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© Maja Daniels

You may have noticed that I like to talk not only about prisons but also about other total institutions.

Maja DanielsInto Oblivion photographed on a Protected Unit of a French geriatric care institution “attempts to create a discussion about our institutionalized, modern way of living as well as the use of confinement as an aspect of care.”

Many of the images in Daniels’ series feature patients at the door to the secured wing:

“Ruled according to the “principle of precaution”, residents in the unit can circulate freely within the secured area but due to a lack of activities and a limited presence of carers in the ward, the locked door becomes the centre of attention for the elders who question the obstruction and attempt to force it open. The daily struggle with the door, damaged due to repeated attempts to pick the lock, can last for hours.”

The Oracle gathering? An International Mob of Mystery? Well, not exactly but given that Oracle is the main meeting of the world’s most influential people in the museum/fine art photography scene it is amazing the gathering flies under the radar year on year.

I’ve done some internet sleuthing to tell you some of what you need to know about the Bilderberg of the photography world.

Okay, it might not be so cloak and dagger as I have set it up, but The Annual International Conference for Photography Curators dubbed ‘Oracle’ has no web presence and no connection to the circles outside of the attendees. This (presumably intended) detachment is – simply put – a shame. Granted, these are people predominantly involved in museum curating, but still wouldn’t it be great to know what they are talking about when they meet each November?! Museums still feed into the photography ecosystem, and often define it.

Oracle began in 1982 as an informal gathering. In 2003, Deidre Stein Greben wrote, “Attendance at Oracle […] has grown from ten to more than 100 over the last 20 years.”

With such an organically unhurried growth, why should curators care to share their dialogues? Hell, the week might be the closest thing many of them get to a holiday. Add to that the fact that there’s no external promotion or grand narratives to push, it makes sense that no-one would take on the extra workload of interfacing with the public and all that entails.

I also think of photography curators as a similar breed to university professors; the culture of research, writing and custodianship of department agendas does not dovetail with blogging the discoveries and knowledge from their daily work. (David Campbell summarises well how the reluctance of universities to adopt social networking is to their detriment.) It’s a shame. How good would a Sandra Phillips blog be?!

The 2010 Oracle is ongoing right now in Israel (Jerusalem, I think).

This is where my sleuthing gets patchy but other host institutions/cities have included; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1992); George Eastman House, Rochester (1993); Washington (1999); Finnish Museum of Photogaphy, Helsinki (2000); Goa, India (2003); Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago (2004); Artimino, Florence (2005); Prague, Czech Republic (2006); Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZ (2007) and Paris, France (2009).

My guess is attendance is invitation only or some approximation thereof. Just because I gleaned a smattering of names, I’ll share them. Attendees have included Britt Salvesen, Director of photography and prints at LACMA; Doug Nickel, Professor of Photographic History at Brown University; Sunil Gupta, Artist, photographer, curator and educator; Allison Nordstrom, Curator of photography at George Eastman House; David E. Haberstich, Associate Curator of Photographs at the Smithsonian; Celina Lunsford, Director of the Fotografie Forum Frankfurt; Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, Director of the Sheldon Art Galleries in St. Louis; Dr Sara Frances Stevenson, Chief Curator of the Scottish National Photography Collection, National Galleries of Scotland (retired); Mary Panzer, freelance writer & curator of photography & American culture; Ms. Agne Narusyte, Curator, Vilnius Art Museum Photographic Collection, Vilnius, Lithuania; Shelly Rice, Professor of Arts at NYU Tisch School of Arts; Enrica Viganò, curator and fine art photography critic; Duan Yuting, founder of the Lianzhou International Photo Festival; Mark Haworth-Booth, Head of Photographs, Victoria & Albert Museum; Anne Wilkes Tucker, photography curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Sandra S. Phillips, Senior Curator of Photography at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Quite the list. And I can think of many other photography curators who presumably would attend (Rod Slemmons, Anthony Bannon, Brian Wallis, Charlotte Cotton, Malcolm Daniel?) Who knows?

It’s not a totally closed shop though. Despite the 2006 shuttering of the Oracle listserv, some plucky “Independents” have set up a NING type forum, Oracle Independents. It is sporadically updated with links to articles and events about historically significant photography. Currently there are 40 members, some names recognisable. But this doesn’t get us to the meat of those dialogues currently ongoing in Jerusalem.

Last thing to say, is that the museum world is separate from the worlds of gallery, photojournalist, fine art, auction house, social documentary, magazine, fashion and art-school photographies. Even if we did have a line in on the world’s leading curators’ discussions, the information may have no bearing on our aims, art or careers. Heck, we might not even be interested. But it’d be nice wouldn’t it?

Not wanting to be pessimistic, but unable to help myself, consider this quote from Marvin Heiferman, freelance author, editor and curator and “champion of the blue-collar nature of the silent majority of photographs.” Bear in mind he’s talking about very early Oracle, but nonetheless, the quote highlights potential disconnects between different orbits of the photography world.

“When I started looking at this new [Postmodern] work, I loved its nonchalance, intelligence and cheekiness, the fact that it was interested in both seeing and seeing through images. The photo world, though, wasn’t as amused, and didn’t have a clue what the small group of us was getting so jazzed up about. Toward the end of my stint at Castelli in the early 1980s—and then when I went off on my own to work with photographers and artists and produce exhibitions—I attended some of the early annual meetings of Oracle. This was a conference of photography curators from around the world who gathered together supposedly to talk about the future of the field, and was funded by Sam Yanes at the Polaroid Corporation. Polaroid supported a lot of progressive photographic projects in the 1970s and ’80s. It was, to say the least, disappointing to me that most of the attendees were more excited to fuss over 19th- and 20th-century work and issues of preservation and storage. But there were a handful of us—including Andy Grundberg, who was writing for the New York Times, and Jeff Hoone from Syracuse—who did our best to raise interest in the new work we were so excited by. No one seemed to care.” (Source)




Friend of Prison Photography, Emiliano Granado, likes football as much as he rocks at photography.

We pooled our knowledge to pair each country competing in South Africa with a photographer of the same nationality.


FRA France  – JR
MEX Mexico – Livia Corona
RSA South Africa – Mikhael Subotzky
URU Uruguay – Martín Batallés


ARG Argentina – Marcos Lopez
GRE Greece – George Georgiou (Born in London to Greek Cypriot parent)
KOR South Korea – Ye Rin Mok
NGA Nigeria – George Osodi


ALG Algeria – Christian Poveda
ENG England – Stephen Gill
SVN Slovenia – Klavdij Sluban (French of Slovenian origin … I know, I know, but you try to find a Slovenia born photographer!)
USA United States – Bruce Davison


AUS Australia – Stephen Dupont
GER Germany – August Sander
GHA Ghana – Philip Kwame Apagya
SRB Serbia – Boogie


CMR Cameroon – Barthélémy Toguo
DEN Denmark – Henrik Knudsen
JPN Japan – Araki
NED Netherlands – Rineke Dijkstra


ITA Italy – Massimo Vitali
NZL New Zealand – Robin Morrison
PAR Paraguay – ?????
SVK Slovakia – Martin Kollar


BRA Brazil – Sebastiao Selgado
CIV Ivory Coast – Ananias Leki Dago
PRK North Korea – Tomas van Houtryve (it was difficult to find a North Korean photographer)
POR Portugal – Joao Pina


CHI Chile – Sergio Larrain
HON Honduras – Daniel Handal
ESP Spain – Alberto García Alix
SUI Switzerland – Jules Spinatsch

Emiliano has been posting images from each of the photographers and doubled up on a few nations where the talent pool is teeming. You can see them all over on his Tumblr account, A PILE OF GEMS


* Don’t even begin arguing about who should represent the USA. It is a never-ending debate.

* I’ll be honest, finding photographers for the African nations was tricky, even for a web-search-dork like myself. But then we knew about the shortcomings of distribution and promotion within the industry, didn’t we?

* For Chile, we had to look to the past legend Larrain. I’ll be grateful if someone suggest a living practitioner.

* North Korean photographer, by name, anyone? We had to fall back on van Houtryve because he got inside the DPR.

* Rineke Dijkstra was one of approximately 4 thousand-trillion dutch photographers who are everywhere.

* Araki was the easy choice. Ill admit – I know next to nothing about Japanese photography (Marc, help?)

* I wanted a few more political photographers in there, while Emiliano goes for arty stuff. I think we found a nice balance overall.

* And, SERIOUSLY, name me a Paraguayan photographer! PLEASE.





© Jacqueline Salmon

“In France, photography and prisons have rarely got along” says Clair Guillot for Le Monde (translated). Guillot, prompted by the current exhibition L’Impossible Photographie, Prisons Parisiennes (1851-2010), speculates on the common conditions for prison photographers listing limited access, lack of light and space, constant supervision and uncertain scheduling.Guillot quotes Mathieu Pernot, a photographer occupied by issues of the Panopticon, ‘In prison, the main body is the eye, because the buildings are designed to improve monitoring. At the same time prisoners are held [partly] to deprive them of self-image [and held to deny society his image and presence.]’ I paraphrase due to the vagaries of translation.

(Pernot is flavour-of-the-month, right now, exhibiting in Fotodok’s State Of Prison show in Amsterdam as well as this Parisian outing.)

Guillot goes on to suggest that there has been a recent rise in the practice of prison photography, yet she doesn’t provide projects or practitioners on which she bases that statement.

Whether or not praxis and interest in prison photography is on the up, the ever-existing requirement of French law not to show the faces of prisoners is a steady constant. This is a paradox that needs explaining and, to some extent, apologising for. The effort and will of prison photographers to reveal the hidden arguably achieves the opposite; images of faceless prisoners only contribute more abstracted views of prisons.

Is photography the right tool for the job of describing prisons and the lives within?

Let’s take a look at the work of a couple of the prison photographers in the l’Impossible Photographie show, and evaluate their contributions to this proposed fledgling genre. Matheiu Pernot, Jacqueline Salmon and Michel Semeniako were commissioned for the show. A request was made access for five photographers, but the authorities only allowed three.JACQUELINE SALMON

Jacqueline Salmon‘s photograph are straight environmental studies. In some works she uses the silhouettes of cage, fence and shadow. Often Salmon’s images will offer the promise of a window or vista only to present a barrier or razor wire immediately behind the promise. These are images of frustration. When Salmon documents open doors, they are within larger areas of containment, not strategically imperative and are not policed by the disciplining authority. Through some of these are the work and leisure activities offered at Le Santa Prison, Paris; gymnasium, family rooms, kitchen, chapel and laundry.

Salmon’s use of orange is occasionally reminiscent of Mikhael Subotzky’s studies in South African prisons and of course echoes the jumpsuits we’ve come to associate with the global and most lawless of prisons – allied sites of detention, Guantanamo, Bagram and beyond …

It is very difficult to be a fair judge when one only has 300 pixel wide website images to go by, but there are 40 images to browse and take in. Aside of the debates about artistic merit, the project as a contemporary document of an old and famous prison in the French capital is an achievement in itself.


Salmon’s impartial observations lie in contrast to Michel Semeniako‘s close engagement with the inmates. Semeniako conducted portrait workshops but not permitted to exhibit this work he collaborated with inmates on still lives of their possessions; portraits of men as evidenced by the objects they possess.

Screengrab. Varga Traian, Maison d’arrêt de Paris-la-Santé, 2009. © Michel Semeniako.

It’s an interesting concept and an approach used by other prison photographers (Jeff Barnett-Winsby and Edmund Clark spring to mind). For Semeniako’s project, each prisoner is a co-author of the images. Could we argue that this is part rehabilitation, part art, part documentary? I guess one must decide on how wants to judge Semeniako’s project first.

I’ll judge it on two criteria; firstly, on the self-esteem and therapeutic advantages for the prisoners in discussing and constructing ones own environment for presentation; and secondly, on the otherwise impossible connection to prisoners’ lives which is afforded to viewers of the photographs. This connection informs (just a little) and in so doing completes a minor but profound transaction initiated by Semeniako and each prisoner during their discussion on how to assemble their still lives.


Brendan Seibel penned an overview of the l’Impossible Photographie. Seibel concludes that the exhibit is large and potentially overwhelming;

“Tying the exhibition together is not chronology but classification. Rooms are broken down by location, with contributions by a steady cast of photographers spread throughout. Women’s prisons La Petite Roquette and Saint-Lazare reveal a jarring juxtaposition of nuns and incarceration, the role of religion in rehabilitation. The men’s – Grand Roquette, Sainte-Pelagie, Mazas and Santé – lay clustered together, more barren and austere. Throughout the exhibition essays on each prison, brief summations of photographers, developments in regulations and politics accompany each turn of the corner.”

Seibel was particularly engaged by the archive of Henri Manuel from the 20s and 30s. Manuel was employed by the French government to document the prison and justice systems. He gained unprecedented access and his prints are pivotal in the genre of prison photography.

Other artists include photographer Pierre Jouve (talking here, in French, about his juvenile detention photographs), also designer/photographer Anne-lise Dees and the photographer/oral historian Catherine Rechard.



© Catherine Rechard.

– – –

All in all, this exhibit is a significant attempt to reconcile the curiosity and desire to see the activities of the state (think about the ethics and standards debates about military embedded journalists) with the work of artists who endeavour in to do so. Perhaps Guillot is right, perhaps following this exhibition, prison photography may be defining the parameters of its own genre?

– – –

The Carnavalet is hosting a series of tours, discussions and other events related to the exhibition. A schedule can be found here.

l’Impossible Photographie
From now until 4 July 2010
7€/5€ Reduced 10:00-18:00
Closed Mondays and Holidays
Musée Carnavalet
23 rue de Sévigné
Mº St-Paul/Chemin Vert


I posted an image of Mathieu Pernot‘s earlier this week, but I thought his work was so novel it required a post of its own.

Les Hurleurs (The Howlers) – completed between 2001 and 2004 – is a series of photographs of people screaming to detainees in three prisons – Les Baumettes, Marseilles, France; Avignon Prison, France (which is now luxury apartments); and the Unidad Hospitalaria Penitenciaria D’homes, Barcelona, Spain.



Pernot “portraits” are surprising more than anything else and – for me at least – touch upon the diminished possibilities of family and friends when someone close to them gets locked up. The severance, deserved or not, results in desperate and almost pitiful tactics by Pernot’s subjects. Indeed, these images are meant to be seen alongside Pernot’s other series Panopticon which takes a documentary view of structures of the carceral “machine”.

Pernot’s work is intelligent in that it shows both sides of the experience and the deafening silence of his interior prison shots are roundly supported by the unheard vocal efforts of Pernot’s subjects.

View the full set here.





Last month, I gave a tip of the hat to Melinda Hawtin’s graduate work. Thereafter, Melinda’s graduate advisor Amanda Crawley Jackson dropped me a line to tell me about the exhibition L’IMPOSSIBLE PHOTOGRAPHIE, Prisons Parisiennes (1851-2010) at the Musee Carnavalet in Paris early next year. (Details via Google translate)

I have already enlisted a reporter in the field to visit and review the exhibition for Prison Photography, so there’s something to look forward to in the new year.

Amanda also pointed out the collection of over 2,500 photographs by Henri Manuel archived at the National Museum of Prisons, France.

Between 1929 and 1931, the Henri Manuel studio documented prisons and juvenile institutions for the Ministry of Justice.

Manuel’s photographic survey is characterised by its scope, its exhaustiveness and its will to show that prison is not merely a place of detention and punishment but education and work also.

The survey resulted in craftsman-made albums for each prison, and several photographs were published in the press or distributed as postcards.

However, no records exist so exact reasons for the contract such as who ordered the work (and for what purpose) remain unknown. (Source)

Some of Manuel’s photographs blow my mind.

© Philippe Bazin

Last month, Melinda Hawtin contacted me about her interest and graduate research into the representations of prisons in French contemporary photography.

My position in the world is a little more comfortable knowing that another human has the niche commitment to prison photography!

Hawtin’s geography-specific project is even more narrowly defined as mine. She humbly referred to her blog as “yet a vessel for my (mostly) unresearched musings but I am hoping that in time it will take on a more coherent form”. Martin’s posts are far more than her modesty suggests – they are important introductions to academics, works and points of analysis.

Hawtin introduced me to the work of Philippe Bazin, whose series Détenus is a straight photographic study of French prisoners. Hawtin is discomforted somewhat by Bazin’s sentimentalisation of prisoners, “it seems strange and rather naive that artists like Bazin are so keen to portray the humanity of inmates. I’m not suggesting that they demonise them instead but monochrome, close-up images of prisoners could be seen to be over-romanticising the prisoner”.

© Philippe Bazin

My take? Intimate shots do not automatically translate to sentimentalisation or captures of “true” humanity. It is always hazardous to prescribe the reaction of an audience to a photographic style. I would step back (possibly cowardly) and suggest that Bazin’s portraits are worthwhile simply because they differ in tone from the vast majority of other photographic studies of prisoners.

Hawtin and I swapped resources and names including the excellent Visa pour L’Image web documentary winner, Jean Gaumy and Lizzie Sadin, whose photography focuses on juveniles in prisons across the globe, including her own nation of France.

Investigations into the portrayal of French prisoners could not be more timely:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called French prisons “the shame of the nation”, and the European Union has demanded that France improve the detention conditions of its inmates to meet minimum European standards.

I’ll be sure to check in with Hawtin’s blog regularly.

“Curiosity was the initial spur. Surprise, shock and bewilderment soon took over. Rage propelled me along to the end.”

Jane Evelyn Atwood on photographing in women’s prisons.

This is the third and final installment in my series Women Behind Bars. The second part looked ta the writing of Vikki Law and the first looked at the journalism of Silja Talvi. It was Silja who recommended Jane Evelyn Atwood’s work.


When discussing the work of a prison photographer, it is preferable to do so within the specifics of the region or nation they document. Prison Photography‘s key inquiry is how the photographer came to be in the restricted environment of a prison and these details differs from place to place. Such inquiry is complicated by Jane Evelyn Atwood‘s work because she visited over 40 prisons in twelve countries over a period of one decade. In some cases I know the location of a particular image and in others I don’t. I suggest you compensate for this by buying the book Too Much Time for yourself.

Above is a women’s penal colony in Perm, Russia. It holds over 1,000 women – the majority of who work forced hard labour. Here we see women who are in solitary confinement experiencing their yard privileges – half an hour in outside cages. Most women in the prison are there for assault, theft or lack of papers.

Below is a scene from a Czechoslovakian prison. The scars are not the result of genuine suicide attempts but of regular self-mutilation – a problem more common among female prison populations than male populations.


Another reason to pick up Atwood’s book would be that there isn’t much stuff out there on the web – and that which is is low resolution or small-size. You can see a small selection from Atwood’s Prison series at her website; small images at PoYI; and a really good selection of tear-sheets at Contact Press Images.

By far the best stuff on the web concerning Too Much Time is an Amnesty International site devoted to the project. It includes a powerful preface in which Atwood lays out her raison d’etre. Next Atwood provides a “world view” comparing the prison systems of France, Russia and the US (each a five minute audio). Then comes three specific photo-essays with audio (Motherhood, Vanessa’s Baby, The Shock Unit). Finally, Atwood provides six stories behind six photographs. The stories are many and the facts more astounding than the emotions.

While Atwood’s pictures present the many individual circumstances of the prisoners, Atwood has identified a common denominator; “Of the eighteen women I met in [my] first prison, all but one seemed to be incarcerated because of a man. They were doing time for something he had done, or for something they would never have done on their own.”

Atwood qualifies this, “One woman told me her husband forced to set the alarm to have sex with him three times a night. She endured it for years and finally killed the man that kept her hostage. Another woman’s husband was shot by her daughter after he had stabbed her in the arm as a “souvenir”, poured hot coffee on his wife’s head for not mixing his sugar, and urinated all over the living room after one of the children refused to come out the bathroom. The woman was serving time for “refusing to come to her husband’s aid.”


What is most impressive about Atwood’s work is that it predates photojournalism’s wider interest in prisons by a couple of decades. She had at first tried to gain entry into a French prison in the early eighties. Her failure is unsurprising given Jean Gaumy of Magnum was the very first photojournalist inside a French prison in 1976.

It is a scandal that the discussion over shackling women during labor and gynecological examination continues today. Atwood captured the brutality of it decades ago.


Atwood’s work veers consciously between two reality of the women’s situation – the environment and the body.

Many of her photos share a compositional austerity. The hard angles of institutions run according to ‘masculine mathematics’ (dictating sentencing and experience) are repeated. Atwood punctuates this stern reality with flourishes of femininity … and touch.


Some may think Atwood has over-reached herself with a global inquiry and I’d be sympathetic to the point if anyone else had come close to her commitment. Even considering each prison system in isolation, Atwood’s work can hold its own. Her work in Perm, Russia is particularly powerful as it orbits closely around the issue of uniform, identity and the complications it brought to bear directly on her documentary.

At the Amnesty site, Atwood brings up many interesting points of comparison. She identifies the US system as the most sterile with a legal mandate to treat female prisoners in the same manner as male prisoners. But she also says that if there is grievance or complaint to be settled, US prisoners have recourse to do so. Such allowances are not made in France.

On the other hand, children are excluded from all but a couple of US prisons. The security threat is cited as the reason: a child inside a prison is a constant vulnerable life and constant hostage target. The claim seems a little bogus when penal systems of other countries are brought into consideration.


Atwood was interviewed by Salon about the project. She has also worked on landmine victims and talked to Paris Voice about that. Here, she talks about Canon about her work in Haiti.

Jane Evelyne Atwood

Jane Evelyn Atwood

Biography: Jane Evelyn Atwood was born in New York. She has lived in Paris since 1971. In 1976, with her first camera, Atwood began taking pictures of a group of street prostitutes in Paris. It was partly on the strength of these photographs that Atwood received the first W. Eugene Smith Award, in 1980, for another story she had just started work on: blind children. Prior to this, she had never published a photo.

In the ensuing years, Atwood has pursued a number of carefully chosen projects – among them an 18-month reportage of a Foreign Legion regiment, following the soldiers to Beirut and Chad; a four-and-a-half-month story on the first person with AIDS in France to allow himself to be photographed for publication (Atwood stayed with him until his death); and a four-year study of landmine victims that took her to Cambodia, Angola, Kosovo, Mozambique and Afghanistan.

Atwood is the author of six books. In addition, her work has been including the ‘A Day In The Life’ series. She has been exhibited worldwide in solo and group exhibitions. She has worked for LIFE Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Stern, Géo, Paris Match, The Independent, The Telegraph, Libération, VSD, Marie-Claire and Elle. Atwood has worked on assignment for government ministries and international humanitarian organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, Handicap International and Action Against Hunger.

She has been awarded the Paris Match Grand Prix du Photojournalisme (1990), Hasselblad Foundation Grant (1994), Ernst Haas Award (1994), Leica’s Oskar Barnack Award (1997) and an Alfred Eisenstaedt Award (1998). In 2005, Atwood received the Charles Flint Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters from Bard College, joining a company of previous laureates including Edward Saïd, Isaac Bashevis Singer and E.L. Doctorow.


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