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Uganda, May 2010, from the series “Law and Order.” Chief Justice Benjamin J. Odoki is his office in Kampala. Like other judges, he has a huge backlog. Judges are appointed by the President on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission, with the approval of Parliament.
When our Skype call connected, Jan Banning was rubbing his brow. He was trying desperately to chase down statistics with which to give his three years of photographs, across four continents, context.
Banning has, since 2012, worked on a project called Law and Order looking at the institutions–prisons included–that result from different philosophies and systems of justice. Banning recently successfully crowdfunded a book which includes photographs from four nations: France, Uganda, Colombia and the United States.
Banning spends a lot of time traveling, but more time in his studio synthesizing all his images and their meaning. While he labors, he listens to everything from Frank Zappa to The Kinks to African beats.
Jan lit a cigarette, apologized for the disregard for his health, but said the stress of hunting stats required some nicotine to take the edge off. I wanted to know how he viewed different prisons from around the world, how they compared, and what it was like to make photographs within closed facilities.
And so we began …
Kirinya Main Prison, Uganda, 2013. Uganda’s second maximum security prison, in Jinja, was built for 336 prisoners. It now holds 922 prisoners. Here, a primary level biology class is taught by a prisoner sentenced to death, known because of his uniform is white in color.
Q & A
What’s up Jan? How’s the work? The book?
I try to make work that contributes to the public debate. The book will include statistics about the long term development, trends and crime rates for the four countries I photographed, but also for other relevant countries. ‘Relevant’ in two senses: for one, Holland should be involved. Secondly, Germany, UK, Canada are relevant because they are industrialized too.
We can make fair comparisons?
To a degree. And make contrasts. Also, possibly Norway because of its extremely liberal prison policies. And possibly Japan because of its really low murder rates.
An American audience will find this book interesting — to really see, in line graphs, how much higher the levels of incarceration are in the U.S. compared to a lot of Western European countries and how that relates to recidivism rates. Finding reliable sources on murder rates, incarceration rates, recidivism rates and remand rates is the big problem. But they’re essential.
I have. I’ve been looking mostly in Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United Nations and the World Health Organization. These websites are incredibly confusing. You can find one year but not another. For example, U.S. murder rates starting in 1900, but the sources are so ridiculously confusing I cannot judge whether they are reliable or not and I do not want to include sources that are not verified.
Premier president Mme Dominique Lottin heads the business of the court at the Palais de Justice, Douai, Nord/Pas de Calais.
Holding Cell #1, Dekalb County Jail, Atlanta. Built in 1995, with around 3,000 prisoners it is the biggest jail in Georgia.
Two court writers of the court, Cartagena. Colombia, Sept. 2011, from the series “Law and Order”. Gina Marcola Perez and Mahira Julio Amigo finish the paperwork and processes that still go forward under law #600 even though the law has been abolished. Courts in Colombia have a huge backlog.
How did you decide on the four countries–Colombia, France, Uganda and the U.S.?
I started with Uganda as because I had good connections. A friend of mine was working in the Dutch Embassy in Kampala. It was kind of an experiment to see if I could visualize this whole thing—a visual comparative analysis of law and order—in a let’s say, different or interesting way. After Uganda, I concluded that it would be tough but interesting.
Uganda, May 2010, from the series “Law and Order”. Kakira Police Station, Jinja Town. Police Constable #11431, Ndalira John, 54. He earns 205,000 shillings (54 Euro/US$72) a month.
The chapel at Putnam County Jail in Eatonton, Georgia, doubling as sick bay.
I had some private courses in criminal justice from a professor here in my home town Utrecht. He said I should contact the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg which is the top European institution on criminal justice. The director there advised me. I wanted to a geographical distribution so it’s four different continents. I wanted to include the two major lines of justice so the civil system in which France played a big role. And secondly, the common law system, a more Anglo-Saxon system. Of course I could have gone to the UK where it originated but it made more sense to pick the U.S.
A more extreme application of that type of law?
In a way. Certainly I wanted a State that still employed the death penalty. I ended up in Georgia basically because I had the best contacts there.
Ah, I thought it would be more targeted than that because Georgia leads the way in many of the wrong statistics—disproportionate numbers of minorities, high levels of female incarceration, poor folks locked up too.
Those things played a role, but so did the practical side.
First, I actually tried Texas because it kills the largest number of people but I just couldn’t get access. Then I saw that Georgia holds a larger percentage of people under control of the whole judicial system than anywhere else on earth. Approximately 1 in 13 adults is either in prison or in jail or in parole or on bail in Georgia.
Colombia is in Latin America. It’s a big country and it had high murder rates for a long period. Uganda seemed interesting because of its colonial heritage of common law whereas Colombia is from the Spanish sphere of influence.
Then, there are the religious-based justice systems such as Sharia. But after talking to several specialists, I learnt that real Sharia in the criminal justice system is only practiced in Saudi Arabia and Iran and they are not exactly easy to access.
The communist system is not easily accessible either and I didn’t want to fall into a kind of PR trap by trying China, so unfortunately that had to be left out.
Canning greens at a canning factory at which the workers are prisoners of the State of Georgia. Of the 1500 prisoners at the medium security Rogers State Prison near Reidsville, 350 work. Some unpaid. The products of the Georgia Correctional Industries manufacture plants, food production and processing factories are sold to government agencies. This plant producing one million cans of vegetables per year.
Disciplinary cell in the Grand Quartier of the Maison d’arrêt de Bois-d’Arcy, in France, was opened in 1980. Designed with a capacity of 500 prisoners, it now houses 770.
Luzira Women’s Prison in Kampala, Uganda, 2013. 370 women and 30 children (of convicted mothers) are locked up here.
Can you go name all the different prisons you visited?
Oh my goodness, that’s a long list! In Uganda I went to ten prisons including the big ones of Luzira, Jinja and Luzira Women’s Prison. Four in France after struggling to get access for two years. Five in the U.S. of which three will be included in the book. I’ve still to make a return visit to Colombia to photograph more but it’s as many, if not more, than in other countries.
Part of reception area of Luzira Upper Prison, Kampala, Uganda, 2013. Here, uniforms are adjusted for new prisoners. Luzira Upper Prison is Uganda’s biggest maximum security prison. Built to accommodate 600, the prison held in March 2013) 3114 prisoners.
Clearly you have a broad interest in systems and institutions of justice. How did you arrive at prisons, specifically?
My project Bureaucratics looked at one of the three pillars of the state: the executive. Law and Order looks at the judicial, the second pillar of the trias politica.
And the third pillar?
How do different societies handle crime? Police are involved. Courts involved. But I am fascinated by prisons. I studied of history so I’ve always gravitated toward a more structural analysis. As a photographer, I’ve been really interested in the news or in short term of events and developments.
San Diego Women’s Prison (Carcel de Mujeres de San Diego), the city of Cartagena, Colombia, Sept. 2011. From the series “Law and Order”. Rosa Martinez Meza (left, age 20) is serving ten years on aggravated criminal conspiracy charges. She studied Marketing and sales. Eliana Sofia Gonzalez (right, age 23), is still under investigation, accused of attempted extortion. She studied business administration and is self-employed. They share their room with ten other women.
Uganda Chief Magistrate’s Court, Buganda Rd, 2013.
You’re taking the longer view. An overview. So what are prisons supposed to do?
They can function an instruments of revenge for society, to punish. But as instruments of correction and as instruments to bring down crime rates, I don’t think they work.
French prisons are no hotels but they had the most humane atmosphere. U.S. prisons, in Georgia, were horrible. Of course prisons in Uganda are primitive and there’s a lot of bad things that can be said about them—corruption and bad personnel. But prisons in Uganda still gave me a much more humane impression than those in the U.S. Even in the maximum security prisons in Uganda, I was allowed to roam around freely. I had some nice relaxed chats with prisoners, even the most heavily sentenced prisoners would be patting somebody on the shoulders.
The maximum security prison in Jackson, GA had a horrible atmosphere and I think that is noticeable in the photographs. For example, if you look at the photographs from Uganda, it’s earth colors, it just looks nicer, now of course that can be deceitful, but in this case I don’t think it is. In the U.S., it is all steel and concrete, like an ice cold industry. You walk around with a couple of old marines who are heavily armed and wear bullet proof vests. Prisoners had to turn around and face the walls as I passed them in the corridor and that brings me to the conclusion that the U.S. was really extreme.
Court, Quartier Maison Central, Centre Penitentiaire de Lille-Annoeullin, France, 2013.
Colombia, Sept. 2011, from the series “Law and Order”. “Establecimiento Carcelario de Reclusion Especial” in Sabana Larga is a special facility with only 100 prisoners, 18 guards and 5 administrators. Over half of the prisoners at the small medium-security prison are officials who have been convicted or are under investigation i.e. governors, mayors, police officers, judges. Leonel Silvera Padilla (20) is under investigation for theft.
Latin American prisons have a reputation for being overcrowded and in squalor.
At first they allowed me into relatively mild prisons in 2011. Recently, however, I went to some disgusting facilities in Colombia. At times it felt like I was making propaganda for the prison authority. It’s a long story I cover here.
Do you think as an Dutch photographer, an outsider, you are able to tell reveal something new about U.S. prisons to the American public?
I made a photograph of a guy who is bathing in a jail. Obviously I would never use that photograph in a news context for which one photograph is being used to illustrate the Georgia prisons or jails. However, as part of a series it finds it’s place.
Meeting of committee of the “lifers” — men with a life sentence, at Georgia State Prison which is a medium security prison near Reidsville with 1500 prisoners.
I think my photographs give two different messages at the same time. There’s a photograph of a group of lifers that are being trained to advise other prisoners. Management matters are playing a big role there (the prison is probably trying to keep the lifers occupied there so they are not coming up with ways to make life hard for the guards).
And use them to bring other prisoners around to a more compliant set of behaviors.
True. So, something is being done for people, but it is in the surroundings which look like an old factory. I’m trying to come up with a nuanced picture and to paint a confusing picture and I hope that that will somehow contribute or stimulate people to ask questions Confusion is my main purpose.
In some ways, it’s more important to me that this plays a role in the public in the U.S. than in Europe because we have less tendency to be tough on crime and to lock everybody up than the U.S.
Putnam County Jail in Eatonton, Georgia.
The U.S. needs more introspection, relatively?!
Absolutely. Homeless people are absolutely unable to get housing because of their criminal past. From a European perspective it was astounding to hear that this information on them would be out on the internet so they couldn’t get a house because it was registered, they often couldn’t get a job because the employee would go on the internet. Now this is a weird situation. Let me put myself in the position of an employer and one of these women comes out and has a job interview with me and I am going to go on the internet and I am going to see what I find about them. I have found very few people who are somehow shocked by it. When I tell people in Europe or in Holland or in Germany, people are absolutely flabbergasted.
And this informed your side project of portraits of women at Pulaski Women’s Prison?
Law and Order has a distant approach, but soon I wanted another aspect. This is confusion for me as well as the viewer. Anywhere in the world, people are trying to make clear distinctions between criminals and us—to define them as different and as bad people but I don’t think they are, actually. I could have been in prison myself many years ago. I wasn’t so I am “a decent citizen”!
I wanted to bring these two groups closer together so that’s why I photographed the female prisoners the way I would photograph my family members or the Dutch Prime Minister.
But yet more confusion. I had to get permission to photograph them and yet all their portraits are on the Department of Corrections website!
But this work is not in your forthcoming book?
No, it was a parallel project. It’s formally different. The Law and Order book is not about portraits; it stresses on the consequences and environments of different systems.
I was only allowed to ask very few questions. I was not allowed to ask, why they were in prison or for what they were sentenced. But all that information was on the website of the Georgia Department of Corrections. So all the text that you find in my portfolio was found on the internet.
There’s a couple of other artists I know who’ve taken umbrage at the public exchange of mugshots for entertainment, Jane Lindsay and Kristen S. Wilkins. But you’re the first male to adopt such empathy. You’re also non-American.
Apparently for U.S. citizens it’s quite normal to trade in the personal details of felons.
What the people in Holland think of America and Americans?
The U.S. seems to have an image problem. I happen to I often find myself in the strange situation, to some extent, defending the U.S. or bringing up nuances in conversations with friends. For Dutch people who have not spent much or any time in the U.S., it is hard to see these nuances or to have a sympathetic view of Americans.
Etablissement Pénitentiaire — Maison d’Arrêt / Douai, Cell 10, Batiment B. Jean Michel, France, 2013.
What’s the situation like in Holland in terms of criminal justice and crime statistics and prisons?
Our prisons are underpopulated. We’ve started renting them out to Belgium and Norway because they are getting empty. A nice development. I think Holland would, in American terms, be called “soft on crime” and I think we’re doing pretty good.
The murder rates have been going down here since the 90s here and in a lot of other countries. As far as I know, crime rates are going down as well. The reasons still allude researchers. But we can definitely say that the bigger the social difference between the richest and poorest, the higher the crime rate. That is an interesting point to put to an American audience, don’t you think?
I do. Thanks, Jan.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Arnhem Prison, Netherlands, 2011 © David Leventi
When photographer David Leventi saw Andreas Gursky’s famous shot of Stateville Prison, Illinois, he was captivated by the architectural form and wondered if there were more roundhouse prisons.
I spoke with David via Skype. He provided me with some prepared answers to questions asked by photographer Sarina Finkelstein. I have interwoven answers to my questions. The quotes are verbatim, but the order is not. The flow works.
Sarina Finkelstein (SF): What was the first round prison you photographed?
David Leventi (DL): The F-House at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois is one of the most architecturally striking prisons — it is the last remaining cell block in the U.S. that follows Bentham’s Panopticon model. It was close to home with no language barrier to contend with, and therefore it became my first.
SF: How many round prisons exist in the world? Have you photographed all of them?
DL: Four working prisons and one ruin. I have photographed all the working ones: Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, Breda Prison in The Netherlands, Arnhem Prison in The Netherlands and Haarlem Prison in The Netherlands. The ruin is the Presidio Modelo on the Isla de la Junvetud in Cuba. Fidel Castro was imprisoned there, and I hope to photograph it one day.
Prison Photography (PP): Now you’ve been to other roundhouse prisons, what do you make of Gursky’s photograph?
DL: All of Gursky’s photos make spaces look bigger. I think Gursky did a lot of post production, I think he extended the space, drawing the image out to the left and right making it look enormous, but its not.
In my photos, Stateville looks big because I’m shooting large format with a wide angled lens, but it’s not THAT big. It’s an illusion.
F-House #2, Stateville Correctional Center, Crest Hill, Illinois, 2010 © David Leventi
SF: This project photographing round prisons seems to be a drastic content shift from your previous work photographing world-famous opera houses?
DL: The prison project developed out of my previous project shooting opera houses. Each was photographed from center-stage and lit solely by the existing chandeliers and lamps.
The opera houses were spaces in which my Romanian grandfather, Anton Gutman, never got the chance to perform. He was a cantor who was interned in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp called Krasnogorsk from 1942-1948. Another prisoner, Danish operatic tenor Helge Rosvaenge, heard my grandfather sing an aria from Tosca and gave him lessons. I grew up listening to him sing in our living room.
SF: So, in your previous project, you photographed cultural institutions that are social gathering spaces of entertainment. But, in this work, you’re photographing prisons — places where people are incarcerated and deprived of personal freedoms for commission of a crime. And, you’re specifically photographing domed prisons. How did you come to choose these particular buildings?
DL: Domed prisons are the closest examples of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon model of mass surveillance prison design – a central guard tower with a complete view of surrounding prison cells. This concept was designed so a central observer could monitor all of the prisoners at once, without any particular prisoner being able to feel under inspection.
The domed prisons have the same architectural structure as an opera house (without the opulence), but the difference is in who is observing whom. In an opera house, the audience of many is observing a few. In these domed prisons, it’s the reverse.
The domed prisons are stark buildings. On first inspection, I don’t believe that the viewer identifies the interior as a prison. The ceiling of Arnhem in The Netherlands reminds me of the tartan pattern now made famous by Burberry. The photograph is very graphic, quite unlike the opera houses.
Opera houses and prison houses become a study in contrasts between beauty and squalor, opulence and poverty, serenity and cacophony.
Haarlem Prison, Netherlands, 2011 © David Leventi
PP: How did you get access to the Dutch prisons?
DL: I tried to reach out to the prisons and I tried to reach out to the Minister of Justice but no one would return my emails or telephone calls. There was the language barrier too. Nothing was happening.
Then a man who ran a music company in Utrecht wanted to use one of my opera house images as wallpaper in his office. I gave him a quote and he wrote back saying he couldn’t afford it. I asked, “Would you like to barter?” I asked if he knew anyone who could get me into the prisons. He had a client who was a communications director for the Ministry of Justice. That’s how I got permission!
All three of the prisons are no more than an hour from Amsterdam. No crazy travel involved and all under the same authority. Get into one, get into all three, right?
PP: Are you able to compare Stateville with the Dutch prisons?
DL: Prisoners in Stateville prison are treated like animals. The U.S. government is going to say they committed crimes, well people in the Netherlands committed crimes too. Who knows if they are the same level of crimes but in the Netherlands they have privacy. They have microwaves, TVs; they’re like tiny little apartments. I’m not saying they are the best place to be but it seemed a lot more civilized.
Dutch roundhouse prisons had badminton courts, soccer courts, basketball courts. The Breda prison has trees and benches. Half of it is a covered with a glass floor and downstairs there’s a dining hall and ping-pong tables.
When I was there [in one of the Dutch prisons] some smoke was coming out one of the cells, and the guard there knocked on the door and asked, ‘Are you okay? What’s going on?’ They didn’t know, but the prisoner said, ‘Something caught on fire in the microwave, there’s no problem.’ The guard went away.
Once the [Dutch] cell doors close, the prisoners have privacy. At Stateville, with the standard open bars there is no privacy.
PP: You never intended to photograph prisoners, though?
DL: No, only the architecture. It was stipulated that I could not photograph faces anyway. After 6pm in the dutch prisons, men had to be in their cells. Then I was free to walk around and photograph. It’s seems funny for me to say they are beautiful spaces; they are prisons.
PP: Is Stateville beautiful?
DL: It is loud. The warden at Stateville gave me assurances. But he also told me not to show any fear. One prisoners was running against the bars the entire time I was there. Bang. Bang. Bang. Endlessly. It was shocking. Everything at Stateville was the complete opposite to what I experienced in the Netherlands.
SF: What was the process like? How was it different to be in that space, with all eyes on you, vs. being alone in an empty opera house?
DL: I have always had stage fright. Photographing from the center of a round prison causes anxiety. The inmates are all yelling, jeering, talking, in cacophony. You become the center of attention, and taking the photograph becomes a performance in itself. At first I was intimidated, but then I blanked everything out and focused on photographing. It must be the same for the performer.
SF: What equipment are you using and what conscious choices are you making visually?
DL: I work with a large-format camera so that I have the utmost control in making sure the composition of the image is architecturally symmetrical. I pay close attention to ensuring the lines are straight for perfect repetition, curves of the convolutions of ceiling and higher and lower catwalks are parallel and empasize Euclidean geometry.
With this camera, I am also able to flatten out the space to make it look more like a painting. For instance, the industrial chandelier hangs down, but it looks askew, as if it is tilted toward you.
SF: What is the importance of having 40×50, 50×60 and 72×90 inch prints?
DL: Prints have to be large in order for all of the details to separate and be seen. When they are small, details meld together and you lose the ability to feel the texture/coldness of the prison bricks, to see the blur of prisoners behind cell doors.
I want the viewer to experience what it feels like to be surrounded by the space.
Breda Prison, Netherlands, 2011 © David Leventi
Nico Bick‘s work had been on my radar since Fotodok’s 2010 exhibition State of Prison. Between 2006 and 2009, Bick photographed the Bijlmerbajes prison in Amsterdam. In the past, Bick and I had played email tag, so it was nice to finally meet him last month in his native Netherlands and talk shop.
Where were the inmates when you were taking your photographs?
Right behind me. It all looks very serene and quiet but there’s lots of noise behind me. I had to ask permission of each prisoner before photographing their cell.
Did the prisoners care about your artistic vision?
Not really. Obviously, those that refused permission to photograph their cell really weren’t interested. Some thought it was worthwhile. Most wondered, “Why take a picture of a prison?”
Yes, why? Are you an architectural photographer?
No. I do take pictures of space, but not architecture. I hardly ever do commissions for architects. I’m interested in the tension between public space and spaces more secluded. The prison embodies this tension.
In the Netherlands, prison is a public space. It’s not like in the U.S. where there exist private facilities. The government runs all prisons here, so in that regard they are a public space. The inside is not visible but it is owned by the state, funded by the public.
How did you get access?
Initially, I sent a letter to the director. But I never got a reply. I had a friend who said she might know someone who worked at Bijlmerbajes. It was a different path to try. I sent a letter to her, she dropped it on the right desk and someone called me (laughs).
This was only the first hurdle. During my work on P.I. I liaised with four different communication officers. All had a different approach in their willingness to cooperate in the project.
I won’t try to pronounce the prison’s name. Is the complex iconic?
The Bijlmerbajes? Yes, it is. Designed in the late 60’s and put into use in 1978, this prison is an architectural embodiment of the prevailing social-reformist ideas of that time. The architects tried to escaped the traditional ‘prison architectural design’.
Six towers, divided in units and connected by corridors, are constructed with respect to individual needs of ‘social’ comfort. The windows for instance featured no metal bars initially. However, the thick ‘unbreakable’ glass was found not resistant enough and had to be reinforced with metal bars.
Bijlmerbajes is not its official name. The name comes from the ‘Bijlmer’ part of Bijlmermeer which is a nearby neighbourhood (built at the same time as the prison) plus the word ‘bajes’ which is Dutch slang for ‘prison’. Bijlmermeer is well known for its high rises.
The official name of the prison is Penitentiaire Inrichting Over-Amstel – which is really difficult to pronounce!
Does its looming architecture represent “A prison” for the majority of Dutch people?
No, it does not. Situated near a rail road station it is often first looked upon as a social housing project. As usual, people do not look properly because with such a large perimeter wall and fence it is unquestionably a prison.
For years, there have been plans to move the prison to another location. Emphasis on plans. Nothing definitive has been decided. Possibly a move to the north but the ‘Not In My Back Yard’ crowd don’t want it. I was discussing this recently with a friend and he told me that in the U.S. town and cities welcome prisons because they provide jobs. This is not the case in the Netherlands; it’s not a deciding factor [on a prison’s location]. Dutch prisons are not considered as big jobs machines.
Bijlmerbajes was built as a “humane” prison. It is architecture along philosophical lines. Given the plans to replace it, do you think the next architectural solution for a prison will be driven by social ideals?
My feeling is that it will not. The replacement may not be as humane. Ideas today are not like the 60s and 70s. New prisons will have economic considerations within them. I won’t rule out that Dutch prisons may be privatized in the future. That’s the political climate we’re in.
How are prisons discussed in the Netherlands?
Generally, people talk about the legal system and not the prison system and they think that the legal system is okay; that the punishments handed out are correct and proportionate.
Unfortunately, there is – especially with that horrendous right wing cabinet we now have in the Netherlands – a discourse on how luxurious our prisons are. Of course, this is all perception.
Why have Dutch politics swung to the right?
In the Dutch parliament, 24 of the 150 seats are in the hands of the far right. So that’s about 15%. We feel the effects of the embrace of neo-liberalism in the 90’s by almost all political parties. As a result, votes shifted to the far right and left. The center is a wasteland. But bear in mind that the right-wing government in the Netherlands only has a majority of one seat in parliament.
Some people in the Netherlands think multiculturalism has failed?
Personally, I don’t think multiculturalism has failed. It is something that is here and it works. I see different types of people from all over the world around me everyday. I am aware of issues that immigration brings but [the far right leader] Wilders plays with feelings of fear and insecurity. People just need to give it time. Within a society that demands immediate solutions this is very difficult.
What does you book title P.I. refer to?
P.I. stands for Penitentiary Institution. I choose this title because the book is a metaphor for the universal notion of ‘prison’ and prison architecture in general.
How do you hope P.I. will influence discussion?
Besides the notion of a ‘hotel-like’ prison, another widespread stereotyped image of the prison is a dark, over-populated construction. With my book I try to nuance this opinion.
What is your audience for the book?
An audience with an interest in art and photography. Additionally, an audience interested in the social aspects of architecture, philosophy, ethics and cultural heritage. Obviously, with an edition limited to 400 copies my audience shall not be very large.
P.I. is not a bound book but a collection of sequenced offset prints. Why did you choose this book-portfolio design?
P.I. as a project contains more images then the ones printed as colour plates in the book. The photo index on the inside of the cover shows the series as a whole. It also shows what is available; images with no hierarchical ordering, just locations. Because the series consist of identically photographed interiors. Each series, each interior, is processed in the book as a separate set of pages. By taking this set of pages apart, you have an excellent way to compare the interiors with each other.
The publication concept of P.I. is that it is to be associated with a dossier. But at the same time – in terms of book typologies – it is to be associated with what I must define as the deconstructed book.
Deconstructed books are unbound, half bound, perforated or unfinished and, as such, emphasize the physical aspect of the book. It is this type of book that suits best my methodology and my description of a specific type of public space.
The graphic design of the book does not impose a narrative structure on the reader; by comparing the images, the story unravels. This kind of unfinished book, which even lacks ordering demands active readership.
It seems like P.I. is both fine art project and historical document?
Yes. Fine art project first but an historical document too. In terms of art strategy I am primarily interested in studying the use of public spaces.
Tell me about order, numerics and sequence in the architecture of Bijlmerbajes.
Six towers are connected by the main corridor. A tower contains five units. There are 24 single cells within every unit. Every unit has its own control room (no longer in use). A tower has a separate top floor with three isolation cells and six air cells. Each tower has two communal yards, a large one and a smaller one. Every tower has its own control room – all of which are controlled by the main control room.
Upon entering the Bijlmerbajes one is placed temporarily in one of the holding cells.
Does your book represent a single tower?
Yes, although it is pieced together from photographs of cells and spaces from all the towers. It wasn’t possible to photograph a single tower in its entirety. There are 12 photographs of cells in P.I. to represent the 24 in a single unit.
You showed the work at the Fotodok exhibition State of Prison.
Raimond Wouda, curator for State of Prison wrote about my photography during as part of his year of reviews for Fotodok. To conclude the yearlong “residency”, he mounted an exhibition. He chose the subject of photography in prisons and my project was a starting point for the exhibit.
Has photography changed the public debate on prison issues?
It’s difficult to measure. I’m interested in the Bijlmerbajes in particular but I’m not a prison expert, nor do I aspire to be the “prison photographer of the Netherlands”. I looked at one prison in isolation.
After prison, where do you go?
I’m interested in Parliaments of the European Union – 28 national parliaments plus the two European parliaments in Bruxelles & Strasbourg. Again they are public spaces and simultaneously they are not. Parliaments have notions of democracy for the people and of being seen. Prisons and parliaments; both make access difficult.
Nico Bick (Arnhem, 1964) studied photography at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague (1986-1991). Characteristic of his work is a preference for inconspicuous places that appear to be so familiar that nobody seems to notice them anymore. He specifically direct his view at spaces with a tangible tension between the public and the private domain. With patience and careful observation he creates highly detailed images, in the absence of its users, to focus the attention to both the space itself and the meaning of these places. Nico Bick lives and works in Amsterdam.
Photographs Nico Bick
Text Frits Gierstberg
Design Joost Grootens
Published by Nico Bick, Amsterdam 2011.
Edition: 400 copies with an English text on a supplementary sheet. Offset, folded, 64 pages, 32 colour photos, 24x30cm. 35 euro.
Special edition. 25 copies. Signed and numbered with an additional original photograph (C-print, 24x30cm). 160 euro
Available through Bick’s website.
P.I. on Facebook