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It seems like I’ve been saying a lot on prison tattoos (here and here) recently … which is true, but it’s not even an area of keen interest for me. Maybe this will be the last one, or maybe not, depending on what friends and photographers continue to produce.

I have expressed reservations about photographing prison tattoos because inevitably the images may fail to penetrate the coda that prisoners share, understand and guard.

Therefore, I applaud Bob Gumpert for providing his audience with as much understanding as he has drawn during his documentation. Accompanying American Prison Tattoos the multimedia piece published on Foto8 last week, Gumpert provides a “short and incomplete glossary of tattoo markings & terms” and a “list of slogans reflecting beliefs or attitudes.”

Of course, Bob Gumpert‘s work is about much more than just tattoos. He has been working in the San Francisco and San Bruno jails systems for 14 years and it touches upon every imaginable story of American cities, families and experience. I encourage you to check out Take A Picture, Tell A Story, his multimedia platform for his jail work; his general website; and his blog.

A few months ago Bob Gumpert and I sat down and talked at length about the reasons why photographers should endeavour to tell the stories of social movements, workers rights, crime, justice and injustice. The conversation rolled and rolled which partly explains why the edited interview hasn’t surfaced yet.

Bob’s activism emerged in the Labor Movement of the 1970s. He began documenting the criminal justice system by following police officers and public defenders in the San Francisco Bay Area. From there he traversed to tell the stories of people in the jail and probation systems.

This morning I received this email:

As some of you know, since 1994 I’ve been documenting the criminal justice system. There is now a website for the latest segment of “Lost Promise: The Criminal Justice System.”

“Take A Picture, Tell A Story” is where you can find portraits and recorded stories from the two major projects of my 35 years in documentary photography.  In “Locked and Found” prisoners in the county jails of San Francisco tell stories of their circumstances, hopes and sorrows.  In “Tales of Work” workers tell of their lives and their jobs.


So don’t wait for my interview to familiarise yourself with Bob’s work. Listen to the tales he’s recorded – they reflect the complexities that rattle about in an inevitably inflexible system that deals with hundreds of thousands of individuals.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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