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14/38 (Not The Man I Once Was) © Amy Elkins, from the series Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night

Cruel and Unusual, the 2012 exhibition of photographs from prisons, co-curated by Hester Keijser and I is on the move.

Originally commissioned and debuted at Noorderlicht in the Netherlands [ 1,  2  &  3 ], Cruel and Unusual has since been to Amsterdam and Photoville in New York [ 1,  2  &  3 ].

In 2013, continuing its journey, Cruel and Unusual will travel to Sydney, Australia for the Reportage Photography Festival, May 24th – June 13th. It was selected by Photoville as one of three exhibits. To be shown alongside Russell Frederick’s Dying Breed: Photos of Bedford Stuyvesant and Bruce Gilden/Magnum Foundation’s No Place Like Home: Foreclosures in America.

As one presentation ends, another begins. Cruel and Unusual travels to the Sirius Art Center in Cobh, Ireland. On view from June 13th – July 22nd. Hester will be doing a talk at the reception on June 22nd at 2pm.

I’m really happy to see the exhibition live on, and grateful to those who are making it happen.

Special thanks to Peg Amison at Sirius Arts Center, to Sam Barzilay at Photoville, Olaf and the team at Noorderlicht for their ongoing support.


Doug Dubois needs no introduction in photocircles, but he did when he stepped on to the Russell Heights estate in Cobh, Ireland. Doug was running workshops with the youth in Cobh but making no photographs. Out of compulsion he asked to go to their homes to inspire his photography.

After last weeks events in Newtown, Connecticut, the preciousness of childhood is on the minds of millions. Childhood and teenage years deserve celebration. Dubois’ My Last Day At Seventeen is a celebration. There’s no portfolio on his website but you can see selects on Piece Of Cake.

Often, when you hear teachers reflect about their work, you’ll hear, “I learnt more from the students than they learnt from me,” or some variant of. It seems this was Doug’s experience.

“I’m interested in the glow of youth; its fragility. As I’m older, I know it will disappear, but they don’t,” says Dubois in a beautifully produced feature in the 13th episode of the Irish culture and arts television program Imeall. Dubois spent four consecutive summers working in Russell Heights through the artist in residency programme at Sirius Arts Centre.

“He spent four years photographing my life,” says Erin Mackessy, one of Dubois’ main subjects (above, on the left) who speaks throughout the film (click the image below). The respect between Doug and Erin is described really well. It’s nice to hear both photographer and subject talk about one another so familiarly.





Klavdij Sluban and Jim Casper of LensCulture talked about Klavdij’s photography workshops in juvenile prisons across the world.

Klavdij Sluban

Early in the interview, Klavdij discloses his personal sadness that prisons exist. This emotion may be raw but it is not naive; Klavdij is balanced and realistic about what he can achieve with a camera in these specific distopias. He also says in seven words what I established this blog to say “Jails are a world to be discovered.”

He went to the prisons not as photographer, but as a concerned citizen. He realised if he were to go inside it would need to be with some reciprocity … so he took cameras and used them.

In terms of engagement and commitment to a population – the youth prison population of the world – Klavdij Sluban could and should be considered a ‘Concerned Photographer’. He deserves that loaded epithet.


The inspiring Just Seeds Collective which peddles art to fund prison rights activism pointed me via its blog toward the Poster Film-Collective of London.

The Poster-Film Collective was formed in the early 1970s by a group of artists, photographers and filmmakers – mostly former staff and students from the London art colleges – with the aim of addressing political issues in a coherent visual style using forms of reproduction easily available to them. During the 1970s and 80s they produced posters and films, and organised exhibitions in collaboration with trade unions, community groups and women’s organisations, among others.

The Poster Film-Collective is a unique archive of graphics for African, Cultural, International, Irish, British and Women’s causes. With direct politics and robust graphics, poster arts are a nostalgic favourite for many art historians.


‘The Troubles’ of Northern Ireland are a very difficult topic for me to discuss; but not because I am close or emotionally compromised and not because I know or knew anyone involved. I grew up just the other side of the Irish Sea, but Belfast may as well have been the other side of the world to me. I was raised Catholic and my Mum’s family are from the Republic of Ireland. Yet, as a child my family rarely discussed the situation in Northern Ireland. Even in 1996, when the IRA bombed the Arndale shopping centre in Manchester (just down the M61 from my home town) the conflict was still too abstract and ancient for my teenage mind to comprehend.

I think any political labels or alliances that would fall upon my family were deflected by a distant dismay at the violence of the time. ‘The Troubles’ of Northern Ireland are not something I feel comfortable idealising; rather limply I retreat to the cliche that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. All sides (there were more than two) were guilty of arrogance, obstinacy and extreme violence. The ideological brutality played out on the streets was matched by that meted out in the prisons, most notably Long Kesh, later renamed The Maze.

Maze Prison was a microcosm of the political conflict that raged for over thirty years in the north of Ireland. It was the largest high security prison in Europe and was both the tinderbox and the touchstone of political developments outside its walls. As a result of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, its prisoners were released and the prison finally closed down in 2000.


It is a lingering guilt for me that ‘The Troubles’ have always been historical … historicised. It is this guilt that accounts for the fact I’ve not before discussed Donovan Wylie’s The Maze on Prison Photography. Wylie is saturated in Irish history – it is his life’s vocation. On the other hand, I would be a fraud if I attempted to summarise the complex events of a physically-close-culturally-distant conflict.

It is with similar guilt I refer readers – in the first instance – not to news reports or academic reflection but to a 2008 film. But, I do so because Steve McQueen’s Hunger is a breath-taking portrayal of a life-taking episode in the history of Maze prison. It is a wonderful observation of British prisons, Irish Republican solidarity and inmate management in the face of political protest.

McQueen, in his directorial debut, specialises in long uninterrupted shots which grip time (and all its anguish) and forces the politicised narratives through the mangle. He flattens and simplifies the visuals drawing out the incredible fragility of human skin, snow-flake, fly, lamb, ribcage … McQueen is surely a great photographer too.


Through Donovan Wylie’s work I learnt of Dr. Louise Purbrick’s excellent continuing research “concerned above all with the meanings of things and how those meanings are contained or revealed, experienced and theorised.” Purbrick wrote the essay for Donvan Wylie’s book, Maze. That was in 2004. In 2007, Purbrick extended the survey, jointly editing the book Contested Spaces. It analysed the “divided cities of Berlin, Nicosia and Jerusalem, the borderlands between the United States and Mexico, battlefields in Scotland and South Africa, a Nazi labour camp in Northern France, memorial sites in Australia and Rwanda, and Abu Ghraib.”

Purbrick worked with another academic Cahal McLaughlin on the oral history & documentary film project Inside Stories featuring Irish Republican Gerry Kelly, Loyalist Billy Hutchinson and ex-warder Desi Waterworth. And it is here I start (and I encourage you to start), with personal testimony when trying to understand ‘The Troubles’.

Donovan Wylie has continued his visual archaelogy of Irish history with Scrapbook.

Poster5Born in Belfast in 1971, DONOVAN WYLIE discovered photography at an early age. He left school at sixteen, and embarked on a three-month journey around Ireland that resulted in the production of his first book, 32 Counties (Secker and Warburg 1989), published while he was still a teenager. In 1992 Wylie was invited to become a nominee of Magnum Photos and in 1998 he became a full member. Much of his work, often described as ‘Archaeo-logies’, has stemmed primarily to date from the political and social landscape of Northern Ireland.

LOUISE PURBRICK is Senior Lecturer in the History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton, UK. She is author of The Architecture of Containment in D. Wylie, The Maze (Granta, 2004) and, with John Schofield and Axel Klausmeier, editor of Re-Mapping the Field: New Approaches to Conflict Archaeology (Westkreuz-Verlag, 2006). She also works on the material culture of everyday life and has written The Wedding Present: Domestic Life beyond Consumption (Ashgate, 2007) (Source)

CAHAL McLAUGHLIN is Senior Lecturer in the School of Film, Media and Journalism at the University of Ulster. He is also a documentary filmmaker and is currently working on a Heritage Lottery Funded project, ‘Prison Memory Archive’.


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