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Bettina von Kameke‘s series Wormwood Scrubs is a reflective look at the communal life of prisoners inside one of Britain’s most notorious prisons.

Wormwood Scrubs (Her Majesty’s Prison) is well known in Britain through both popular culture and sporadic news stories about the latest infamous prisoner. It is a institution everyone has heard, some would claim to know about, but in fact only a few truly know. Those few would be the staff and prisoners.

Von Kameke says:

“I was surprised at how respectful the interaction between staff and prisoners was. Of course I was aware that there is drug-dealing inside and it is a hard prison. I could feel the intensity and harshness of the energy… I reflected it in the sadness, heaviness, anger and frustration through the expressions on their faces. But the objective is to show the humanity in the system.”

I am impressed by von Kameke’s awareness (and depiction) of communal living.

“I question and explore the interior and exterior conditions, means and forces, which make a communal life sustainable. My photographs disclose the aesthetics of an enclosed community, which I carefully observe through the viewfinder of the camera.” (Source)

Prison jobs and recreational time are what make incarceration sustainable, and by that I mean as free from waste and repetition as possible.

Prisoners never make direct eye contact with von Kameke’s lens; she shoots as if she is not there. This, I suspect, has a lot to do with the amount of time she spent in Wormwood Scrubs; she spent over six months on the prison wings.*

She and the prisoners probably did have relationships, but they are not the subject of von Kameke’s photography; attentions are elsewhere … apparently.

Between von Kameke and her subjects is acceptance and restraint, almost to the point of collaboration. It cannot be overstated how difficult this is to achieve in a prison environment when everyone potentially has something to pursue and gain through interactions.

One final thing to note is the overlap in atmosphere between Wormwood Scrubs and von Kameke’s earlier series Tyburn Tree, which depicts the Benedictine Nuns of the Tyburn Tree Convent, London. Communal living within total institutions can be both enforced and voluntary.

Wormwood Scrubs is on show at Great Western Studios, 65 Alfred Road, London W2 5EU until March 11th.

More images at the Guardian.

* I always contend that the best prison photography projects result from a long term engagement with the subject. Von Kameke’s Wormwood Scrubs bears out this thesis oncemore.

Of all the accounts, of all the testimonies, of all the confused interactions, bumbling application of draconian laws – THIS ONE takes the biscuit.

Edward Denison was photographing the Hammersmith Police Station for a book about McMorran & Whitby, one in a series about post-war British architects jointed supported by the Royal Institute of British Architects, The Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage. Denison knew the law:

The laws of this free and democratic country permit members of the public to photograph any building, as long as the photographer is standing on a public right of way when taking the photograph. I know this because a very professional and courteous member of the City of London Police explained it to me when I was photographing its headquarters at 37 Wood Street (completed in 1966) and the extension to the Central Criminal Courts on Old Bailey (completed in 1972), both designed by the architectural firm McMorran & Whitby.

He was also conscious of others’ needs for explanation:

Although I am not legally obliged to do so, as a matter of courtesy I always (if possible) seek to explain what I am doing to the occupants of any building I am photographing before I leave. At Hammersmith, I went to the reception located inside the public entrance, to be met by two quizzical officers.

Denison goes on to explain that the officers told him he couldn’t photograph. He told them he could and they acquiesced with the retort “For now.” Shortly before leaving Denison crossed the road to take a picture of an architectural detail. At this point two officers ran down the street, commanding him to cease photographing and then detained him for 45 minutes despite his full credentials, letters of recommendation and helpful explanation of his project and sponsors. Only after word was received that his name wasn’t on the suspected terroist list was he free to leave, albeit with a completed 5090(X) form.

Busted! Credit: Phil Clements. An example of a 5090(X) form.

Busted! Credit: Phil Clements. An example of a 5090(X) form.

A little irony is that the architect, McMorran, is Denison’s grandfather. Denison already had architectural plans and elevations in his possession. He knew the building better than any officer inside! Denison is as exasperated as the rest of us with a robotic police force that acts upon its role play training and not the evidence at hand in a particular situation:

But do the police really need to be trained to recognise that in the age of the mobile-phone camera (or indeed Google Earth), a man with a camera, a wide-angle lens and a fold-up bicycle openly taking photographs of a police station makes an unlikely suspect?

From reading Denison’s account, it seems he (like many others) needed to experience harassment to fully comprehend the erosion of civil liberties in the UK; to crystalise the meaning and consequences of the Prevention of Terrorism Act upon the average citizen.

Denison ends with a statement that brings home the difference between his innocuous activities and those of the past:

Real terrorists do what the Irish Republican Army did to McMorran & Whitby’s Central Criminal Court on 8 March 1973, only months after it had been opened – detonate a massive car-bomb right outside what John Betjeman called this “splendid fortress of the law”. The building survived intact. Donald McMorran had designed Hammersmith Police Station to withstand aerial bombardment, in anticipation of another kind of war.

Hammersmith Police Station, together with the plans already Edward Denison's possession

Hammersmith Police Station, together with the plans already in Edward Denison's possession

In the past Hammersmith Police Station has veered from proactive engagement to utter neglect of the public. With officers on the street inconsistently enacting ludicrous law, it seems the Metropolitan police force – as a whole – is as schizophrenic.


For fun, you can view a 5090(X) forms Set at Flickr.


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