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Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Portraits of Purpose series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

ARE WE HITTING PEAK-PRISON-ART-SHOW?

Of course, I’m being provocative, but the rise and rise of prison criticism and reflection (and commodification) in the cultural sphere bears consideration.

Here is not an exhaustive list but a few examples — Life After Death and Elsewhere, curated by Robin Paris and Tom Williams at apexart; To Shoot A Kite curated by Yaelle Amir at the CUE Foundation; Voices Of Incarceration at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles; Try Youth As Youth curated by Meg Noe at David Weinberg in Chicago; Site Unseen: Incarceration curated by Sheila Pinkel; The Cell and the Sanctuary put on by the William James Association in Santa Cruz, CA; and my own Prison Obscura.

This weekend, Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives will end its 10-week run at the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art at Chaffey College in Southern California. Inside/Outside is a relatively large survey of prisoner art, prison photography and visual activism that brings together the work of Sandow Birk, Camilo Cruz, Amy Elkins, Alyse Emdur, Ashley Hunt, Spencer Lowell, Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), Jason Metcalf, Sheila Pinkel, Richard Ross, Kristen S. WilkinsSteve Shoffner, the Counter Narrative Society and students at the California Institute for Women.

It’s a great exhibition.

As many of the names in Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives are familiar, I felt a review by me would be redundant; it’d be dominated by applause to the committed artists I see as asking the right questions … because they’re the questions I’ve ask too.

Instead, I wanted to focus on the recent uptick in fine art exhibitions orbiting the issues of prisons.

Rebecca Trawick, Director of the Wignall Museum and co-curator of Inside/Outside and I were in touch a while before I realised that this should be what we should discuss. And how the cultural production of art around, and about, the prison industrial complex propels, inspires, derails (and much else besides) dialogue about mass incarceration in America.

Kindly, Trawick and her co-curator, Misty Burruel, Associate Professor of Art at Chaffey College accepted my invite to answer some questions. The Q&A is peppered with artworks from Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives.

Scroll down for our discussion.

Cruz, Camilo

Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Theater of Souls series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Why did you make this exhibition?

Rebecca Trawick (RT): Incarceration was an issue that I kept returning to in my research.

As a curator, I’m specifically interested in shedding light on important but difficult social issues through the lens of contemporary art. I love how artists can take an unwieldly topic and consider it thoughtfully, often personally, and in really compelling ways that allow the viewer a chance at transformation, or expansion of, thought and perspective.

Because we work at an institution of higher education, these exhibitions become a safe space to start difficult discussions about issues such as incarceration, and they become a tool to educate and inform. This kind of exhibition (if done well) can demonstrate the value of art to transform ideas, minds, and communities.

Misty Burruel (MB): Because it was a challenge. On the heels of a number of incarceration exhibitions in southern California that focused on works by incarcerated artists and artists confronting the criminal justice system, it was appropriate to look at it through the lens of education.

We are confronted daily with students that have either been incarcerated or have family who are incarcerated. It was time to have difficult discussions about the role of education in the penal system, our responsibility as citizens to each other, and how parolees reintegrate into yet another system.

Spencer Lowell, La Palma prison, Arizona

PP: Is incarceration a “hot topic” right now? Why?

RT: As Misty and I mention in our remarks in the printed takeaway, we seem to be experiencing a unique convergence of policy discussions in the US as well as popular culture interests, so we feel like the conversation is already happening in certain circles.

We hope our exhibition helps to expand the discussion and dig a little deeper into some of the topics looked at in contemporary documentary (think the recent Vice episode, Fixing the System, in which President Obama – the first sitting US President to do so – visited a federal prison) to the popularity of Orange is the New Black.

MB: Jenji Kohan’s, Orange is the New Black, portrayal of incarcerated women created a splash on Netflix and revealed through mass media the complexities of a system within a system. The women were all too real and relatable. We live in the Inland Empire and have two prisons at our footstep.

PP: California Institute for Men and  California Institute for Women.

Jason Metcalf, Cheeseburger, French Fries, Iced Tea (Dwight Adanandus), 2013, archival pigment print, 16 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

PP: Is Inside/Outside about incarceration or is it about the representation of incarceration?

RT: The exhibition is about the many issues surrounding incarceration that we hope our viewers will consider more deeply after viewing the work on view. Issues include the value of rehabilitation behind bars; juveniles in justice; death penalty, segregation, prison labor, and isolation as systems of control, among others.

PP: How did you select the artists?

RT: The Wignall Museum mainly draws from Southern California for practical reasons–funding limits us to local pickups mainly. In some cases (Kristin S. Wilkins, for example) agreed to ship the work to us so we were able to include her. We’re often limited regionally, which explains the SoCal bias. We would have loved to include works outside our region, if possible. (see next question for a list of some we would have included if possible.) The one thing I remind myself is that we’re not trying to be essentialist in what we portray or explore, but rather offer some really amazing work to assist us in digging a little deeper into the state of incarceration today.

MB: We are in a human warehousing gridlock. The works collectively focus on how the system of control does not discriminate (women, men, and youth detention).

Kristen S. Wilkins, Untitled #10. From the  series ‘Supplication’ (2009-2014) “Grand Ave. by Shiloh (Cemetery). Left side of water fountain. Has colorful wreath with flowers. It is where my son is @. He is the best thing that happened to me in my life. He was my world.”

PP: Were there any artists or works out there that you’d wanted in the show but couldn’t for whatever reason?

RT: Yes! Many. The list includes Deborah Luster, Dread Scott, Jackie Sumell’s The House That Herman Built, and Julie Green’s Last Supper installation all immediately come to mind. There were many others, but those three stand out for me.

MB: We wanted to have more guest speakers, but funding always seems to be a hurdle. We can certainly look at the issue, but we really wanted to talk about it.

PP: Really? From the outside that you had a phenomenal amount of programming. I applaud you. How important was programing around the exhibition?

RT: Programming is critical. Because we’re limited in many ways in terms of what we can show – due to spatial and fiscal restrictions – programming allows us to bring in experts in the field to further contextualize and expand the themes of the exhibition. It also allows community engagement and for other voices to join in the conversation, often in a public forum. That ability can’t be underestimated, I think.

MB: When the discussing an exhibition about incarceration we were most focused on programming. Rebecca and I are collaborative by nature and we were able to find others who were very interested in asking difficult questions within their own disciplines (Sociology, Philosophy, Correctional Science, Administration of Justice).

pinkel, sheila

© Sheila Pinkel

PP: I’ve been asked a number of times “Who are you (a white, cis-gender, male, college graduate) to speak to these issues?” Every time by a highschooler — God, I love them. Were you ever challenged over your role and/or position while putting Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives together?

RT: As a curator at an institution situated on the campus of a Community College I feel strongly that it is our responsibility to explore a wide array of topics in our exhibitions and to look from a place of diversity – diversity of media, content, viewpoint, race, ethnicity, etc. – and through the lens of contemporary art, but it is critical that we do so in a way that is thoughtful and multifaceted.

Philosophically we try to schedule our exhibitions and programs in a way that expand outside of our own limited perspectives. We also try to use multiple guest voices – guest curators, guest speakers, etc. to expand the discourse around an exhibition. But the long and the short of it is, I try to always be conscious of my privilege and to present diverse voices. That said, my own experience/perspective was never called into question during the exhibition planning or implementation phase.

MB: The college has wholeheartedly embraced the exhibition and its programming.

Amy Elkins. 26/44 (Not the Man I Once Was), 2011. Portrait of a man twenty-six years into his death row sentence where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.

You’ve said the response so far has been positive. More than other Wignall shows? More among the student body, or beyond? How do you measure response/success?

RT: This exhibition definitely has seemed to link to something that is personal and relatable for many of our students, faculty and community visitors, evident by the verbal responses and reactions we’ve seen in the galleries. We’ve held a number of panel discussions, engagement activities, a film screening, and dozens of tours. Unequivocally, discussions always seem to lead to the personal and comments suggest that the ability to discuss a somewhat taboo topic has been relevant.

MB: This work is incredibly personal and relevant to the Inland Empire.

 

PP: Can you see the successes and failures of the show already? Or is it too soon for that type of assessment?

RT: Success can be measured in qualitative and quantitative ways … (as of course, can failure). Due to the high level of programming, and the sheer number of student tours we’ve conducted, we can see an increased level of engagement. Our visitor numbers are up, the number of students speaking up during tours has increased a great deal, and the unsolicited feedback from students/faculty/staff we’re getting has been remarkable.

We also ask all students who visit us as part of a tour to fill out a short survey. Results won’t be tabulated until the close of the exhibition, but I feel the results will mirror the anecdotal evidence we’re seeing. As a curator, however, I’m always thinking about what we can improve upon – from the curatorial practice, to layout and installation, to printed collateral and programming…reflection is key.

MB: I think the museum does an amazing job of allowing artists to ask difficult questions and explore relevant social and political issues.

 

The Wignall Museum hosted workshops and discussion led by Mabel Negrete and the Counter Narratives Society.

PP: Anything you’d like to add?

RT: We hope that Inside/Outside and the many other excellent exhibitions and artists looking at incarceration with a critical perspective will encourage the questioning of the system as it is, and that it might even encourage engagement in our communities in ways that can make real change in the world.

Follow the Wignall Museum at Chaffey College on Facebook and Twitter.

In recent months, there’s been a number of interesting — and in some cases, urgent — photo stories coming out of prisons worldwide, that I’d like to draw you attention to.

ANDREW BURTON

Andrew Burton

Anthony Alvarez, left, 82, eats breakfast with Phillip Burdick, a fellow prisoner and member of the Gold Coats program at California Men’s Colony prison in December. Mr. Alvarez said he has been incarcerated for 42 years for a series of burglaries, possession of illegal firearms and escapes from county jail. He eventually got a life sentence due to three-strikes laws. Shown is Mr. Alvarez’s first day being assisted by the Gold Coats; he largely needs help with mobility. Mr. Alvarez tries to work out for a few minutes every other day. Mr. Burdick, 62, has been volunteering with the Gold Coats for more than 18 years and is the longest-serving member of the program. Mr. Burdick has served 37 years on a 7-years-to-life sentence for first-degree murder.

Andrew Burton‘s photographs of aging prisoners for the Wall Street Journal have been well-received. With one of the largest state prison populations, a history of long sentencing laws and inadequate healthcare, the old men and women have the odds stacked against them for a comfortable day-to-day living.

The percentage of prisoners 55 or older in the U.S. increased by more than 500% between 1990 and 2009.

Burton’s photos focus on the Gold Coats program at California Men’s Colony, in San Luis Obispo, which pairs younger, willing prisoners with older prisoners suffering dementia and terminal illness. In 1991, California Medical Facility created the first prison hospice program in the nation to deal with the AIDS crisis, and the hospice is now used for elderly prisoners who are terminally ill.

Great photos. Burton is realistic about the situation but seems clearly impressed with efforts there.

However, here’s some context. Ever since California’s medical prison system was deemed cruel and unusual and it was brought under federal receivership, the state has been making efforts to deliver specific facilities for health care. The largest was to open the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, CA. It is the largest medical prison in the world. At a cost of $840M it was supposed to solve many issues and provide care for 1,800 prisoners. Nothing is so straightforward. Since opening in July, 2013, it has been beset by waste, mismanagement and miscommunication between the prison and medical staffs.

Watch this space. Hopefully vast, vast improvements will ensue.

[Todd Heisler has photographed at the California Men’s Colony too.]

ANDREA WISE

Andrea Wise

Erika Roberts, 26, of Hartford is a factory worker, a dancer, a teaching artist, a worshiper, a mother of three, and a felon.

Photographer Andrea Wise soon realised that when lives are intertwined with the criminal justice system nothing is straightforward. From the millions of effected formerly-incarcerated millions, Wise’s Freedom Bound manages to tell the story of Erika Roberts on very humanising terms. And with touching photographs.

“Her story is both a simpler one – a quiet story of a young family just trying to do the best they can – and a more complex and nuanced story about life in poor urban communities where people grow up in and around trauma, where criminal activity and incarceration are commonplace, and where Erika’s story isn’t all that uncommon,” says Wise.

Freedom Bound explores Erika’s quiet determination and struggle to break the cycle of incarceration.

“Erika strives for more from life, for her children, and for her community,” writes Wise.

ANIBAL MARTEL

Anibal Martel

In 2012, Anibal Martel photographed inside Lurigancho Prison, the largest and most overcrowded prison in Peru.

“According to the National Penitentiary Institute of Peru (January 2012) Lurigancho has a capacity limit of 3,204 prisoners but it actually holds 6,713 with a ratio of one police officer to 100 inmates,” says Martel.

“With corruption, tuberculosis and drug dependency together with its appalling management by the state, the prison gained a reputation as one of the most dangerous prisons in the world,” Martel continues. “Today, Lurigancho is fighting to survive thanks to the internal organization of some prisoners and their work. These prisoners have managed to create a small, internal infrastructure that allows them to feed themselves and live a more dignified life.”

ERIC GOURLAN

Gourlan, Eric - Bishkek, Kygryzstan Juvenile Prison

French photographer Eric Gourlan voluntarily spent a month inside Kyrgyrzstan’s prison and documented life in two men’s prisons, one women’s jail, and a juvenile detention centre — all in the capital Bishkek.

Gourlan has published on Flickr photographs from the juvenile facility in Bishkek, Kyrgryzstan.

There’s a great interview with Gourlan on the Institute for War and Peace Reporting website. Gourlan explains that he gained access through valuable partnerships with State Service for Execution of Punishment (GSIN), the United States Agency for International Development, Freedom House, the OSCE Center in Bishkek, the GSIN Public Oversight Council and the Kyrgyz NGO Egel — a long list which gives us an idea of the importance of partners for this type of work.

“I would really like to commend the openness of [prison] officials in Kyrgyzstan – I could go almost everywhere I wanted,” says Gourlan. “The only thing was that in the first two days, I was accompanied by guards until everyone got used to me. But then I was given more freedom and practically could move around on my own. On some occasions, I ate with prisoners.”

Gourlan met some hardened criminals but also met people who’ve been victims of overly-punitive sentences.

“One woman told me that she had been in a very difficult financial situation and somebody asked her to transport 30 grams of heroin from point A to point B for 100 [US] dollars. She was caught and given 12 years in prison. She had never used drugs before, never sold them, and never got her 100 dollars, but she has been locked up for 12 years,” explains Gourlan. “Obviously I do not know if those stories I was told were true or not. But that was not why I embarked on this project.”

Eric Gourlan’s project was backed by Freedom House, the OSCE Centre in Bishkek, a local NGO called Egl, and the prison service in Kyrgyzstan.

More photos on l’Oeil de la Photographie and this video on Freedom House, a group in support of human rights in Kyrgyzstan.

ISABELLE SEROUART

Isabelle Serouart‘s rare photographs from within a prison in Madagascar were published by SoPhot. The images are small and embedded, but I also found this footage Serouart made of female prisoners singing.

“In a very confidential way record of women song in a jail in Madagascar,” says Serouart. “To sing is a way for her to survive together.”

DAVID RYDER

David Ryder

David Ryder, for The Wall Street Journal, made a video about the Prison Pet Partnership at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Washington is an interesting watch.

“The program allows inmates to learn job and life skills while providing kennel and grooming services to clients from the surrounding community,” says Ryder. “In addition, unruly dogs from other programs (who might otherwise be put to sleep) are able to have a second chance by entering the prison’s training program.”

This is a win-win for the women, the dogs, the prison administrators and the media. Despite prisons being a continual source of distress and latent abuse, the press always needs new angles — depressing stories don’t have the readership coming back. A human interest story about (wo)man’s best friend and redemption plays well, and we’ve seen them before. Here’s a couple more similar project in Florida and Colorado.

Another thing that makes me slightly uncomfortable with the story is that simultaneously, just over an hour south, detained immigrants were on hunger strike for their confinement in solitary and slow progress of their cases. Now I know, the state prison system and U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement are different authorities, but if we’re to look at lock-up in Washington State, I’d suggest we factor in ALL types of prisons and prisoners. ICE facilities remain the most inviisble.

The full WSJ story, to accompany Ryder’s video, by Joel Millman and with photos by Stuart Isett, you can see here (behind a paywall).

As an aside, the most interesting photography project on prison dog’s programs remains Jeff Barnett-Winsby’s Mark West & Molly Rose. After Barnett-Winsby had photographed the prisoner (Manard) and the program administrator absconded from the Safe Harbor Program and escaped from Lansing Prison, KS and went on the lam for 11 days. A weird tale of fact and fiction, manipulation and unsaid knowns. The investigating police acquired Barnett-Winsby’s photos because he had made the most recent images of Manard’s tattoos. Yet Manard had drawn false tattoos for the shoot predicting their use later following his escape. Twists and turns. No photographer can ever plan or predict such a bizarre story, or implication in it.

MAE RYAN

Mae Ryan

A child plays with his mother at the cafeteria inside The Community Prisoner Mother Program in Pomona, California. Mothers and their children live in open barracks shared with two other mother-child family pairs.

Mae Ryan‘s series on the Community Prisoner Mother Program in Pomona, California was one of the last assignment’s she made before moving from KPCC to The Guardian. And it is stand out.

Pregnant in Prison offers a look at a select group of minimum security prisoners who may live with their young children until the child turns seven years old. Mothers live with their children in rooms shared with other prisoners. During the day, children are enrolled in the on-site preschool and Kindergarten and mothers take rehabilitation and other classes.

In 2011 and 2012, 233 female prisoners gave birth while serving time in the California prison system. So, this program applies to only a tiny fraction of women suffering California’s prison system. It is a welcome, forward-thinking program. Psychological studies are unanimous that close bonds between mother and baby, from the earliest hours, are vital in sparking healthy cognitive and social behaviours. Why wouldn’t we allow incarcerated mothers the ability to raise their own children?

In terms of such residential programs, most (and there are only a handful) allow mothers and babies to be together until the baby is 2 or 3 years of age. Pomona is exceptional.

Let me be clear though, I don’t want to see more prisons with this type of program; I want to see less prisons with lesser need for these types of programs. I want to see community supervision instead of incarceration and if prisons must be used, then for them to be bursting with positive programs designed around the women’s needs. That said, the Community Prisoner Mother Program has many elements to inform better care.

ANONYMOUS GREEK PRISONER

Greece

An expose by a Greek Prisoner registered on American news consumers’ radar when Medium published the piece Greece’s Biggest Prison Is Boiling by Yiannis Baboulias. The photographs accompanying the piece were taken by a prisoner and were then published repeatedly through the Twitter account @kolastirio.

He also got his footage out:

The expose caused outrage.

Baboulias writes, “People suffering from HIV, tuberculosis, psoriasis, cancer and other serious diseases, are discarded like trash in common rooms where hygiene is an unknown term. Spaces designed to hold 60 people, now hold more than 200. Reports say that some of these diseases have already started spreading amongst the inmates, making the prison a threat to public health in the general area. As inmates report, when the staff realises someone is close to death, he is quickly transported to a hospital, so his death won’t be recorded in the prison’s logs.”

Given that the infrastructure of Greece is collapsing in the wake of it economic meltdown, how surprising is this neglect? Hospitals are having budgets cut by 25% so what chance have the prisons and prisoners in the grapple for resources?

In an update, Baboulias says that the prisoner that leaked the photos and video has been prosecuted and faced trial.

VALERIO BISPURI

Valerio Bispuri

Valerio Bispuri has photographed in 74 prisons in South America, over a period of a decade. I was grateful to find a short interview with him as part of Fotografia’s ‘Prison Week

“It was clear to me that  would have required a great time commitment when I realized that permissions to photograph in the prison were going to take months to obtain,” says Bispuri. “In a few cases I’ve had to wait for years.”

Women’s prisons are rarely any better.

“There certainly is anger in female prisons as well, which sometimes turns into violent attacks. Moreover, in most prisons, female inmates are denied the “intimate visit”, that is the possibility to have sexual intercourse with their husband or partner, which is instead granted to those male inmates who behave properly,” explains Bispuri.

The work has had some effect. Following an exhibition of Bispuri’s photographs, in Buenos Aires in 2009, in collaboration with Amnesty International and the Argentine Government, Mendoza Prison’s Pavilion N5 was closed down.

“Life conditions there were tragic,” says Bispuri.

Bispuri’s series Encerrados describes how hellish many of the facilities. He has had a knife held to his neck and infected fluids thrown at him as protest to being photographed. Still, Bispuri is sympathetic to the resolve of many prisoners.

Also, featured during prison week were photographers Stephen Tourlentes, Sergei Vasiliev and Amy Elkins.

AMY ELKINS

Amy Elkins

Amy Elkins recently won the Aperture Portfolio Prize for her projects Parting Words and Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night. Congratulations to her. I’ve written and thought extensively about both projects (for Huffington Post and for Daylight Digital, respectively) and in the wider context of Elkins’ approach.

Hope you appreciate these works and find something you like. Sorry this post is effectively an illustrated barrage of links, but we should be grateful there’s so much work being published! Let me know what you think of it all.

AmyElkinsPartingWords

Amy Elkins‘ latest body of work Parting Words is a visual representation of every execution in the state of Texas since the ban on capital punishment was overturned in 1976.

Parting Words was just featured on the Huffington Post, for which I wrote a few hundred words. That didn’t seem enough, so I asked Amy some questions about the project to gain a fuller picture.

Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): You made Black is the Day, Black is the Night (BITDBITN). Now Parting Words. Both are about the harshest imprisonments and sentences in America. Do overlaps between the projects exist? Are the overlaps visible? If so, is the overlap in your personal politics, in the project, or in both?

Amy Elkins (AE): I started the two projects in 2009 and am still wrapping up final details with each. Black is the Day, Black is the Night came first. Through the execution of the first man I wrote with for that project, I stumbled into Parting Words.

Parting Words has taken me a few years to complete and, even now, it remains a work in progress — currently the project has 506 images but it is updated yearly, growing with each execution.

The research behind it all, especially while writing to men on death row (two of which were executed during our time of correspondence) made reading and pulling quotes from the roster of those who had been executed in the state of Texas a dark, taxing experience. Not only was I reading through all of their statements, but detouring into description after description of violent crimes that land one on death row. Honestly, it felt too heavy at times.

PP: What was the impulse then?

AE: I was intrigued that the state of Texas documented and kept such a tidy online archive for anyone to explore. As a photographer (like many, doubling as a voyeur) I already had my own connection to the subject matter through BITDBITN, and I suppose I allowed my obsessive side to surface in order to create a visual archive. It was an important story to tell.

AmyElkinsPartingWords AmyElkinsPartingWords AmyElkinsPartingWords

PP: What are your thoughts on American prisons and the criminal justice system?

AE: Over several years of correspondence with five men serving death row sentences and two men serving life sentences who went in as juveniles, I have learned a great deal from the inside about what it is like to exist in the conditions of maximum security and death row units; what those units provide; and what they deny.

A system that uses long-term solitary confinement and capital punishment is broken. Housing someone in infinite isolation has been proven to be hugely damaging to one’s psychological and physical state. This type of isolation breeds behavioral and emotional imbalances that are bound to cause most to remain in a perpetual state of anxiety, depression and anger. Which means they are set up for failure. There is absolutely no way to rehabilitate in such conditions.  But clearly rehabilitation isn’t what they have in mind.

I have written with one man in particular who has served 20 years in solitary confinement as part of a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence for a non-murder related crime he committed aged 16. He has written about going years talking through concrete walls without ever seeing the men he holds daily conversations with. He spends nearly 23 hours a day in a small cell by himself and when he is let out, he is shackled and permitted to exercise in a slightly larger room by himself for an hour. How he’s gone 20 years in these conditions and not gone completely mad is mind blowing.

That said, most men that I wrote with serving death row sentences were in fairly similar conditions, some having served onward of 16 years in solitary confinement while waiting for their execution. Two of the men I have written with have been executed and through the experience of writing letters to them and in some cases reaching out to family members leading up to such events, I have seen how capital punishment seems to create a continuous cycle of violence, pain and loss within our society. It leaves not one open wound, but several. If there’s closure for anyone, it’s temporary. And unfortunately the loss that the victims family originally endured remains. But now there is a new set of mourners in the mix. The system seems so incredibly flawed and barbaric.

PP: Do archives for last words exist for those killed in other states?

AE: I have yet to come across an archive as in-depth and publicly accessible as the one compiled by the state of Texas.

AmyElkinsPartingWords AmyElkinsPartingWords AmyElkinsPartingWords

PP: Are you afraid of death?

AE: I think I’m more afraid of the physical pain associated with dying.

PP: Where do we go when our time is up?

AE: Sounds cheesy, but I think we stick around and linger in some capacity with those who love us the most.

PP: Given the images “read” very differently if the viewer is close or far away, what’s the ideal size for these works?

AE: Ideally I would like to show these images on a smaller scale but include all of them.  This forces an intimacy that I want, where the viewer has to get close to each image in order to experience the depth of the project.

PPAnything else you’d like to add?

AE: In both projects, I always remained neutral. I refrained from projecting my own feelings into whether I felt those I worked with or made work about were guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted. Making BITDBITN, I was more interested in hearing stories from those within prison systems in America, about the psychological state they might be in while in such conditions, while potentially facing their own death. I was interested in discussing with them what it was like to be removed from the world most of us take for granted, to lose memory by being removed from the source of memory, to not always have a strong sense of self-identity. I felt I hadn’t enough information to warrant my own judgment, and so, if I had projected any, neither project would have manifested.

PP: Thanks, Amy.

AE: Thank you, Pete.

AmyElkinsPartingWords

ELKINS ELSEWHERE

In December 2013, Daylight Digital published a presentation of Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night with an accompanying essay by yours truly. The 1,500 words were built upon a conversation Elkins and I began in late 2011.

AmyElkins

Today, Daylight Digital published a presentation (online and iPad App) of Amy Elkin‘s project Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night.

Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night (BITDBITN) is a collection of images, texts, letters, objects, quotes and ephemeral queries borne of Amy’s correspondence with men on death row and in solitary confinement. It is a project I know well having interviewed Amy about it in 2011 and curated it into the exhibition Cruel and Unusual in 2012. I’ve keenly followed the development of BITDBITN. In some cases, Amy and I bounced ideas back-and-forth about it when we lived in the same town. Amy and I are close friends and she once invited me to guest curate at Women In Photography. When Daylight asked me to write an essay to accompany the images and audio it was a no-brainer.

BITDBITN is about execution, time on death row, solitary confinement, sensory deprivation. It is also about the most invisible parts of America’s prison industrial complex. Amy grew up in California, the state that was first to operate a specialised solitary confinement facility at Pelican Bay State Prison. This past summer, as I was writing the piece, the California Prisoner Hunger Strike in protest of conditions in Pelican Bay and other SHU, IMU and solitary facilities was in full swing.

Amy’s work is our entry into this highly contested political territory; a territory that remains, for all intents and purposes, hidden. It is hidden because solitary makes people insane and is psychological torture.

Daylight Digital’s presentation includes the words of Freddy (spoken by Rafael Ramirez) who was sent to prison as a 13 year-old, has spent the last 20+ years of his life in solitary confinement, and with whom Elkins corresponded for four years.

I’m proud to have been invited to join this multimedia collaboration. See the images, listen to the testimony, read the words.

Jon Lowenstein

This is the third and final post about Photoville. We’ve had the beginning, the middle and so now, the end.

Of the two dozen photographers in the show, only three had actual objects (Sye Williams’ darkroom prints, Jane Lindsay’s bottle caps and Deborah Luster’s tintypes). Given the cost and hassle of shipping, it was decided that the re-used Noorderlicht exhibition prints would not be returned.

I was given instructions to destroy all prints.

It occurs to me that a lot of people don’t talk about this aspect of contemporary exhibition-making. It’s not really sad to see them go, because they never belonged to anyone. They only belonged to the show. And besides, knowing they were to be destroyed, I put most of them up with double sided sticky tape, so there was no preserving them after that ultra-adhesive abuse anyway.  Super-strong magnets are hardly kind to bare prints either!

We do plan to travel Cruel and Unusual (make Hester, Noorderlicht and I an offer!) and as such we’ll see shiny versions printed again.

Until then, think on these images of photogaeddon, wanton destruction and image massacre.

Araminta de Clermont

Stephen Tourlentes

Jenn Ackerman

Steve Davis

Richard Ross

Jeff Barnett-Winsby

Tim Gruber

Yana Payusova

Lori Waselchuk

Joseph Rodriguez

Adam Shemper

Sean Kernan

Marilyn Suriani

Scott Houston

Lloyd Degrane

Harvey Finkle

Lizzie Sadin

Nathalie Mohadjer

Brenda Ann Kenneally

Alyse Emdur

© Amy Elkins 269 self-portraits, part of Beyond This Place: 269 Intervals

Last week, I reviewed Photographs Not Taken (ed. Will Steacy, published by Daylight) for Wired.com. It is a book I have enjoyed thoroughly, which may seem a bit perverse as the majority of the tales seem to be about literal death and sullen loss. The other essays are all essentially about metaphorical death – death of an idea; the abandonment of an ideal; fractured and sudden awareness of mortality; or a shattering of photographer-bravado.

Bryan Formhals, many months ago, hollered for more writing by photographers. PNT would be the most recent, stand-out collection of essays to support that call.

PNT features two essays about prison.

Stefan Ruiz talks about his frustration with the limitations on camera during a seven-year stint teaching art at San Quentin State Prison.

“Most of the time […] I was a photographer in a visually amazing place with all these great subjects, and I couldn’t take a picture,” writes Ruiz.

Amy Elkins recounts a visit she and her brother made to see her dad in federal prison in 2005. She ends up describing a thousand or more photographs she didn’t take.

Call it compulsion, call it therapy, her response during the final 9 months of her dad’s imprisonment was to turn the camera on herself. Amy began making self-portraits began in 2006. Her self-portrait series, Beyond This Place: 269 Intervals became a mini internet sensation in 2007, by which time her dad was out but Amy was not out of the habit. Her self-portraits continue in Half Way There and Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.

“All three projects overlap with my father’s story,” says Amy “Half Way There continues as he lived in a re-entry house for 365 days under strict supervision. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere becomes more about re-entering the world and starting over. All in all I’ve shot over 6 years of these portraits.” Amy still photographs herself daily.

You can view the legacy blog posts here and Amy speaks about the relationship between her self-portraiture and family-life briefly toward the end of this conversation with Joerg.

AMY ELKINS’ PHOTOGRAPHS NOT TAKEN

We had been talking here and there. Once a week. Fourteen and a half minutes before hurried goodbyes were exchanged with uncertainty. It was our allotted time to share what we were experiencing. My new chapter in New York. His, in a federal prison, three thousand miles away. My father’s stories were endless. His seventy bunk-mates. Spanish ricocheting off of the concrete walls until it became static, white noise, a flock of birds. The mess hall. The books that had their covers torn off. The Hawaiian friend he made who sang like an angel. The night he woke to flashlights banging along the metal bunks, looking for inmates with blood on their clothes.

The teams that were formed. The chess matches and basketball games. Prison Break on the television in the rec room. The pauses in his voice. We had shared just under fifteen minutes a week for months from across the country. I mostly listened, the imagery leaping to mind, as his words came through the line. These were the things I wanted to make photographs of. By the time I actually had my one and only visit with him while he was in prison, my imagination had grown wild and I was so emotionally charged that I had to place my hands together in order to keep them from shaking, and to hide the amount of cold sweat pooling in them. There were metal detectors, x-ray machines, electronic drug tests, and questionnaires before my brother and I were led into locked waiting rooms, before we were led into a barbed wire walkway, before we were led to the visitors’ area. No cameras, cell phones, keys, wallets, jewelry, hats, purses, food, or gifts were allowed. Just myself, my brother, my father, and a small square yard of short brown grass containing picnic tables, a walkway, and vending machines, wrapped in barbed wire fences, two rows deep. My father, looking aged by stress, wore a tan uniform that seemed to fall all around him like robes. His hair had grown somewhat wild and was whiter than I remembered it. His eyes were youthful and tired.

The photograph was in my head. The moment of panic, of not knowing what to talk about or how to catch up in reality, while families reeled all around us with children and their mothers or grandparents. The vending machine coffees and board games. I longed for this moment to stay preserved, as if it would become more real if I could hold it captive on film.

Or that my story would be more intriguing if I could prove what it looked like. The photograph not taken, a portrait of what we had become, the fear that my family had failed me, the confrontation of unconditional love, a portrait of uncertainty. Instead, I sat with my hands tucked against the worn-out wood of the picnic tables, watching and listening to the sounds of what we were able to be for a moment.

THE SELF

The story runs deep. But how about the images? There’s a touch of naivety in Amy’s self portraits, but no more than any other young artists sussing his or her emotions. The portraits are paired with quotes by her father delivered in those weekly 15 minute calls, a text/image play that adds some depth.

Whatever life these photos have had or will have, I’d like to think they’re ultimately for future generations of her family; mementos of the quirky granny who grew up in the first quarter of the 21st century; the favourite aunt with certainty of narrative but evidence of younger faltering.

After all, we might be miffed if we missed that shot of those things over there, time and time again, but we have no excuse for not recording ourselves. We might hit old age and regret not having the photos to match our memories.

Short-sighted folk may criticise 269 Intervals for its seeming indulgence or vague manipulation; it is strange that images to represent a family temporarily smashed apart by the efficiency of the law are of a pretty las (occasionally in a state of undress) but take a long sighted view and admit you are intrigued by photo-a-day projects. Who hasn’t thought about doing one themselves? … If only you I had the discipline. Between Kessels, Karl Baden, Hugh Crawford, Noah Kalina and Homer Simpson, Amy is in good company.

Amy Elkins was born in Venice Beach, CA, and received her BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, Austria; the Carnegie Art Museum in California; and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minnesota. Elkins is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York, where she recently had her second solo exhibition.

Amy Elkins invited me to curate an online exhibit for Women in Photography, a group now under the umbrella of the Humble Arts Foundation.

My choice of twelve female photographers – Jenn Ackerman, Araminta de Clermont, Alyse Emdur, Christiane Feser, Cheryl Hanna-Truscott, Deborah Luster, Britney Anne Majure, Nathalie Mohadjer, Yana Payusova, Julia Rendleman, Marilyn Suriani, and Kristen S. Wilkins – are a eclectic mix of artists with different approaches to photography in sites of incarceration. Among their works you’ll find fine art documentary, found photography, alternative process, painted photographs, collaborative portraiture, dreamy landscape, photojournalist dispatches and social activism.

Some ladies’ work I’ve featured before on Prison Photography; some are relatively new discoveries; others I met during Prison Photography on the Road; and a few are included in the ongoing Cruel and Unusual show at Noorderlicht.

Thanks to WIPNYC co-founders Amy and Cara Phillips for providing an avenue with which to disseminate photography that counters stereotypes and informs audiences of lives behind bars. Thanks also to Megan Charland for formatting the exhibition.

From my curatorial statement

In the past 40 years, America’s prison population has more than quadrupled from under 500,000 to over 2.3 million. This program of mass incarceration is unprecedented in human history. Women have born the brunt of this disastrous growth. Within that fourfold increase, the female prison population has increased eightfold. You heard right: women are incarcerated today at eight times the number they were in the early 1970s. Are women really eight times more dangerous as they were two generations ago?

Please, browse the gallery, bios and linked portfolios.

3 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (river)

It may have been her family member sucked into the U.S. prison system or it might be Amy Elkins‘ curiosity about the darker undercurrents of humanity that led her to pick up a pen and write to Americans on death row and serving life without parole.

Four years ago, Amy opened up communication channels with seven prisoners. “My original fascination was with the idea of being pulled away from society and how that affects people; how it affects memories,” said Amy during a sun-drenched interview in the garden of a Portland coffee shop.

“The whole project has been about searching,” says Amy. “I searched out these men on the internet, then I had to search my motives as to why I write these.” Later, Amy searched news clips and court transcripts to piece together the stories of the persons to whom she’d reached out.

26/44 (Not the Man I Once Was). Portrait of a man having thus far served 26 years in prison (18 of which were out of a deathrow sentence), where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.

13 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (river)

Unlike the fates of her condemned correspondents, Amy’s project Black is the Day, Black is the Night has no prescribed end-point.

As she has got know her pen-pals, collaborations have developed; common cell-house objects constructed, photographed and bought; portraits made from the last words of the executed; obscured quotes from the poems of her pen-pal friends; pixelated portraits of dead men walking, whose stories are dominated by the narratives of courts and institutions. Black is the Day, Black is the Night contributes new chapters … in some cases they might ultimately double as eulogies.

Of most interest to Prison Photography are Elkins’ composite landscapes. The catalyst for each is the description of a memory by one of Amy’s pen-pals – childhoods spent under cloudless skies, a born-again fascination with baptism rivers of the South, and wide open desert. Inmates had no access to images and Amy had only access to these scenes through their words. If reality exists for them or us, it’s a feeble reconstruction several steps removed. Searching again, this time through Google images.

To create the distorted landscapes and pixelated portraits, Amy uses a couple of mathematical formulas driven through photoshop. The numbers involved in each formula relate to the age of the pen-pal and the numbers of years they’ve been incarcerated. Amy wants to keep the algorithm under her hat, but it appears the longer they’ve been locked-up the more vague the visages become.

13/32 (Not the Man I Once Was)

12 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (Dying Wish Retama Tree)

14 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (Dying Wish Retama Tree)

Currently, there are approximately 1,500 American citizens on death row.

“To be honest I’d never considered that this country has such a huge population of people on death row,” says Amy.

She began her research by signing up to one of the many online prison pen-pal services. The prisoners are categorized; one option ‘DEATH ROW INMATES’. “I clicked it and it was 50 pages; a sea of faces looking back at me. […] to click on one button and get hundreds of people looking for contact with the outside world. […] it’s difficult to describe. Nerve-racking and unnerving?”

Simultaneously engrossed and “freaked out”, Amy was conscientious in how she progressed. “It was never a photo project! I was just writing. I wrote with them for a year before I did anything with it. […] Part of that had to do with creating my own comfort levels,” explains Amy. “I deliberately contacted people who’d been in for 13 years or more. I didn’t want to write with someone who was angry. I wanted to be in touch with people who were at some sort of peace with the situation, who could look back and have some perspective.”

Of her seven original corespondents, three remain.

One was executed. The letters stopped coming and the news was confirmed through internet news stories. “No one went to his execution – no one from his family, no one from the victim’s family. He was poverty stricken. There was doubt in his case. He very well could not have done any of the things he was accused of. Every letter he wrote said ‘I am innocent’.”

Another pen-pal was released after serving 15 years, “He never contacted me [post-release]. He’s getting on with life. I hope he’s doing well,” says Amy.

A third pen-pal in Nevada wrote to explain that he was working on a novel and had developed a romantic writing relationship with another woman. He broke it off. “I was fascinated by that. It’s weird to be out here free and have them in there with relatively nothing and see them decide not to write. I respect that. They have so little, but they are careful about their time,” says Amy.

Amy’s pen-pal at San Quentin is erratic in his letters, writing after long periods of silence and often emerging from one [mental health] crisis or another. Amy has never felt that they’ve been able to develop a sustained relationship.

Her pen-pal in Mississippi writes on the 10th of every month but his letters are shorter now as he presses his last remaining options for appeal against execution. “From his letters he’s describing that it’ll be up before the year is out,” sighs Amy.

The sixth is in Georgia.

17/35 (Not the Man I Once Was) Portrait of a man having thus far served 17 years out of a deathrow sentence, where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.

7 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (forest)

9 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (forest)

The most sharing, personal and colorful letters are from a lifer in the renowned Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. Pelican Bay was America’s first SuperMax and currently the focus of the California Prisoners Hunger Strike. Of all her pen-pals, Amy can predict most this man’s future “The guy in Pelican Bay is going nowhere.”

On any given day in the U.S., there are 20,000 people held in solitary confinement.

“In California, solitary is a 6’x9′ cell with no windows and a steel door. I don’t think anyone would do well in that situation. People are extracted [from general population] and placed into these cells already upset and then they left to themselves. I don’t think prisoners are going to read the bible 30 times and then be okay,” speculates Amy, “I go stir crazy if I’m in my house for a day without going outside.”

Amy describes the Pelican Bay prisoner’s letters of unusual “formal British” tone. Unusual because he is originally from Tijuana, Mexico. “He must have been reading a lot of books?” wonders Amy.

“His first letter was 15 pages long and he said, very poetically, that he sits in his cell 23 hours a day. Once a day, he is shackled, walked down a corridor, on his own, and let into a concrete pen with 25 foot walls and a metal grate over it. He doesn’t describe it like ‘this is all I have, I can’t stand it here.’ He says he has 60 minutes of freedom, where he just gazes up at the sky; the only aspect of the outside world he can have. And even still, he watches the sky through a metal grate so it is not a pure version of open sky.”

Amy put out an open call for people to send her pictures of the sky. “I started making composites and sent them to him,” says Amy. “He didn’t understand the computer or photoshop. He hung them all up in his cell and wrote me back about how excited he felt being surrounded by skies. That was the first person I made something for and got feedback on. It felt like a collaboration. I started pulling images from other people’s letters. Other guys shared things about past experience, in some case decades prior. I’d repeat the process, make composites and send them.”

The prisoner at Pelican Bay has been in prison for 21 years, in solitary for 16 years. He has experienced another of Amy’s intrigues – juvenile offenders sentenced as adults.

“He went to Juvie, and he’s had no break in his incarceration,” says Amy.

“His mugshot was of him as a 13 year old boy. His profile read ’34 year old man, Pelican Bay State Prison’. But that was the last photo taken of him in the system. I’ve never been politically driven or hugely into criminal law. I’m just a portrait photographer interested in psychology and cultural anthropology. There is something about someone in that level of isolation, I just wanted to reach out. If that makes any sense.”

15/30 (Not the Man I Once Was)

4 Years Out of a Deathrow Sentence (ocean). A penpal 26 years into his sentence in a landlocked prison, described an early childhood memory that haunted him, of walking further and further into the ocean during low tide until the sudden depth and darkness before him overcame him with fear.

26 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (ocean)

Questions of whether or not Amy’s project in some way exploits these men have been floated before. She worked on the Black is the Day, Black is the Night “obsessively” during her Lightwork residency earlier this year.

“During my exit interview, the director expressed concern. How could I be this person in the world, who is fortunate enough to live a nice life, have a gallery, have nice things and focus on these individuals? He wanted to make sure I was ready for those types of questions. But, those question could be asked of all documentary work. It’s not about that; it is about getting the stories out in the world and having people think. I don’t know what people have in their minds [about me]. I’m not some “privileged girl” writing to “savage men”. No. I didn’t come in the project with any type of judgement. I like that I can talk about their stories in a way that’s not conventional. I think it’s correct that we can write; be trusting and share. […] I always write them back and I’m pretty open about my life as well.”

And the pen-pals reactions? “I don’t know if it’s that they’re bored or genuinely fascinated, but they’ve always expressed that they find it intriguing,” says Amy. “They’ve been sought out and they’re being interacted with. I’m not a housewife or someone for a church reaching out in those ways. I am their age and I’m reaching out with mail that’s perhaps a little more interesting than the average.”

Correspondence

To date, Amy has never profited from the project, but if – in the future – someone wanted to pay $10,000 for a landscape? “I’d sell. I’d send them the money. I have sent money to my pen-pals in the past. I have become friends with these men.”

The title, Black is the Day, Black is the Night, derives from a quote in a poem Amy received. “It spoke about that environment so well. The idea of being pulled away from anything. Experiencing no variance. Everything is the same; everything is dark. The poem is mind-blowing. Better for him to describe the situation than me.”

As the afternoon sun waned, and Amy and I squinted at the sky, that much was obvious.

All images © Amy Elkins

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