You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘German prisons’ tag.

The illicit manufacture of tools by prisoner piqued Marc Steinmetz‘s curiosity. He called around German prisons to inquire if they were still in possession of particularly ingenious contraband tools and escape devices.

Santa Fu, Celle, Wolfenbuttel and Ludwigsburg prisons all welcomed Steinmetz to view their collections. (The historical objects of Stammheim and Hohenasperg prisons were part of the Ludwigsburg collection.)

Steinmetz’s photographs were used in a German magazine editorial, but I have seen similar series of object types displayed as fine art.

When photographers set up objects (food, seeds, dead birds, insects, fish, etc) it is usually to draw extended attention to common characteristics and impose drama upon ‘the ordinary’. Against a white backdrop and removed form the clutter of daily life, it is intended that these objects can (if only briefly) transcend their functional purpose and be appreciated within the discourses of beauty and/or high art.

Steimetz wanted to highlight the ingenuity and intelligent design of these objects, and I’d like to do the same.

I have included some weapons here and omitted others. I deliberately omitted crude weapons for this post as they are hardly novel … anything with any weight becomes a dangerous weapon, right? On the other hand, I included guns and rifles as I never thought they could be manufactured from scratch. I was particularly impressed by the electrical items.

Below are Prison Photography‘s pick of the bunch with Steinmetz’s own captions. Thereafter is a brief Q & A with Steinmetz.

flucht_pistole

DOUBLE-BARRELED PISTOL This gun was found along with other homemade firearms in the cell of two Celle prison inmates on November 15, 1984. The weapons had been made in the prison’s metal workshop. They were loaded with pieces of steel and match-heads.

flucht_tattoo

TATTOOING NEEDLE made from a toothbrush handle, a ball pen and an electric motor; confiscated in ‘Santa Fu’ prison in Hamburg, Germany. Tattooing instruments are a popular and common source of income among inmates but are banned as ‘illegal objects’ due to the danger of infection (Aids, Hepatitis, etc.).

flucht_grill

STOVE / GRILL / TOASTER An inmate of Ludwigsburg prison, Germany, botched together this multi-purpose tool from wire, a broken heating rod and some tin foil. It was found in his cell and confiscated sometime in the mid-eighties.

flucht_tube

HASH PIPE fashioned from an empty horseradish tube; confiscated in ‘Santa Fu’ prison in Hamburg, Germany. Bongs are the most common of all forbidden items in prisons. The range of materials they are made of mirrors the inmates’ great imagination. And their prior needs.

flucht_wanze

RADIO TRANSMITTER / BUG made of radio recorder parts by an inmate of Wolfenbüttel prison, Germany (battery is missing). Prisoners occasionally manage to install gizmos like this one in guard-rooms to be prepared for upcoming cell searches. Also suitable as a means of cell-to-cell communication among inmates. A standard radio serves as a receiver.

flucht_tauchsieder

IMMERSION HEATER made from razor blades; found in a cell in ‘Santa Fu’ jail in Hamburg, Germany. Jailbirds use these tools to distil alcoholic beverages forbidden in prisons. Your typical inmate’s moonshine still includes a plastic can containing fermented fruit mash or juice, an immersion coil of some sort, a rubber hose, and a plastic receptacle for the booze.

flucht_buch

RADIO RECEIVER Sometime in the seventies an inmate of Ludwigsburg prison, Germany, built this radio on the sly and hid it inside an encyclopedia. It was probably commissioned by another inmate who had no electronic expertise himself.

flucht_gewehr

SHOTGUN made from iron bedposts; charge made of pieces of lead from curtain tape and match-heads, to be ignited by AA batteries and a broken light bulb. On May 21, 1984 two inmates of a prison in Celle, Germany, took a jailer as a hostage, showed off their fire power by letting go at a pane of bullet-proof glass, and escaped by car.

________________________________________________________

Q & A

When did you complete this project and why did you take on this subject?

I shot the whole project in April and May 1999. I had read a magazine article about a prisoner in Berlin who had whittled a key to his cell from a toilet seat. Unfortunately, prison officials in Berlin weren’t cooperative, so I wasn’t allowed to take a picture of that key for ‘security reasons’. (Can you believe that?).

But it nevertheless provided the key to the story and got me interested. Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine editors [provided a catalyst] too – they bought the story.

The objects range in date from the 70s through to the mid 90s and from multiple German prisons. How and where did you source the objects?

Prisons often have a collection of items which were secured from inmates’ cells or after attempts at escape.

I did my research exclusively by phone and located a handful of prisons which seemed worth a visit. I decided then and there which objects to photograph.

Much of your previous photography has been about complex scientific experimentation and grand research. Was this project a departure?

Not at all. I have always been interested in the uncommon or even bizarre.

What about the objects is of interest to you?

Ingenuity of improvisation. Intelligence. Purposefulness.

In my work, not everything depends on meticulous planning, but to a great extent on chance and my ability to improvise. Therefore I can relate to these escape tools. I admire their no-nonsense design, their simplicity. Even if their escape attempts fail, these guys cross boundaries in that they find uses for things other than what they were made for.

What do your photographs of the objects add to the stories objects?

To me, they communicate intelligence and the flexibility of the human mind under adverse conditions. I wanted to share my surprise: ‘What the … ?’

Did this project inform or reflect your understanding of German prisons, prison history and/or current prison politics?

Not really. I wasn’t interested in the political or social aspects of the subject matter. It was an interesting experience, though, to get to peek inside these facilities even though I had no contact with any of the inmates.

To compensate for that and to communicate credibility, I tried to collect as much information about the objects as I could. I felt they should be preserved the same way that archaeological artifacts are.

What are you working on now?

Currently, I am working on an independent project which is called ‘Toter Winkel’. I am still searching for an international title which works both in German and English, even though I focus exclusively on Germany.

I started wondering about what cars have done to our cities. I ended up doing night shots of elevated roads with a 4×5″ field camera. It’s hard to believe what monstrosities have been erected for the sake of misconceived mobility!

But this is more of a long-term fine art project than an editorial piece. Fieldwork is completed, but post-production will take a few more months, I’m afraid.

Thank you, Marc

________________________________________________________

Marc Steinmetz is a photographer specialising in Science and Technology stories. Prison Photography recommends his work on Plasticination, Karakarum – The Archaeology of Genghis Kahn’s Empire and his series on Drinking Water. An extended interview with Marc, is here.

flucht_milch

DUMMY PISTOL from blackened cardboard; found on June 23, 1988, in an inmate’s cell in Stammheim prison, Germany, after a fellow prisoner tipped off the jailers. The dummy was hidden in an empty milk pack and was most probably intended to be used for taking hostages in an escape attempt.

________________________________________________________

All images © Marc Steinmetz.

I originally came across Steinmetz’s work at Accidental Mysteries – a blog I highly recommend for its polished curatorial eye of surprising, inventive and humourous human interventions.

wiesbaden_1

In Germany, as in most European nations, prisons often lie within towns and cities; European prisons & jails are older than the housing estates and urban developments that, ultimately, came to surround them.

In Britain, castle-like Victorian-era prisons were the dominant type until the seventies when they were replaced by draft-proof, medium-sized institutions in rural locations. Bricks and mortar made way for concrete & razor wire. That said, a few town-centre “citadels” such as Preston Prison and Lancaster Castle still operate within Her Majesty’s Prison Service, the latter dating back to the 14th century!

wiesbaden_2

In the American penal landscape, a high proportion of prisons (and all new builds) are outside of conurbations – sometimes isolated in the mountains or desert, sometimes just within grasp of a rural town to prop or establish a local economy.

Christiane Feser‘s photographs could not be mistaken as American, just as the New Topographics couldn’t be mistaken for anything but American. I don’t want to say Feser’s series Prisons is typically German, because I don’t know what that means. Instead, I will say it is typically Northern European. Feser’s photographs embody the spirit of pedantic spatial ordering which I have observed not only in Britain and Germany, but also Austria and the Netherlands.

We don’t know the specific locations of these prisons so we can not know the construction dates. Given the carceral/residential interplay we can say that if Feser’s images aren’t about the zoning of space, they are about a time before zoning dominated civic-planning.

dieburg_3

“When I photographed the prisons I was interested in how these prison walls are embedded in the neighbourhoods,” said Ms. Feser via email. “How the neighbours live with the walls. There are different strategies. Its a little bit complicated for me to write about it in English …” Feser’s images do the talking.

Feser’s world is one of silence, order and manicured nature. Her images evince a harmony between the prison, its neighbours and vice-versa. We witness no trauma here.

friedberg_2

Feser has obviously decided to omit humans from her compositions. The neighbourhoods are well tended and so presumably inhabited. One presumes the neighbourhoods are occupied daily, and yet we see no cars in driveways nor bikes on the street. Feser almost suspends belief. Are these actual places? Is this a toy-town?

Why does Feser rely on manicured topiary and brick pointing of the absent inhabitants to illustrate the “different strategies”? Is Feser suggesting a common psychology between prisoners and residents?

Have the neighbours adopted psychologies of seclusion and discipline as exist in the prison next door? Can penal strategies of control transfer by osmosis through prison walls and throughout a community? Or are certain personalities attracted to these new build estates? Are a portion of these homes reserved for prison staff? Or has Feser’s clever framing and omissions just led the viewer along these lines of inquiry?

Many would think in this peculiar carceral/residential inter-relationship the prison dominates, overbears. I doubt it. I contend those who live in such locales influence the institution also. The two agents in this relationship aren’t separate; they are drawn to one another and they overlap.

Feser uses visual devices to point toward this overlap. Angles of the oblique walls, dead ends, tended verges and brown-toned brickwork repeat through the series; sometimes these elements are part of prison fabric, sometimes part of a house.

kassel_4

There exists no hierarchical coda in Feser’s images as all the surfaces are equal. One has to pay attention to figure out which architecture is carceral, and which is not. Even the barbed wire doesn’t confirm it totally as (in England at least) one commonly sees barbed wire and glass shards lining the walls of merchant-yards and back alleys.

Feser’s photographs cradle a palette of grey concrete & skies; dense greens and the browns of brick & mortar. This is Germany, but it could as easily be Lancashire housing estates, Merseyside new towns or the reclaimed industrial sites of Scottish cities.

kassel_3

So how about it America? You are the land of the suburb and subdivision. You may not be familiar with a socio-spatial history that favours the awkward in-fill of urban and semi-urban space over the encroachment on to undeveloped land. It’s alright. Prisons needn’t be invisible and we needn’t be afraid. Locks and keys work as well on your street as they do in up-state, high-pain, back-water seclusion!

The location of prisons matters because when prisoners are sent to facilities on the other side of the state, families are likely to visit less. The commitment of time and money required to make such a lengthy trip usually precludes the poorest families from the essential and simple act of visiting a loved one. Research has shown the largest single factor in a prisoner successfully reentering society and not re-offending is the maintenance of family ties and the continued support it provides.

kassel_1

hessischen-gef_ngnissen

All images © Christiane Feser. Used with permission.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

  • RT @Tzuniha: “Clothing Inside: Addressing American Prisons” is available to view at the Aronson Gallery within Parsons, The New School (Sep… 4 days ago
  • RT @haymarketbooks: For #BannedBooksWeek, we’re highlighting the unjust censorship of political books which impacts countless incarcerated… 6 days ago
  • Just heard they're doing free public screenings of the queen's funeral at 125 cinemas in UK. What a trip. 1 week ago
  • RT @dylanrodriguez: I get to talk to one of my favorite people on earth, Rachel Herzing, about a book! Thank you to Davarian Baldwin and @S1 week ago

Prison Photography Archives

Post Categories