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James Burn VICE La Paz Co Jail

Screengrab from the VICE webpage livestreaming James Burns’ 30 days in La Paz County Jail, Parker, AZ. Captured 02.01.2017

VICE reporter James Burns is spending 30 days in solitary confinement in La Paz County Jail in Parker, Arizona. You can watch any time. He’s into his third week. Why? Good question. Burns has many a good answer. He explains:

Unlike most of the rest of the planet, America embraces this practice at almost every level of the system—local jails, state and federal prisons, mental health facilities, you name it. By most estimates, solitary ensnares 65,000 to 100,000 people at any given time in the United States. Just this past month, a study from Yale Law School carried out in coordination with the heads of state prisons across America suggested nearly 6,000 of them have been in solitary for three years or longer. And like most layers of the American criminal justice system, solitary disproportionately impacts people of color.

It’d be one thing if this practice of confining people in cramped, isolated cells worked—if all the loneliness and human misery had a point. But report after report (and study after study) suggests solitary brutalizes the incarcerated and in some cases may even make them more likely to hurt others when they get out.

I’ve just watched 15-minutes. My immediate response was one of anxiety. Usually when I view a screen it’s with interest in a narrative (documentary film), or for clear information (news broadcast), or for the development of script and fictional character (TV), or the footage is reflexive of itself as a medium (video art), or it’s a quick, cheap laugh (cat GIFs). In other words, there’s always something happening, or about to happen. Or there’s mystery, tension or story arc; something’s coming up and something will change. The livestream puts me on edge because there’s no obvious movement in it, for it. We see everything in Burns’ world and at his disposal and it’s almost nothing. The footage not only holds no change, it inhabits the near-complete absence of any potential for change.

If the cell was to erupt in action, it’d likely be in a moment of Burns’ crisis or breakdown. Watching, I find myself simultaneously tormented by the lack of action but also fearful of anything extreme (because it’ll be very negative) actually happening. If Burns can last the 30 days and the “program” runs its full course I hope Burns can quietly survive.

I wasn’t convinced about the 30-day livestream as a form when VICE launched it on the 14th December, but having spent an hour with it I am greatly intrigued. (As I type have the feed playing in another browser tab, and the audio of Burns pacing his cell passing an orange from one hand to the other)

This isn’t active reporting but it is a full 30-day long report. It isn’t time-based art, but it is without doubt performative and requires investment by, and presence from, the audience. The slow-pace and anti-narrative are very effecting.

We cannot ignore the full cooperation of the jail administration though.  Lieutenant Curt Bagby explains La Paz Sheriff departments motives:

“Having cameras in our facility showing any part of the process is an easy thing for us to agree to because we take great care to follow the rules set forth for us by the Arizona guidelines on dealing with our incarcerated population. We are happy to show the general public the way we operate as we have nothing to hide. We understand VICE wanted to highlight the practice of solitary confinement, and we are willing to show how it is done here.”

I and many other activists could list countless prisons and jails in which a month-long live web-feed of a cell would not be considered or carried out. Merely the noise from a disturbance on the tier would be enough to put of most administrations. I don’t know the configuration of other cells and corridors in the pod or the block Burns is in, but I have heard noises from beyond his cell suggesting that a large disturbance would be clearly audible. I take Bagby at his word and I speculate he derives confidence from a belief or measurement that La Paz County Jail is less volatile than other facilities.

After years of conjecture about prison and jail administrators’ attitudes toward cameras, I’m interested to read Bagby’s statement on cameras relationship to transparency and management. It also is a clear indicator that no external factor will dictate the outcome of this experiment. Only mental stress upon Burns will end the confinement prematurely. We wait either for nothing or for total disaster. By occupying this box (at considerable risk to himself) Burns embodies the fact that confining others to solitary results either in absolutely nothing or in the complete destruction of the spirit.

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prescott

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.

 

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CAN WE ALL AGREE, NOW, THAT THE DISGRACED SHERIFF ARPAIO IS A DISGRACE?

In December 2011, Judge Snow ordered the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) headed by Sheriff Joe Arpaio to cease its practices of racial profiling and “enforcement” of immigration law. The reason? Sheriff jurisdictions are not responsible for enforcing immigration law; federal authorities are.

If Arpaio had complied then he wouldn’t be where he is now and we wouldn’t have a story about his demise to enjoy. Arpaio is currently in court. He has admitted to not adhering to the court order to cease his deputies’ special brand of patrols. His weak-sauce defense is that “things fell through the cracks” and his subordinates made mistakes. The upshot? Deputies didn’t receive any retraining about how not to racially profile and harass Latino citizens.

Arpaio thought he and his office so untouchable that he ignored the court order and instructed his staff to do the same. Arpaio has been battered in court this week. First, a former senior deputy recounted how Arpaio urged him to hold presumed undocumented persons who’d committed no crime, even after ICE had told MCSO that they were not going to transfer them into custody. Second, Arpaio has been on the stand cutting a forlorn figure — unheard of from the man who has personified cocky bullishness his entire career. It’s been humiliating. Arpaio’s apologies seem less than sincere and more the actions of a man with no other options and no other distraction-techniques to call upon. Third, Arpaio admitted that his former attorney hired a private investigator to snoop into Judge Snow’s wife’s life and political affiliations.

If Arpaio’s lawyers aren’t walking out on him, they are coming under question themselves.

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The case is ongoing and there might be more to come. Let’s just say it looks like Arpaio is going to get hit with civil-contempt charges for his non-compliance to the court order. It could’ve been any of dozens of abuses that Arpaio’s enacted, but it seems like it is this one that is to be his undoing. For a brief history of Arpaio’s sleaziest tricks, read this.

Why do I bring all of this up? Well, part of Arpaio’s power plays has been a constant play of the media. He invented pink underwear, adopted striped uniforms, instigated chain gangs. He had prisoners painting curbstones in down town Phoenix in order to put the image of the convict in front of his constituents. He dominated the visual tropes of criminality … and expanded them all. MCSO invited a constant stream of photographers through its facilities to perpetuate Arpaio’s media game and to propel the cult of personality. I’ve written a lot about different photographers’ work from ‘Tent City’ or Estrella Jail (women’s jail) or the chain gangs at large in the desert, but my position — after years of peering at it — is best described in this post Photos That Extend the Jailer’s Narrative.

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An all-female chain gang. Maricopa County, Arizona.

Recently, photographer Anthony Karen contacted me with his photographs from the Maricopa County jails. I felt like I’d said everything about Arpaio that I wanted to say, but when “America’s Shittiest Sheriff” stepped into the courtroom this week, I was excited by the prospect of covering Big Joe and not having to complain. To the contrary, I can positively celebrate these developments. Hopefully, this is Arpaio’s final act in public office and this is the last I’ll ever have to type his name.

I’m thankful for Mr. Karen for sharing his images with Prison Photography and for letting me editorialise our Q&A with this lengthy intro.

Karen made these photographs in Oct 2012, which is to say right in the middle of the 18-month period in which Arpaio’s office was willfully ignoring court orders to cease racial profiling.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

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Prison Photography (PP): You said you wanted to make non-sensational coverage. Did you achieve that?

Anthony Karen (AK): I believe so, although I consider this a work-in-process and would like to return at some point. I did take several images of Sheriff Arpaio’s poster-board ladened office, but it’s a necessary element in my opinion.

Asides from that, daily life in a jail is fairly straightforward for the most part. I say that with the exclusion of the pronounced environmental situation aka the temperatures at Tent City to which prisoners are exposed.

PP: How long were you there?

AK: I spent approximately 6 hours — in the jail and with the female chain-gang outside the facility — over a two-day period.

PP: Why did you go?

AK: I was working on a project with a journalist friend of mine from Norway. Our initial focus was a White Nationalist who conducts his own border patrols in the Vekol Valley in Arizona. The Norwegian publication we were working for thought it would add some dimension if we interviewed Sheriff Arpaio regarding his views on illegal immigration and his unique approach to incarceration.

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PP: Did you have much interaction with Arpaio? 

AK: We spent approximately 45 minutes with him at his office.

PP: What was that like?

AK: Honestly, it was very relaxed. The Sheriff seemed to appreciate my sarcastic sense of humor.

During the interview, my friend asked the standard Tent City questions and Sheriff Arpaio responded accordingly. It was quite obvious he’s been down this interview road thousands of times before. He’s definitely his own man and proud of his accomplishments — he doesn’t seem to be phased by those who disagree with his methods.

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PP: What did you make of the people in Maricopa and Estella jails?  

AK: The correction officers were polite and accommodating to me as a visitor and photojournalist.

Overall, no one seemed bothered by my presence. I was able to interact with the prisoners, but most of my time was spent observing and taking photos as moments presented themselves.

PP: Did they need to be there? 

AK: Unfortunately, there are people in our society who do very bad things. So as far as being incarcerated, yes we need jails and prisons. Might there be a better way to rehabilitate prisoners – yes, and that goes for other institutions as well.

PP: Were they learning, improving, drying out? What was their experience in the jail?

AK: To be fair, I didn’t spend enough time at the jail to answer that question with any authority. I did notice several prisoners occupied with activities such as drawing and reading. That said, I would like to return at some point to observe how prisoners engage in worship, the chain-gang burial detail at the White Tank Cemetery, the infirmary and processing.

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PP: I’ve said many times before that Arpaio is media savvy and controls the message too much. Do you agree, or is there space for photographers to work and forge their own view?

AK: He is media savvy, but I’d imagine that’s to be expected from someone who’s constantly bombarded with interview requests.

I was able to roam freely within the jail, so as a photojournalist his words had little affect on my visual experience. I feel the issue is the journalist(s) that go into a story with only an hour to spare and are lured into the sensational aspects (and let’s not forget the editors role as well) which is all too common these days. Something as simple as non-scripted daily-life is far more interesting to me.

PP: Thanks Anthony.

AK: Thank you Pete.

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Jane Lindsay‘s exhibition From the Outside In: Sustenance and Time closes at the Northlight Gallery on the Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, this coming Saturday, the 29th. Try to make it if you can.

Lindsay has transformed the space with a multimedia installation of photographs and video within and around a modified jail cell and a dinner table. It’s intended to be an environment in which the discussion of complex and emotionally charged issues of safety, justice, civil liberties and social responsibility is supported.

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The meditative space includes framed and light-box portraits, prison art and letters as well as the products from light painting and art workshops as well as extended discussion with prisoners at the Pinal County Adult Detention Center about food security, nutrition and agribusiness.

‘Why are they talking about food?’ you might ask. Well apart form the fact that nutritious food is not guaranteed in many U.S. prisons, food is a foundational part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Lindsay believes a person’s ability to fulfill his or her basic needs of food, shelter and a sense of belonging directly influences their potential. Furthermore, if and when these needs are uncertain, teachable skills and coping mechanisms will either support positive development toward self-actualization or distort such development.

Lindsay is calling for balanced lives and balanced views.

(More of the project on Lindsay’s website here.)

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Lindsay’s work is replete with compassion. I had the pleasure to meet and speak with her in 2011. Out of that meeting, I invited her to exhibit her work Gems in my co-curated show Cruel and Unusual at Noordelricht Photo Gallery in Groningen, Netherlands. Lindsay is no bleeding heart liberal, though. She has a strong moral compass and her work ties issues of transgression and social ills to poverty and inequality. We need such complex appreciation of complex issues. She also has every excuse to be angry, afraid and vengeful. Some years ago, a close member of her family was brutally assaulted and the recovery for all was tortuous. It is likely still ongoing.

For Lindsay, the the judicial process that purports to hand down justice, was more trauma. The perpetrator was convicted, but the sentence gave Lindsay no peace. She saw that prison — in most cases — rarely addresses the underlying issues of poverty, mentorship, security and social inequity she identifies to be at the core of criminal behavior.

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To quote the press release, From the Outside In: Sustenance and Time employs the theme of the family meal to represent the sustenance both literally in the form of food and figuratively in the sense of belonging created within the community and within the home around the dinner table. Lindsay urges audiences to reconsider the roll of the family and civil society as well as definitions of victim and perpetrator.

Lindsay worked as a Licensed Professional Counselor for 15 years in Texas. Her clients included victims and people who were on parole and probation. Since returning to college as a mature grad, Lindsay has pursued art that tackles education, mutual respect and responsibility. Crucially her work directly involves prisoners, families and even detention officers.

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“By involving prisoners and their families in self-actualization through creativity, society is directly influenced, the outside world becoming a safer place for everyone,” explains Lindsay. “The inclusive nature of the project promotes agency of the prisoners, presenting them not just as subjects, but also as direct contributors to the telling of their story.

With the aid of Detention Officer Sandra Price, Lindsay developed the program to include 25 prisoners, both female and male, who were serving time accused of drug offenses, theft or violent crimes.

“A vast majority of our inmates behind bars have the skills and talents needed to succeed in life and pursue their dreams. Unfortunately, because they have committed a crime, their dreams were temporarily put on hold,” says Sheriff Paul Babeu in the Northlight Gallery press release. “When they are successful in society it greatly reduces their likeliness of reoffending.”

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JANE LINDSAY

Lindsay received an MFA in photography from Arizona State University. She moved to Arizona from rural West Texas where she worked as a counselor, social worker and investigator. She has shown her work in several venues including, Texas Photograph Society, Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock Texas, Cooper Grand Hall in New York, Photoville in New York, Noorderlicht Photography Gallery, and North Light Gallery in Tempe, Arizona. Her short film “Dan’s Big Find” recently won the Arizona award in the Arizona International Film Festival. Jane teaches photography at Mesa Community College and she is a TA at ASU.

PHOTO TAPAS

From the Outside In: Sustenance and Time is exhibited as part of PhotoTapas, a statewide Arizona celebration of photography that involves the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, alternative art spaces such as the Ice House in Phoenix, as well as ASU’s Northlight Gallery.

© Aaron Lavinsky

PREAMBLE

For 12 years every spring, women incarcerated at Estrella Jail in Maricopa County, Phoenix, AZ, have convened to create, prepare and perform a theatre production. The six-week program —  that culminates in a public show — is called Journey Home.

Photographer Aaron Lavinsky, now based in Grays Harbor, WA, was in attendance for the finale 2012 performance and photographed it for The State Press — the Arizona State University (ASU) student paper. Not satisfied with only a single afternoon’s access, Lavinsky decided to return in 2013 to document rehearsals and to dig into the personal stories of two participants. It is Lavinsky’s photos from Feb/Mar 2013 presented here.

The Journey Home program adopts a different theme each year, but in every case attempts to “enable women to discover a personal sense of constructive identity through movement, visual arts, creative writing and storytelling.” Journey Home is made possible through efforts of committed instructors (in 2013 by storyteller Fatimah Halim; movement specialist Teniqua Broughton; psychotherapist Imani O. Muhammad; and others) and supported by sponsorship from the ASU Herberger Institute for Design ant the Arts.

© Aaron Lavinsky

Estrella Jail, under the administration of controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio presents itself as a case-study of contradiction for us if we are to be responsible consumers of images. Lavinsky’s pictures are hopeful but the carceral backdrop to them less so.

Arpaio has been pursued by the Federal authorities for unconstitutional jail conditions and racial profiling. Arpaio’s use of striped uniforms and pink underwear serves to both manipulate visual readings within the public sphere and to humiliate prisoners. If you need anymore convincing that Arpaio is a special case, look no further than his questioning of President Obama’s birth certificate (although it could just as easily be a calculated publicity stunt).

I’ve written before about how Arpaio’s jails may be the most photographed of any jails or prisons in the nation. His facilities are a media circus often.

Before we get into the Q&A with Lavinsky, I think it is worth us bearing in mind two things — 1. Journey Home is a laudable, but not necessarily typical program. I mean, what happens the other 46 weeks of the year for these women? And 2. All of these women are wearing uniforms branded UNSENTENCED. This means each woman is  awaiting trial; in the eyes of the law, they are not guilty. It might also mean they are kept incarcerated because they can’t meet bail. Everyday, tens of thousands of people wallow behind bars because they are too poor to afford bail. I don’t know what proportion of Maricopa County prisoners are in such a penury situation as bail differs county to state; and judge to courtroom.

Instead of spending too much thought on Arpaio as overlord-to-one-of-America’s-most-shameful-systems-of-detention, I think it’s more responsible meditate on the successes of the women when viewing Lavinsky’s images. And, of course, to hear Lavinsky’s first hand observations.

Scroll down for the Q&A.

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): Why this story?

Aaron Lavinsky (AL): Journey Home presented enormous potential, but I wanted to go beyond the one-hour performance performed for the public. In 2013, I was interning for the Arizona Republic and looking for a story that could push my abilities as a visual journalist. I decided to cover Journey Home again, but with extended access. I visited back and forth for a month during classroom sessions, the performance, and then follow-ups with two women around whom the story  was centered.

PP: Do theatre and dance workshops such as this occur regularly at Estrella jail?

AL: Not to my knowledge. Journey Home is an annual workshop and while there are other classes, they are more geared toward substance abuse counseling. I’m sure there are elements of creative expression but not on the same level as Journey Home.

PP: As this is a county jail, I anticipate these women were serving relatively shorter sentences. What sort of transgressions were these women locked up for?

AL: Most of the prisoners in the program were there for substance abuse related crimes, which is the case with most prisoners at Estrella. Some of them were serving short sentences while others were waiting for or in the midst of trials that could send them to prison. Both the prisoners I focused on, Renata F. and Robina S. were facing prison sentences of 1-3 years if convicted. Because of their pending trials, I was unable to publish their full names which was one of the stipulations of covering the program.

PP: I’m gripped by the wide smiles in your photos. The women seem to be in the midst of huge enjoyment and heartfelt emotion. Such animation is rare in prisons and jails and rarer still in photographs of prisoners.

AL: I think photographers, for most prison and jail stories, try to illustrate how rough incarceration can be for those inside. I’ve had to make “prisoner behind bars” type photos before for other assignments and they kind of all feel the same looking back. Journey Home is unique in that there is a genuine sense of happiness and camaraderie among the women. I imagine that jail is extremely stressful and Journey Home gave these women an opportunity to let their guard down and be people, not just prisoners.

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

PP: Did you meet Sheriff Joe Arpaio?

AL: I’ve met and photographed Sheriff Joe a number of times. There is definitely a cult of personality surrounding him in Phoenix and beyond. You see it right when you walk in to Estrella with a portrait of him hanging high on the wall — just out of reach to those hoping to deface it.

Last summer, I photographed Tent City’s 20th anniversary and the entire thing was a bit of a set up. As Arpaio spoke to the media, there were about 30 or 40 prisoners lined up behind him smiling and gesturing to the camera. He served prisoners cake, coffee, candy cigarettes as well as home living magazines with false Playboy and Hustler covers on them. He kind of just let photographers and videographers walk around and shoot whatever we wanted. Arpaio, however controversial he may be, is a smart guy and he knows that we’re on a 24-7 news cycle and if he invites us, we’ll probably show up.

I definitely knew exactly what I was going into whenever I stepped foot in the jails in Phoenix. That being said, certain programs like Journey Home and ALPHA, a drug prevention and counseling program, are genuinely there to help prisoners and aren’t just for the cameras.

PP: What were the women’s thoughts on the jail? How was it serving their rehabilitation, thinking, emotions, family life etc.?

AL: Jail is a rough experience for just about everyone there — prisoners and guards. Nobody I spoke with had particularly nice things to say about their experiences at Estrella. It separated them from their family, homes and freedom. I spoke with one woman in 2012 who was thankful for her incarceration, since she was on a downward spiral with alcoholism, but I got a sense that she was appreciative more of her forced separation from alcohol than with the jail’s rehabilitative resources.

The prisoners really did love the workers who came in to lead workshops like Journey Home. Fatimah, Teniqua and Imani were the leaders of the program and I have no doubt that they made positive, lasting influences in the lives of some of the women who were more engaged in the program.

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

PP: Was the Estrella Jail Rehabilitation through the Arts program successful?

AL: I think any program, which seeks to positively influence the lives of prisoners instead of simply punishing them, is on some level successful. Something isn’t working since there are more people in the system today then ever before. Any attempt to decrease the odds of people ending up back in jail or prison is a step in the right direction. One of the complaints I received though is that the program was only 6-weeks long. If it’s going on its 12th year, they must know that it’s successful. So why not extend the program for women who are showing positive signs? Or create other programs like it for the vast majority of prisoners who didn’t have the opportunity to take part?

PP: What were the women’s reactions to you and your camera?

AL: At first, there was a ton of camera awareness. Most people aren’t used to having their picture taken by a photojournalist so their first reaction is to smile for the camera. Some of the girls were a little flirty when I pointed the camera in their direction too. By the second day there, I was a complete fly on the wall and was able to move in close without getting stares and smiles in every photo. They seemed thankful that I was there telling their story and covering the program.

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

© Aaron Lavinsky

PP: What was the staff’s reaction to you and your camera?

AL: Highly professional. I had very good experiences with the staff at Estrella and they didn’t seem to mind me taking their photos one bit. The jail staff were barely interacting with the women when I was there working other than to transport them to and from the classroom we were all in. They seemed to understand what I was trying to do and respected my right to be there taking photos.

PP: Anything else you’d like to add?

AL: Having the opportunity to photograph and observe Journey Home was an eye opening experience. I’m thankful that I was able to document one of the positive initiatives that our penal system is pursuing toward helping prisoners so they don’t make the same mistakes again. I just wish that there were more programs like it and more options for prisoners other then being locked up for a pre-determined period of time, especially for drug offenses. I’ve had enough experience dealing with people with substance abuse issues to know it’s a disease, and should be treated like one to a reasonable degree. I don’t think anyone in there really wants to be addicted to meth or pills or alcohol. I wish the government did more to help people with drug problems instead of just locking them up. It’s not working.

PP: Thanks Aaron.

AL: Thank you, Pete.

© Aaron Lavinsky

BIOGRAPHY

Aaron Lavinsky is an visual journalist based in Grays Harbor, Washington. He is currently a staff photographer at The Daily World in Aberdeen and produces daily and long form photo and multimedia stories. Lavinsky’s work has appeared in The Seattle Times, The New York Times, National Geographic, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Denver Post, The Miami Herald, The San Francisco Chronicle and others. Find him on Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter.

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Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement

2014 is the 50th anniversary of the passage of The Civil Rights Act, the landmark legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Danny Lyon was the first staff photographer — between 1962 and 1964 — for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lyon would go on to make some of the most important bodies of work about the American condition (The Bikeriders; Conversations With The Dead) and as such his very early work as a very young man is often overlooked.

The Etherton Gallery’s exhibition ‘Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement’ opened on Saturday and shows 50 silver gelatin prints from Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery, Alabama; Albany, Georgia; and Danville, Virginia. We see images of student protests and mobilization against racism,  lunch counter sit-ins, student beatings, tear gassings, the jailing of Martin Luther King Jr., and the unscheduled visit of a young Bob Dylan to SNCC headquarters in Greenwood, Mississippi. Lyon, was harassed, beaten and jailed during his two years as a staff photographer.

SOME THOUGHTS ON AZ

Where better to look back on an era in which society treated people with different coloured skin than in modern day Arizona? The passing of SB1070 in 2010 was a legislative bill that essentially permitted veiled racism and racial profiling. In activism, folks are always on the look out for new allies and for audiences who really need to hear the message. A message of anti-racism message and some historical perspective is vital for residents of Arizona currently. I’m not saying that people of Arizona are inherently racist; I am saying the services and institutions that claim to serve them have procedures that result in racist acts.

There are some fine activists in Arizona (they’ve necessarily and wonderfully organised) and this is particularly true of Tucson and some clever geographer-activist-academics. May Lyon’s photographs play their part in making Arizonans and us angry. Lyon would want nothing more than his show to leave us rageful at our society of inequality.

DETAILS

Etherton Gallery, 135 S. 6th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701 Tel: 520.624.7370. Email: info@ethertongallery.com.

Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement’ runs through March 15, 2014.

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All photos: Danny Lyon © Dektol.wordpress.com. Courtesy of the Etherton Gallery

A prisoner at the Estrella Jail, Phoenix, Arizona makes a face before he is photographed. © Scott Houston

Friend of the blog, Scott Houston, has a spangly new website featuring not one but four portfolios of his work from Maricopa County, “Tent City” and the show that is Sheriff Arpaio’s chain gangs.

Scott is a New York resident and like most with a camera got out to photograph the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. He sent me some images. I’ve had my own thoughts on the photo coverage of Sandy, so I’ve tried to select an edit here that shows some things other photographs have not – namely Con Ed workers, different-enough compositions and laughter (click any image to see it larger.)

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NEW DORP BEACH, STATEN ISLAND

BREEZY POINT, QUEENS

Inmates line up for work early in the morning at Estrella jail. © Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Yesterday, the Guardian ran a gallery of Jim Lo Scalzo‘s photographs of a female chain-gang in Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona.

To people who are unfamiliar with the chain-gangs, established by the controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio (the self-titled “Toughest Sheriff in America”), Lo Scalzo’s images may be a shock. Certainly, they are fascinating.

Unfortunately, this is not an example of a photographer gaining exclusive access to an invisible institution. To the contrary, inmates of the Maricopa County Jails are arguably the most frequently photographed prisoners in the United States. Approach Lo Scalzo’s work with caution.

Jon Lowenstein photographed the female chain-gangs in March, 2012 and Scott Houston photographed the all-female chain-gang when it was first established almost a decade ago.* These are only three photographers of hundreds who have visited Tent City, Estrella Jail and followed chain gangs out on to the streets.

The Guardian writes in it’s brief introduction, “Many women volunteer for the duty, looking to break the monotony of jail life.” That might be true, but it is also the message peddled by the Sheriff’s office and it also stops short of asking why these women have been ushered into the jail system. I should say at this point, these are women on short sentences locked for non-serious, probably non-violent offenses, likely drug use, prostitution, petty theft. If I may generalise, they are a nuisance more than they are a danger. They are victims as much as they are victimisers.

What must to do with Lo Scalzo’s photographs – and with others like his – is appreciate how they were made; more specifically we must appreciate the pantomime that is put on display for the public and put on for the photographer.

I have spoken to many photographers who have described how Arpaio directs a “media circus.” I have written before about his press-staged march of immigrant detainees through the streets of Phoenix. He dresses citizens serving time and non-citizens awaiting immigration hearings in the same pink underwear and striped jumpsuits.

Let’s not deny that Sheriff Arpaio is on message, dominates message and understands visual symbols and the power of the image probably as well, if not better, as any of us who make, discuss and revel in photography.

There is certainly a lot more to be teased out about Arpaio’s near 20 years in office and his media savvy, but now I’d like to turn our attentions away from photography and towards a socially-engaged art project of admirable sincerity and complexity which might teach us more about Maricopa County than photographs alone.

Throughout 2011, Assistant Professor of Multimedia Gregory Sale at Arizona State University (ASU), carried forth It’s Not All Black & White a program of talks, installation and interventions at the ASU Art Museum.

It’s Not All Black & White intended to give “voice to the multiple constituents who are involved with the corrections, incarceration and the criminal justice systems.” To establish a discussion around the highly contested issues in a divided community, Sale and his team had to rely upon the trust and input of museum curators, university faculty, students, sheriff’s deputies, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, family of the incarcerated and so on and so forth. It is quite remarkable that under the same banner, Sale was able to invite Angela Davis to talk and in another event invite Sheriff Arpaio to a discussion on aesthetics.

Round table discussion at ASU Museum. Joe Arpaio on the right.

Incarcerated men were brought onto university grounds to paint the stripes in the ASU museum, Skype dance workshops were done to connect incarcerated mothers and daughters; the museum space was repeatedly given over to engagement instead of objects.

At the fantastic Open Engagement Conference, I shared a panel with Gregory. He said that for so long Sheriff Arpaio had controlled how people think of stripes and think of criminality in their community.

Gregory said one thing that really stayed with me. He said that for a brief period while It’s Not All Black & White was in the museum and the programmes went on, he was able to wrestle that control away from Arpaio and open a discussion that focused not on the blacks and the whites, but on the grey areas. In those grey areas are hard decisions and hard emotions. But, also in those grey areas, are solutions to transgression in our society that might look to root causes and solutions that engender hope and spirit-building instead of humiliation and penalty.

When we look at Lo Scalzo, Lowenstein, Houston and the works of countless others from Maricopa County we need to bear in mind the stripes and the spectacle of the chain gang is deliberate. Are the photographs showing us only the black and white of the stripes or are the photographs introducing us to meditate on the grey areas? I suspect they do mostly the former.

*Lowenstein had photographed immigrant detainees in Maricopa County’s ‘Tent City’ a few years ago. I included both Lowenstein and Houston’s work in Cruel and Unusual.

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