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Natasha, Women’s Prison, 2009. © Michal Chelbin

For the past three years, Michal Chelbin has made portraits in the prisons of Russia and Ukraine. You can see a selection of the works from her series Locked on the New Yorker Photobooth blog.

Chelbin’s doleful portraits are striking – something different – and, of course, given their subject matter I was compelled to mention them here. However, without any specialist knowledge of the prisons in Russia and Ukraine, I struggled to think of a worthwhile statement to accompany with them. Is it enough for me just to say that work is beautiful and interesting? I don’t think so.

Therefore, this conundrum becomes the focus of this short post.

The way Chelbin describes it, her portraits are the first step on a journey (of undetermined length) to at least attempt to “know” her subjects:

“When I record a scene, my aim is to create a mixture of plain information and riddles, so that not everything is resolved in the image. Who is this person? Why is he dressed like this? What does it mean to be locked up? Is it a human act? Is it fair? Do we punish him with our eyes? Can we guess what a person’s crime is just by looking at his portrait? Is it human to be weak and murderous at the same time? My intentions are to confuse the viewer and to confront him with these questions, which are the same questions with which I myself still struggle.”

It seems to me that this the type of curiosity we should expect of all photographers and their works; it’s partly how we are drawn into the previously unknown.

But the unknown has its dangers. As Fred Ritchin stated:

“Photography too often confirms preconceptions and distances the reader from more nuanced realities. The people in the frame are often depicted as too foreign, too exotic, or simply too different to be easily understood.”

Beautiful photography is easy to come by these days, and so, for me at least, viewing beguiling portraiture becomes an act of enjoying the beauty but then stepping further and using it to get at something deeper. That might involve a dialogue with someone over coffee; it might be to find comparative examples [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]; it might be to read up on the conditions for juvenile prisoners in Russian prisons; it might be to read the photographer’s statement or even contact the photographer directly to seek the missing pieces.

Photographs, and particularly portraits, are often a door unlocked but often in our busy lives we don’t even try the handle.

Perhaps now is a good time to return to some thoughts on what makes a great portrait, here and here.

Golf Five Zero watchtower. Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Northern Ireland, UK.  © Jonathan Olley.

Last month, I had a jolly nice chat with a jolly nice chap about what all this means at Prison Photography. Where’s this open journal taking me?

I said if I took this whole thing to the academy, it could be as simple as a historic survey: The Uses of Photography to Represent, Control and Surveil Prison, Prisoners and Publics in the United States (1945 – 2010).

I was encouraged to ditch the historical view and engage the modern. Ask myself, why should anyone care about prisons? Only a small minority care now and that status quo has remained for many reasons tied up in the antagonisms of capitalism. Would a historical survey change minds and attitudes or just lay out on paper the distinctions most people have already made between themselves and those in prison?

Perhaps people would care more if the abuse of human rights that exists within the criminal justice system of America were shown to impinge on everyone, not only on those caught in its cogs?*

What if we consider the methods and philosophies of management used by prisons and identify where they overlap with management of citizens in the “free” society. Think corporate parks, protest policing, anti-photography laws, stop and search, street surveillance, wire taps, CCTV.

My contention has always been that there was no moral division or severance of social contract over and through prison walls. For me it’s never been us & them; it is us & others among us put in a particular institution we call prison.

But, now I am seeing also, there is an ever decreasing division of tactics either side of prison walls. Strategies of management and technologies of discipline perfected in prisons have crept into daily routine.

What has this emphasis on containment and of monitoring – at the expense of education and social justice – done to our society and to our expectations of society?


And now for the tie in with photography…

Thinking about surveillance, obviously we have the big show at Tate from this Summer, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera with its devoted section to CCTV. (Jonathan Olley‘s work from Northern Ireland is the standout.)

But I always think back to Tom Wichelow‘s series Whitehawk CCTV (1999), possibly because he insists it is not a criticism of CCTV just a look at the politicisation of the human subject viewed through its lens.

Most remarkable in the series is the trio of images of the tragic site of a murder. They reveal to us that looking and bearing witness can be an act of respect as much as that of curiosity as much as an act of control. We are all compelled to look, but some observers are recording the feed and have a disciplinary apparatus to back it up.

Untitled (CCTV footage). Young family visits murder site. Brighton 1999. © Tom Wichelow

Untitled. Friends of murdered boy visit the site. Brighton 1999. © Tom Wichelow

Untitled. Resident reveals murder site outside her bungalow window. Brighton 1999. © Tom Wichelow

– – –

*There’s a simple argument that we all suffer because our tax dollars support a broken system that makes us no safer.

Fred Ritchin’s talk from the Chautauqua Institution is a must watch. It is over an hour, but if you don’t make it through you might just prove his point!

He lays out how digital universe allows us to reorder content as and when we please (a contact sheet has an order; digital files can be swapped about, deleted). He posits that along with the demise of analogue technologies, analogue thinking has disappeared. Today, to read is not to follow a book front to back, to listen to music is not to listen to an album. We take in bits, bytes, single tracks and isolated comments.

Ritchin isn’t moaning, he just wants us to see our current universe for what it is and respond accordingly. Ritchin wants us to use digital [photo] technologies not make models thinner, the pyramids closer or to run algorithms removing unwanted objects from caches of images; he wants us to use digital tools for positive ends. Instead of changing the past and present, why not the future envisioned? Ritchin wants us to present, to image and imagine futures so striking they might alter our behaviours – Earth without animals … or people. If we see the horrifying aftermath of climate change or war maybe we won’t go down that path? Think activist/photo-manipulation hybridism.

Ritchin questions Flickr. Rightly so. The mere upload of imagery is inadequate. After a trip to New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, Ritchin searched Flickr for imagery of “New Orleans”. The first 400 images were of young people partying on their stoops.

Our obsessive production and distribution of images (usually through socially networking) devalues meaning in, and of, photography. In photography we can increasingly find ourselves, but can we find each other? See each other? In a meaningful way?

Photography, as in life, is becoming less about them and us and more about me and I. This is a point Ritchin makes in his recent blog post too:

“I have written elsewhere about the assertion by Paul Stookey (of the singing group Peter, Paul and Mary), about the progression of values in the United States as seen through the popularity of certain magazines. During a 1980s concert he recounted how once the popular magazine in the United States was called Life (about life), then it was People (not about life, but just about people), then it was Us (not even about all people, but just about us), then it was Self (not even about us), and now – to add on to what he had said – it becomes the Daily Me of Nicholas Negroponte, where one’s dentist appointment or Facebook status supersedes the report of the declaration of a new war or healthcare initiative on the “front page” of one’s nearly ubiquitous screen.”

Of course, there is no obligation to use photography always in a means to connect with others.

There is however, an obligation to be honest. As it stands, the predominantly shallow use of image is far less of an insult as that of people obsessed with the past, with the idea of “the power of photography” and with the continued lip service to a dead idea and a false reality.


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