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Sandra Whyte is no stranger to prisons. Married to a prison officer, she has lived in prison quarters for the past 35-years–first at HMP Dungavel and later at HMP Peterhead. Now closed and functioning as a museum, HMP Peterhead is most well-known for a protest and hostage-takings in 1987. Most recently, Whyte and her husband have lived at HMP Shotts in Lanarkshire where these photographs were made.

“Most of my married life has been caught up with prisons; husband working in them, all my neighbours working there too,” says Whyte who thinks of the prison and prisoners as part of her community.

“The original prison was purpose built in 1978 and catered for long term male offenders with sentences of four or more years,” explains Whyte. Prisoners who required to be kept in more secure conditions were transferred from other prisons.

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Whyte and her children would stop while walking the dogs in order to chat with prisoners who were tending prison grounds.

The original Shotts prison buildings operated until 2012 when they were completely demolished. Simultaneously, new blocks were going up—“a modern and much more economic and environmentally friendly group of buildings” says Whyte.

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During construction, Whyte chatted to the contractors and got on good terms with the site manager.

“Once the old prison was emptied and the prisoners had been transferred to the new one, I got permission via the site manager and the Governor to gain access with my camera,” says Whyte. “I felt it needed documenting, it would have been sad just to demolish what was a huge part of so many people’s lives without keeping some sort of record of it.”

Whyte made hundreds of images, but here on Prison Photography I selected an edit of 26 which focuses on the external fabric and internal adornment—be it murals, signs, paintings, graffiti or scrawls. In these splashes of colour, small vandalisms, personal touches and sectarian declarations, Whyte finds evidence of individuality.

“I suppose [living in such proximity] has affected the way I view prisons and prisoners, I do see them as members of the community,” she says. “The graffiti shows something about the people who lived there.”

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And for those that live there Whyte thinks prison works for some and not for others.

“If people are treated in a humane way and given opportunities and support then yes, perhaps prison can help the majority?” she posits. “Certainly, we have to incarcerate people who are a danger to society. I’ve chatted to a fair few lifers over the years—murderers and rapists—who agree that they had to go to prison for their crimes.”

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Being so close to the institution, or the operations and staff of three institutions at least, leaves Whyte reluctant to gauge the Scottish public’s attitude toward prisons.

“I don’t think I can comment really on the attitudes of members of the public to prisons/prisoners, my view is probably somewhat skewed.”

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All images: Sandra Whyte

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The Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville held the first open house for family and friends of inmates on Christmas Eve, 1977. The warden, Donald Bordenkircher and staff worked with the inmates to improve morale and make repairs to the facility. The event was successful and it was continued through 1984. © Jay Mather

2016 has been a very different year. I staved off some early-to-mid-career wobbles by taking a long walk and then stepped back into society just in time for the United States to descend into its own special horror show.

I was in Phoenix the night the satsuma-catastrophe won the electoral college vote. The clerk at the gas station voted for Trump. She told me her brother had served in the US military for 13 years, serving four tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. She had heard that Russia would initiate WW3 if Clinton was elected president. She believed Trump had good relations with Putin and so she voted for him so her brother wouldn’t be killed. The premise, the abandonment of logic, the separation I felt from her, her certainty, my certainty … they were all just really depressing. We were so far outside of reality nothing seemed solid or reliable, not a nod, not a discussion. Not there, not then, as the Michigan returns came in.

I don’t know what to say about 2016. Half of the US + 2.8 million know it was a catastrophe. The remainder are gonna figure out the catastrophe over the next four years.

The day after the election I said:

“History’s greatest leaders tend not to be elected politicians; they are most often people working in communities for the protection of their rights, the advancement of compassion, the resistance to gross concentrations of power and toward common sense. Trump is an ass-hat. We’ll see how bearable or utterly toxic things become in the next few months. All the while remember your own agency and don’t underestimate your own power.”

That still holds.

I’ll continue doing what I do, which is to write about the images and contexts which speak to the great injustices and abuses that occur daily in America’s prison industrial complex. I wish you calm, breathing, nourishing food this holiday season. I wish you strength, creativity and community in 2017 to take on, and thrive in, this confounding, challenging, bizarre world.

I’m spending the first half of 2017 in England. I’ll be back in the US to join the show in June. Love to you, be good, be smiling. Champion others and volunteer your time and resources so that you may be closer to your neighbours.

Happy hols.

A note on the image: I was pleased to discover Jay Mather‘s series Christmas In Prison which documents a family day at the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville on Christmas Eve, 1977. It depicts a moment when prison administrations were willing to make efforts to accommodate the emotional needs of prisoners. It’s strangely old-school; the dinner is held in the massive stone cellblock. Family events these days are in visiting rooms or other communal spaces. Mather’s pictures seem so unlikely when set against modern day’s sterile, cinder block rooms that function to control visitors and prisoners. See Mather’s full 62-image series here.

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I’m getting my vote for ‘Photobook of 2017’ in very early. It goes to a title not even made yet. And I’m biased. The book, manchester MODERN is authored by my brother, Richard Brook.

The illustrated field-guide to Modernist architecture in Manchester, England is in production but Rich and designer Vaseem Bhatti are after some extra cash to make the thing sing. The Modernist Society is raising monies on Indiegogo.

The exciting development here is that they’re producing a collectors’ edition with a custom-formed concrete cover. Yours if you back the project with £111.

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My brother’s been photographing Manchester for 20 years and has, almost accidentally, become the expert on the city’s mid-to-late-20th century buildings. He’s no pro with a camera but he knows a bit. As for the text, his academic chops cannot be denied. The website of his decades of research is at www.mainstreammodern.co.uk

Go on, throw some money in the pot.

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Three years ago, I spoke with photographer and filmmaker Karen Ruckman about her work as a photography teacher in Lorton Correctional Facility, an infamous prison in Virginia used to house men from Washington D.C. until it was shuttered in 2001. At that time, Ruckman was in the midst of producing a documentary film about the photo program. Well, now the film is complete. It has toured in the past few months, but can travel further and into the future.

From the working title InsideOut, the film is now being distributed as In Lorton’s Darkroom. Early reception has been extremely positive with screenings in Washington DC and Chicago at the Injustice For All Film Festival. Now the hard work is done, Ruckman and her team is keen to get the documentary seen. Are you a supporter? Would you like to do a screening? Get in touch with Ruckman and discuss possibilities.

This photo project was extremely rare and as far as I know the last program of its kind in an adult mens prison in the United States. The film depicts what we have missed in the past couple of decades. Despite this, the film radiates hope and shows us the bright spots on the yard. It fires the imagination.

Follow on In Lorton’s Darkroom through its website and its Twitter, Tumblr , Instagram and Facebook channels.

 

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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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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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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.

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