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How can images tell the story of mass incarceration when the imprisoned don’t have control over their own representation? This is the question Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood asks as editor of the latest Aperture (Spring 2018).

Prison Nation” can be ordered online today and hits the news-stands next week. Devoted to prison imagery and discussion of mass incarceration, the issue presents a slew of works across contrasting genres — landmark documentary by Bruce JacksonJoseph Rodriguez and Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick; luscious and uncanny portraits by Jack Lueders-Booth, Deborah Luster and Jamel Shabazz; insider images from Nigel PoorLorenzo Steele, Jr. and Jesse Krimes; and contemporary works by Sable Elyse Smith, Emily Kinni, Zora Murff, Lucas Foglia and Stephen Tourlentes.

Equally exciting is the banger roster of thinkers contributing essays, intros and conversations — including Mabel O. Wilson, Shawn Michelle Smith, Christie Thompson, Jordan Kisner, Zachary Lazar, Rebecca Bengal, Brian WallisJessica Lynne, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Ruby Tapia, Zarinah Shabazz, Brian Stevenson, Sarah LewisHank Willis Thomas and Virginia Grise.

I have an essay ‘Prison Index’ included which looks back on almost a decade of this Prison Photography website–how it began, what it has done and what it has become. I highlight a dozen-or-so photographers’ works that are not represented by features in the issue itself. I wonder how PP functions as an archive and what role it serves for public memory and knowledge.

MATCHING QUALITY CONTENT WITH QUALITY DESIGN

I’ve known for years that Prison Photography requires a design overhaul. This past week, I’ve moved forward with plans for that. It goes without saying that the almost-daily blogging routine of 2008 with which Prison Photography began has morphed into a slower publishing schedule. There’s a plethora of great material on this website but a lot of it is buried in the blog-scroll format. My intention is to redesign PP as more of an “occasionally-updated archive” whereby the insightful interviews from years past are drawn up to the surface.

It’s time to make this *database* of research more legible and searchable. Clearly, as this Aperture issue demonstrates, the niche genre of prison photographs is vast and it demands a more user-friendly interface for this website. I’m proud to be included in “Prison Nation” but know it’s a timely prod to develop Prison Photography’s design and serve the still-crucial discussions.

 

 

Get your copy of Aperture, Issue 230 “Prison Nation” here.

Thanks to the staff at Aperture, especially Brendan Wattenberg and Michael Famighetti for ushering and editing the piece through.

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“Angola Prison, 2004,” by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick.

It was gratifying to be mentioned in Sabine Heinlein’s recent NYT article Artists Grapple With America’s Prison System which surveyed the ways artists, curators and thinkers are responding to mass incarceration. The cue for the article, I’m guessing, was the two exhibitions currently on show in NYC–Andrea Fraser at The Whitney and Cameron Rowland (covered on PP) at Artists Space.

There’s some wonderful practitioners and projects profiled, including Deana Lawson, Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, Ashley Hunt and Sable Elyse Smith among others.

The paragraph that immediately follows the mention of Prison Obscura reads:

Ben Davis, the author of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, praises artists for taking up the topic, he warned: “We should push the question beyond just consciousness-raising. There is this progressive-era style of political art where well-to-do people throw banquets for homeless people and then stand up on the balcony and congratulate themselves. There is an icky history of using the suffering of the people at the bottom as a spectacle.”

Can’t argue with that.

Keeping check of ones own interests and benefits relative to those of prisoners and prisoners’ families is critical. I believe my work has not exploited incarcerated people but I never assume that the assessment of Prison Photography, Prison Obscura or any of my other projects is fixed or final.

With criminal justice reform and prison reform emerging into the mainstream over the past, say, 5 years, I habour a continuous niggling suspicion that my writing–my blogging–has less and less effect. This is down to several factors, most of them having to do with the way we consume content on the Internet today as compared to how we consumed in 2008 when I started Prison Photography. These include, but are not limited to, the dominance of Facebook and it’s pay-to-see algorithms (I’m not on Facebook); the killing of Google Reader which in turn made RSS and the independent sources/blogs RSS aggregates more impractical to access (not to say there aren’t other RSS readers out there, but none are as elegant, or free, as Google Reader); Tumblr and the trend toward infinite scrolls of visual content, not text; and, of course, the fact that on any given day NYT, WaPo, NPR, The Guardian, The Marshall Project, The Intercept, VICE, CJR and countless other international news outlets are covering the U.S. prison industrial complex–against a backdrop of such comprehensive coverage, Prison Photography barely registers.

Some days, it feels like I’m scrapping just to stay visible. That’s an icky place to be. It’s a dangerous place too; I think it’s a place where motives and energies can be tainted and focus on the issues can diminish. For that reason, practitioners–myself included–must be subject to continuous criticism and critique.

If you ever see me standing on the balcony and congratulating myself, call me out. Shoot me down.

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