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What to do with a defunct prison? Demolish? Renovate into a hotel or apartments. Create a museum or arts centre? The response and reuse of prisons depends largely on economics but also on whether a society has written and agreed on a narrative and the place of the prison in relation to the state and body politic.

For example, Robben Island is an obvious memorial to anti-Apartheid campaigners and their unjust imprisonment; a rejection of state-sanctioned racism. Similarly, Tuol Sleng in Cambodia is a Genocide Museum honouring the victims of the Khmer Rouge. While Alcatraz does include information about the American Indian Movement and the Indian Occupation of the island in 1969-71, the narrative is mostly a distant historical view of “The Rock” in which tourists can get macabre and creeped out, safely.

Now closed, Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, doesn’t have an agreed history, yet. It cannot be so easily be packaged for a public, or narrative. Opened in 1835, Kingston Pen established the basis of Canada’s prison philosophy; the architectural embodiment of prison as a legal structure in accordance with British rule and colonial prerogatives. It was a place for carceral not corporal punishment—100 months instead of 100 licks of the paddle.

Until its closure in 2013, Kingston Pen was one of the longest continuous operating prisons in the world. It was shuttered due to rising maintenance costs and documented human rights violations. In its 160 years, Kingston Pen served up hardship and oppression. Not least, as in all Western societies, for minority groups and indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples make up less than four percent of the Canadian population, yet they account for the largest demographic of prisoners.

Into the awaiting “space” of cultural definition and narrative framing of Kingston Pen, enter Through a Penal System, Darkly (2013 – 2015), a raking, bamboozling, photo-based survey of the prison by artist Cindy Blažević and partners. Onto a general history of the institution, Blažević knits oral histories of current and past corrections administrators, legal experts, staff and prisoners. Audio clips, maps, photo-documentation and photo-composites bring the past to this very moment and foreground prison abolition arguments.

 

An illustration of a Plains-style teepee is superimposed onto a photo of a small, enclosed prison yard – a place where Indigenous cultural practices would often take place. The actual teepee was packed away, as part of the decommissioning process, before Blažević had a chance to photograph it.

 

For some, the closure of Kingston Pen, as with many iconic prisons, might serve as an excuse to draw a line and refrain from examining history, but Through a Penal System, Darkly encourages us to do the opposite and leap right back into our immediate history; to face the many shortcomings of incarceration.

In an excellent read of Blažević’s work, Ellyn Walker delineates the way, familial, racial and social-control dynamics persist in society, through the prison, and because of the prison.

“One must consider deeply the ways in which justice and compassion go hand-in-hand, in particular, in spaces of extreme vulnerability and oppression, such as the prison,” writes Walker, who quotes Dr. Angela Y. Davis as she urges us to look toward contested sites: “The prison is one of the most important features of our image environment,” said Davis.

“[The prison] reveals the imperative for reimagining how we both understand and practice justice,” adds Walker. That’s why Through a Penal System, Darkly is such a landmark work of art and research. Comprehensive and content-rich, Through a Penal System, Darkly has been presented as an exhibition and lives online as a multi-pronged inquiry. Working with law students, Blažević made the project while the inaugural artist-in-residence (2013-14) at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto.

Energised by the way in which she pushed passed the mere static image and committed political and complex readings of the prison, I pressed Blažević with some questions on the kernels, goals and outcomes of the project. I can only provide a smattering of the hundreds of photograph Blažević made and as the audio and context for the photos is so key, I encourage you all to visit the Through a Penal System, Darkly website and spend some time.

 

 

Some of the surprising colours in Blažević’s images are reminiscent of William Eggleston’s photography. Somehow the electrical switch boxes, mail-drops, wall paintings, signage and the vernacular touches make for the most engaging photos. The deadpan images of children’s play structures and lawn chairs speak to the normalisation of prison operations. Janitorial, medical and infrastructural observations reveal the comprehensiveness of resources and operations. The exterior shots seem mostly to be establishing shots and hold the least interest, but I suspect Blažević is aware of this. Still, she was there to photograph as much as possible, almost forensically while her access lasted. There are other comparisons to be made between Through a Penal System, Darkly and other photographers work, and Blažević and I talk about them in the Q&A below.

While Through a Penal System, Darkly undoubtedly required a massive amount of work, significant institutional support, the buy-in of co-makers, and others’ skillsets, I think it is a project that is instructive about how professionals working with media can explode the issue of prisons and other controversial, historically-rich sites.

Scroll on for our Q&A.

 

Q & A

Why should people care about prisons?

This Angela Davis quote really nails it: “There is reluctance to face the realities hidden within [prisons], a fear of thinking about what happens inside them. Thus, the prison is present in our lives and, at the same time, it is absent from our lives. To think about this simultaneous presence and absence is to begin to acknowledge the part played by ideology in shaping the way we interact with our social surroundings.”

That, in a nutshell, is why people should care. We’re naïve to think that prisons and criminal justice happen in a bubble that has nothing to do with the configuration of all of society.

Prisons are very much a reflection of our deepest, seemingly unsolvable social problems. This project looked at the many ways that prisons obscure our individual and collective responsibilities of taking seriously the ongoing problems of our society, particularly those produced by racism, colonialism, patriarchy and global capitalism. Kim Pate, one of the contributors to my project, at the time Director of the Elizabeth Fry Societies and currently a Canadian senator, spoke about prison being the only system that couldn’t say no. In other words, when the health care system and the legal aid system and the welfare system are unable to help you, because of successive budget cuts, the prison will be there for you.

Decarceration should be everybody’s business.

The relatability of the project was important to me, which is why the exhibition that accompanied the website was a massive photograph mounted on the exterior of the law school, accessible to all passers-by and not exclusively to law students or gallery goers, and linked to the website. I want everyone to care.

 

 

Where did your interest in prisons begin? Generally, or with Kingston specifically?

Who doesn’t have a natural fascination with prisons? With what it means to lose one’s freedom?

As a visual artist, I have a specific interest in spaces and how they define us, as individuals and as a society. I majored in International Relations and minored in political science, so the interest has always been there, simmering away in the background, as a backdrop to many of the subjects I’ve explored over the years, academically and artistically.

Kingston Penitentiary, whose interior architecture had never been photographed in any systematic way, holds a deep fascination with the Canadian public. So when I heard it would close, I thought, let me try to get in there. And I did.

What started as a project to photograph 19th century experiments in prison architecture no longer acceptable to our current ideas of incarceration, turned into a massive photographic and audio compendium of issues and thoughts expressed and experienced about the Canadian justice system, all through the lens of Kingston Penitentiary.

At its root, I think Through a Penal System, Darkly is a project about fairness, about what is actually fair when it comes to punishment. Working on it has given me pause to appreciate how fundamental our preoccupation with justice is. I have three children and it is really incredible how fairness and a sense of justness is prevalent even at an extremely early age. One could dismiss this as philosophical waxing, but the basic ubiquity of it is undeniable.

 

 

What is the public opinion in Canada toward prisons?

An apathy arising from the false comfort that America has a problem with over-incarceration and that, because we’re not America, we don’t. Canadians see themselves as social progressives, as we are on many fronts. This seemed to stop at prisons under the previous, Conservative government. Even though statistics showed crime rates have been dropping for decades, the Harper Conservative government took a “tough on crime” approach: more prisons, longer sentences, mandatory minimums, and eliminating discretion for courts. Under the current Liberal government, whatever its shortcomings, the Supreme Court has ruled that many of the anti-crime laws enacted by the Harper government were unconstitutional. These actions have a role in shaping public opinion, tangentially.

Just the other day our national broadcaster, CBC, aired a story about the “shock and dismay” of parents and area residents to news that a halfway house for federal penitentiary inmates would open beside a Toronto Catholic elementary school. It’s telling. It’s sad that media perpetuates many of the black-and-white, negative, populist stereotypes surrounding criminal justice.

Honestly, I think most people don’t have a clue about what happens inside prison. A few days into my project I realised I didn’t either, not really. For example, I hadn’t given any thought to the reality that when one is sentenced to prison the term of their removal from freedom is supposed to be the punishment itself, but, actually, prisoners experience layer after layer of additional punishments and micro-aggressions—from withholding mail to arbitrary corporal punishment. Why would a former inmate have to endure continued punishment, say, in the form of community isolation, while finishing the terms of his or her sentence in a halfway house?

 

 

Why did you decide to lay out the information as you did in this wide-ranging, chapter-esque history of Kingston Prison?

The reality of incarceration is not simple or easily summarised, so how could depicting that reality be any less complex? I wanted to create a legal and historical context for the photographs. There are many chapters to the story of this prison, so many ways of thinking about incarceration and concepts of justice. I had real difficulty editing down the many stories and perspectives I encountered while fitting them into the parameters of the residency. And that is why the project sits at such a busy intersection of art, photographic documentation, social justice, cultural anthropology, legal theory, historical research and oral storytelling.

At heart is the realisation that every photograph I took has long tendrils of political, legal and social reality trailing beneath it. That’s not just a fenced-in yard or a sad-looking metal door you’re looking at, that’s the consequence of a policy that was drawn up, discussed, implemented and is a plan for how to go about “correcting” behaviour, how to set a moral balance right.

At its simplest, the project maps out—literally and conceptually—the relationship of the architecture to its previous inhabitants. It’s a political, legal and historical choose-your-own adventure.

Were the experts and others you interviewed keen to talk? It seems a decommissioned facility gives more license to be honest about the criminal justice system? Would you agree?

Ha! I had great difficulty getting access. I had to leverage my grant from the Canada Council for the Arts (a federal body) to get permission from the Commissioner of the Corrections Services Canada to enter the facility.

The experts were, indeed, keen to talk, but the Department of Justice was not so keen to let their employees do so. On the morning of a scheduled interview with two CSC employees, the DoJ intercepted, postponing it until my questions had been screened. Initially, I was surprised. However, the CSC, already cautious and unforthcoming, became perceptively more so following the 2007 suicide of Ashley Smith while in detention and especially when a 2013 inquest ruled her death a homicide. My interviews and inquiries took place in the months following this ruling, when the CSC was under greater scrutiny for its treatment of prisoners, especially the mentally ill. I don’t think an artist is particularly threatening, though an artist paired with a law school might be, I suppose.

What were the most surprising testimonies you heard?

The syndicated prison radio show really hit me. The tongue-in-cheek songs and skits paint a very different picture from the kind of controlled environment, detached from its surrounding community, that we’ve come to associate with a federal penitentiary.

The emotional account given by Margaret Beare of the breakdown in humaneness that happens inside total institutions.

Kim Pate, who is now a Senator, talking about what the replacement of old-fashioned metal keys with electronic buttons (to open cell doors) means for the mental health of prisoners.

How extremely poorly correctional officers are educated in mental health intervention, not to mention how much the officers themselves struggle in this regard, with PTSD at post-Vietnam War levels.

And new information that stuck with you?

The bricks and mortar architecture dictating how we imprison, how we punish/correct long after our ideologies and laws change. The implication being that a more progressive approach to justice would be curtailed by the expensive assemblage of bricks that themselves were the result of the imperfect plans and fads of the day.

 

 

 

Who did you work with on Through a Penal System, Darkly?

The photography was made possible thanks to a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. What followed—the contextualization of the photographs, the website – was the result of an artist residency at the Osgoode Hall Law School, an unusual intersection of disciplines that was the brainchild of the school’s forward-thinking Dean, Lorne Sossin.

The focus of the residency was to research and create a legal and historical context for the photographs I had taken—which was accomplished through collaboration with seven upper-year law students who elected to take my Directed Reading course.

Through research, discussions and interviews with the various stakeholders, the students and I explored the ideals of the criminal justice system—past, present and future. Ultimately, the photographs and accompanying stories, essays, historical anecdotes tell us something about Kingston Penitentiary. However, they also invite us to ruminate on the bigger picture—that is, on the evolving structure of the penal system, on society’s changing understanding of the role of prison, and on the role played by the many people who have a willing or unwilling stake in the criminal justice and penal systems. The breadth and scope of the interviews and essays are owed mostly to them.

The work for me sits somewhere between Donovan Wylie’s work on the decommissioned Long Kesh Prison, Northern Ireland, Geoffrey James’ work on Kingston and perhaps even the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History.

I love Donovan Wylie’s comment about “applying a [photographic] system to a [prison] system”. I can relate to it. Wylie’s Maze series is one of my favourites. Those curtains! I couldn’t help but have him in the back of my mind when I was arranging my project.

It wasn’t until Geoffrey James published his book that I had any idea he, too, had photographed the prison. We don’t run in similar circles. He had such great access! My access was minimum and given grudgingly by the Head of the Correctional Service Canada.

I like thinking that my project aligns with the work of Tings Chak, which strives to be more experiential than the more straight-forward documentarian photographs of, say, Geoffrey James. Her graphic novel, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, explores the role and ethics of architectural design and representation in mass incarceration, and is pretty amazing.

Another artist who is documenting from an interesting angle is Brett Story, who just finished her PhD in geography at University of Toronto and made a film The Prison In Twelve Landscapes about the influence of prisons on public systems, cities and economics.

It’s a gorgeous, harrowing film. I thought it was one of the best films of 2016.

I’d like to see more multimedia in-depth photo-based pieces like Through a Penal System, Darkly. It seems the skills to code all this might beyond most people? Am I right, or am I just a luddite? Could Through a Penal System, Darkly be used as a template for other projects?

Thank you! You’re no luddite—the coding was beyond me and so would have been the cost of hiring a programmer without institutional support. I am grateful to Osgoode Hall Law School for generously providing the resources (developers, hosting, etc) to bring to life the idea in my head. I would love to use it as a template for future projects.

These types of projects are expensive and there is some risk. Another major project (also map-based) that I worked on 2007-2010 across seven Balkan countries with multiple arts organisations and which was funded by major European institutions went offline in 2015 because Google stopped supporting the web-based map platform on which the entire site was built. And, poof!, the work no longer exists. The cost of rebuilding it is too high and the momentum to search for support has passed. In-depth multimedia web projects are tricky things.

 

 

How and where do you want the work to sit? What do you hope it will do?

I hope the work sparks reaction and thought. It would be great if my own small contribution could inspire a change in the direction and tone of the conversation around decarceration.

I would love the opportunity to re-mount the exhibition publicly elsewhere.

I hope the website will continue to be used as a resource at Osgoode Hall Law School. It’s currently being used by high school students via the Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS) program, an innovative collaborative academic and extracurricular education program aimed at supporting, guiding and motivating high school students who face challenges in engaging successfully with school and accessing postsecondary education, which is wonderful.

Thanks, Cindy.

Thank you, Pete.

 

 

All images: Cindy Blažević

 

 

 

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13- distribution

Photographer Tony Fouhse photographed his hometown of Ottawa. Then he made a newspaper of his images and gave all 2,000 of them away for free. The project is called Official Ottawa.

I dig Fouhse’s images of politics, power, pomp and circumstance in Canada’s capital. The concept was great, the execution fine and the distribution in cafes and at truck-stops brings a smile to my face.

FREE FOTOGRAFY WILL SET YOU FREE!

I interviewed Tony about the project for Vantage in a piece titled Control and Containment in the Canadian Capital.

About Ottawa, Fouhse says:

“There is a kind of pervasive fear that percolates through the city. Not a fear of getting mugged or anything, rather, a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Workers here seem to know which side of their bread is buttered and who is buttering it; they certainly wouldn’t want to put their pensions at risk. An atmosphere like that dampers a lot of healthy thinking and questioning and certainly precludes action.”

Read Control and Containment in the Canadian Capital.

01- limo

02-west block

04-National Firefighters Memorial Service

05-memorial

06-special event

07-Govt signage

09-Parliament Hill with Leopard tank

10-Juno

11-P Hill security checkpoint

12-roadblock

Staircase,  workshop building

THE DEMISE OF “CANADA’S ALCATRAZ”

In late 2013, and after 178 years in operation, Kingston Penitentiary in Canada closed. Located on the shores of Lake Ontario, the maximum security lock-up was one of the oldest operating prisons in the world and was considered “Canada’s Alcatraz.”

Geoffrey James photographed inside Kingston during its final year in operation and in the immediate aftermath of its closure. His book Inside Kingston Penitentiary (Black Dog Publishing) was recently published

Inside-Kingston-Penitentiary-book-coverThe transitional moment in which the prison operated and James photographed makes for prison photography study unlike anything I’ve come across before. James uses both B&W and color to image the architecture, daily activities, cells, common spaces, staff and prisoners.

It’s not apparent if the spaces in James’ photographs are lived in or not. Are we seeing an institution in wind-down, abandonment, stasis or half-use? In truth, all of these things, and the effect we are left with is that prison environments are wholly unnatural — people aren’t supposed to live or work in cages. And yet, a collision of behaviours, laws and controls has resulted in the construction of a man-made space to confine. James’ focus on Kingston’s 19th Century architecture and modern-day graffiti remind us of that.

I selected my favourite images from the 192-pages of Inside Kingston Penitentiary to accompany this conversation with Geoffrey James.

Scroll down for out Q&A.

Photo ID,  admissions and discharge building

Armed officer, tower 3

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about the prison.

Geoffrey James (GJ): Kingston Penitentiary (KP) had never really been documented in its 178-year history, except for press photographs of the destruction following a major riot in 1971.

The fact that it was closing gave me an opportunity to make the case for a historical document, with a university publication and exhibition. Fortunately, the warden and commissioner both realized that the day KP closed, it would become a different animal — a ruin, more or less, or a place of dark nostalgia. Eventually, approval for my project came from the Privy Council, the innermost sanctum of the government. Canada’s Corrections Service is famously closed and hermetic and, in general, prisons are the unknown element of the criminal justice system.

Sign left outside recently vacated cell, Upper E

Cell decorated with Harley Davidson and East Van logos

GJ: I have always had a curiosity about prisons, and KP is the most mysterious place of all — older than Canada, visited by Dickens, and notoriously tough. I went in without a huge amount of prior knowledge. From the responses I have had, I think a lot of people share my surprise about what I found. On one level the prison is impressive — it was built in the period of Late Georgian architecture, when there seemed to be no bad building.

Inmates working, seen from the belltower

GJ: Kingston was built by the prisoners, who first had to quarry the limestone. Its architectural language is highly symbolic, designed to impress and intimidate, as well as to hide what it is going on in side — no wire fences, but huge walls and a forbidding entrance.

PP: What is the prison system like in Canada?

GJ: The U.S. is a complete outlier among industrialized nations in the number of people it incarcerates. As Canada is next door, the perception is that we have a more benign system, which to some extent might be true. That said, it is clear that under the current government, prison policy is becoming noticeably more punitive in its intentions. We have had minimum mandatory sentencing laws, which surprisingly brought a response from U.S. law enforcement experts and prosecutors (and even conservative senators) saying this was ill-advised. Parole rules have been tightened and vocational training has been dropped in favor of cognitive behavior modification courses.

Shadow board, plumbing workshop

Supervisor,  metal workshop

GJ: Even the $5.80/day that a prisoner can earn by working in the prison has been subjected to a 30-percent claw-back. At a time of falling crime rates, there has been a flurry of prison-building. There is an emphasis on “victims rights” which tend to concentrate on retribution and punishment. There is less emphasis in trying to prepare prisoners for their release. For the first time that I can remember, prison policy has become very much a partisan issue in parliament.

double sized cell with mural,  occupied by inmate incarcerated for 26 years

poster designed by inmates

PP: How do Canadians think about prisons, officers and prisoners?

GJ: One of of the chaplains at KP said to me that Canadians don’t know much about what happens in prisons, and don’t care to know, which just about sums it up. There are the people who join the John Howard Society and work actively to try to improve conditions in prisons, as well as help prisoners on their release. There are the readers of the tabloid press, which often tries to paint prisons as holiday camps or “Club Feds.” In between, there is the majority of the population that tends not to pay too much heed, unless something horrific catches their attention.

The exercise yard at night

PP: What sort of thing captures attention?

GJ: In Canada, we had not long ago, when a young woman named Ashley Smith ended her life while being watched on video by guards who had been ordered not to intervene, because she was always “acting out.” One of the things that some people learned from this was the widespread use of solitary confinement in Canada, though here it goes by the euphemism “administrative segregation.”

Decorated mirror

PP: What did you want to achieve with your work and the book?

GJ: I would hope that people looking at my book might be disabused of the notion that a maximum security is an easy place to be. For me, the most surprising thing were the words and images that the prisoners left on their walls, messages of anger, despair, regret and sometime also of wisdom and humor. People tell me they have been moved by these images.

cell decoration, inuk inmate

PP: There’s evidence of staff in your photographs. That might sound strangely obvious but in America it is very rare that prison staff want to appear before the camera. Was that just part of your approach to capture as many angles of the prison and its people?

GJ: I tried to photograph as many aspects of prison life as I could. I was given remarkable latitude, and was always accompanied by a corrections officer. The attitude of the staff varied, as did that of the prisoners. There was sometimes a certain wariness about my presence, but I also met some outstanding and open  officers.

In front of the white board, with the location of every inmate

Notes in the program room, Lower B range

Graduation,  medication management course

GJ: The one requirement of the project was that I had to get a written release for every person depicted in the book. I think it significant that there was only one refusal among staff and prisoners. Not a single prisoner objected.

PP: What did the prisoners think of you and your camera?

GJ: Prisoners have a total sense of their own environment and know when there is a new species around. I found that prisoners — like the corrections officers — tend to be different on their own than when in groups. I had a difficult moment on the toughest range (or cell block) of the prison, where the prisoners had just been given a collective punishment, and decided to get back through me. Mostly, though, I took one person at a time, and learned some surprising things. I had the easiest relationship with the native prisoners, who have their own space for work and ceremonies, and who were an interesting group. They were lucky in that they had access to elders and could learn things about their heritage that they might not have had growing up.

Change of seasons ceremony

Cell mural by inuk inmate

<Cell drawing by aboriginal inmate

PP: Do you have a political angle with these photographs?

GJ: It is a mistake to adopt an a priori “political” position. It is more effective to let the pictures tell the story without any rhetoric from me, although the book has a rather intricate structure that tells its own story. Or the story I wanted it to tell. I took some pains not to sensationalize the subject — I dialed back a little on the darkness that comes off those walls.

Mural,  former canvas repair shop

Outside the south wall with the former dog kennel.

PP: You photographed Kingston Penitentiary as it closed down. Visually, I’d say there is an element of elegy. Was this intentional?

GJ: I am not sure whether the pictures are elegiac. I attempted to keep everything straightforward, neither dramatizing nor trying to make things overly emotional. But the truth is that the place has its own very strong aura. I visited the much newer maximum-security prison that many prisoners were sent to, and found it much scarier — cramped and sterile and so efficient that contact between staff and prisoners is minimized. A lot of the guards were very attached to the place. There was even one well-known prisoner who died before I started shooting who refused to leave for a lower-security institution because he considered it home. The staff refer to this as “nesting” and there seems to be a deliberate attempt not to make things comfortable in any way.

Decorated cell, upper E

Mural by inuk inmate

toilet seat and  cover made from blanket and jeans

PP: Are there any particular aspects of history of Kingston Penitentiary, of which viewers should be aware?

GJ: When I researched its history, I was staggered to learn how early the problems of the institution started. Only 13 years after it opened, and a few years after Charles Dickens visited it (and found it very well administered), there was a commission of inquiry into the terrible regime of public flogging. KP had a long, troubled history.

In its closing months, there was very little in the way of rehabilitation, other than programs designed to modify cognitive behavior — programs for sexual offenders and those who had committed family violence, for example. It was interesting to me that in the 50s, the prison had its own band and on summer nights broadcast a variety show throughout the province. Now, it is all PlayStations, TV’s and boom boxes. The term that I heard over and over again from the officers was warehousing. Which pretty much sums it up.

PP: Thanks, Geoffrey.

GJ: Thank you, Pete.

Visitors room

All images: Geoffrey James.

Christina Riley 'Back To Me'

It is, unfortunately, rare that we see photography about mental illness in which the protagonist is also the creator. Christina Riley’s Back To Me bucks the trend.

Back To Me is a visual dip into a disorienting episode Riley experienced when she briefly absconded from her medication routine. She was without anchor and the photographs trace her imperiled, but thankfully not fatal, journey before returning to a mental state she could claim as her own; before she found a way back to herself.

Simultaneously, Riley experienced euphoria and suicidal thoughts. Freewheeling brain chemistry forced her into an escape and explore mode, but the exhilaration was not something she could control. She describes being outside of herself and of living another person’s experience.

The facts of the episode are not immediately apparent from the grainy images alone. There’s a looming threat but as the images vacillate between self-portraits and landscapes of unidentified places, it’s difficult to figure out the source of the threat. Perhaps the two are one and the same?

Clearly something is not right, but it is only a brief text on the book’s penultimate page that contextualises Riley’s solitary portraits amid the dark, between the light snow and at the side of unknown roads.

Riley writes:

I remember driving down Highway 1 south feeling almost certain I wouldn’t return. The bottle of wine I planned to drink before jumping was sitting in the cup-holder alongside a bottle of Ativan and my camera. I cried the whole way to the bridge feeling guilt already for what I hadn’t yet done. I stepped out of my car to a cold, foggy blowing sky. But through all that, stars. I stood there in the darkness and they spoke to me. They were just for me and their message was clear.

It would kill him.

Riley somehow in the swirl of illogic and depression Riley saw the effect her suicide would have on a loved one. She didn’t jump, she turned back. What part did photographs play in the decision? Any at all? Are these photographs saving therapy? Or are they mere documentation? That this remains unclear is one of the strengths of this unique book.

Tony Fouhse, publisher at Straylight Press, says, “One way she grounded herself during this period of madness was by taking photos of herself and the strange world of mania and depression, euphoria and delusion, she found herself in.”

So, Back To Me is part memoir, part self-warning but mostly self-love. Riley came through it and a significant part of understanding and healing has been the sequencing and production of the book. She has found use — a secondary audience, if you will — for images and moments that at the time of making were only for her.

I wanted to ask Riley about that time and the times since, so I emailed a few questions.

Scroll down for the Q&A

Christina Riley 'Back To Me'

Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): Describe your life and thoughts leading up to this episode of instability.

Christina Riley (CR): Throughout my life I have struggled with a mood disorder. At ten-years-old I started behaving extremely unpredictably. It came out of nowhere. My parents had no idea what was going on, until after attempting suicide twice, I was hospitalized for a year. I walked out of there at age 14 with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Leading up to the most recent episode shown in Back To Me I was feeling pretty level (so I thought). It lead me to believe I was misdiagnosed, so I took it upon myself to go off of my medication. I remember my mind racing with ideas. I had endless energy. The world revolved around me. My self-confidence and sexuality was inflated. Things couldn’t get better. Then suddenly I was convinced I was in love with someone else. Then there was no stopping me. I thought my behavior was coming from a genuine place. I didn’t know I was sick.

I was launched into the world you see in Back To Me.

PP: Between which dates do you identify the episode? And between which dates were you making photographs.

CR: It’s all such a haze but I think the episode began in November 2011 and got very serious pretty quick. It feels like it was an eternity and somehow a dream. Time did not exist. I would say that the entire episode — including the slow transition into my “normal” self — lasted a year-and-a-half or something.

Christina Riley 'Back To Me'

I began taking the pictures around December 2011 as things were becoming more intense and I was losing control. I really had an overwhelming feeling that it had to be photographed, like it felt somehow crucial to my existence. I would be in those moments of living in that other world, and there was no question. I stopped photographing it pretty much when I came around to seeing that I was better – that things were better. I could see it in the pictures and knew it was done.

PP: How, with what, and/or why did you come out the other side of the episode?

CR: It took a lot of will power, medication, therapy and support from family and friends to get here. Everything comes to an end, so it was inevitable one way or another. I’m just happy I didn’t kill myself. I came out of this a better, more secure person.

PP: You’ve said it was like someone else taking photographs.

CR: It’s so hard to explain. It was kind of a compulsion, so I guess it sort of feels like the illness took the pictures. But at the same time, looking back, I know it was part of me too, which makes sense considering the illness will always be a part of me, healthy or not. I just wasn’t with it enough to know what was really happening or to make logical decisions which makes me feel like it was completely out of my control.

PP: Do words (in this interview) or images (in the book) manage to reflect the emotion and psychology of the time?

CR: I don’t think it would be possible for me to convey what it felt like any better than with the photographs in the book.

The photographs in Back To Me are a true moment captured in an unreal time. I’ve never expressed myself or the illness in such a pure way. Even though there was stuff you don’t see happening in the time surrounding the pictures, I believe that each one encompasses how it felt as a whole.

Christina Riley 'Back To Me'

PP: You say you’re grateful for the episode. It seems like it was a learning experience. Is this a fair characterization? Are the photographs key to that? In other words, are the photographs a valuable product from a less than ideal time? Would your view of that time be different if you had made no photographs and you had no book?

CR: Photographing this time in my life helped me more than anything else. I can’t imagine living through that without visual proof of it. It all felt so unreal that I wouldn’t know what to believe without them. I would feel so lost. It’s hard sometimes for me to look at the book because I can feel everything again. But it’s good for me. I know I don’t want to go there again because of it. I’m thankful because in the end, the pictures really have brought me to a better, more stable and aware place.

The book Back To Me is one of the most important things I have ever done. It is proof that I have an illness that I have to take care of. It is proof that I can get through it. It is a definite end to a crazy chapter in my life.

PP: Anything else you’d like to add?

CR: Many people think mental illness is a relentless hard slog against challenges that are unrewarding. But to the contrary, I feel that bipolar disorder has brought more positivity to my life than negativity. It has been hard, but it has made me a stronger, more accepting and maybe a more interesting person.

Without Straylight Press / Tony Fouhse, I feel my voice – my experience, which I believe so many people can relate to, would be lost.

PP: Thanks Christina.

CR: Thank you, Pete.

Christina Riley 'Back To Me'

REVIEWS ELSEWHERE

Colin Pantall says, “Straylight, a publisher which makes direct books with direct themes. Straylight is kind of rough and ready but it hits the spot and is much more than a decorative publisher. It makes books about things that matter. And it publishes people who don’t get published elsewhere.”

Timothy Archibald says, “A quiet story, told in your ear. Not sad, not tragic at first glance. No high drama. It feels like introspection. Just the data, shared by the storyteller as if it happened to someone else. Rich with color, rich with grain, warm and tangible- not like you are drugged, but just like you are very tired, but your senses are working overtime.”

GO HERE!

Christina Riley is a Canadian photographer living in California. She makes music with Burnt Palms.

Back To Me is available through Straylight Press.

‘Steph’ © Tony Foushe

There’s two things I hope you’ll carry away from this post. Firstly, the importance of Live Through This a photo series resulting from a-two year collaboration between Tony Fouhse and Stephanie. Secondly, that Tony has established  Straylight Press to get limited-edition books and zines in the hands of photo-lovers. Live Through This is Straylight’s first publication.

To regular readers, Tony Fouhse will not be a new name. I’ve always admired Tony’s honest, weekly updates about his ongoing work, emotions and process. In my capacity as a Wired.com blogger, I recommended his blog drool as a top read.

LIVE THROUGH THIS

Four years ago, Tony began shooting USER, portraits of crack and heroin addicts on a single Ottawa city block. During that time, he met Stephanie, noticed something different about her, and asked, “Is there anything I can do to help?” She said she wanted help getting clean.

From that point it’s a long story of great-strides, trauma, dope sickness, humour, sunlight and friendship. Often photographers may distance themselves from the world by saying they’re mere observers. In the case of photojournalism, so-called objectivity sometimes excuses camera-persons from getting involved in even small practical ways to help those they photograph.

Tony is not a photojournalist and he is no hero either; he’s a guy that offered to help someone whose needs were greater than most. If you want to venture into the drool archives, Tony has told the story in great detail. Alternatively, Tony wrote a five-part series about his and Steph’s journey for the ever-excellent NPAC blog [one, two, three, four, five].

In December, Steph had a wobble and ended up in jail. In January, when I read Steph’s words about her court hearing it was clear that Tony has had a life-changing effect on her life:

When I went to Halifax I sat in front of the judge and the crown was asking for 4-6 months and my lawyer asked for probation and sure enough I got it. Then, when I went to Pictou courts my lawyer asked for 6 months house arrest and he got it too […] if it wasn’t for my lawyer in Halifax I would of been fucked.

 He fought for me to do house arrest because I did so much in the last year, like, he brought up how when I lived in Ottawa I met this man named Tony Fouhse was gonna help me get into a rehab called the R.O Royal Ottawa but I never came to the rehab because I ended up growing a cyst on my brain and how Tony ended up helping me ween from using Heroin to 1 4mg dillie (Dilaudid) a day and sent me home to my family where I could sober up and become a clean mom and we did a project of my life on the street.

It’s a bit embarrassing it’s taken me six months to share my wonder. As well as being photo-rich, Steph and Tony’s journey is a really compelling story. Live Through This is one of the most interesting photography projects I’ve followed in recent years.

STRAYLIGHT PRESS

Live Through This is all the more impressive because Tony and Steph have taken it upon themselves to promote, produce and distribute it. Tony describes Straylight Press as a “vehicle to produce and disseminate printed photo matter.”

Future projects include the unflinching work of Scot Sothern and Brett Gundlock’s Prisoners (which I saluted in the past) so it is exciting times. The idea is that the success of one project feeds the next, so if enough copies of Live Through This sell then profits go into producing the next photographer’s book. It’s a pre-sales fundraising model. In addition, Straylight zines are fairly inexpensive and the intent is to produce 3 or 4 each year.

“Straylight is kind of like a Kickstarter, but with more long-term commitment to projects that aren’t just my own,” says Tony. “Kickstarter projects, while a good and interesting idea, seem to me to be too much about the individual. Not that I have anything against that, after all, you need an ego to be a photographer. But …”

Last month, Tony talked with the Ottawa Citizen about Straylight: Tony Fouhse opens photo-book publishing house – and web gurus be damned.

Tony is flogging prints, books and workshops to raise money for Straylight projects.

Understandably, Tony is shifting his energies from his personal blog drool to the Straylight blog. Straylight is also on Facebook.

Good stuff.

The lifeless body of fifteen-year-old Fabienne Cherisma lies on the roof of a fallen building in downtown Port-au-Prince on January 19, 2010. Photo by Lucas Oleniuk / Toronto Star

Canadian photographer Lucas Oleniuk has been awarded a National Newspaper Award in Canada for his image of Fabienne Cherisma dead on a Port-au-Prince roof-top, one week after the Haiti Earthquake.

Eight weeks ago Paul Hansen won a national award in his home country of Sweden. In March, I wrote about Hansen’s and other photographers’ awards for coverage of Fabienne’s death – Brouhaha in Sweden following Award to Paul Hansen for his Image of Fabienne Cherisma.

That’s now five photographers recognised for their images made within the space of an hour on a Tuesday afternoon.

Photo: Nathan Weber

ALSO IN THE ‘PHOTOGRAPHING FABIENNE’ SERIES

Part One: Fabienne Cherisma (Initial inquiries, Jan Grarup, Olivier Laban Mattei)
Part Two: More on Fabienne Cherisma (Carlos Garcia Rawlins)
Part Three: Furthermore on Fabienne Cherisma (Michael Mullady)
Part Four: Yet more on Fabienne Cherisma (Linsmier, Nathan Weber)
Part Five: Interview with Edward Linsmier
Part Six: Interview with Jan Grarup
Part Seven: Interview with Paul Hansen
Part Eight: Interview with Michael Winiarski
Part Nine: Interview with Nathan Weber
Part Ten: Interview with James Oatway
Part Eleven: Interview with Nick Kozak
Part Twelve: Two Months On (Winiarski/Hansen)
Reporter Rory Carroll Clarifies Some Details
Part Fourteen: Interview with Alon Skuy
Part Fifteen: Conclusions (04.08.2010)
Fabienne Cherisma’s Corpse Features at Perpignan (09.07.2010)
Brouhaha in Sweden following Award to Paul Hansen for his Image of Fabienne Cherisma (03.23.2011)

A woman voices her opinion while a Police man looks on as hundreds of demonstrators gather outside a Toronto Police Station to protest against tactics used by the Police against anti G20 protesters over the weekend. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Just have to say, I enjoyed reading Chris Young‘s NPAC blog this week. He’s good with words:

June 24th

A colleague of mine had advised me that kayaking helmets are the way forward for this kind of thing as they are built to come into contact with rocks. I went to a camping store and asked the guy behind the counter where they kept their rock proof helmets and was sent into the basement. There, I was met by Colin, a thin man with darting eyes. […] He looked me up and down, beckoned me towards him and asked in a hushed, conspiratorial tone “Is it for this weekend ?” I confessed it was. He quickly produced two helmets and began to give me the low down on what helmet could withstand what impact from what size rock and from what distance. I got the impression that Colin had been selling a lot of helmets recently.

June 25th

The weapons cache found in the roof rack resembling a grade 2 project comprised of a crossbow, a chain saw, and a swiss army knife as well as an assortment of handyman tools. Unless this was an A-team inspired assassination kit it began to look like a hillbilly had stopped in town on the wrong day.

June 29th

I’m the first to admit that I have a cynical streak […] maybe it’s from attending too many carefully choreographed PR stunts. But watching police cars haphazardly left at major intersections with easily flammable front seats whilst an unchecked mob of pimpled anarchists career towards them tugs at my senses. Was this a justification for the $1billion tab that the taxes payers have been left with for the summits?

June 30th

The look on the cop’s face pretty much said it all. As he climbed onto his bike to trail a group of several hundred demonstrators as they set off march through the streets of Toronto to voice their anger at the detentions, harassment and beatings they’d experienced over the previous 48 hours. He looked like a five year old being dragged around a mall by his mum to find a new pair of gloves after he’d lost the last pair. Slightly guilty, though not completely sure why, and totally over it.

Granada (Amache) Relocation Camp, Foundations, Prowers, Colorado © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1997. Size: 23" x 31"

Granada (Amache) Relocation Camp, Foundations, Prowers, Colorado © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1997. Size: 23" x 31"

Masumi Hayashi visited every permanent site of Japanese American internment; such was her dedication to its historical truth and visual legacy. I’d like to pay tribute to Hayashi’s artistic rigour, the project and above all her life.

Masumi Hayashi 1945 - 2006

Masumi Hayashi 1945 - 2006

This post is not only a celebration of meaningful photography but also of a life cut short in tragic circumstances.

Gila River Relocation Camp, Dog Grave, Gila River, Arizona © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 38" x 31"

Gila River Relocation Camp, Dog Grave, Gila River, Arizona © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 38" x 31"

Prison Photography has needed to limit itself in discussion, so rich and extensive was Hayashi’s oeuvre. I recommend that you spend a long time meditating her Prison series, Salt Mine series and a spectacular EPA Superfund Sites series.

Let us focus, for now, on the issue at hand – Japanese American Internment.

Professor Hayashi photographed all 10 internment camps on American soil. She also documented the 4 Canadian internment sites. It was a subject close to her heart — she was born at the Gila River Relocation camp in Arizona in 1945.

In most cases, Hayashi photographed a full 360 degrees. The gradient of exposure in her photo montages and her extruded viewpoint lent visual richness, height and vertigo to otherwise mundane landscapes. Hayashi’s indelible presence in the works is a reminder of the former human presence in inhumane environments.

Gila River Relocation Camp, Monument, Gila River, Arizona © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 31" x 75"

Gila River Relocation Camp, Monument, Gila River, Arizona © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 31" x 75"

Gila River Relocation Camp, Foundations, Gila River, Arizona © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1990. Size: 22" x 56"

Gila River Relocation Camp, Foundations, Gila River, Arizona © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1990. Size: 22" x 56"

Topaz Relocation Camp, Foundations, Delta, Utah © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 31" x 72"

Topaz Relocation Camp, Foundations, Delta, Utah © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 31" x 72"

Hayashi’s composite tactic solves the problematic banality of many of the sites. She describes here and here that many of the sites as barren and sun bleached (Manzanar, CA has been well-preserved as a memorial and state park, but it is the exception). The most common denominator among the sites was the concrete sewage system. The large peripheral tanks always remained long after the sheds and tended plots had decayed. A brick structure was a treat, and wooden barns, anomalies.

Minidoka Relocation Camp, Visitors Waiting Room, Minidoka, Idaho © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1992. Size: 27" x 70"

Minidoka Relocation Camp, Visitors Waiting Room, Minidoka, Idaho © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1992. Size: 27" x 70"

Heart Mountain Relocation Camp, Blue Room, Park, Wyoming © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 23" x 45"

Heart Mountain Relocation Camp, Blue Room, Park, Wyoming © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 23" x 45"

Heart Mountain Relocation Camp, Interior, Park, Wyoming © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 31" x 42"

Heart Mountain Relocation Camp, Interior, Park, Wyoming © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 31" x 42"

Hayashi’s endeavours cannot be underestimated. As Candida Hofer noted;

If you consider that each individual photograph has four sides (trust me) then multiply by two decisions for each side—where to cut the edge, where to place in relation to the adjacent photo—that’s eight decisions right there. Then multiply that by say 45 photos (the number in ‘Jain Temple’ for example). That’s 360 decisions! When was the last time you did anything that required 360 of anything?

and

For those of you sitting there thinking, “Oh, yeah, I could take a bunch of little pictures of something too.” No, you couldn’t. Not like this. Her style is built on solid conventional photographic methods (each picture must itself be a very good picture).

Extraordinary.

Heart Mountain Relocation Camp, Hospital, Park, Wyoming © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 32" x 70"

Heart Mountain Relocation Camp, Hospital, Park, Wyoming © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 32" x 70"

Manzanar Relocation Camp, Tree View, Inyo, California © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage withFuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 27" x 63"

Manzanar Relocation Camp, Tree View, Inyo, California © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage withFuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 27" x 63"

Manzanar Relocation Camp, Monument (Version 1), Inyo, California © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 20" x 30"

Manzanar Relocation Camp, Monument (Version 1), Inyo, California © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 20" x 30"

In addition to her photographic work, Hayashi conducted audio interviews of former internees to develop a complete sense of experience across the American internment archipelago.

Manzanar Relocation Camp, Guard Gates, Inyo, California © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1992. Size: 27" x 65"

Manzanar Relocation Camp, Guard Gates, Inyo, California © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1992. Size: 27" x 65"

Granada (Amache) Relocation Camp, Water Tank, Prowers, Colorado © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1997. Size: 23" x 31"

Granada (Amache) Relocation Camp, Water Tank, Prowers, Colorado © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1997. Size: 23" x 31"

Jerome Relocation Camp, Farm, Drew & Chicot, Arkansas © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 22" x 59"

Jerome Relocation Camp, Farm, Drew & Chicot, Arkansas © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 22" x 59"

In August 2006, Hayashi along with her neighbour John Jackson, knocked at the door of the apartment of another neighbour Jacob Cifelli to complain oncemore about his high volume music. It was the last of many noise complaints. Cifelli shot them both to death in the stairwell.

The story has added tragedy as Hayashi had recently reunited with her biological daughter, Lisa Takata, after 39 years of estrangement. Hayashi gave Takata up for adoption within a few days after her birth in the midst of the Watts Riots in 1965.

Photographer, artist and fellow Cleveland resident, Norm Roulet summed up the loss of Hayashi;

I am saddened and horrified to now recognize Masumi Hayashi as the finest photographer and one of the greatest artists Northeast Ohio has ever know, as she was murdered last night in her studio. All local arts lovers and artists certainly knew Masumi and her remarkable work, and of the great value she brought to CSU as a professor there. Her loss to Northeast Ohio as an arts community cannot be overstated. Now, every time I paste together my collages I’ll think of Masumi in fond remembrance. Rest in peace, Masumi Hayashi – I apologize to you for the insanity that is Cleveland today.

Rest in peace, indeed.

Jerome Relocation Camp, Sewer, Drew & Chicot, Arkansas © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 23" x 55"

Jerome Relocation Camp, Sewer, Drew & Chicot, Arkansas © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1995. Size: 23" x 55"

Tule Lake Relocation Camp, Sewer, Tulelake, California © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1996. Size: 32" x 59"

Tule Lake Relocation Camp, Sewer, Tulelake, California © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1996. Size: 32" x 59"

Poston lll Relocation Camp, Sewer, Yuma, Arizona © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1997. Size: 26" x 63"

Poston lll Relocation Camp, Sewer, Yuma, Arizona © Masumi Hayashi. Panoramic photo collage with Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 1997. Size: 26" x 63"

Masumi Hayashi’s work has been exhibited in internationally respected museums and galleries, including the International Center for Photography in New York, the L.A. County Art Museum, the Japanese American National Museum (L.A.), the Tokyo Museum of Photography, the Ludwig Museum of Art in Germany, and the Victoria and Albert Museum of Photography in London, England. In 2003, she had a retrospective one-person exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Professor Hayashi taught photography for 24 years at Cleveland State University, Ohio.

Gallery with pop-out full size images

Thanks to Matt Kelley at Criminal Justice Change.org for alerting me to Hayashi’s work.

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