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“I have seen 4 seconds of it. I heard my son begging for his life. I cannot watch. I know it is very disturbing,” said Janetta Brown to Democracy Now! about a 17-minute video which documents the death of her son Sergeant James Brown in a jail in El Paso.

Sgt. James Brown voluntarily checked himself in to the Texas jail on a Friday night in 2012 to serve a two night sentence for a 2011 DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol) charge. The only reason Brown’s death has been in the news recently is because a video of the incident was recently acquired by an El Paso TV station. Brown’s family, including his mother did not know of a video of his death until it was mentioned, in passing, by a lawyer. That led to the request and release of the disturbing footage.

The video has been widespread across the news this past week. I have had the YouTube window open in my browser for days, knowing I should respond, but not quite knowing how to. This is my beat — imagery emerging from a state-administered locked facility, made by the state authority being used and interpreted against itself. My anger, sadness and outrage were immediate and obvious. I felt those negative emotions but they did not fully describe my experience. I was paralysed from writing because of guilt. I feel guilty that I am viewing a video of a man’s death that his mother has not. I feel guilty that I am so far removed from the subject I can move on from its devastating truth on a whim. The browser reamined open because I couldn not close it; to do so would be to, likely, never return.

“It’s devastating. It’s inhumane,” said mother, Janetta Brown. She was describing the events leading up to her son’s death, but she could as easily have been described the videoing of events. “It’s inexplicable what happened to him,” she added.

It is inexplicable that we are able to view a death online. Centuries ago, people witnessed death in war, workplace accidents, hate crimes, in person. Decades ago, people began to witness death (not the aftermath of death, but the actual drawing of final breath) in sequenced still news imagery and some TV footage. Years ago, we became accustomed to seeing deaths online. It’s almost inexplicable that once people mostly encountered death at the bedside of a loved one, and now children can watch snuff-movie-equivalents on the internet, at will.


Authorities claimed Sgt. James Brown died due to a Sickle Cell Crisis which prevented oxygen getting to his brain and organs, but the family say he had no prior record of Sickle Cell Disease. Brown repeatedly says he can’t breathe and appears not to resist. By the end of the video, he is shown naked, not blinking or responding, his breathing shallow. Attorneys say an ambulance was never called. Brown was eventually brought to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Unfortunately, Brown’s filmed death is the latest in a series of high profile videos to hit the news channels. The deaths of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner in New York, Charly Leundeu Keunang in Los Angeles, James M. Boyd in Albuquerque, John Crawford III in Ohio, and Walter Scott in North Charleston have all been consumed by the public. As challenging as these videos are, we would not want them to not exist. The judicial system, as it currently operates, serves to protect law enforcement officers with their fingers on the trigger more than it does those who are victim to cops’ bullets. We know that video evidence is one of the few things that can sway legal decisions in a direction favourable to the victims and their advocates.

I suspect that if videos of the murders of Akai Gurley, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown had existed prosecutions for the assailants may have stood a chance in court. (I fully acknowledge the murder of Eric Garner taped from start to finish resulted in no indictment of the officers.)

Given the calls for more police body cams — from the White House to Michael Brown’s family — it might be that our future will hold more videos of death. And so we have news and evidence to be analysed; the use of video as witness versus the circulation of video as internet fodder; and the empowerment of knowing versus the guilt of knowing at a distance. The multiple roles these types of video play created my long hesitation to write this post.

My paralysis was broken when I read Teju Cole’s well-pitched Death In The Browser. Cole also grapples with the discomfort of being a consumer but he manages to reconcile his emotions and untangle their confusion. He admits to writing about many things related to the issue of Walter Scott’s videoed death before arriving at his main point about Scott’s death. But Cole’s words are not wasted.

“If you set enough tangents around a circle, you begin to recreate the shape of the circle itself,” writes Cole.

Cole brings us gently to a point at which we all must stand if we’re to function in a culture now unhesitant to circulate images of fellow humans’ deaths. Rather elegantly, Cole draws a parallel between the person killing and the person watching the killing.

We need to adapt to the new type of life and death data to which we are exposed. Cole points out that watching a time bar creep across the bottom of our screen is a conscious action. Just as raising a gun and pulling a trigger is a conscious action. As individuals, we are not able to change decisions made by others, but we can consider deeply the decisions we make before the screens of our devices.

Have we comprehended that there are profound differences to the material we see on the internet? All things are not the same. And yet it’s pretty easy to open or close a browser window, regardless. Find something else to hold our attentions.

I’m not talking about being desensitized per se (arguments that photos of death and disaster numb us are largely discredited). I am not talking about a psychological or evolutionary shift; I’m talking about a structural fact of our internet browsers. It’s all too easy to click the next tab, the next news story, the next or previous image in a gallery. We remain appalled by (videoed) injustices but will we be moved to political action because of them? Do we see the urgency in a video, the same way we see the urgency in a burning building or baby on the tracks? A lot of my concern feeds into a larger worry that we’re living a step apart anyway, making the harder work of political organising more of a challenge. We need to ensure footage of violence emboldens us against violence.

Is the seriousness of death and murder, repeated, on our screens enough of a spur for us to enact equally serious discretion over our online consumption? I left my browser open all week, Cole closed his before the shots ended. There’s no right or wrong answer, but there is a right or wrong decorum.

My thoughts return to Janetta Brown. And they will every time I have the option to press play on an internet vid. She made a conscious choice not to watch the video of her son’s death; she did so to avoid further trauma. Yet, Janetta Brown understands the role the video will play for educating hundreds of thousands of people on the injustices behind bars in America. Killing videos are not for entertainment. Imagine meeting a victim’s mother or family or loved ones and imagine telling them that you watched the video in any other spirit than sympathy and solidarity.


“The question is not whether Fabienne will be remembered as a victim of the earthquake but whether, outside her family, she will be remembered at all.”

Rory Carroll, The Guardian, January 26th, 2010

15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma lies dead after being shot in the head in Port-au-Prince. Photograph: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters.

Fifteen year-old Fabienne Cherisma was shot dead by police at approximately 4pm, January 19th, 2010.

On the 26th of January, the Guardian published an account of Fabienne’s life – her schooling, her sales acumen and her aspirations to be a nurse. The piece is not long, but it needn’t be. It is a modest effort – hopefully the first of a few – to remind us that Fabienne was a daughter, a sister, a source of love and pride for her family and, in the end, an innocent victim.


There is a chance that Fabienne Cherisma could become a symbol of the Haitian earthquake and the problematic aftermath; that she become a tragic silhouette extending meaning far beyond the facts of her abrupt and unjust death.

This notion can be at once offensive and inevitable. If the visual rhetoric is going to play out as such, then if it is not Fabienne, it will be another victim.

What purpose could the emergence of a such a symbol serve?

Thus far Fabienne’s death is a story that has caught wide attention. It came without warning, it was unexpected. Her death – resulting not from nature’s violence but from human action – stands out from other deaths as a particular injustice; Fabienne’s killing is salt in the wounds. While tens of thousands lay obscured beneath rubble, she lay limp and exposed on a bare roof-top. The image itself is an affront.

If one believes that images fuel public awareness, thus securing donations and aid, and thus helping Haiti’s immediate future, then certain images and stories will carry that awareness and emotion.

All the accusations of media exploitation in Haiti do not discredit the positive effects a single image can – without any manipulation – have in the minds of millions. I wouldn’t call this the magic or the power of photography, I’d call it the mysterious perversion of photography. I don’t, and can’t, explain it. I merely observe it.


Fears amongst those who care about media and its conduct hope that the focus can remain on Haiti and its long-term recovery. If the media deserts Haiti after a few short weeks then all accusations of disaster pornography will be upheld.

Photo-editors are now searching for the images that will maintain the humanitarian momentum on Hispanola. These images will be from committed photojournalists who stick around once press photographers have left.

It would be worthwhile to see and hear journalists’ reporting that follows up on the experiences of victims who may or may not have already appeared in coverage. I actually expect journos will follow up on the stories of the child born amid the rubble, the elderly woman rescued after 10 days and the man rescued after search and rescue was called off.

The Haitian recovery must be reported more than the initial chaos.

In the scenario of mass reproduction and circulation, the image of Fabienne’s dead body needn’t be one of mere exploitation. Nothing is so one-dimensional. Of course, this is very sensitive territory and above all the wishes of her family should prevail … in an ideal world.

That said, the history of photojournalism is replete with globally-recognised subjects whose visage was appropriated without their knowledge and/or consent. There’s no model release form in war and disaster.

Fabienne may become a symbol for the innocent victims of this disaster as Kim Phúc did for those in Vietnam. The politics of the two crises are a planet apart, but our modes of consumption are not.

Images are highly manipulable; Errol Morris asserts a caption will turn can turn the reading of a photograph 180 degrees.

The inconvenience of captions often results in the creation of symbol.

I don’t think it will be long before a symbol, a brand for Haitian plight, will rest upon a single image. Western thought demands a visual book-end to the visual dialogue.

Pureevilbunny has already documented a graphic (in both senses of the word) stencil rendering of of Fabiennie’s corpse (artist not stated). The incongruous pink clothing, argyle sweater, flowers and blood are elements that shock.


I do not want to prescribe a means of viewing images of Fabienne’s death. I am interested in informing the public about the photographers who witnessed and recorded the event.

The most widely circulated image is that atop this article by Carlos Garcia Rawlins and distributed by Reuters. It was used in the Daily Mail among others and in the Guardian’s original reporting of the killing:

Police armed with rifles shot over the heads of the people and kicked a man, part of a delayed effort to regain control of a capital which has been lawless – but largely calm – since the 12 January earthquake.

The crowd was carrying grime-­covered chairs while Fabienne, who was on a roof, clutched paintings, including one of two flowers in a vase.

Photographs show her father Osam finding her body, then lifting it into a cart. Fabienne’s mother, Armante, is shown weeping and close to collapse. Osam told AFP news agency that police intentionally shot his daughter. Police were not available for comment.

Jan Grarup of Noor images was also present. Grarup’s dispatch for the 19th and 20th January contains 136 images, nine of which include Fabienne.

© Jan Grarup / Noor Images

© Jan Grarup / Noor Images

© Jan Grarup / Noor Images

© Jan Grarup / Noor Images

Fabienne’s body is in a distinctly different position between the photographs of Garcia-Rawlins and Grarup:

© Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters.

© Jan Grarup / Noor Images

Grarup was present at the scene before Garcia-Rawlins. Between their photographings, the framed pictures slid, Fabienne’s hips turned and her body rolled.

How much time was there between Fabienne’s slaying and the two photographers at the side of her body? How much time was there between the two of them photographing Fabienne? Were Grarup and Garcia-Rawlins on the roof at the same time? Did they see each other work?

Both photographers were obviously present before Osam, Fabienne’s father, carried her body away.

In the immediate aftermath, Grarup documented with a few frames a distraught Osam and family.

Olivier Laban Mattei continued documenting events. Laban Mattei’s dispatch of 28 images, is in fact only five images repeated.

Osam Cherisma carries the body of his daughter Fabienne killed by a policeman during lootings in the Marthely Seiee street January 19, 2010 in Port-au-Prince. © Olivier Laban Mattei/AFP/Getty Images.

Armante Cherisma cries in front of the body of her daughter, Fabienne, 15 years old, killed by a policeman during lootings in the Marthely Seiee street January 19, 2010 in Port-au-Prince. © Olivier Laban Mattei/AFP/Getty Images.

Despite the amateurish piecing together of evidences, presented here is a basic timeline to Fabienne’s death. These images placed in sequence describe more fully her tragic death and take Fabienne’s memory beyond that (Garcia-Rawlins’) single image.

Fabienne was an innocent. Whether misdirected warning shots or deliberate targeting, her shooting was needless.

If Fabienne’s death does come to symbolise something larger, I hope it does so to benefit the survivors in Haiti; that the injustice brought upon her will only distill our resolve to avoid injustices to others.

If the shocking form of her body, face down in the broken frame, becomes symbolic it cannot be for reductive consumption, disaster cliche or political gain.


‘With morgues overflowing, and earthquake fatalities being bulldozed into mass graves, the Cherismas took their ­daughter’s body out of the city. With a borrowed $70 they rented a private bus, and drove for four hours to relatives in Zorange. They buried her in a Catholic ceremony and placed a white cross over the grave.’ (Source)

– – –


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


Jacob Holdt presenting at the New York Photo Festival, 2009. Screen shot from WTJ? Video.

In 2008 it was Ballen. In 2009 it was Jacob Holdt; The highlight of the New York Photo Festival.

I have been a fan of Holdt’s work for a couple of years now. Longer than some and not a fraction as long as others. Holdt has lived across the globe as an activist against racism and a harbinger of love for nearly four decades.

In 2008, Jacob Holdt was nominated for the Deutsche Borse Prize eventually losing out to Esko Männikkö. It was a shrewd shortlisting by a notoriously urbane committee at Deutsche. Holdt’s life and productive trajectory is his own, and much like Ballen does not conform to any norms of expected photographic career paths.

Any nomination – any praise – is purely a recognition of Holdt’s philosophy, his “vagabond days”,  his trust in fellow humans and his rejection of stereotypes, fear and pride. Holdt does not revere photography as others may,  “Photography never interested me. Photography was for me only a tool for social change.”

© Jacob Holdt

© Jacob Holdt

I watched Holdt’s presentation without expectation. I was, in truth, very surprised by the number of times he referred to his subjects – his friends – spending time in prison. It seemed only death trumped incarceration in terms of frequency amongst his circle of friends.

Through a “mysterious mistake” I got locked up in this California prison with my camera and had plenty of time to follow the daily life of my co-inmates. Food was served in their cells where the only table was their toilet. © Jacob Holdt

Prison Meal on Toilet © Jacob Holdt. Through a “mysterious mistake” I got locked up in this California prison with my camera and had plenty of time to follow the daily life of my co-inmates. Food was served in their cells where the only table was their toilet.

Slide after slide: “I can’t remember the number of times I have helped him get out of prison” and, “He’s in prison, now” or “He’s doing well now. He was in prison, but now he is out, has a family, and is doing well.”

Holdt described his method of finding community. Upon arrival in a new place, he would visit the police station and ask where the highest homicide rate was. He’d go to the answer.

Violence was tied up with poverty, was tied up with drugs, was tied up with deprivation, was tied up with hurt, was tied up with punishment and was tied up with prison – usually long sentencing.

Holdt’s series straddles the massive prison expansion experiment of America that began in the 1980s. Also enveloped are the crack epidemics, the racial fragmentation of urban populations and the relocation of middle classes to the suburbs. Holdt’s photographs are the mirror to racial economic inequalities.

Dad in Prison © Jacob Holdt. Alphonso has often entertained my college students about how he and the other criminals in Baltimore planned to mug me when they first saw me in their ghetto. However, we became good friends, but some time later he got a 6 year prison term. Here are the daughters Alfrida and Joann seen when they told me about it at my return. Today Alphonso has found God with the help of these two daughters who are now both ministers.

Dad in Prison © Jacob Holdt. Alphonso has often entertained my college students about how he and the other criminals in Baltimore planned to mug me when they first saw me in their ghetto. However, we became good friends, but some time later he got a 6 year prison term. Here are the daughters Alfrida and Joann seen when they told me about it at my return. Today Alphonso has found God with the help of these two daughters who are now both ministers.

Holdt doesn’t play the blame game. Just as institutions and corporations walked all over many African Americans in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and states across the South, so too did people step on each other, “This is a photo of a man the night after he shot his own brother in the head.” The next night, he was out stealing again and soon after  was convicted for another crime and served 16 years in prison.

Holdt only makes excuses for the failings of his friends insomuch as their mistakes are more likely – almost inevitable – set in the context of their life experience. He doesn’t jump in, drive-by, photo some ghetto-shots nor cadge some poverty-porn. Holdt involves himself directly and tries to open other avenues.

He and his team has lectured across the globe running anti-racism workshops. Holdt had ex-cons sell his anti-racism book on the streets when they were released from prisons without opportunity. He offered pushers the chance to sell his books instead of dope. Sometimes he saw the money and sometimes not, “But, it was never about the money” Holdt adds.

Prisoner cleaning up on Palm Beach. © Jacob Holdt

Prisoner cleaning up on Palm Beach. © Jacob Holdt

One of the most sobering facts of the talk was a double mention of Lowell Correctional Institution in Florida. It was the only facility referred to by name and twice Holdt named friends who’d spent time inside. Lowell is a women’s facility. The female prison population of America has quadrupled in the past 25 years. It is still expanding at a far faster rate than the male prison population. Women’s super-prisons are singularly an American phenomenon. Holdt dropped as an aside, “I have three friends with grandmothers in prisons.”

If he could help, he would. Holdt described a struggling young lady who he desperately wanted to get on staff of American Pictures, but in 1986 she was too strung out on crack. In 1994 he visited her in prison. In 2004 she was released. In 2007 she was still out and Holdt photographed her with her son.

He photographed mothers, lovers, father and sons behind bars. In one case, when the father was convicted the son turned to crime to keep enough money coming in to support the family. He soon joined his dad in prison.

 I was visiting the friend of this inmate when his wife suddenly came on a visit. © Jacob Holdt

Prison Kiss © Jacob Holdt. I was visiting the friend of this inmate when his wife suddenly came on a visit.

But when it would be expected that Holdt may be too deep inside the experience of the poor Black experience, he took the chance to live amid the poor White experience.

Poor whites at a Klan gathering in Alabama. © Jacob Holdt

Poor whites at a Klan gathering in Alabama. © Jacob Holdt

In 2002, Holdt had the opportunity to live with the Ku Klux Klan. He became pals with the Grand Dragon and his family.

“I have spent my life photographing hurt people.” The KKK members were no different. The leader had been abused as a child, subject to incest and beatings. Holdt presumed this but it was confirmed around the time the leader was sent to prison for 130 years for murder.

Holdt moved in with Pamela, the leaders wife, to support her in her husbands absence. Also in his absence he brought the unlikeliest of people together.

Pamela with whit friend. © Jacob Holdt

Pamela with white friend (Jacob Holdt). © Jacob Holdt

Pamela with black friend. © Jacob Holdt

Pamela with black friend. © Jacob Holdt

During this time and only through informal discussion did Holdt learn that the man was innocent – he had voluntarily gone to prison to spare his son, the real culprit, from conviction for a hate crime.

Holdt petitioned and won his release. The former Grand Dragon was unemployed upon release and went on to sell Holdt’s anti-racism book on the streets … just as the dope-dealers of Philly had 15 years earlier.

Holdt’s presentation confirmed to me that the prison is inextricably linked with the social history of America. But this should not be surprising in a society so violent. Holdt paints a portrait of America from the 70s through to today in which the poorest people (both Black and White) held the monopoly on violence, disease, depression, addiction and struggle.

When Holdt was in Africa he showed people there his images of African-Americans suffering. Africans thought the Black communities of America would fare better in Africa, “Why don’t they come back here?”

Two unemployed Vietnam veterans at wall on 3rd St. © Jacob Holdt

Two unemployed Vietnam veterans at wall on 3rd St. © Jacob Holdt

Given the situations he walked into, some may think Holdt is fortunate to still be alive but having armed himself with love he made his own luck … and friends.

Check out more on Jacob Holdt here and here. Here is an article in support of his hitch-hiking activity.

Holdt’s incredible 20,000 image archive American Pictures.

WTJ? 70 minute video of his NYPF presentation.

Alabama Death House Prison, 2004. Silver print photograph. Stephen Tourlentes

Alabama Death House Prison, Grady, AL, 2004. Silver print photograph. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Stephen Tourlentes photographs prisons only at night for it is then they change the horizon. Social division and ignorance contributed to America’s rapid prison growth. Tourlentes’ lurking architectures are embodiments of our shared fears. In the world Tourlentes proposes, light haunts; it is metaphor for our psycho-social fears and denial. Prisons are our bogeyman.

These prisons encroach upon our otherwise “safe” environments. Buzzing with the constant feedback of our carceral system, these photographs are the glower of a collective and captive menace. Hard to ignore, do we hide from the beacon-like reminders of our social failures, or can we use Tourlentes’ images as guiding light to better conscience?

Designed as closed systems, prisons illuminate the night and the world that built them purposefully outside of its boundaries. “It’s a bit like sonic feedback … maybe it’s the feedback of exile,” says Tourlentes.

Stephen Tourlentes has been photographing prisons since 1996. His many series – and portfolio as a whole – has received plaudits and secured funding from organisations including the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Artadia.

Stephen was kind enough to take the time to answer Prison Photography‘s questions submitted via email.

Penn State Death House Prison, Bellefonte, PA, 2003, Stephen Tourlentes

Penn State Death House Prison, Bellefonte, PA, 2003. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Carson City, Nevada, Death House, 2002. Gelatin silver print. Stephen Tourlentes

Carson City, Nevada, Death House, 2002. Gelatin silver print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Blythe Prison, California. Stephen Tourlentes

Blythe Prison, California. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Pete Brook. You have traveled to many states? How many prisons have you photographed in total?

Stephen Tourlentes. I’ve photographed in 46 states. Quite the trip considering many of the places I photograph are located on dead-end roads. My best guess is I’ve photographed close to 100 prisons so far.

PB. How do you choose the prisons to photograph?

ST. Well I sort of visually stumbled onto photographing prisons when they built one in the town I grew up in Illinois. It took me awhile to recognize this as a path to explore. I noticed that the new prison visually changed the horizon at night. I began to notice them more and more when I traveled and my curiosity got the best of me.

There is lots of planning that goes into it but I rely on my instinct ultimately. The Internet has been extremely helpful. There are three main paths to follow 1. State departments of corrections 2. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and 3. Private prisons.  Usually I look for the density of institutions from these sources and search for the cheapest plane ticket that would land me near them.

Structurally the newer prisons are very similar so it’s the landscape they inhabit that becomes important in differentiating them from each other. Photographing them at night has made illumination important.  Usually medium and maximum-security prisons have the most perimeter lighting.  An interesting sidebar to that is male institutions often tend to have more lighting than female institutions even if the security level is the same.

Holliday Unit, Huntsville, Texas, 2001. Gelatin silver print. Stephen Tourlentes

Holliday Unit, Huntsville, Texas, 2001. Gelatin silver print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Springtown State Prison, Oklahoma, 2003. Archival pigment print. Stephen Tourlentes

Springtown State Prison, Oklahoma, 2003. Archival pigment print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Death House Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming, 2000. Archival pigment print. Stephen Tourlentes

Death House Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming, 2000. Archival pigment print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Arkansas Death House, Prison, Grady, AK, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Arkansas Death House, Prison, Grady, AK, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. Are there any notorious prisons that you want to photograph or avoid precisely because of their name?

ST. No I’m equally curious and surprised by each one I visit. There are certain ones that I would like to re-visit to try another angle or see during a different time of year. I usually go to each place with some sort of expectation that is completely wrong and requires me to really be able to shift gears on the fly.

PB. You have described the Prison as an “Important icon” and as a “General failure of our society”. Can you expand on those ideas?

ST. Well the sheer number of prisons built in this country over the last 25 years has put us in a league of our own regarding the number of people incarcerated. We have chosen to lock up people at the expense of providing services to children and schools that might have helped to prevent such a spike in prison population.

The failure is being a reactive rather than a proactive society. I feel that the prison system has become a social engineering plan that in part deals with our lack of interest in developing more humanistic support systems for society.

PB. It seems that America’s prison industrial complex is an elephant in the room. Do you agree with this point of view? Are the American public (and, dare I say it, taxpayers) in a state of denial?

ST. I don’t know if it’s denial or fear.  It seems that it is easier to build a prison in most states than it is a new elementary school. Horrific crimes garner headlines and seem to monopolize attention away from other types of social services and infrastructure that might help to reduce the size of the criminal justice system. This appetite for punishment as justice often serves a political purpose rather than finding a preventative or rehabilitative response to societies ills.

State Prison, Dannemora, NY, 2004. Stephen Tourlentes

State Prison, Dannemora, NY, 2004. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Prison, Castaic, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Prison, Castaic, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Atwater, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Atwater, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Utah State Death House Complex, Draper, UT, 2002. Stephen Tourlentes

Utah State Death House Complex, Draper, UT, 2002. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. How do you think artistic ventures such as yours compare with political will and legal policy as means to bring the importance of an issue, such as prison expansion, into the public sphere?

ST. I think artists have always participated in bringing issues to the surface through their work. It’s a way of bearing witness to something that collectively is difficult to follow. Sometimes an artist’s interpretation touches a different nerve and if lucky the work reverberates longer than the typical news cycle.

PB. In your attempt with this work to “connect the outside world with these institutions”, what parameters define that attempt a success?

ST. I’m not sure it ever is… I guess that’s part of what drives me to respond to these places. These prisons are meant to be closed systems; so my visual intrigue comes when the landscape is illuminated back by a system (a prison) that was built by the world outside its boundaries. It’s a bit like sonic feedback… maybe it’s the feedback of exile.

PB. Are you familiar with Sandow Birk’s paintings and series, Prisonation? In terms of obscuring the subject and luring the viewer in, do you think you operate similar devices in different media?

ST. Yes I think they are related. I like his paintings quite a lot.  The first time I saw them I imagined that we could have been out there at the same time and crossed paths.

PB. Many of your prints are have the moniker “Death House” in them, Explain this.

ST. I find it difficult to comprehend that in a modern civilized society that state sanctioned executions are still used by the criminal justice system. The Death House series became a subset of the overall project as I learned more about the American prison system. There are 38 states that have capital punishment laws on the books. Usually each of these 38 states has one prison where these sentences are carried out. I became interested in the idea that the law of the land differed depending on a set of geographical boundaries.

Federal Prison, Victorville, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Victorville, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Prison Complex, Florence, AZ, 2004. Stephen Tourlentes

Prison Complex, Florence, AZ, 2004. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Lancaster State Prison, Lancaster, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Lancaster State Prison, Lancaster, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. Have you identified different reactions from different prison authorities, in different states, to your work?

ST. The guards tend not to appreciate when I am making the images unannounced. Sometimes I’m on prison property but often I’m on adjacent land that makes for interesting interactions with the people that live around these institutions.  I’ve had my share of difficult moments and it makes sense why. The warden at Angola prison in Louisiana was by far the most hospitable which surprised me since I arrived unannounced.

PB. What percentage of prisons do you seek permission from before setting up your equipment?

ST. I usually only do it as a last resort.  I’ve found that the administrative side of navigating the various prison and state officials was too time consuming and difficult. They like to have lots of information and exact schedules that usually don’t sync with the inherent difficulty of making an interesting photograph.  I make my life harder by photographing in the middle of the night.  The third shift tends to be a little less PR friendly.

PB. What would you expect the reaction to be to your work in the ‘prison-towns’ of Northern California, West Texan plains or Mississippi delta? Town’s that have come to rely on the prison for their local economy?

ST. You know it’s interesting because a community that is willing to support a prison is not looking for style points, they want jobs. Often I’m struck by how people accept this institution as neighbors.

I stumbled upon a private prison while traveling in Mississippi in 2007. I was in Tutweiler, MS and I asked a local if that was the Parchman prison on the horizon.  He said no that it was the “Hawaiian” prison. All the inmates had been contracted out of the Hawaiian prison system into this private prison recently built in Mississippi. The town and region are very poor so the private prison is an economic lifeline for jobs.

The growth of the prison economy reflects the difficult economic policies in this country that have hit small rural communities particularly hard. These same economic conditions contribute to populating these prisons and creating the demand for new prisons. Unfortunately, many of these communities stake their economic survival on these places.

Kentucky State Death House, Prison, Eddyville, KY, 2003. Stephen Tourlentes

Kentucky State Death House, Prison, Eddyville, KY, 2003. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. You said earlier this year (Big, Red & Shiny) that you are nearly finished with Of Lengths and Measures. Is this an aesthetic/artistic or a practical decision?

ST. I’m not sure if I will really ever be done with it.  From a practical side I would like to spend some time getting the entire body of work into a book form. I think by saying that it helps me to think that I am getting near the end.  I do have other things I’m interested in, but the prison photographs feel like my best way to contribute to the conversation to change the way we do things.


Author’s note: Sincerest thanks to Stephen Tourlentes for his assistance and time with this article.


Stephen Tourlentes received his BFA from Knox College and an MFA (1988) from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, where he is currently a professor of photography. His work is included in the collection at Princeton University, and has been exhibited at the Revolution Gallery, Michigan; Cranbook Art Museum, Michigan; and S.F. Camerawork, among others. Tourlentes has received a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Polaroid Corporation Grant, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship.


This interview was designed in order to compliment the information already provided in another excellent online interview with Stephen Tourlentes by Jess T. Dugan at Big, Red & Shiny. (Highly recommended!)


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