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Jon Lowenstein

This is the third and final post about Photoville. We’ve had the beginning, the middle and so now, the end.

Of the two dozen photographers in the show, only three had actual objects (Sye Williams’ darkroom prints, Jane Lindsay’s bottle caps and Deborah Luster’s tintypes). Given the cost and hassle of shipping, it was decided that the re-used Noorderlicht exhibition prints would not be returned.

I was given instructions to destroy all prints.

It occurs to me that a lot of people don’t talk about this aspect of contemporary exhibition-making. It’s not really sad to see them go, because they never belonged to anyone. They only belonged to the show. And besides, knowing they were to be destroyed, I put most of them up with double sided sticky tape, so there was no preserving them after that ultra-adhesive abuse anyway.  Super-strong magnets are hardly kind to bare prints either!

We do plan to travel Cruel and Unusual (make Hester, Noorderlicht and I an offer!) and as such we’ll see shiny versions printed again.

Until then, think on these images of photogaeddon, wanton destruction and image massacre.

Araminta de Clermont

Stephen Tourlentes

Jenn Ackerman

Steve Davis

Richard Ross

Jeff Barnett-Winsby

Tim Gruber

Yana Payusova

Lori Waselchuk

Joseph Rodriguez

Adam Shemper

Sean Kernan

Marilyn Suriani

Scott Houston

Lloyd Degrane

Harvey Finkle

Lizzie Sadin

Nathalie Mohadjer

Brenda Ann Kenneally

Alyse Emdur

Amy Elkins invited me to curate an online exhibit for Women in Photography, a group now under the umbrella of the Humble Arts Foundation.

My choice of twelve female photographers – Jenn Ackerman, Araminta de Clermont, Alyse Emdur, Christiane Feser, Cheryl Hanna-Truscott, Deborah Luster, Britney Anne Majure, Nathalie Mohadjer, Yana Payusova, Julia Rendleman, Marilyn Suriani, and Kristen S. Wilkins – are a eclectic mix of artists with different approaches to photography in sites of incarceration. Among their works you’ll find fine art documentary, found photography, alternative process, painted photographs, collaborative portraiture, dreamy landscape, photojournalist dispatches and social activism.

Some ladies’ work I’ve featured before on Prison Photography; some are relatively new discoveries; others I met during Prison Photography on the Road; and a few are included in the ongoing Cruel and Unusual show at Noorderlicht.

Thanks to WIPNYC co-founders Amy and Cara Phillips for providing an avenue with which to disseminate photography that counters stereotypes and informs audiences of lives behind bars. Thanks also to Megan Charland for formatting the exhibition.

From my curatorial statement

In the past 40 years, America’s prison population has more than quadrupled from under 500,000 to over 2.3 million. This program of mass incarceration is unprecedented in human history. Women have born the brunt of this disastrous growth. Within that fourfold increase, the female prison population has increased eightfold. You heard right: women are incarcerated today at eight times the number they were in the early 1970s. Are women really eight times more dangerous as they were two generations ago?

Please, browse the gallery, bios and linked portfolios.

Julia Lish, a correctional officer, comforts an inmate during one his psychotic episodes. “Its going to be OK,” she repeats as he cries and yells to the voices in his head. © Jenn Ackermann

Jenn Ackerman: ‘A Hand to Hold’ (2008) from the series, Trapped.
11×14. B&W, archival matte.
Edition #2 of an edition of 25.

Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $600.


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It’s still the very early stages of Prison Photography on the Road, my Kickstarter project, and I’m super pleased and humbled by the generosity of folks.

I won’t lie, it’s been a lot of work to co-ordinate all the information among potential interviewees, and the photographers who’ve donated prints, and those practitioners whose will be included in the self published book.

Info on half a dozen prints (available to funders of the project) is still outstanding. No fear, I’ll turn a negative to a positive and feature the photographs and the print info here on the blog as and when it arrives. At the same time, I can make repeated calls for support.

The Minneapolis based wunder-couple Jenn and Tim – a.k.a. Ackerman Gruber Images – were the first photographers to respond to my early inquiries about collaboration. Then there was silence. They’re a little late to the party because they’re down in Brazil on assignment. No worries guys.

I’ve written about Jenn’s series Trapped here on Prison Photography before. Tim and I have played email tag for two years trying to conjure a nice format to discuss his series Served Out.

Below are the prints Jenn and Tim kindly donated. Available on my Kickstarter page.

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The sun breaks through the bars of the Nursing and Hospice Care Unit at the Kentucky State Reformatory, as part of the series ‘Served Out.’ © Tim Gruber

Tim Gruber: ‘Sunset Behind Bars’ (2008).
14×11″ B&W, archival pigment print on matte paper.
Edition #1 of an edition of 25.

Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $500.


UPDATE 11.12.2010, 12.30pm PST: Forsell didn’t win. Announced 11.12.2010 in Bristol, UK Yvonne Venegas won for her portrayal of Maria Elvia de Hank, millionaire wife of an eccentric former mayor of Tijuana. Julian Roeder and Rob Hornstra also made the final three.

This will not put me off making predictions in the future. I’ll just have to adopt unpredictable criteria and decision making to mirror the many diverse jury panels. And I stand by everything I said about Forsell’s ‘Life’s a Blast’.

– – – – –

© Linda Forsell

I’ll admit to being rather deflated after looking over the shortlisted photographers for this years Magnum Expressions Award. Many of the portfolios of 15 images had only one or two photographs that held my attention.

The Magnum Expressions Award is in reaction to the brave new world photographers face; new communities, new audiences, new distribution channels and bold ways of working. It is an award designed – so it says – to reward young photographers surfing the shifting sands beneath the industries footings.

It should be said that most of the 19 shortlisted artists have hunted down engaging subjects. Bepi Ghiotti‘s Sources is an enigmatic thesis on man and nature. Yvonne Venegas’ fly-off-the-wall study of Maria Elvia De Hank wife of an eccentric millionaire and former Tijuana mayor bristles with ambivalence toward the subject.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the presence of two photographers who’ve briefly pricked my attentions. Anastasia Taylor-Lind and Irina Rosovsky both deliver strong entries. (On PP, Taylor-Lind, here and Rosovsky here).

These would be my 3rd through 6th placed finalists, but who’s listening to me, eh?

In at second is Jenn Ackerman. This high finish has little to do with my interest in photography that exposes the shortcomings of the US prison system and everything to do with the excellent way Jenn portrays the daily battles and extreme stress of a prison operating as a makeshift and unsuitable lock-up for men with severe mental health disorders – Trapped: Mental Illness in America’s Prisons. (I’ve featured Jenn’s work here on PP before.)

© Linda Forsell


And, winning by a country mile is Linda Forsell. Gold star.

Forsell’s Life’s a Blast is the sweetest, never-escaping-bitter view of Palestine, Gaza & Israel I’ve ever clapped my eyes on. It’s about family more than ideology, but it is never glib. It is work as conscious of history as it is the mores of fashion photography. It’s a slow-ride through the lives of people associated by a larger conflict but not solely defined by it; a stunning presentation of gazes drenched in humanity.

Against all odds, Forsell forces the viewer to think on the stories of her subjects; on the seconds before the shutter snapped and the years yet to come. I have not seen a single project that so swiftly dismantles many of the entrenched tropes of conflict photography. Life’s a Blast shifts perceptions like only the very best of photography can.

© Linda Forsell


“What started out as an assignment for school has produced a piece that has changed my life and hopefully will do the same for the people that view it.”

Jenn Ackerman

“We are the surrogate mental hospitals now.”

Larry Chandler, Warden of Kentucky State Reformatory, La Grange, KY

“My students are my biggest inspiration.”

Jenn Ackerman


This year, more than 700,000 people will be released from prisons and jails in the U.S. and more than half of them suffer from some form of mental illness. (Source)

A few months ago I wrote to Jenn Ackerman, praised her Trapped project and of course offered to promote it. I wanted to get at her stories behind the images – namely do an interview. Jenn, however, is as good a promoter as she is a photographer.

The list of questions I wrote out while eating my chili-verde burrito on Wednesday are made largely redundant by her blog post “Trapped: Questions Answered”. Her photography and multimedia is so strong that it also speaks for itself. There is a painful truth in her work; more questions than answers.

I have plenty material to give you a thorough summary of Jenn’s work.



Firstly, allow me to give a run down of the current situation of mental health care provision in America’s prisons and jails.

A 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that the number of Americans with mental illnesses incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails is disproportionately high. Almost 555,000 people with mental illness are incarcerated while fewer than 55,000 are being treated in designated mental health hospitals. That is inadequate provision.

555,000 represents, at the very least, 16% of inmate populations of state and local jails. I would contend the figure is higher – well above 20% – but this is only my personal belief.

If these numbers are not shocking enough, one must consider the pressures the prison system – in and of itself – exerts on the mental health well-being of those incarcerated by consequence of the increased reliance on solitary confinement to control populations, unqualified staff (especially in private prisons), overcrowding, institutional violence, lack of volunteer programming and engagement (in remote facilities) and the inadequate/unconstitutional general health care provided in states such as Ohio and California. California Department of Corrections has been the subject of a high profile federal lawsuit for the short comings to provide suitable care. (Incidentally, the $1.9b figure quoted in the linked article used to be $6b, until Schwarzenegger rejected it … and there is a serious threat it will be nothing if California cannot sort out its budget disaster).

In prison systems with such endemic problems, it is those who have no way to advocate for themselves who suffer most. Jails have effectively become America’s defacto mental institutions; they house a larger volume of mentally ill people than all other programs combined.

Against this backdrop, Ackerman went to work.



Prison Photography is keen to unveil the means by which photographers, anyone, can gain access to prisons to engage with the “invisibles” of society. In that spirit I quote Jenn;

How did you get access to this story?

I had done a lot of research and had decided on the story I wanted to tell when going to talk to the warden. I always feel that a an in-person visit is more beneficial. — I can better express my passion and excitement for this story. I had called a couple of prisons days before I called the Kentucky State Reformatory and to no surprise they didn’t respond to my messages. But then I came across a wing that was dedicated to mental illness in a prison. Warden Chandler answered on the second ring. This caught me off guard but got it together enough to tell him what I wanted to do. He said I had a lot of work to do before I could start on the project but that he might be interested. I sent a proposal days later and asked to come visit the reformatory to talk to him in person.

How did the warden and officials respond to the project?

I didn’t know how they would respond at first. But I also knew that the warden and everyone involved wanted this story to be told. I was very honest with everyone from the beginning. I told them that I knew that they were doing something to acknowledge mental illness in prisons which hasn’t happened in every state but that I also knew that the program was not perfect. I told them that was going to be my approach. So from the beginning they knew that I was not going to make them look bad but also wasn’t trying to say that they have the final answer to this issue. But I visited the warden the day before I published it on my site to get his reaction. He loved it and thanked me for creating an honest portrayal of the mental illness in prisons. I told him that was the best compliment I could ever get.

There can be no doubt that Jenn was lucky to find Warden Chandler who was so sympathetic to her objective and realised the importance of the project.



Jenn has explained that she spent a total of 10 weeks on the project, including 10 days of still and video shooting. Her time commitment is reflected in the comprehensive coverage. Trapped is a dark bubbling cloud of stories and troubling images that are weft with human emotion, the occasional reprieve but predominantly the collision of lives – lives that orbit tormented psyches that a punitive world of reinforced doors & service hatches cannot soothe.

Jenn’s commitment is epic. Besides the Trapped feature film, Jenn breaks the project into a series of presentations. Firstly, the In Their Corner short about the inmate watch. Secondly, In Their Minds a series of seven film shorts allowing individual inmates camera time to represent themselves. Trapped is segmented into six photography galleries; each one a captivating photo-essay in its own right. I cannot over-emphasise the sensitive depth with which Jenn has documented the incidents on the Correctional Psychiatric Treatment Unit (CPTU) at the Kentucky State Reformatory. Jenn also provides an extended essay about her own response to the CPTU environment.



Jenn interviews for 25 minutes at Multimedia shooter. The audio is wobbly and distorted but the information is valuable. Check out from 21 mins. onward to learn of the administration’s response.

Trapped: Mental Illness Inside America’s Prisons has deservedly received acclaim from burn magazine, 100 Eyes, Verve Photo, the White House News Photographers Association (honorable mention), Inge Morath Foundation and CPoY. Jenn recently won an internship at the New York Times.

Jenn credits her students for much of her inspiration. Check out Jenn’s class website for more details.




Credit: Bruce Jackson

NY Times LENS Blog

Here, there and everywhere people are celebrating the New York Times’ LENS Blog as a messianic gift for the photophile. I was therefore happy to see that less than two weeks in LENS is featuring Bruce Jackson’s wide angle documentary work from Arkansas Prison in the early 1970s

Bruce Jackson should be a familiar name as it was he that rescued, scanned and shared the enigmatic Arkansas Prison Mugshot series, Mirrors.


Found and presented by Bruce Jackson. Arkansas State Prisoner Portrait

June 100 Eyes Issue

Over at 100 Eyes, Andy Levin from insists that “Whatever ones perspective, be it victim, civil rights activist or cop, there is one shared idea – something needs to change.”

The June edition of 100 Eyes, titled, America Behind Bars features the work of Dominic Bracco, Jerome Brunet, Darcy Padilla, Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber – all very talented and committed photographers.

As editor, Andy Levin, concludes, the genre of prison photography (or to be less aggrandizing) simply the practice of photography within sites of incarceration is often a difficult and thankless task;

The photographers who have contributed to “America Behind Bars” have worked against overwhelming odds to bring back powerful images of American prisons. One can’t simply walk into a prison with a camera. This kind of photography requires long negotiations and often a warden who has the vision and concern to allow a photographer into his jail.

Wonderful exposure for the most pressing of social issues in America today.

Darcy Padilla. From AIDS in Prison Series.

Darcy Padilla. From AIDS in Prison Series.

Prison Photography began its project in September 2008 with a celebration of Darcy Padilla’s portrait of former San Quentin Public Communications Officer, Vernell Crittendon.

In February, I was gob-smacked by Jerome Brunet’s Riding Shotgun with Texas Sheriffs.


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