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‘OPERATION JURASSIC’ BY PABLO AND ROXANA ALLISON

Brother and sister Pablo and Roxana Allison were separated for five-and-a-half months from late 2012 through spring of 2013. Pablo was locked up in London for criminal damage after being prosecuted for graffiti writing on trains. Pablo was one of several defendants sentenced as a result of Operation Jurassic, one the UK’s largest cases brought against artists using train carriages as their canvas. Since, the siblings have worked on putting together a visual record of the time and their emotions. The resulting book Operation Jurassic, published by Pavement Studios, just hit the stands. I wrote an introductory essay which I am pleased to republish here.

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A WARM THREAD

This book is a thread. A warm thread spun by two siblings during one’s incarceration. These images, conceived during months of separation and crafted during more months of house arrest, emerge from the worry and dislocation imprisonment brings. Born of necessity, these images are what Pablo and Roxana Allison did, dreamt up and fabricated; emotional twine that kept them sane and connected both.

As one in a cohort of graf-writers targeted by Operation Jurassic and done on charges of conspiracy and criminal damage, Pablo saw his conviction coming. It was likely he’d get a custodial sentence. Prior to the trial, he and Roxana decided that images could graft the space between them. He’d draw and describe scenes inside prison while she’d document her isolation at home. They’d plan photo-shoots for when he got out to capture what he couldn’t while inside. For painting trains, Pablo was locked up in November 2012. Roxana, while not entirely sympathetic toward his graffiti at that time, was horrified that he’d get sent down for his art. Together they resolved to come through it with a visual record. He served 5-and-a-half months in Wormwood Scrubs and HMP Brixton followed by one year, at home, under curfew with an electronic monitor strapped to his ankle.

 

 

This book is woven through with detachment. Doleful figures cut lonesome shapes—veiled, obscured, there but barely there. Sometimes only a shadow. Interior details and still-lives serve as descriptors of halted lives. Scratched through with twilight, bisected by lines and tree limbs, these photographs edge toward a shared emotional territory, but they’re only placeholders of time lost. In that way, they double as evidence of Pablo and Roxana’s defiance. From a position of near zero control, they intended to shape an outcome. These images establish their testimony in spite of, and in challenge to, the court proceedings, prosecution arguments and criminal narratives of British Transport Police (BTP) and the presiding judge. A warm, human thread of struggle spun from the dehumanising reaches of prison and house arrest.

 

 

Initiated in 2003, Operation Jurassic was one the largest prosecution cases ever brought against graffiti artists in the United Kingdom. Pablo and nine others were arrested in 2010. Pablo was one of five who consequently, in November 2012, faced trial for criminal acts perpetrated between 2005 and 2009. At the outset, the prosecution detailed upward of $10 million in damaged infrastructure but at trial only made a case for $1 million worth.

Potential punishments for graffiti-related crime in the UK is high. The BTP “Graffiti Squad” went after eight members of the DPM crew with Operation Shuttle, and in 2008 secured jail sentences of 12 to 24 months for all. In terms of the cost of the operation (£1 million to the taxpayer) and convictions (imprisonment), Shuttle set precedents of which Pablo and his cohorts later bore the brunt. All for putting some paint on some surfaces.

Led by Detective Constable Colin Saysell, the BTP Graffiti Squad went to war on graf-writers. During his 30-years as a copper, Saysell has helped convict 300 artists. Including Pablo. But his exacting approach is out of step with the British public who laud mainstreamed graffiti artists such as Banksy and Ben Eine. (Famously, in 2010, David Cameron gave Barack Obama a Ben Eine piece as a diplomatic gift.) Compared with law enforcement agencies abroad that don’t imprison graffiti artists, Saysell is an extremist.

Furthermore, compared to public education and youth outreach, Saysell’s hardline stance is bizarrely contradictory; murals and tags are used as an art-medium with which to engage city-kids’ creativity. A charity once took a double-decker bus into Wormwood Scrubs where members of the DPM crew painted it! Roxana wasn’t the only one staggered by Pablo’s imprisonment. Guards and prisoners alike couldn’t believe that, for making art, he was banged up alongside men who had murdered and maimed.

 

 

“Have you met any killers yet?” asks Antonio Olmos, photographer and mentor, in a letter to Pablo. “Anyone interesting like a member of Al Qaida or a dress designer? I imagine a lot of creative people are in prison…” On the inside, Pablo’s monochromatic, A4-sized sketches and notes are a far cry from his hulking, clacking train-car surfaces on the outside, where he would stalk yards for days in preparation for a night of painting.

Once inside, Pablo experienced a shift in his creativity. He felt his mind slow and the down-tempo pace worked because apart from writing and drawing he had little else to do. Time was spent on mailed offerings to friends and family. It’s almost too obvious to state that letters are lifelines for prisoners, but this book is built on the insistence of connections maintained, feelings felt and testimony spoken.

 

 

In this book, time and space are deliberately confused. Pablo is behind bars and then half-submerged in the Pacific Ocean. A prison sits in mid-winter and then, pages later, peeks from behind the full foliage of mid-summer. Some images reconstruct the confines of cell. Another the view from the back of a “sweat-box” custody van—a photograph that could never be made. Pictures of held hands and tired glances might be from before sentencing, or from the visiting room, or made during post-release house arrest. We have entered a chronological fog that mirrors the emotional fog endured by Pablo, Roxana and their family.

 

 

Photos of actual prison cells exist too, but how can that be? Pablo did have a camera in Wormwood Scrubs but not during his time as prisoner. In 2005, at the request of a local council member, a teacher from Hackney Community College asked Pablo and fellow students to visit the famous prison and make images for Prison Me, No Way!, a deterrent program designed to show young people crime’s causes and penalties. (Ironically, the British Transport Police is a partner of Prison Me, No Way!) Pablo kept those images, but never imagined he’d revisit the canteen, cells and tiers as an inmate. In these pages, site and sights (spaces and time) loop back on one another; exile has its own haunting feedback.

 

 

The pages of Operation Jurassic seem drained of blood. Understandably so. Roxana and Pablo’s lives were gutted to a great degree. Photographs flatten the world. Two dimensions tend to fail the fullness of life. Frustrated acceptance and silent screams run through these images. In some ways it is remarkable that Pablo and Roxana even wanted to return to their anemic limbo, let alone depict it.

These photos, legal documents, letters, emails, drawings and diary extracts bottle the soup of inconvenient memories that Pablo and Roxana cannot leave behind, nor that they want extinguished. From raw emotion and these memories, they grew. Despite the grey spectre of institutional control and despite the slowed pulse of the carceral clock, this book is Pablo and Roxana back in control. It is a warm thread. It is a gift too. Imagination and pictures, letters and sketches were what they had. Now, it is what we have.

 

 

Operation Jurassic

Pack includes:

100 page A5 Hardcover Book
36 page Staple-bound Zine
A3 Double-sided folded Poster

1st Edition of 100 copies. All books hand finished.

Buy here.

Follow Pablo on Instagram and Roxana on Instagram. Take a peek at Pavement Studios‘ website and peep them on Tumblr and Instah too.

 

 

 

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UPDATE: For more visuals go to:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/8883932@N02/4027649839/in/photostream/

http://www.speakingloudandsayingnothing.blogspot.com/

– – – –

If JR went to Navajo land, he’d hang out with James “Chip” Thomas.

Just love this guy.

Again and again similar images are repeated, with only the actors and settings changing. Grieving mothers, charred human remains, sun sets, women giving birth, children playing with toy guns, cock fights, bull fights, Havana street scenes, reflections in puddles, reflections in windows, football posts in unlikely locations, swaddled babies, portraits taken through mosquito nets, needles in junkies’ arms, derelict toilets, Palestinian boys throwing stones, contorted Chinese gymnasts, Karl Lagerfeld, models preparing for fashion shows backstage, painted faces, bodies covered in mud, monks smoking cigarettes, pigeons silhouetted against the sky, Indian Sardus, children leaping into rivers, pigs being slaughtered.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
‘Unconcerned but not Indifferent’ Foto8 (March 2008)

Timmy (center), with Peter (left) and Frederick, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, South Africa (c-type print, 12" x 16", 2003)

Timmy (center), with Peter (left) and Frederick, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, South Africa (c-type print, 12" x 16", 2003)

Dion, 41, General in the 28s describing his imaginary uniform, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, South Africa (c-type print, 12" x 16", 2003)

Dion, 41, General in the 28s describing his imaginary uniform, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, South Africa (c-type print, 12" x 16", 2003)

If two ends of the spectrum were identified this week during the debate about race and how it is (mis)treated by photographic practice we could see them as the moronic fashion world practitioners and then everybody else – “everybody else” being social documentarians, new-media image-makers, old-school bang-bang-club photographers and fine art practitioners. This second larger group is where most thoughtful folk place their energies.

Bizarrely there are a couple of guys who run the length of this spectrum. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin used to be the creative directors of Benetton’s controversial Colors Magazine AND they travel through Africa and Central America taking photographs of people in institutions.

Broomberg and Chanarin have also pissed a lot of people off. They are that good.

We all remember Steven Mayes’s departure speech from the World Press Photo, but Broomberg and Chanarin beat him to his oft-repeated remarks that photographers repeat motifs and collectively thicken the pen around photojournalism’s self-drawn caricature.

A full year prior to Mayes’ rallying call for new imagery (genuine, everyday Black culture; affluent drug use and users; and real sex), Broomberg and Chanarin were throwing punches low and hard at photojournalism’s conceit. They quoted Brecht; ‘The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about conditions in this world. On the contrary photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth.’

In turn, Broomberg and Chanarin relied on Sontag and Barthes;

‘Since its inception photojournalism has traded in images of human suffering. If one of its motivations for representing tragedy has been to change the world then it has been unsuccessful. Instead the profession has turned us into voyeurs, passively consuming these images, sharing in the moment without feeling implicated or responsible for what we are seeing. Roland Barthes summed up the analgesic effect of looking at images of horror when he wrote “someone has shuddered for us; reflected for us, judged for us; the photographer has left us nothing – except a simple right of intellectual acquiescence”.’

They provide a pat description of the “obscene feeling” jury process in which there is no text, caption or context. Judgement is dependent only on the aesthetics of the image: “We are asked to judge whether, for example, a photograph of a child suffocating to death in a mudslide is sufficiently beautiful to win a prize.” After this Broomberg and Chanarin explain the means by which the panel narrowed down the 81,000 images to five winners, suggesting with some contempt that Hetherington’s Exhausted Soldier was a predictable result.

Before I go any further, I should say that Tim Hetherington voiced a stirring rebuttal to Broomberg and Chanarin’s derision.

Self-Portrait by Mario, Ren Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital, Cuba. (c-type print 12" x 16", 2033)

Self-Portrait by Mario, Ren Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital, Cuba. (c-type print 12" x 16", 2033)

So what? They’re a grumpy duo with a pocket full of common critical theory? Yes … and no. They go further. To my observations they apply what they preach. I have coined the term Slow Photography for this piece because they lug about a 4×5 camera and as well as standing over the top of their medium format to hold a conversation, they’ll usually stick around for a week or three.

There is a sense that Broomberg and Chanarin arrive ‘either too early or too late’ and not within the usual media-driven time scale at a site of social crisis.

They’ve described the relationships they build with their subjects as very important. Lucky for them they have the leisure to hang around you are saying?! Fair point, but they use their time well.

With Ghetto, they went to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in South Africa and made portraits of male, female and transgendered inmates. They went to Ren Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital, Cuba also. In total they went to twelve rare communities, methodically photographing and asking the same questions: “Who is in power here? Where do you go to be alone, to make love, to be with friends? What are your hopes and dreams?”

I love that question, “Who’s in power here?”

Broomberg and Chanarin simultaneously reference old slower photo-processes and question the sped-up practices of 21st century photojournalism. Charlotte Cotton, Curator of Photographs at the V&A, has observed, “The sense of activity being slowed for the camera references nineteenth century photography both in terms of process and style. It also serves to detach their photographs from the conventions of photojournalism.”

And if we needed any more proof that these two geezers are on top of their game, lets look how they dealt with the two major conflicts of the beginning of the 21st century.

They got quiet with wartime scratches and scrawls, but have received none of the plaudits Peter Van Agtmael, Tim Hetherington, Roger Ballen or bubble chamber photography have.

The Red House documented the prison and torture center run by Saddam Hussein’s Baath party in Sulaymaniyah, Iraki Kurdistan, 330 kilometres from Baghdad.

The Red House

The Red House

The Red House

The Red House

The Red House

The Red House

And, then when they were “privileged” enough to merit an embedded assignment with the British military in Afghanistan they thumbed their noses at any notion of photojournalism. Instead they took 70 metres of photo sensitive paper and unrolled sections to expose it to light and that became the record of each day and their time in conflict.

Each roll was given its title based on the occurrence of an event, death or absence of death during that day. Below is the work from the day of a prison escape.

The Jail Break, June 13th 2008. 76.2 x 600cm, c-type

The Jail Break, June 13th 2008. 76.2 x 600cm, c-type

Update: Prison Photography collated a Directory of Photographic & Visual Resources for Guantanamo in May 2009.

Guantanamo Prisoner, Political Graffiti. Banksy

Guantanamo Prisoner, Political Graffiti. Banksy

Anyone who says the recent media tour of Guantanamo isn’t a public relations exercise by the lame duck has not had their eyes open. Global media were given a tour of camps 4, 5 and 6 at Gitmo and all the footage was screened and vetted before release.

Video: Here is the Guardian’s three minute offering. With any hope Obama will put this illegal operation out of action in 2009.

Artistic legacy of Guantanamo

Guantanamo Protesters outside the US Embassy, London

Guantanamo Protesters outside the US Embassy, London

Meanwhile, we can think of the potency that the orange jump-suit has gained. It’s another icon of the Bush presidency. With regard it’s establishment and its bare-faced operations, Guantanamo was far outside of the public’s imagination. Our culture stomached the guilt and under the Bush administration it was never likely Guantanamo prison would be brought back into line with international law. Activist and non-activist art protested Guantanamo by subverting the camp’s own visual vocabulary.

UHC Collective. Art Instalation, Manchester, 2003. Guards with replica guns were on duty 24 hrs and followed a regime copied from media reports.

UHC Collective. "This is Camp X-Ray". Art Installation, Manchester, 2003. Guards with replica guns were on duty 24 hrs and followed a regime copied from media reports.

Back on my home turf in Manchester, UHC, a notoriously bold and inventive art collective, scaled up a version of Camp X-Ray on an unused lot in Withington. It was complete with guard towers, fake guns and orders and activity that replicated the media’s reports of Guantanamo, Cuba. See other UHC Projects here, and read the BBC report here.

Road to Guantanamo (2006). A Michael Winterbottom Film

Road to Guantanamo (2006). A Michael Winterbottom Film, Spanish Release

And while we are not focusing entirely on photography, slightly off topic with video, I cannot recommend Road to Guantanamo highly enough. The film tells the ridiculous story of three young British-Pakistanis who were in the wrong place at the wrong time (southern Afghanistan, November 2003), and ended up in Guantanamo for 2 years. Your jaw will not leave the floor.

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