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Last month, I published a piece for Wired.com about Philipp Lohöfener‘s photographs from the Stasi Prison Museum in Berlin.

I make the point that “the prison has been the subject for other photographers including Martin Roemers, Daniel & Geo Fuchs and Daniel Etter, but Lohoefener’s work is the most cohesive essay in describing the cold horror of the site.”

I am a big fan of former prisons that have been reconstituted as sites for education; they will inform about the specifics of the political era in question, but they will also usually double as sites of pedagogy against oppression of human rights applying the narrative at a global level.

Check out Lohöfener’s photographs.

© Jordis Antonia Schlösser, from the series ‘City Behind Walls’

Without exception, the authorities of every prison I’ve visited have described their complex as its own contained city.

For German photographer, Jordis Antonia Schlösser the self-sufficiency and the false independence it imposed on Moabit prison, Berlin was her abiding impression:

“For me the prison is a city within the city. There are many of the same things inside that exist outside. There are workshops – gardening, tailoring, carpentry. There are services – a kitchen, a post office, a bank, a barber. What is lacking is entertainment – like cinemas, theaters, or concerts – but the inmates replace this with television, which almost all of them have in their cells, just like people on the outside in their apartments. I was surprised how similar the trappings of freedom and captivity look.”

Moabit prison is a pre-trial detention center for men. Here’s the 30 image essay. This is one of the better, less hurried and quieter photo studies of prison life I’ve come across.

Arbeit Arbeit Arbeit” written on the blackboard behind the cloth-cutting prisoner, is an anachronistic visual detail that sent my mind of in all directions. Its inclusion must have been deliberate.

© Jordis Antonia Schlösser, from the series ‘City Behind Walls’

© Jordis Antonia Schlösser, from the series ‘City Behind Walls’

© Jordis Antonia Schlösser, from the series ‘City Behind Walls’

Jordis Antonia Schlösser

Jordis Antonia Schlösser (b. 1967, Goettingen) studied sociology and ethnology at the University of Cologne (1987-1988) and photography design under Prof. Arno Fischer at the technical college in Dortmund (1988-1996). She has been a member of OSTKREUZ since 1997. Schlösser lives in Berlin and Paris.

Her publications include GEO, GEO Spezial, Stern, National Geographic, DU, Merian, Spiegel, Lufthansa Magazin, Brigitte, High Life (British Airways Magazine), NZZ am Sonntag, Granta Magazine, Corriere della Sera Magazine, Marie Claire (It.), El Pais Semanal, et al.

Schlösser is the recipient of the Hansel-Mieth-Prize for ‘Before disappearance – Report from the Lower Rhine brown coal belt’ (2002); 2nd prize of the World Press Photo Award in the ‘Arts’ category (2001); 1st prize at the International Yann Geoffroy Competition for ‘Living on the dump’ (2000); DAAD Scholarship for the continuance of the work ‘Havanna between the times’ (1999); Honorable mention ‘Grand Prix Care International du Reportage Humanitaire’ (1999); Admission to the World Press Joop Swart Masterclass; Special prize at the UNESCO Courier/Nikon competition ‘Peace in everyday Life’ for ‘Havanna between the times’ (1998)

The illicit manufacture of tools by prisoner piqued Marc Steinmetz‘s curiosity. He called around German prisons to inquire if they were still in possession of particularly ingenious contraband tools and escape devices.

Santa Fu, Celle, Wolfenbuttel and Ludwigsburg prisons all welcomed Steinmetz to view their collections. (The historical objects of Stammheim and Hohenasperg prisons were part of the Ludwigsburg collection.)

Steinmetz’s photographs were used in a German magazine editorial, but I have seen similar series of object types displayed as fine art.

When photographers set up objects (food, seeds, dead birds, insects, fish, etc) it is usually to draw extended attention to common characteristics and impose drama upon ‘the ordinary’. Against a white backdrop and removed form the clutter of daily life, it is intended that these objects can (if only briefly) transcend their functional purpose and be appreciated within the discourses of beauty and/or high art.

Steimetz wanted to highlight the ingenuity and intelligent design of these objects, and I’d like to do the same.

I have included some weapons here and omitted others. I deliberately omitted crude weapons for this post as they are hardly novel … anything with any weight becomes a dangerous weapon, right? On the other hand, I included guns and rifles as I never thought they could be manufactured from scratch. I was particularly impressed by the electrical items.

Below are Prison Photography‘s pick of the bunch with Steinmetz’s own captions. Thereafter is a brief Q & A with Steinmetz.

flucht_pistole

DOUBLE-BARRELED PISTOL This gun was found along with other homemade firearms in the cell of two Celle prison inmates on November 15, 1984. The weapons had been made in the prison’s metal workshop. They were loaded with pieces of steel and match-heads.

flucht_tattoo

TATTOOING NEEDLE made from a toothbrush handle, a ball pen and an electric motor; confiscated in ‘Santa Fu’ prison in Hamburg, Germany. Tattooing instruments are a popular and common source of income among inmates but are banned as ‘illegal objects’ due to the danger of infection (Aids, Hepatitis, etc.).

flucht_grill

STOVE / GRILL / TOASTER An inmate of Ludwigsburg prison, Germany, botched together this multi-purpose tool from wire, a broken heating rod and some tin foil. It was found in his cell and confiscated sometime in the mid-eighties.

flucht_tube

HASH PIPE fashioned from an empty horseradish tube; confiscated in ‘Santa Fu’ prison in Hamburg, Germany. Bongs are the most common of all forbidden items in prisons. The range of materials they are made of mirrors the inmates’ great imagination. And their prior needs.

flucht_wanze

RADIO TRANSMITTER / BUG made of radio recorder parts by an inmate of Wolfenbüttel prison, Germany (battery is missing). Prisoners occasionally manage to install gizmos like this one in guard-rooms to be prepared for upcoming cell searches. Also suitable as a means of cell-to-cell communication among inmates. A standard radio serves as a receiver.

flucht_tauchsieder

IMMERSION HEATER made from razor blades; found in a cell in ‘Santa Fu’ jail in Hamburg, Germany. Jailbirds use these tools to distil alcoholic beverages forbidden in prisons. Your typical inmate’s moonshine still includes a plastic can containing fermented fruit mash or juice, an immersion coil of some sort, a rubber hose, and a plastic receptacle for the booze.

flucht_buch

RADIO RECEIVER Sometime in the seventies an inmate of Ludwigsburg prison, Germany, built this radio on the sly and hid it inside an encyclopedia. It was probably commissioned by another inmate who had no electronic expertise himself.

flucht_gewehr

SHOTGUN made from iron bedposts; charge made of pieces of lead from curtain tape and match-heads, to be ignited by AA batteries and a broken light bulb. On May 21, 1984 two inmates of a prison in Celle, Germany, took a jailer as a hostage, showed off their fire power by letting go at a pane of bullet-proof glass, and escaped by car.

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Q & A

When did you complete this project and why did you take on this subject?

I shot the whole project in April and May 1999. I had read a magazine article about a prisoner in Berlin who had whittled a key to his cell from a toilet seat. Unfortunately, prison officials in Berlin weren’t cooperative, so I wasn’t allowed to take a picture of that key for ‘security reasons’. (Can you believe that?).

But it nevertheless provided the key to the story and got me interested. Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine editors [provided a catalyst] too – they bought the story.

The objects range in date from the 70s through to the mid 90s and from multiple German prisons. How and where did you source the objects?

Prisons often have a collection of items which were secured from inmates’ cells or after attempts at escape.

I did my research exclusively by phone and located a handful of prisons which seemed worth a visit. I decided then and there which objects to photograph.

Much of your previous photography has been about complex scientific experimentation and grand research. Was this project a departure?

Not at all. I have always been interested in the uncommon or even bizarre.

What about the objects is of interest to you?

Ingenuity of improvisation. Intelligence. Purposefulness.

In my work, not everything depends on meticulous planning, but to a great extent on chance and my ability to improvise. Therefore I can relate to these escape tools. I admire their no-nonsense design, their simplicity. Even if their escape attempts fail, these guys cross boundaries in that they find uses for things other than what they were made for.

What do your photographs of the objects add to the stories objects?

To me, they communicate intelligence and the flexibility of the human mind under adverse conditions. I wanted to share my surprise: ‘What the … ?’

Did this project inform or reflect your understanding of German prisons, prison history and/or current prison politics?

Not really. I wasn’t interested in the political or social aspects of the subject matter. It was an interesting experience, though, to get to peek inside these facilities even though I had no contact with any of the inmates.

To compensate for that and to communicate credibility, I tried to collect as much information about the objects as I could. I felt they should be preserved the same way that archaeological artifacts are.

What are you working on now?

Currently, I am working on an independent project which is called ‘Toter Winkel’. I am still searching for an international title which works both in German and English, even though I focus exclusively on Germany.

I started wondering about what cars have done to our cities. I ended up doing night shots of elevated roads with a 4×5″ field camera. It’s hard to believe what monstrosities have been erected for the sake of misconceived mobility!

But this is more of a long-term fine art project than an editorial piece. Fieldwork is completed, but post-production will take a few more months, I’m afraid.

Thank you, Marc

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Marc Steinmetz is a photographer specialising in Science and Technology stories. Prison Photography recommends his work on Plasticination, Karakarum – The Archaeology of Genghis Kahn’s Empire and his series on Drinking Water. An extended interview with Marc, is here.

flucht_milch

DUMMY PISTOL from blackened cardboard; found on June 23, 1988, in an inmate’s cell in Stammheim prison, Germany, after a fellow prisoner tipped off the jailers. The dummy was hidden in an empty milk pack and was most probably intended to be used for taking hostages in an escape attempt.

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All images © Marc Steinmetz.

I originally came across Steinmetz’s work at Accidental Mysteries – a blog I highly recommend for its polished curatorial eye of surprising, inventive and humourous human interventions.

welcome_bully

Reading the Goethe-Institut Fashion Scene article about Haeftling designers in Berlin, I thought it was an Onion style send up. “Prisoner chic” sounds like something straight out of satire, but I guess I was snoozing when this hit the news wires in 2003.

Haeftling (translated as ‘Prisoner’) employs inmates across Europe to manufacture clothing and housewares inspired (they say) by prison life, “The garments are highly functional and have a classic and timeless cut. Only high-grade, rugged fabrics are used in manufacturing.”

Well, whatever you say. I actually don’t mind how they market it, I am just pleased they support prison reform, the abolition of the death penalty, political prisoners rights and a philosophy of rehabilitative justice.

Haeftling Tray

Haeftling Tray

But let’s not kid ourselves. This project was borne of commercial interests. “It began in the JVA (Justizvollzugsanstalt/prison) Tegel and developed into an international undertaking. More and more prisons have joined and today production is even taking place elsewhere in Europe. One Bavarian prison supplies honey from its own two colonies of bees; a prison in Switzerland even has its own vineyard and exports its own red (Pinot Noir) and white wine (Müller Turgau).” (source)

Karola Schoewe, Haeftling’s PR & communications manager says, “On the whole, the prisons are all very helpful,” says  “There are some prisons that have very good production capacities for making homeware.”

Schoewe then marries the business speak to social responsibility speak, “Through its production, Haeftling is creating measures that help to support rehabilitation processes.”

Haeftling Espresso

Haeftling Espresso

Without seeing Haeftling’s account-books or sitting in on a board meeting, I have no way to tell if resources and profits are divvied up in a way that benefits prisoners more then in the state run prison industries. This was the situation in July 2003

With 40% of Tegel’s prisoners unemployed, the Haeftling project has come as a welcome boost to the jail. The prisoners get an allowance of €26 a month, but ones working on the clothing line can earn up to €12.50 a day. The cash from the sales is divided among the bankrupt city of Berlin, the prison and the inmates.

(Author’s Note: €12.50 is substantial pay compared to American prisons.)

Prison industries are a divisive issue. For some they are the perfect use of prisoners’ time and energies developing job skills, work community & self-esteem. To others prison industries are a modern slave labor exploiting societies’ self-created incarcerated class.

Both viewpoints have legitimacy, but the first makes a prior assumption that could be misleading – that work programs are the only means to provide skills, community or self-worth. Education does this too.

But educating someone instead of putting them to work is going to cost a prison authority rather than generate it wealth.

Male

Generally, I am unnerved by the disconnect between the reality of incarceration and its representation to consumers,

Shoppers at the Haeftling store can have Polaroid mug shots of themselves made, holding a plaque with their names spelled out in white block letters. The stereo system plays the soundtrack of the Coen brothers’ prison film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” And customers browse through racks of striped jackets and shirts.

Then again, Klaus-Dieter Blank, of Berlin’s Tegel Prison states the success of the label’s online store has meant that people are beginning to understand “what goes on behind the walls”. Haeftling features on the Tegel Prison website.

Is there too much space here for consumers to create their own version of prison life? What is included and/or played down in the minds of consumers? Are they being coerced and sold a disingenuous view along with that ‘rugged’ product?

Blanket

"Justiz 82" Scratchy Blanket. Haeftling Product

We can assess this a number of ways – rehabilitative worth, public awareness worth, benefits to state finances, tax-payer savings, external benefits of development in social entrepreneurship.

But essentially, we must ask, “Does this enterprise help reduce prison populations by reducing recidivism? It MUST be compared to other rehabilitative programs. The purpose of prisons the world over should be to create societies where prisons are no longer necessary.

How do you judge this type of enterprise?


Today, The Exposure Project highlighted the work of Daniel & Geo Fuchs’ STASI – Secret Rooms describing it as “an exploration of the now outmoded interrogation rooms and detention centres of the East German Secret Police.”

No matter how outmoded, the depictions are chilling.

© Daniel & Geo Fuchs. From the series "STASI - Secret Rooms"

© Daniel & Geo Fuchs. From the series "STASI - Secret Rooms"

Daniel & Geo Fuchs’ STASI – Secret Rooms is featured in the latest Aperture accompanied by a Matthias Harder essay laying out the nature of Germans’ handling of memory and narrative. The architectural remnants of the era are interwoven with the national dialogue.

“The rehabilitation of the East German justice (or injustice) system and its surveillance apparatus continues; the remaining Stasi files and methodically recorded wire-tapping logs are now available to the public.”

“With this series Daniel and Geo Fuchs have rubbed salt onto an open sore of recent German history while simultaneously contributing to its articulation and healing.”

Author’s note. Prison Photography has been interested in HohenSchonhausen prior, promoting the work of the still unknown Lars.blumen

Spurred by the wonderful news over at The Impossible Project that Polaroid Film is getting a second chance, I delved (via its “friends” links) into Polanoid.net. Whereupon, I found this small and particular photo-series by Lars.blumen.

lars.blumen

Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

The Hohenschönhausen Memorial in Berlin is an active community/museum organization that fosters education and understanding with regards political imprisonment. The refreshingly transparent website even concedes crucial gaps in knowledge. “The history of the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen prison site has not yet been researched in sufficient detail. There is, as yet, no general overview detailing the social background of the prisoners, nor the reasons for their imprisonment, nor their length of stay. In fact, we do not even know exactly how many prisoners were kept here over the years.”

I am given the impression a precious sense of purpose & justice drives this shared project. Elsewhere on the site, their call for research is inspiring.

lars.blumen

Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

The reason this set fascinated me so much was that it seemed so immediately incongruous. It is wonderful incongruity. With Polaroid one expects sanctified family portraits (60s, 70s) or blurred disco memories (80s, 90s). Polaroid of the 21st century has been largely an indulgent affair. Lars.blumen has given us a rare treat. He ‘captured’ the most infamous site of Soviet Secret Police interrogation and detention within 10 single polaroid frames.

lars.blumen

Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

Lars.blumen’s project, done without fanfare nor nostalgia, uses the visual vocabulary of the past. Just to make things interesting, the prison (at he time of Polaroid) would never have been observed, nor documented, in this same manner.

The polaroids are remarkable for what they aren’t. They aren’t actual images from the era of the Stasi. And this era is that to which now all energy – as a Memorial – is focussed. The photos are a requiem for the stories and faces of the prisoners never recorded. I think this is why the Hohenschönhausen Memorial has such an emphasis on documenting oral testimony and experiences of prisoners.

lars.blumen

Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

No people, no prisoners, no players in these scenes. The hardware of the site and the illusion of time passed. Understated.

lars.blumen

Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

The texture reminds me of old family portraits in front of the brick of Yorkshire and Merseyside. In front of churches and on door steps.

lars.blumen

Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

Outside are cameras, inside is bureaucracy. Still lured by Polaroid nostalgia, the sinister reality of the images creeps up slowly. The minimalist composition of the Frankfurt school is at use here, but Lars.blumen uses a medium that predates the movement. It’s all very disconcerting.

lars.blumen

Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

Why do I respect these images? Because they are unique and, even to some degree, challenging. I cannot celebrate these images because of their history – they have no history. I cannot celebrate a familiar style – they are recuperations of contemporary German photography. They are idiosyncratic one-offs.

lars.blumen

Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

Is it really this intentional? I wonder now if Lars.blumen just had a reel of Polaroid film to burn and that day he happened to be at the Hohenschönhausen Memorial?

If anyone cane help me with Lars.blumen’s identity I’d be grateful!

Official Blurb: The site of the main remand prison for people detained by the former East German Ministry of State Security (MfS), or ‘Stasi’, has been a Memorial since 1994 and, from 2000 on, has been an independent Foundation under public law. The Berlin state government has assigned the Foundation, without charge. The Foundation’s work is supported by an annual contribution from the Federal Government and the Berlin state government.

The Memorial’s charter specifically entrusts it with the task of researching the history of the Hohenschönhausen prison between 1945 and 1989, supplying information via exhibitions, events and publications, and encouraging a critical awareness of the methods and consequences of political persecution and suppression in the communist dictatorship. The former Stasi remand prison is also intended to provide an insight into the workings of the GDR’s political justice system.

Since the vast majority of the buildings, equipment and furniture and fittings have survived intact, the Memorial provides a very authentic picture of prison conditions in the GDR. The Memorial’s location in Germany’s capital city makes it the key site in Germany for victims of communist tyranny.

One last thing. May I recommend you spend time with the lovingly assembled staff portrait gallery at the Impossible Project.

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