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texasdeathrow

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.

© Trent Nelson/AP - Pool

BagNewsNotes ran the above photograph with commentary. It goes without saying that I am opposed to the death penalty, which is nothing more than foolish symbolic act in our political economy.

Four bullets passed through Ronnie Lee Gardner. In this photograph, three bullet-holes are visible in the wood. Photographer, Trent Nelson presented a six-part series on his coverage of the case, appeals and execution in Utah. Part six is titled ‘The End’:

I’m told that I can only bring one camera, no camera bag, and I must have a lens cap on my lens. That changes things. I grab a body with a 16-35, stick a flash on top, pop in my most reliable battery and an 8 gigabyte card. It’s an uncomfortably light kit for such a big assignment.

The photographs and text are a detailed account of a surreal event:

Immediately there are disagreements about details. Standing at the window of the execution chamber after Gardner was shot, one reporter had drawn a sketch of the target on Gardner’s heart indicating the four bullet marks. He insists his sketch of the target is accurate, while another reporter disputes it, saying that two shots were actually on the left not the right.

and

Reporters are soon climbing all over the chair, pointing at the bullet holes, poking their fingers in them.

In this execution chamber, in this prison, the media record the evidence and in so doing confirm the deed done. Very surreal.

Brennan Linsley

AP Photographer, Brennan Linsley has visited Guantanamo twelve times in the past four years. Why? “My goal is to come back from each trip with a couple of shots that will allow me to paint more of a picture of this place'” says Linsley.

A journalist’s visit to Guantanamo is a frustrating experience – newsmen have a constant escort on a preplanned itinerary and must read and follow the fifteen pages of ground rules provided by the US military.

To offset these limitations Linsley chose repeated visits as a a tactic. In an attempt to humanise the detainees, he has weaved a photo-essay in-spite of Guantanamo’s milieu which is counter to all notions of free speech, experience and objective fact-gathering.

The British Journal of Photography has a brief but interesting interview with Linsley about his project.

This sequence of interactions between a Chinese detainee and photographers (described by Linsley) exemplifies the minutiae with which the US military must control the flow of information out of Guantanamo.

In late May, in Camp Iguana, there was a Chinese detainee, one of the guys that no one would take. He heard that there were journalists coming that day, and so wrote down on a pad the words “Let there be justice” and “We need to freedom.” The public affairs people didn’t know what hit them. You can’t communicate with the detainees, but there was nothing in the rules that dealt with detainees showing placards. Our work was held in limbo for 24 hours, while the Obama administration was informed and that they wouldn’t be taken by surprise by the images’ release.

Just to get the juices flowing, Linsley closes the interview with this position, “The Golden Age of photography has been over for a long time. It died somewhere between the Vietnam War and the Gulf War.”

Discuss.

_______________________________________________________________

BJP’s interview coincides with Linsley’s work showing at the 2009 Visa pour l’Image at Perpignan.

For more images and links on Guantanamo see Prison Photography‘s Directory of Visual Sources.

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