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Ever wonder how many stories you’ve missed? Ever wonder if your world-view could be different?

Take a camera into a prison and you’re going to hear some honest tales. When people are going through a process of self-forgiveness or asking for forgiveness from others then honesty pours …

“I Knew a Man Named Simon”

In this film, M.K. talks honestly about his life as a British driug dealer – from the romance of guns to the denial of past customers. He talks with great frankness about his family, feelings and forgiveness.

The Forgiveness Project is an international charity which, among other activities, offers free digital media courses in British prisons. At the end of each course, the prisoners produce a short film on the subject of forgiveness

M.K’s story is well-delivered and uninterrupted by the questions or expectations of society. Other films from The Forgiveness Project are less gripping, but the purpose isn’t solely to entertain – it is to provide a medium through which an individual can unravel their thoughts, (often) guilt and apply forgiveness in a form that rings true.

Prisoners Offering Advise for New Prisoners

Brixton prison was in the news recently with the success of its radio station, so it should be no surprise it would also embrace film as a means to self-rehabilitation. According to the introduction, this is “the first ever film made by prisoners about life in a British prison uncensored and uncut.”

H.M.P. High Down also hosted The Forgiveness Project


Alistair Pirrie has been the lead on The Forgivness Project’s work in prisons.

This is a continuation from the Interview Part One, published Tuesday, 21st July, 2009.

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Steve Davis, Green Hill, 2000

PP: Tell us about the objectives of the workshops?

SD: The purpose of the first workshop [at Maple Lane] was to create images that would describe what life was like. To treat the camera as a photojournalist would. They had a story to tell. And they had an audience that they were supposed to reach. Once I was there I quickly realized that most of these kids have never completed a project of any description.

Photography was secondary. They just needed something to do as a group that might actually have some kind of consequence. That people could look to and be happy with. A lot of them had never had [that type of validation].

We agreed, and it wasn’t hard to get them to agree that the group as a whole took credit for each picture. And they were all okay with that. I’d print them, take them back and show them. The group would edit them and they’d feel part of the process.

The Green Hill School was a little less resolved. I wasn’t quite sure I was there honestly. I don’t think they’d quite figured it out. And so that was a little tougher I think.

When I was at Remann Hall there was a whole issue with not photographing faces. So with that I took a whole different tack and gave them pinhole cameras, which ran on long exposures.

The girls had to plan the shot. They were thinking in terms of illustration and performance for the camera. It wasn’t about trying to document as much as create these worlds for the camera. And those pictures are really beautiful.

The purpose of those pictures was to become part of a construction that they were building; It was a house with all sorts of representations, photos, paintings and stuff like that. That went to the Tacoma Museum of Glass. It might even still be there? The photos didn’t work well in the house, unfortunately, mostly for technical or logistical reasons.  However, they were very significant in the catalog.

PP: What lessons did you learn?

SD: When it worked at its best we worked as a small group and we did a lot of talking.

Steve Davis, Basketball, Remann Hall

The Institution Adapts

PP: Any problems?

SD: They’d take photos, show them and sell them to the other kids and get in trouble for that. They had a whole economy going. They were photographers for hire. The other kids would hire them. They were all doing gang signs, which completely got everyone in trouble.

PP: So they had the cameras with them during the project? In their cells?

SD: It depended which facility we’re talking about. It was actually a huge struggle at the start of the project, especially at Maple Lane where they’d confiscate the cameras. The staff would confiscate the cameras as a form of punishment. As soon as I left the building they’d take the cameras away. That part was really hard.

It got better when there was enough dialogue about it. There was a whole education process that had to go on with the staff too. They weren’t used to cameras being there! They were not comfortable with that. They allowed kids to go outside with one of the staff, you know, photograph a tree and then give the camera back to the staff member.

PP: Describe the education you gave to staff.

SD: The only thing I could do with staff was to explain my view and then get the management of the facility on my side … who could then explain to the staff and sanction the activity. The photographs were all censored at the end.

When the staff realized that the superintendent was saying it was okay they began to lay-off, but in truth there wasn’t a lot I could do with the staff. At the time, there was some really progressive staff who thought this would be good for the kids and that the exposure would actually be good for them. Over the years that changed, and they became very protective again.

Steve Davis. Green Hill, 2000

PP: How did each of the workshops wrap up then?

SD: Maple Lane: I was there as long as I was supposed to be there. But it was clear I was never going to get to be back. I was caught in the middle of larger differences between organizations. That shut me out of that.

Green Hill School: I was amazed at the amount of support they gave me after a while. I went into the intensive management unit (IMU), which is the hard-core wing – the lock down.

I thought they weren’t likely to let me in there, but I approached the management anyway and I said I really needed to take pictures of that [the IMU]. I explained I didn’t want to make it pretty. The administrator said ‘Yes’ which really blew me away.

And the staff at the IMU were just so excited that someone came out to visit because that place was usually off limits.

Spotlight On/Spotlight Off

A while later the New York Times magazine was going to run my pictures including those of the IMU. I made a mistake and I went back to [Green Hill] and told them the New York Times was interested and that I wanted to get some updated photographs and releases. The management had changed by then – they threatened me with lawyers and state attorney general. It got complicated and the story never ran.

PP: Which photographs were problematic? Or was the project as a whole problematic for Green Hill?

SD: I’d sent New York Times a lot of stuff and they were interested but the final selection was never made, so I don’t know which individual pictures would’ve been the problem. The project was the problem.  The editor said “do what you need to do and get it right,” but editors have very short time lines and attentions spans.  When I was ready they had already moved on.  My fault.

PP: Your stark environment photographs. These are pictures of the IMU too?

SD: Yes. That’s a play area that had been shut down for months. They couldn’t even use it. That’s IMUs exercise room with no weights, no anything.

Rec Room, Intensive Management Unit, Green Hill School 2000

The situation here is that they’d get a chair if they were still enrolling themselves in school; they had their own choice if they wanted to be enrolled in school. If they acted up, which many did because they were locked up 23/7, they’d take away their mattress and they’d sleep on the cement. And if there was more trouble than that they strip them, and if there was more trouble than that they’d chain them up in the fetal position.

PP: Seriously?

SD: I’m serious. This is what I was told – I was told by staff. It was bad and that’s probably why they didn’t want any of my pictures running in the New York Times. They told me they were cleaning up their act. This was 2000 so that may well be true. My response was, “Great, can you invite me back? I’d like to see it.” They said they were not into that.

PP: You’ve many photographs of the steel doors and hatches.

SD: The hatch is where they’d get their food, mail and medical needs. That’s when the IMU really started to affect me emotionally. You know, when I was working with them face to face in these institutions it wasn’t any different to working with kids anywhere. But …

10, 11, 12 13 & 14, Green Hill, 2000

Cell, Green Hill, 2000

PP: Were these juveniles in the IMU because they were violent offenders or were they there because they’d broken prison rules?

SD: Because they’d broken prison rules.

PP: It was punishment?

SD: Yes, but part of understanding this is also getting accurate information.

I was told they put people there for their own protection. There was one kid who was a pedophile who was apparently there for his own protection, but then I was told later that that wasn’t the case. “Oh, you can’t do that [type of separation].”

PP: One would think prisons could run protective cells and wings without resorting to these stark punitive environments? It doesn’t have to be run like that?

SD: Maple Lane it is less punitive, as far as I could tell.  But they’ll separate gangs as well. You know kids can’t just be housed anywhere. It has to fit with the institution.

PP: I am shocked to learn that juveniles are in isolation. What are your thoughts on solitary confinement?

SD: About the time I was shooting this story, Tim McVeigh was about to be executed for his Oklahoma bombings. Watching him on TV, he was on death row and he clearly had a better cell than those kids. This was interesting but also depressing – some kids told me they’d go to IMU because they just wanted to get away and some of them would only be there for two or three days. But some of them would be there for months.

The staff, there was one guy, I forget his name, was extremely bitter. He said in front of everybody, including the kids. “I could solve this problem easily, I’d just get a gun” and this is how he’d talk to these kids. He said back a few years ago they had tables in the open hallway and a TV and pool table.

The kids took the pool balls and beat the staff with them, they broke the television. So they removed all these things just because the staff were scared – that was the only reason. They told me one woman couldn’t go back to work because her arm could was damaged. And so you realize it is very complicated. These people come to work everyday and they don’t want to be constantly threatened with violence.

Court, Green Hill, 2000

SD: But, of course, these kids [I was photographing] had nothing to do with that. Right? They had nothing to do with it but had to pay the consequences.

Some kids would go to IMU just for mouthing off and others may have done something serious.

As for the staff; some most of them were really good. And I don’t know how they do it every day. Others were those who were bringing in dope for the kids and being nasty.

The kids complained about this and there was nobody there to listen.

PP: No accountability? Did complaints ever get out of the facility – say to the DSHS for example?

SD: I don’t know. Part of the problem is the kids lie their heads off. No matter what they tell me I can’t assume it is true and that is part of the problem and just makes it more complicated. But the more I got to know them they all have their underground. You know – they’ve all got something they can get high on. It must be the staff that’s bringing the stuff in.

PP: What’s in it for the staff? Behavioral management?

SD: Well, they’d get something out of it … I don’t know what. I had camera stuff stolen. I know the staff stole it; it wasn’t the kids.

The kids would always get punished because the state didn’t know what to do with these kids. It was about management – it was not about justice.

Steve Davis, Oakridge, 2005

PP: Tell us about your portraits. Did the kids see your work?

SD: Yeah, they all got a picture. If I did a portrait they all received one. Although yeah [laughs/sighs] some of the kids swore they never got them. I’d give them to staff to pass on …

Something I think is really interesting is this desire for photographs. (I video taped in there too and interviewed a lot of them). They would have empty rooms, but they’d have maybe a few pictures on the wall that they were allowed to have.

It was a huge deal to them to have these pictures. Photographs were important. And one kid who was an outsider (you could tell the other kids didn’t like him) approached the group and said, “I’ve got something but I can’t show it to you.” And they said, “Fine, we not interested.” And he kept nagging; it was clear that he did in fact want to show the group this thing.

Usually contraband is drugs or porno, but no. He pulled out this picture of him and his parents from when he was a kid. It was all wrinkled up and that was his prize that nobody could take from him, I’d never seen anything like that before.

I’d heard from Susan Warner, from before I was in there, that she came across one kid who had never even seen a photograph. I’m thinking, “He must have seen a photograph?” but some of these kids have backgrounds that are so hard to imagine.

Anyway, they loved having their picture taken and they loved having the power to visualize the result.

Steve Davis, Oakridge, 2005

PP: Their futures? Do you wonder what happened to them?

SD: I tried to track them down. And it was impossible. I tracked one down. He made it into community college in Centralia. He was in college when I met him.

Another kid everybody liked. He was popular and he was smart. After he got out he called me once. The Experimental Gallery got him a scholarship. The college wouldn’t admit a felon so he couldn’t use his scholarship. He was on parole, so he had to stay in his local area and so his options were limited to colleges there. So he had a scholarship and he worked in McDonalds!

Later, I was working with a legal advocacy group in Seattle and they could identify a lot of these kids as being in the adult system now. The recidivism rate is 80%. I think in the back of their minds they just kind of expect that [return to an institution]. Prison is where their dad is in many cases. A lot of them – more than I would have imagined – were affiliated with gangs. I never really appreciated that as being a serious problem in Washington State, but most of them had some allegiance. After release most of them return to their homes and familiar neighborhoods.

PP: In how many cases did you think that the institution as it existed served the child and society?

SD: Only one. There was one who was scary. Out of his mind. But there was only one.

PP: Talk about the procedures one must go through to photograph in a site of incarceration.

SD: Everybody asks me, “Can I go do this, who do I need to call?” somebody needs to call you. They’ve already gone through the hoops and they’ve already got that figured out.

PP: Do you see yourself photographing in sites of incarceration again?

SD: Yes. Am I planning for it, no, but it could happen through other avenues. I have been planning for some years to do a project on American war veterans, which falls under the same sort of scope. That is going to be my next big project.

If I do go back to prisons or jails, I don’t want to photograph more portraits that look the same. I don’t want to take the same pictures. I would like to penetrate into [the issue] with something deeper.

PP: Any closing thoughts?

SD: I don’t know a lot about prisons. I don’t know a lot about the adult systems but the youth systems (and I have a two and half year old now) is an embarrassment. It’s really bad they don’t know how to deal with these kids and they don’t know how to make them better.

The real smart ones will figure out how to get out of there and the rest … ?

Door 2, Intensive Management Unit, Green Hill, 2000

Steve Davis is the Coordinator of Photography and adjunct faculty member of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He received the Santa Fe Center for Photography’s Project Competition in 2002, and recently won an Artist Trust Fellowship. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, and is in the collections of the George Eastman House, the Tacoma Art Museum and the Musee de la Photographie in Belgium. He is represented by the James Harris Gallery, Seattle.

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Yana Payusova’s Russian Prison Series is a complex portrait with embedded cultural memes and fierce visual détournement. It is a strong and committed project. Russian Prisons Series, painted photographs of forgotten incarcerated Russian youth is Payusova’s most extensive use of photography in her many series. In response to email request, Yana replied with the detailed account below.

PP: I am particularly interested in your experience within the prisons, your ability to photograph, your understanding with the boys & men in your images and your thoughts on photography and prisons generally.

I understand you joined your mother, who was working as a social worker, in Lebedeva and Kolpino prisons, St Petersburg. What were your initial reasons & motivations for working with the young men in these institutions?

YP: I first visited the Lebedeva prison in the fall of 2003. I was able to gain access to the prisons because my mother had been working with incarcerated teenagers there for the past nine years. She belonged (my mother has retired in 2007) to an organization called Rainbow of Hope. This organization initially specialized in working with street children, either homeless (orphans or abandoned children) or homeless by choice (those avoiding abusive situations at home). Street children are a brand new, post-perestroika phenomenon for Russia. Before the breakup of the USSR, unwanted and disabled children were housed in a Soviet-style orphanage system out of sight of society. However, there were also numerous social organizations, which created public programs for children, thus filling in where the family institution was lacking. Unfortunately, today, ragged, unwashed children hanging out in front of subway stations begging for money, smoking cigarettes and sniffing glue, are a common sight.

Rainbow of Hope formed a day-center where homeless children could eat, play, attend classes, and receive medical attention. Shortly after the inception of this new program, the social workers noticed that as some of ‘their’ kids matured they relapsed into their previous street behavior. They started disregarding any kind of authority; began consuming alcohol and hard drugs; getting in trouble for breaking into cars; and various small theft. Eventually, after either several minor offences or after one serious transgression, and if the kids were fourteen or older, they wound up in prison. When my mother first started visiting the prisons, she learned that in fact, many of the teenage inmates came from similar backgrounds: alcoholic parents (often single mothers), other incarcerated family members, chaotic upbringing without any positive adult supervision, childhood exposure to psychological and physical violence.

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YP: I decided to accompany my mother in one of her weekly visits to the prisons. I cannot say that I was shocked the first time I entered one of these facilities. Having grown up in the Soviet Union and having seen royal palaces in extreme decay, I did not expect a vacation spa. The security guards were grim and humorless, the environment was filthy and unkept, and the barred-windowed buildings were rundown. There was a sense of complete surveillance, barbed wire and high brick fences always visible, a near complete blockage of the city’s activity beyond the walls. There was an eerie silence broken only by occasional savage barking of guard-dogs. The atmosphere was even more depressing once inside the prison building.  The entire structure had an intolerable stale stench. It was later explained to us that this was the smell of lice being burned off the prisoners’ clothes. As we walked upstairs, we caught glimpses of the adult inmates. Their faces were gray and expressionless and they stood with their hands behind their backs.

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YP: However, I was truly shocked when I saw the teenage convicts in person. When we arrived they were in their cells, mostly sleeping and passing time. They were brought out in front of us into the main hallway for lineup. I was expecting to see tough guys and intimidating criminal types, but instead I saw a group of scrawny, pale, shaven-headed young boys, many of whom were covered in warts and sores. I knew that all of them had to be ages 14 to 21, but the majority seemed like they could not be older than twelve (as I later learned, an indication of malnourishment in childhood). Many had tattooed limbs and torsos. A few of the tattoos were masterfully executed, but most were crude amateur drawings. Many of the tattoos were grossly infected. Ironically, the tattoo designs displayed harsh arrogance and aggression, which was markedly missing from most of the boys’ faces. Also, many of them spoke ‘blatnaya fenya’ (special cryptolanguage used among criminals) partially out of habit and partly to show off and flaunt their connections to the criminal culture.

PP: What did you discuss/teach each other?

YP: I was supposed to conduct an English class, however, we ended up simply talking in Russian. When they got over the initial cocky boy-talk and the showing-off in front of each other, we were able to enjoy a normal conversation.  I was surprised to find out that for many, it was not their first time in prison. Paradoxically, many boys seemed to either enjoy or be ambivalent to being in prison. I got a sense that it was similar to belonging to a fraternity of sorts; with its own secret lingo and rituals. I knew that I wanted to learn more about this strange place, to find out why this hellish dump was so romanticized, while being so intolerable.  It all seemed like such a paradox. I knew I wanted to come back to investigate.

PP: Exactly how long did you work there? How often did you visit?

YP: After my initial visit, I began volunteering at both Lebedeva prison (SIZO 47/4) and Kolpino colony (VK g. Kolpino) on a weekly basis. We usually visited the Lebedeva prison twice a week and the Kolpino colony on the weekend. In total, I spent around eight months visiting the prisons.

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PP: At what point did you decide to take your camera into the prisons? I have read the prison staff made an exception for you and allowed you to shoot 5 rolls of film. Why was this? What sort of discussion/negotiation made this possible? What was the nature of your interactions with the young men? How much of the project did you explain to them?

YP: Two weeks before I left for the States, I was able to bring my camera inside the prison to take some pictures. I was only able to shoot five or six rolls because photographing inside the prison is prohibited, but the guards made an exception since I had worked there for an entire year. The boys were completely aware of me photographing them (in fact, I gave them copies of all of the images I shot). Since so many wanted to be photographed, the boys generally had only one chance to pose. Surprisingly, most were very relaxed and confidently confronted the camera.

PP: Had you even finalized the future use of your prints in your own mind at that time?

YP: While I was photographing the boys, I had no preconception of the future project.

After I developed the film, I felt dissatisfied with the images. The black and white portraits seemed so one-dimensional and flat, they did not even begin to scratch the surface of the complexity of my experience. The pictures captured the personality of a few individuals, but the images said nothing of history, character, or story. Similar to the way in which a prism expands plain white light into the entire color spectrum, I had to find a way to render these photographs; a way that would offer perspective and a unique angle; that would give me a vocabulary and a way to begin to speak about my experience.

When I began searching for a ‘prism’, it occurred to me that the entire experience working with the prisoners had a strong religious undertone. Most of the Rainbow of Hope’s sponsorship comes from Western missionary organizations (mostly from Southern states: Texas, Alabama). The raised and donated money is used to pay teachers to conduct classes in prisons, to buy hygiene products (such as soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes), celebrating the boys’ birthdays, buying medicine, socks, slippers and gloves in the winter, etc. However, all this comes with an additional non-monetary cost.  Most missionary groups wish to see how their money is spent and like to personally visit the prisons. Since I am bi-lingual, I was to accompany such groups and serve as an interpreter during missionaries’ encounters with the prison’s residents.

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YP: It was always mind-boggling for me to see how these foreigners could come into a country, knowing little about its culture and history, and speak with such aplomb about all of the country’s problems and offer their solutions. Naturally, most missionaries wanted to convert the sinful prisoners to Christianity and have them ‘invite Jesus into their hearts.’ While the boys were busy playing the roles of thieves and recidivists, the missionaries enacted their wild dreams of the great saviors, who could save an entire prison full of lost souls all before lunch. One day while translating the Jesus story for the fiftieth time, I began to ponder this concept of saints and sinners. While to the missionaries, the power dynamic was crystal clear, to me it was becoming progressively ambiguous.

As a starting point, I have decided to begin thinking about my experience using the religious terminology. Since the only official religion in Russia is (and has been for quite some time) Christian Orthodoxy, it seemed only natural to start my explorations there. Russia adopted the Byzantine form of Christianity (as in the Baptism of Kievan Rus’) in 988 A.D. As centuries passed, Christian Orthodoxy has penetrated every aspect of Russia’s social and cultural life; it is closely intertwined with its traditions and folklore. Even after seventy years in which the Soviet government actively had been trying to choke all aspects of spiritual life, most Russians will define themselves as Orthodox Christians. Although, for the majority, being a Christian, involves going to church twice a year for Christmas and Easter. In fact, most boys in prisons consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians and wear gold and silver crosses around their necks (sign that one has been baptized). Their tattoos involve quite a bit of religious iconography as well.

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YP: I have always been fascinated by Orthodox icons. Beautiful objects hung on the wall, commanding such reverence, have always been mysterious to me because of their cryptic visual language. Similar to the obscure language of prison tattoos, the icons offered only glimpses into the rich exegesis of their symbolism and narrative. The individual symbols could be recognized (people, buildings, trees, animals), but when examined as a whole, lacked any coherent meaning. Originally the language of the icons was designed to be simple, its objective was accessibility to the illiterate and literate alike, but the clarity was lost as centuries passed. Conceptually, icons worked well with my idea; I wanted my work to speak of the boys’ experience while demonstrating my respect and compassion for their lives.

The word ‘icon,’ derived from the Greek ‘eikon,’ means an image, any image or representation, but in a stricter sense, it means a holy image to which special veneration is given. Unfortunately, the true intention for an icon to be an object only depicting that which is worshiped, is lost. Historically, the iconodules (the defenders or lovers of icons) had to come up with convincing formulations to prove that icons were not worshiped but venerated and that such veneration was not idolatry. Today, in a sense, the object itself became the thing that people worship, this is why I anticipated that the portrayal of prisoners in an iconic form may be offensive to some Orthodox Christians. I decided to proceed with my research and found myself getting ever more deeply fascinated by what I was finding.

It is curious that most representational formulas and compositions used in icon painting today have been established several centuries ago. One can compare an icon from the thirteenth century with one from the nineteenth century and notice virtually no major differences. There will be the exact same positioning of the figures, same gestures, and colors employed. Once one becomes aware of the grammar of the icon painting and learns the key characters of the stories, reading an icon becomes no different than reading a graphic novel or even a comic. This discovery enabled me to begin using the orthodox visual language in a post-modern form. Essentially, the iconographic structuralism of the church, gave me the means to create my own visual and cerebral language so that I could begin to analyze and interpret the complexity of the boys’ experience.

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PP: Alex Sweetman has said. “She took this little world of prisons and looked through it to see the totality of Russian society – its corruption, its caste system, its misery.” How accurate a reflection is this of your position?

YP: In a country like the Soviet Union, where a significant part of the population (not necessarily criminals) went through labor camps, prison sub-cultures are very well developed and complex.

Not a very long time ago, it was considered shameful to admit to ever having been convicted or to having any family member in prison even though according to statistical study, one in four adult males in the former Soviet Union has been convicted at some point in time. Today, the criminal way of life is gaining wide acceptance and even gets glorified in the media. Countless movies and soap operas are produced about the glamorous lives of criminal ‘authorities’; they are endlessly written about in books; there is even an entire song genre of ‘blatnaya pesnya’ (criminal song) that exists. With the recent appearance of the infamous ‘New-Russian’ figure, having any relations to the mafia is considered cool, glamorous and prestigious. The New-Russian character has had a similar affect on Russian boys as Barbie has had on American girls. New-Russians are considered to be young (late twenties, early thirties), cool, loaded with cash, driving expensive cars, followed by henchmen doing all the dirty work, ex-criminals, sleep with attractive women, and have no one to answer to. They are appealing role models for young boys, many of whom lack any other alternative male role models in their lives. For many, prison functions as prep school for the criminal world. It offers a glimpse of a rigidly structured autonomous community where every member has their specially designated place and function. Some scholars argue that the rest of Russian society is modeled after the world of thieves and actually compare Kremlin principles and ideologies to those of a ‘pakhan’ (criminal authority) and his gang. If a government mimics such a model, what can be asked of teenage boys?

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PP: What were/are the futures of the young men? Will some of them still be institutionalized? Will some be out?

YP: Some of the boys get out of prisons and move on with their lives. It obviously is easier if one has some kind of a support system (family, relatives). Many of the boys that I knew in prison have been to prison before and did not seem to think to be in some unfortunate predicament.

For many of the boys, who grew up neglected and unwanted, this situation is novel. For the first time in their lives, they had an opportunity to belong to a group with limited membership and clear sets of rules. As opposed to the chaos of street life, prison community offers established ground rules, protection, security, stability, a plan for the future, and most importantly, a family.

Unfortunately, with the current penitentiary system in place, these young fourteen-year-old boys become the perfect recruits for the criminal world. Generally, once detained, the teenagers are sent to pretrial detention (SIZO) prisons, either the Lebedeva SIZO or the infamous St. Petersburg’s “Kresty” prison. Both of these are adult facilities, where the minors are kept in a separate section of the floor, away from the adults. Both minors and adults are held in SIZO until they are tried in court. Until recently, the prisons have been so overcrowded that it was not uncommon that minors would have to wait up to three years to receive a court trial. Fortunately today (due to recent changes in jurisdiction), the majority waits approximately six to twelve months. Unfortunately, that still leaves plenty of time for any kind of peer pressure, physical violence, and rape, to take place. Therefore even a short time in prison can mark an individual for life.

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YP: A prison stay also poses some very serious health threats. Russian prisons are infamous for epidemics of tuberculosis.  Stale-aired, filthy, confined spaces hardly promote good health. According to GUIN’s (The Chief Directorate of Penitentiary Facilities) statistic, nearly one in ten convicts get infected with TB; many cases are fatal. The numbers for HIV-infected prisoners and prisoners suffering from AIDS are also extremely high. Lice, scabies, cockroaches, rats and other vermin are all the everyday reality of prison life.

However, prison must offer something unique in order to compensate for all of the dreadfulness. As complex as the prison sub-culture is, there are several key elements that are important to consider.  One of the most important attributes of prison culture is its rigid hierarchy. Life in prisons is regulated by the unofficial ‘vorovskye zakony’ (thieves’ law), an oral collection of rules, norms and traditions for all ‘thieves’ to follow.  Some of these laws date back to pre-revolutionary Russia. The majority, however, were formed during the GULAG years and have undergone many changes over time.

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YP: For the young men with no family, prison becomes a place of acceptance and gives them a sense of purpose. Everyone aspires to become a ‘pakhan’ (criminal boss) and no one dreams of ever being an untouchable (lowest in prison hierarchy).  Although the boys that I have met are far from resembling the macho superheroes they wish to be, many imitate the expected behavior. Many of the boys display a strong sense of camaraderie. I was immediately struck by an unusual display of affection among them as they constantly hang on to each other and wrap their arms around the others’ shoulders (some of that is evident in the photographs that I shot). Their community mirrors the hierarchy of an adult prison, although according to experts it is even more pronounced and cruel. Brutality and strength are the dominant forces. One is immediately able to discern the ‘bugri’ (alphas), the ‘blatnie’, and the untouchables. I was once speaking to a group of boys (8-10 people) who were all seated on a bench in front of me, when the two ‘bugri’ (alphas) came up to us. Without saying a word, all ten boys immediately got off the bench to let the ‘bugri’ sit. Apparently, the punishment for failing to show respect can be rather brutal.

Curiously, no matter how cruel the boys can be to one another, they show unusual kindness when it comes to kittens. It is not uncommon for each cell to have a pet kitten for which everyone gently cares. The cats breed inside the prison, catch rats, and have no problems moving between the bars. It was also interesting to see the ‘bugris’’ cells. The walls are covered with fake green vines, flowers, and stuffed animals (their girlfriends from the outside sent them). Hanging along side these niceties are posters depicting porn stars. Apparently, it is considered cool if one’s cell resembles a ‘normal’ room outside of prison.

PP: In a 2008 Boston Globe article said “you’d given up using photographs”. Explain that decision.

YP: I am not using photographic imagery in current projects, but it doesn’t mean that I will not do so in the future.

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Yana’s CV is here. Yana won the juror’s prize at the 2005 CENTER Santa Fe awards. She is a member of the 6+ collective.

Massive thanks to Yana Payusova for her erudite, balanced and insightful words. It is a privilege for Prison Photography to host such a comprehensive account. Many, many thanks!

Please visit Yana’s website.

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Last week, I threw up a quick post featuring Emiliano Granado’s website images of his photographs of the San Quentin Giants. Here, Granado shares previously unpublished contact sheet images, his experiences and lasting thoughts from working within one of America’s most notorious prisons.

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What compelled you to travel across the US to photograph the story at San Quentin?
This was actually a magazine assignment for Mass Appeal Magazine.  However, the TOTAL budget was $300, so it really turns out to be a personal project after the film, travel expenses, etc. So, the simple answer to the question is that I’m a photographer. I’m curious by nature. Part of the reason I’m a photographer is to study the world around me. I like to think of myself as a social scientist, except I don’t have any scientific method of measuring things, just a photograph as a document.

With that in mind, it would be crazy of me to NOT go to San Quentin! I’d never been in a correctional institution but I’ve always been fascinated by them.  If you look through my Tivo, you’ll see shows like COPS, Locked Up, Gangland, etc. I was also a Psychology major in college and remember being blown away by Zimbardo’s prison experiment and other studies. Basically, it was an opportunity to see in real life a lot of what I’d seen on TV or read in books. And as a bonus, I was allowed to photograph.

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What procedures did you need to go through in order to gain access?
I was amazed at the lack of procedure. The writer for the story had been in touch with the San Quentin public relations people, but that was it. There was plenty of other media there that day. It was opening day of the season, so I guess it made for a minor local news story.

I’m pretty sure SQ prides itself in being so open and showcasing what a different approach to “reform” looks like.

It is my opinion that San Quentin is one of the best-equipped prisons in California to deal with a variety of visitors. Did you find this the case?
Definitely.  Access was very easy. They barely searched my equipment!  Parking was easy. I was really surprised at how easy and smooth the process was. Not to mention there were many other visitors that day (an entire baseball team, more media, local residents playing tennis with inmates, etc).

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Did your preparation or process differ due to the unique location?
Definitely. I usually work with a photo assistant and that couldn’t be coordinated, so I was by myself. I packed as lightly as I could and prepared myself for a fast, chaotic shoot. Some shoots are slow and methodical, and others are pure chaos. I knew this would be the latter.

One thing I didn’t think about was my outfit. SQ inmates dress in denim, so visitors aren’t allowed to wear denim. Of course, I was wearing jeans. The officers gave me a pair of green pajama pants. I’m glad they are ready for that kind of situation.

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You are not a sports shooter per se. You took portraits of the players and spectators of inmate-spectators. How did you choose when to frame a shot and release the shutter?
Correct. I’m definitely not what most people would consider a sports photographer. I don’t own any of those huge, long lenses. However, I photograph lots of sporting events. I think of them as a microcosm of our society. There are lots of very interesting things happening at events like this.  Fanaticism, idolatry, community, etc.  Not to mention lots of alcohol and partying  – see my Nascar images!

Hitting the shutter isn’t entirely a conscious decision. That decision is informed by years of looking at successful and unsuccessful images.  It’s basically a gut instinct. There are times that I search for a particular image in my head, but mostly, it’s about having the camera ready and pointed in the right direction.  When something interesting happens you snap.

There are photographers that come to a shoot with the shots in their head already. They produce the images – set people up, set up lighting, etc.  Then there are photographers that are working with certain themes or ideas and they come to the location ready to find something that informs those ideas. I’m definitely the latter. There is a looseness and discovery process that I really enjoy when photographing like this. It’s like the scientist crunching numbers and coming to some new discovery.

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A lot of photo editors say the story makes the story, not the images. Finding the story is key. Do you think there are many more stories within sites of incarceration waiting to be told?
I’m not sure I agree with that. I always say that a photograph can be made anywhere. Even if there is no story, per se. I definitely agree that a powerful image along with a powerful story is better, but a photograph can be devoid of a story, but be powerful anyway.

Every person, every place, everything has a story.  So yes, there are millions of untold stories within sites of incarceration.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell some of them.

Having had your experience at San Quentin, what other photo essays would you like to see produced that would confirm or extend your impressions of America’s prisons?
Man, there are millions of photos waiting to be made! I’m currently trying to gain access to a local NYC prison to continue my work and discover a bit more about what “Prison” means. Personally, I’d love to see long-term projects about inmates. Something like portraits as new inmates are processed, images while incarcerated, and then see what their life is like after prison.  Their families, their victims, etc.  And of course, if any photo editor wants to assign something like that, I’d love to shoot it!

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Anything you’d like to add to help the reader as they view your San Quentin Baseball photographs?
Yes. When I walked in to the yard, I didn’t know what reaction I would get from the inmates. Everyone was super friendly and willing to be photographed. Everyone wanted to tell me their story. I’m not sure how different their reaction would have been to me if I didn’t have a camera, but I was pleasantly surprised.  At first, I felt like an outsider and fearful, but after an hour or so, I felt comfortable and welcome.  It was a weird experience to think the guy next to me could be a murderer (and there were, in fact, murderers on the baseball team), and not be afraid. There was this moral relativism thing going on in my head. These people were “bad,” yet they were just normal guys that had made very big mistakes. I left SQ thinking that pretty much any one of us could have ended up like them. Given a different set of circumstances or lack of access to social resources (e.g. education, money, parenting, etc) I could very easily see how my own life could have mirrored their life.

And finally, can you remember the opposition?
I don’t remember who they were playing, but I do remember that their pitcher had played in the Majors and even pitched in a World Series. I believe the article that finally ran in Death + Taxes magazine mentions the opposition.

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ALL IMAGES © 2009 EMILIANO GRANADO

Authors note: Huge thanks to Emiliano Granado for his thoughtful responses and honest reflections. It was a pleasure working with you E!

Housekeeping. At the end of my previous post on Emiliano’s work, I postured when San Quentin would get more sports teams for the integration of prisoners and civilians. Emiliano has answered that for me in this interview. He observed locals playing tennis and also states San Quentin also has a basketball team.

Note: Ignoring the pink elephant in the room, I have previously avoided talking about Abu Ghraib. What could I add to a topic so exhaustively dissected? However, after listening to Philip Gourevitch speak at a local bookstore I am urged to write.

Mention ‘Prison’ and ‘Photography’ and the collective conscience defaults to the Abu Ghraib pictures. There is no escaping this fact as there is no escaping those images. The Abu Ghraib photographs inform and corrupt key dialogues of our global society – war & power; geopolitics & the psychology of surveillance; Iraq & imperialism; Western & Islamic relations; and military operations & media-constructed otherness. Add to that list, uncomplicated human cruelty.

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Those images have seeped into more spheres of conscious and sub-conscious thought than the most successful of photojournalist essays. This is emergence and pre-eminence of the Abu Ghraib photographs as the most current strongest visual “player”. Former strongest players have included Robert Capa’s images of the Normandy Invasion; or (Nick) Huỳnh Công Út’s photograph of Kim Phuc running from a napalm attack on Trang Bang, Vietnam; or Eddie Adams’ photograph of police chief General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a Vietcong prisoner, Nguyễn Văn Lém. As Gourevitch said, “If a photojournalist had taken those [Abu Ghraib] images he or she would have been celebrated and decorated for their public service.”

Those photographs are many things. They are evidence of a corrupted system bereft of accountability. They are the most important images of the War on Iraq. When recollected, they should never be separated from the exacting malevolence of the Rumsfeld Department of Defense. They are already established as the most commonly shared images of global culture. The hooded prisoner is a 21st century icon. Perhaps, partly, this is why Americans rallied to make an immediate icon of Obama; to purge a nation’s collective visual memory, and to replace negative, shameful images with positive, hopeful, primary-coloured pop-motifs.

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Gourevitch talked about the craft of the interview. The Paris Review, which he has edited since 2005, recently released the third of a four volume anthology of interviews with 20th century writers. Gourevitch noted the simplicity of the method and pointed out that in 1953 when the Paris Review was founded, no publications were interviewing writers. Literary criticism had become high brow and, to many, obsolete; it talked about the text but never the artist. The Paris Review was the first legitimate peek into the private lives, motivations and pathologies of poets and authors. Fellow writers could scrutinise every spoken word and omitted detail of their contemporaries. The Paris Review, in its early days, served as the exposé – the gossip column – for the literary world.

For fifty years, until his death in 2003, George Plimpton was editor of the Paris Review. It is fitting that Plimpton’s large shoes should be filled by a writer and journalist who has made an art form of the interview. Gourevitch’s acclaimed book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families was based on information gleaned from an unhurried, matter-of-fact tour of Rwanda where he simply talked to people. Rwandans didn’t have their own journalists clearing the way for testimony in the immediate aftermath of the genocide and Gourevitch found support for his theory that “All people need to talk”. He described Rwandans culturally as the opposite of effusive, but maintained this didn’t mean they were unwilling to share their experiences.

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For Standard Operating Procedure, accompanying the profound Errol Morris movie (which has unsurprisingly suffered stymied distribution in the US), Gourevitch sat in on 100 hours of Morris’ questions (approximately half of Morris’ interviews).

Following Gourevitch’s presentation, I asked him if there were any atypical motivations for the American servicemen and servicewomen agreeing to the interview process. Was there any information they were keen to convey? Gourevitch was quite clear. There was a single shared motivation for Sabrina Harman, Lynndie England and colleagues. The interviews are one long exercise in self-representation. Prior, the soldiers had been silenced, criminalised and later written off as “bad apples” by a military narrative designed to shield the senior accountable authorities. The media was partly complicit and the soldiers “were pissed off”, stated Gourevitch.

From the moment the US military command learnt of the pictures, the soldier/guards of Abu Ghraib were set up for the fall. The military sequestered the reservists away and lined up a raft of charges for each soldier. The US military sat on those charges hoping that if it could retrieve and control the images, it wouldn’t have to bring the matter to public attention through trial. The US military visited homes of the soldiers’ family members back in the US. They demanded computers and deleted files. After some time, it was clearly apparent to the families of the Abu Ghraib soldiers that their sons and daughters were being made scapegoats. An exact single source of the images has never been pinned down, but Gourevitch contends it was a disgruntled family member who finally unleashed the digital photographs to a world swiftly buying into the prevailing Department of Defense narrative.

We Have Seen Their Actions, Let’s Hear Their Words

The Abu Ghraib photographs can and should be understood only in the context of their production, which is to say, by a group of individuals trained as soldiers and ordered to guard prisoners in a decrepit facility; by photographers who were compelled to document precisely because they couldn’t comprehend the atrocities; by a group of soldiers influenced and hardened by one another; by a group of soldiers under no direct or pre-written guidelines; by a group of soldiers with complex thoughts, manipulations and haunted memories. Morris did us a public service with his movie and it is fitting that the accompanying book by Gourevitch features no images.

Of course, what the global community needs now is an equally comprehensive documentary project bringing together the testimonies of all those held and tortured at Abu Ghraib.

Note: I wanted to avoid resorting to the common and most shocking images of Abu Ghraib that we’ve seen so often – box, blanket, hood, wires, scrotum, pyramid, puddles, dogs, blood, shit, thumbs, leash, limbs, body bag – and I don’t exactly know why. Salon put together a responsible collection of all 291 Abu Ghraib images if you need to put those infamous images back into the context of the prison facility.

The Artistic Legacy of Abu Ghraib

Ridiculously, artists that have chosen to reflect the systematic abuses at Abu Ghraib have come under fire.

Clinton Fein’s ingenious reconstructions of the Abu Ghraib crimes drew criticism for many selfish reasons (an unwelcome return to problematic images despite their obvious construction, a project of a sadist, a re-opening of a cultural wound?). The intelligence of Fein’s project was that it challenged our premature numbness to the original Abu Ghraib photographs and forced a renewed pathos toward a subject that we’d never known anyway. Are we supposed to feel something toward Fein’s models?

Colombian painter Fernando Botero gestures front of his new paintings depicting the horrors of U.S. guards' abuse of captives at Iraq's Abu Graib prison, Monday April 11, 2005 in Paris, France. Botero says he became so upset that he felt compelled to produce works showing his trademark chubby characters naked and being blooded by americans. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Colombian painter Fernando Botero gestures front of his new paintings depicting the horrors of U.S. guards’ abuse of captives at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, Monday April 11, 2005 in Paris, France. Botero says he became so upset that he felt compelled to produce works showing his trademark chubby characters naked and being blooded by Americans. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Fernando Botero‘s work has won plaudits around the US. I think his work is excellent for many obvious reasons, so don’t call me a cynic when I say Botero’s work is more easily accepted because his Beryl Cook cherub-grotesque style, and the fact he is a Latin American commenting on a war to which Latin America remained external. Put another way, he serves up the shit sandwich with relish, whereas Fein left it in the bowl. Here’s an official presentation, here’s Berkeley enjoying the show and here’s the AP writing about it before it caravanned around America.

And finally, Chris Bartlett (Photographer) and Daniel Heyman (Painter) have teamed up to produce the Detainee Project which creates portraits of individuals illegally detained throughout America’s war on Iraq. George Soros helped Bartlett give detainees dignity and representations beyond hoods, nudity and dogs.

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