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Oliver Fluck’s series of Prisoner Chess Portraits is an interesting counterpoint to other prisoner portraiture. It is unfussy, neutral, quiet. Fluck is experimenting with the figure and I would like to see him in the future settle with a preferred vantage point in relation to his sitter. For example, I like the portraits of the Prison Chess Champ and of Christopher Serrone. Fluck is headed in the right direction.
Prison Chess Portrait #14 (above) is a very strong shot also taking advantage of particularly high contrast light conditions.
Is photographing stationary silent chess-playing sitters simple or difficult? On the one hand, the sitter is still for you, but on the other, it’s difficult to spark rapport with a man concentrating on the game.
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An integral part of the project is Fluck’s drafted questionnaire which secured answers to standard questions from as many competitors as possible.
Inmate quotes such as, “Having been incarcerated since age 15 and never getting out, it is helpful and healthy to know that not all of society lacks interest or willingness to become productively involved” keep reality checked. As do sobering statistics such as 50+ years or 66-year prison-terms.
Q&A with Oliver Fluck
How and why you came to this topic?
I enjoy playing chess, which is why I’m in touch with the local university chess club here in Princeton. The students got the opportunity to play against inmates of a maximum security prison, and when I heard about it, I proposed to photograph the event and volunteer as a driver for the students.
What are your hopes for the project as a whole?
Very frankly, from a photographer’s point of view, I would like to see it exhibited, and provoke some thought.
What is your message with the portraits?
I can talk about one thing that I am not trying to do: I’m not trying to propagate any kind of standpoint about how one should deal with criminals, and whether or not they should have the right to enjoy chess. I’m like most other viewers, I stumbled upon this project and got curious … Curious on an unprejudiced level from human to human. Start from there if you are looking for a message.
Anything else that you’d like to add and feel is important.
I would like to thank John Marshall for this experience, and David Wang for constructive feedback regarding the prisoner questionnaire.
Oliver Fluck’s Flickr
Watch this youtube clip of a local news report from the prison during the tournament.
Hailey, 2, reaches out for a quarter in her fathers hand, Shane Macleod, while her mother Danielle Macleod stares out from the table. Each visitor is allowed to bring $20 of quarters for the vending machine and nothing else. Shane, like all of the inmates in the visiting room must ask his wife and daughter to buy certain snacks, as he is not allowed near the vending machines. During the visits, Shane says, “There is just not a lot to talk about after a while, you can only beat a subject to death for so long.” The couple married four years ago outside of prison, and Shane says, “Prison just really messes up your life.”
Hailey Macleod, 2, look outs across the table at her father, Shane Macleod, and his outstretched hand. Shane was incarcerated two months prior for bank robbery. Shane says. “It gets really stressful sometimes, to have my wife and daughter away from me.”
Elyse Butler repeat-visited New Hampshire State Prison in 2005. She was working as an intern staff photographer at the Concord Monitor in Concord, New Hampshire. The goal of the assignment was to capture the dynamics of relationships in the prison visiting room. Butler documented the behaviours of those within the room; “how these couples, families, and friends interact with each other when they have only a small amount of monitored time to spend together.” I asked a couple of questions.
How did you get access?
In order to get access into the prison we [Concord Monitor] had to contact the PR department and go through a process of paperwork and I had prison officers watching me at all times when I was in the visiting room.
What reactions did the work receive?
After the piece was done we got a great reaction from inmates and families in the visiting room. They were touched to have their time documented with their loved ones.
Heather Metcalf and Mark Vangordon hold hands at table 19 in the visiting room of New Hampshire State Prison. Vangordon is imprisoned for sexual assault and has been in the for a year. Metcalf says, “Not having him home is the hardest part.” When she is not visiting she waits for his letters to hear how he’s doing. During a visit, they are only allowed to have a 15 second embrace at the beginning and end of each visit and otherwise they are only allowed to hold hands above the table.
Lori Tasney and Chris Lang look into each others eyes as Marilyn and Daniel Haldeman hold each other at the end of a visit. Tasney and Lang have been dating for two years and plan to marry when he gets out. His current parole date is set for 2008. Lang was imprisoned for robbery in January 2005. Tasney visits twice a week, which is the most time any inmate is allowed visitors, but says “I would visit every day if I could.”
Mark Langlais plays cards with his brother, inmate Alphee Langlais (right) and his son, inmate Eric Langlias (left) while a mother gives her son one last touch at the end of a visit. This is the first time Alphee and Mark have seen each other since 1996. Mark claims, “Alphee’s been in here since his hair lost its color.” The family was estranged a long time ago, but they claim prison has brought them closer together. Eric was admitted for assault and Alphee was admitted on a parole violation following a prior sexual assault crime. Alphee carries around his inmate request slip as if its a trophy and cried when he finally spoke on the phone with his brother Mark. “This visit has been really special to me, ” Alphee claimed. Eric and his father always fought but no that he is on medication and his father is in counseling, Eric says “it is the closest we’ve ever been … I have always loved my father. I have always wanted him around.”
An inmate and his visitor share a last kiss and 15 second embrace, along with three other couples also saying their goodbyes, at the end of a visit. They started dating 5 months ago, only a month before he went to prison, and she says, “If he ends up having a long sentence, we probably won’t stay together.” He was admitted on a parole violation after an original conviction for multiple robberies and larceny. She says, “I come usually once a week. I hate coming here.”
Elyse Butler is represented by Aevum Photos. She is one of the hardest working and posting photographers in the business. She previously won College Photographer of the Year Award in 2004 for her documents of the porn industry. She has also photographed the debutante activity of La Jolla. I’d like to hear an interview between Butler, Lauren Greenfield and Wendy Marijnissen on the topic of female identity.
Butler did some nice portraiture in South America, but my favourite project of hers is “From Pond to Purse” which follows the trade of alligator products. Be sure to read Butler’s information on the project at her site in the ‘passion’ category.