and, perhaps, the most invisible. Enlace targets the cycle, intends to interrupt the flow of finance and influence.


Photo: Pete Shaw


Currently Enlace has offices in Portland, OR; New York, NY; and Los Angeles, CA. The organization has identified key targets within the cycle of exchanged goods, ideas and policy. From the Enlace website:

Private Prisons

Two publicly-traded companies dominate the private prison market in the U.S.: Corrections Corp of America (CCA) and GEO Group (GEO). CCA and GEO are notorious for abusing inmates, understaffing, and committing fraud at their for-profit prisons and detention centers. Both lobby the government for contracts and for policies that promote mass incarceration and immigration enforcement. In 2012 alone, they netted $3 billion of our taxes and spent over $1.8 million on lobbying and campaign contributions.

Million Shares Club

33 major investors own nearly all CCA and GEO stock. Each of these 33 investors owns over 1 million shares of private prison stock, so they have a huge stake in the growth and success of the prison industrial complex. With the financial and political support of the Million Shares Club, CCA and GEO are able to successfully lobby for policies that increase government demand for private prison, like “tough on crime” laws and criminalizing immigrants. We must sever the financial ties that allow shareholders to cash in on the incarceration of immigrants and people of color.

Local Institutions

Most of us are invested in private prisons–our universities, cities and faith institutions are invested with the Million Shares Club, which has no portfolio screen preventing the investment of our money in for-profit prisons. Some states, universities, cities and pension funds are even directly invested in CCA and GEO. It is unconscionable that our local institutions are using their investments–our money–to profit from and promote mass incarceration and immigration enforcement. We call on our local institutions to divest!


Federal politicians have the power to stop private prisons. Members of the Budget and Appropriations committees have the most power to cut off funding for wasteful contracts with CCA and GEO, and for inhumane immigration enforcement policies. 
Unfortunately, many politicians take lobbying and campaign contributions from GEO and CCA. Others have assets in the Million Shares Club. Many politicians have both. We’re working to make private prisons a toxic liability, financially and politically.

Activism to stymie the ease with which corporations and politicians can exploit economically and socially disadvantaged communities is thrilling.

And it’s free! You can investigate private prison investments in your community and launch your own campaign. Map it here. More resources here.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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