You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Empowerment’ tag.

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Fabio Cuttica‘s 2006 photo essay in Nerve from the Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd) Prison, Bogota was brought to my attention via industry-insider Rachel Hulin’s A Photography Blog. She describes a well-rude awakening.

I woke up in the middle of night after dreams of Sarah Palin, and realized that in my subconscious I had placed her into a photo essay I ran years ago as a photo editor at Nerve. She was a beauty queen in the Prisoner Pageant in Bogota, and she was glorious.

If you can get past this description from Hulin’s subconscious, I encourage you to think about the merits of this particular pageant. Despite the obvious interest from media (who are unlikely to refuse such a unique/titillating story) the benefit here seems to be predominantly for the women of the institution.

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The pageant in is honour of the Virgin Mercedes, the patron saint of prisoners. Ada Calhoun – in the intro for the Nerve photo essay – hams up the language to sensationalise the event, but I don’t think there is a need. Cuttica’s photographs are brimming with the fun, the nerves, ecstasy and community of the event.

It is obviously novel day. It would seem to me that the opportunity to celebrate femininity and to express notions of beauty normally obscured by the institution would be a welcome relief for many female prisoners; I hope its a hell of a lot of fun.

But, this is a curious contradiction to how I usually feel about beauty pageants. I generally consider beauty contests as shallow, if not ridiculous. They make a whole lot of noise over very trivial matters. To my mind, a beauty contestant on stage is as pathetic as a dog in a sweater; cringe-worthy, vulnerable and compromised.

I suppose an answer lies in who has the power and the organising authority. I may be wrong, but I presume the women of Buen Pastor prison have a huge investment in the pageant – supporting their friends, stage preparations, making costumes and accommodating guests to the prison on their day.

This is, of course, in contrast to the usual female beauty contestant who is likely genderised by her community, normalised into swimsuit & high heels at an early age and conditioned to not question the strange gaze of a town’s older (men) folk.

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Fabio Cuttica resides in Bogota, Colombia. His work is distributed by Contrasto & Redux agencies. He has worked across Latin America, recently winning acknowledgment from the College Photographer of the Year for his work documenting the La Maria & their struggle for land rights in the Cauca Region of Colombia. In 2008, Cuttica was honorably mentioned at the National Press Photographer Association’s Best of Photojournalism Awards for his extended essay about gang violence in Barrio Petare, Caracas, Venezuala. He has also worked on assignment for GEO about the Basque Region of Spain and covered the traditional family life and weaving in Valledupar, Colombia.

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Bilingual Signs © Andreina, IDRA/Albuquerque Public School District, Critical Exposure Photography Project

Images Unseen, Images Unknown written by a guest blogger on Prison Photography last week was well received by readers, provoking more questions and some intriguing possibilities.

Change.org offered a synopsis of the article. Change.org focused on the concluding points of Images Unseen, Images Unknown which described the culture of shame shrouding California prisons created by the control of images and manipulated invisibility.

Too many prisoners are hidden from view to serve out their time. Many prisoners refuse visits from family because they don’t want loved ones to see them in institutions that deny them individuality, work to subdue the general population, hide prisoners from society, and keep them docile.

So, the issue of self-representation and empowerment arises. Specific to my interest would be the possibilities of empowerment through photography.

Recently, Stan Banos asked me, “Are you aware of any photography programs in prison for prisoners.”

My answer, in short, is no. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it just means for all my searching I have unearthed nothing.

Art therapy has been explored among prison populations and recently San Quentin piloted it’s first ever ‘Film School’. The project did many things at once, teaching inmates the technical skills of documentary film making, building team work and trust; and it allowed inmates to communicate narratives of their choosing from prison life.

Inmates documented the work of the prison nurses distributing medications; filmed the prison kitchens; recorded the “wasted talent” of artists, musicians and writers within San Quentin; and studied American Islamic faith in prison.

With that in mind, we can say empowerment through the arts has been well explored and apparently successful in a number of penal institutions. However, it would seem photography in prisons has not been used as a tool for self-representation and rehabilitation … yet.

Turn Away © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

Turn Away © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

The model for this type of program exists. Dozens of important non-profits use photography as a means for at-risk-youth to tell their stories. Organisations such as Youth in Focus, Seattle; AS220 Youth Photography Program, Providence, RI: Focus on Youth, Portland; New Urban Arts, Providence; Critical Exposure, Washington DC; First Exposures by SF Camerawork in San Francisco; The In-Sight Photography Project, Vermont; Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE), Nova Scotia; Inner City Light, Chicago; My Story, Portland, OR; Picture Me at the MoCP, Chicago; and Eye on the Third Ward, Houston; The Bridge, Charlottesville, VA; and Emily Schiffer’s My Viewpoint Photo Initiative are exemplars of empowerment through photography.

The Red Hook Photo Project New York offers photography opportunities specifically to a community blighted by crime. The photo project is run by the Red Hook Community Justice Center which operates many programs to improve the lives of teens within the geographically and socially isolated Red Hook Neighbourhood.

Only slight tweaks would be necessary to these types of programs for them to be effective as rehabilitative tools among prison populations. The central driving philosophy is to offer individuals a method of self-representation they’ve never been afforded previously.

A Backwards Eye © Gwendolyn Reed, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

A Backwards Eye © Gwendolyn Reed, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

It seems the main factor, aside of funding, for rehabilitative programs establishing themselves in prisons, is the philosophy of individual wardens. San Quentin Film School was pitched repeatedly across 47 states until Warden Robert Ayers decided to launch it at San Quentin. Likewise Burl Cain, at Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) has become well known for maintaining a varied roster of programs to keep inmates occupied. They include the renowned (and ethically questionable) Rodeo, an American Football league and a hospice program in which inmates volunteer to carry out the palliative care tasks.

On this evidence, it would make sense that criminal justice reformers and those interested in increasing the visibility of prisons should actively seek out wardens currently supporting novel, or even pilot, projects. Wardens currently accommodate programs in education, the arts, dog-training, first aid, video and much more. Photography could be added to that list.

There is a lot of mainstream media programs featuring American prisons – Lockdown, Americas Hardest Prisons, Inside American Jail – but of course these are all made for cable distribution and ultimately profit; their common denominator is a heightened sensationalism.

© Wayman, Inner City Light Student Photography Project

© Wayman, Inner City Light Student Photography Project

Documentary projects upholding rehabilitation and education as their core purpose are a distinctively different type of exposure. There would be no need for regional or national television channels to provide financial backing as an end (marketable) product would not be the motivation. That said, if the narratives of such documentary projects could be shown to enhance the image of an institution the prison authority might be open to trying them. The prison warden has the decision making power, so if under a wardens leadership a prison is given (positive) exposure it makes sense that the warden would be interested.

All successful rehabilitative arts programs presumably share a cooperative approach from the outset. Wardens and authorities are not to be feared or misunderstood, but can be convinced, cajoled and open to novel suggestions and programs.

Matt Kelley has suggested that the criminal justice reform community take note of wardens who are open to more transparency within their institution. Could coordinated media access drive a movement against the “invisibility” of prisons in America today?

The ideal program I envisage, would have only a small operating budget allowing pre-screened inmates to learn the practical skills of photography and apply them for the purposes of self representation.

If San Quentin can mount a film school I am sure any prison in the future can develop a Photography School? What do you think?

I Reach © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

I Reach © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

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