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Body orifice scanner and surveillance camera, HMP Low Moss, 2012

UK photographer and artist, Jenny Wicks – working as an artist in residence at The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) at Glasgow University, the largest centre for criminological research in Scotland – set out a year ago to document spaces of said research. Invariably this meant photographing prisons. She photographed in two working prisons – Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Barlinnie and HMP Shotts. She also shot in a new prison, HMP Low Moss, prior to its opening.

I have posted before about Wick’s portrait project They Are Us And We Are Them also completed during the residency. Here, I’d like to focus on Wick’s prison interior photographs.

Wicks’ research broadly titled Working Spaces, Punishing Spaces: The Meaning and Construction of Place through Criminological Research sought to explore key boundaries: between innocent and guilty, researcher and researched.

“The conceptual frame for the project focuses on the ways criminological researchers relate to the spaces where research is conducted, analysed and disseminated,” writes Wicks. “A central premise is that working in particular spaces simultaneously contributes to their meaning as places of punishment.”

Wicks’ aim was to expose hidden sites. To differing degrees, this is a common aim of photography in prisons, so it is therefore paramount to say that Wicks delivers plenty of interesting images, the likes of which I, and we, have probably not seen before.

Keep reading below.

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Scanner and cones on cell wing, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Orifice scanner and zimmer frame, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Gym, HMP Shotts, 2012.
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Personal belongings tags, HMP Barlinnie, 2012

My dad used to use the same Carte d’Or ice-cream tubs (see above image) to store screws and brackets in the garage when I was young. It’s a jolt to see such a practical, modest storage solution crop up within a prison.

But then again, prisons are full of the mundane. Images of the ordinary (latex gloves, powdered milk, hygiene products, boring carpet) are balanced with constant, also pedantic details reminding us of the disciplining function of prisons (overly instructive signs, fire safety posters about escape, painted walkway instructions, holding cells, scanners).

Sometimes the juxtapositions seem too ironic, but then in turn sad. The awards that hang over the chairs in the medical office are shinier than the untarnished plaque of ‘quit smoking’ and ‘mouth cancer’ posters. There’s a flimsy lock on the back of the mugshot camera box. Stored neatly in a stairwell are an orifice scanner and zimmer frame side-by-side. This reminds me of Edmund Clark’s evidentiary images of clearly infirm prisoners in Portsmouth, England.

In Wicks’ book (see below), photographs of segregation cells for prisoners follow those of dog kennel cages.

In the HMP Low Moss new library, we see promise. An image of the books stored prior to shelving tells us prisoners read the same horror-schlock (Stephen King) as the everyman reads. Oh, and there’s a vacuum cleaner to maintain that boring carpet.

Also in the shiny new HMP Moss is a row of green-tint-windowed visiting rooms. They look like the sterile, institution environments of cinema – I’m thinking of the psychiatric wing of Michael Mann’s early eighties film Manhunter, in which Brian Cox stars as Hannibal Lector, not Anthony Hopkins.

The electrics still going in and Wicks captures the work of contractors at mid-point. The literal description of construction reminds us of the ties between labour and prisons. These are spaces paid for and made by society to meet a socially-agreed end. Hopefully resources and money invested in a new prison brings about better opportunities for rehab and a positive economic return further down the line through the reduction of crime and its associated social costs.

The prisoners must do work too. Wicks photographed recreation schedules as well as work rosters. We learn from an HMP Low Moss electronic notice board that “the finer details of prisoner mobilization plan are progressing,” a burauecratic way of saying they’ll be moving in soon. Alternatively, if we take note of text in the older prisons, we’ll be reading graffiti. Such-and-suchabody was here. We know that soon enough, prisoners will be there, in their new quarters. Does it matter if the burned graffiti reads “Jobby bum” or “jobby burn”? Does it instruct us more or does it just convince us that prisons are heavily used and heavily contested spaces? If anything, I hope Wicks’ coverage of Scottish prisons old and new demonstrate that – if we must incarcerate people – we do so in sanitary, safe places with wide provision of work, vocational and educational training.

If prisons fulfil those key criteria then prisons should theoretically be able to open gates to photographers. Imagine a day when human improvement and human rights could become the key content of prison imagery?

Keep reading below.

IMAGES: HMP BARLINNIE

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HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Detention dog kennels, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Photography apparatus, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Toilets, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Sinks, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Personal belongings in a cell, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
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Personal belongings in a cell, HMP Barlinnie, 2012

Wicks believes (and I concur) that depictions of crime, and crime science, in popular culture represent that world through a narrow and increasingly hackneyed set of spaces – the crime lab and courtroom offering two examples.

“As the residency progressed I discovered striking juxtapositions of the mundane and the spectacular in the work of criminology,” says Wicks. “Suicide watch cells, the back of a prisoner transport van, a storage room holding physical restraint chairs and Zimmer frames mark sites of extreme human experience and yet at the same time are part of someone’s day at the office: a site where data is collected, transferred to spreadsheets and displayed to audiences in lecture theatres and conference halls. Exploring this dynamic tension is a key aim of the project.”

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IMAGES: HMP LOW MOSS

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HMP Low Moss, 2012
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Bars and Irn Bru machine, HMP Low Moss, 2012
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HMP Low Moss, 2012
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New library, HMP Low Moss, 2012
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HMP Low Moss, 2012

THE BOOK, CORRECT

Wicks was kind enough to send me a copy of Correct. It’s a compact book of 86 pages. You can view a 25-page preview and buy the book through Blurb. My copy came with a fold out of 60 portrait thumbnails of portraits from They Are Us And We Are Them. I include some images below.

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Segregation unit exercise yard, HMP Shotts, 2012.

THE EXHIBITION, CORRECT: THE MEANING AND CONSTRUCTION OF SPACE

The exhibition titled ‘CORRECT’: The Meaning and Construction of Place features two audio pieces, and  an installation The Gallows, an installation of large format film giclée prints from They Are Us And We Are Them. You can see here a video of The Gallows previously exhibited in HMP Barlinnie.

The exhibition also features The Desk, a digital collage of giclée prints of criminologist’s desks.

“Closely cropped, excluding the life beyond the frame. Voyeuristic and subtly relating to the prison visiting experience: they are intrusive, this is a space where someone lives most of their waking week, a place the research comes back to and is pieced together. A personal space that appears impersonal. Cluttered with cheap plastic Chinese electronics, stationary, diary’s (hand made), mouse pads of choice, daily calendars, hand cream, distinctive handwriting and lots of notes,” writes Wicks.

Finally, and central, the exhibition includes digital C-type prints of prison interiors.

“They are an exploration of crime and justice spaces that criminologists inhabit. Such sites are more usually associated with highly iconic images of justice (bars, ankle tags, gavels) that are part of a larger popular essentialism of crime and punishment, i.e. places of cultural cliché,” writes Wicks. “I aim to demystify these places and the work criminologists undertake. Some of the images juxtapose the often-chaotic lives that occupy these spaces and contradict the harsh realities of prison life.”

‘CORRECT’: The Meaning and Construction of Place is on show now at The Briggait, 141 Bridgegate, Glasgow G1 5HZ from March 3rd – 22nd. Monday- Friday, 9.00 am to 5.00 pm.

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HMP Shotts, 2012

What’s the difference between us and them? What distinguishes those labelled as criminals from those without the label? The law has it’s definitions; sentences – in the sense of legal scripts and prison terms –  can give us details and legally defined facts, but other factors are at play. What role do images, particularly publicly available images, play? What about portraits? What about mugshots?

UK photographer and artist, Jenny Wicks – working as an artist in residence at The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) at Glasgow University, the largest centre for criminological research in Scotland – spent nine months trying to answer these questions through her photography. And she challenged the mugshot.

Wicks’ research broadly titled Working Spaces, Punishing Spaces: The Meaning and Construction of Place through Criminological Research includes site (prison) visits, audio interviews, documentation, portraiture, a book (in process) and an exhibition (ongoing). I’ll write more about her documentary work in the coming weeks, but I wanted to introduce her work with her Polaroid-backing portraits, which I feel are the most nuanced approach to the critical framework she takes on.

(For a fuller view of the series, titled They Are Us And We Are Them, read Wicks’ blog posts from June here, here, here and here, and from August here.)

Keep reading below.

Reading through Wicks’ insightful blog Punishing Photography where she has traced her efforts this year, it is clear Wicks is troubled by the mugshot. The mugshot is a space in which the power dynamic between subject and camera-operator is drastically unequal; it could be argued that the mugshot even plays its role in “condemning” the individual.  “The mugshot is an image that is taken to indicate criminality,” writes Jonathan Finn in his book Capturing the Criminal Image.

“My portraits are an attempt to challenge the boundaries between them and us […] The mugshot is the first significant, visual display of power where judgment is cast on that person and [it is where subjects] re-cast themselves,” writes Wicks. And, “my portraits attend to the internal spaces within each of us which harbour many unresolved emotions.”

Q: How does Wicks challenge boundaries exactly?

A: She puts her subjects – regardless of their status as prisoners, prison officers or criminologists – under the same gaze and into the same process.

They Are Us And We Are Them has no captions. We are left to guess who and what these people are. Which side of the law are they? We must bring our discriminations and our own judgements to They Are Us And We Are Them. This is a fraught starting point for the viewer; the portraits raise instant questions that are all self-created by the viewer. “Unresolved emotions” indeed.

Brilliantly, Wicks’ aesthetic proposal contrasts with the techno-fetishism of the predominant surveillance culture that is creeping toward widespread use of facial recognition, retinal scanning, iris prints, biometrics and DNA coding.

The closed-eyes motif “is a leveller” says Wicks. In short-shrift, her subjects that appear to be sleeping evoke 19th century photography, of pictoralism and of a reverence attendant in photography (think memento mori photography) before its morph into a medium used increasingly in the 21st century for control and discipline.

“I didn’t want to accept the objectification of the traditional mugshot; the concept was to challenge it. But, nor did I want to deliberately “humanize” the subject, as they would tend to become too meretricious. I did want to present sensitive portraits,” writes Wicks, whose interest spans mugshot aesthetics, history, meaning and the theories of the ate 19th century criminologists Cesare Lombroso and Alphonse Bertillon.

Keep reading below.

Visually, They Are Us And We Are Them riffs on – and works within – Wicks’ historical considerations. The sepia tones of the retrieved and scanned Polaroid backing sheets help frame each of her subjects in a space free of the mugshot associations of contemporary crime and of contemporary time.

Wicks used Polaroids to sure-up composition and to use as reference for developing. Even though she made her *proper* portraits on rolls of film, Wicks kept hold of the Polaroid-backing byproducts and extracted negative images from them.

She describes the extraction of the negative image as “unstable, messy and laborious” but feels the visual counterpoints of Polaroid negative images add “an ethereal element” to her body of work. “I have essentially produced two quite different pieces of work at the same time,” Wicks says.

All in all, They Are Us And We Are Them is about exposing the positives and the negatives and about challenging binaries. Between definitions of good and bad, between criminal and non-criminal, between now and them, between us and them, between black and white, there are many shades of grey.

Wicks appreciated a viewer’s description of these negative images as “womb-like.” I’ve offered my thoughts, but what do you think? Wicks is eager for feedback.

MORE?

For a fuller view of the series, titled They Are Us And We Are Them, read Wicks’ blog posts from June hereherehere and here, and from August here.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Interestingly, the title They Are Us And We Are Them comes from a quote by John Laub, renowned Professor fo Criminology and the current Director of the National Institute of Justice appointed in 2010 by President Obama. Laub spoke to Fergus McNeill in the excellent documentary film The Road From Crime, about learning about breaking recidivism from the behaviours of Scottish ex-cons who’ve left the life of crime, who’ve “gone straight.”

EXHIBITION

Working Spaces, Punishing Spaces: The Meaning and Construction of Place through Criminological Research, a multi-media installation of audio, fine art photography and object sculpture/environmental art was on show at HMP Barlinnie in November 2012. It is a pioneering exhibition given the rarity art shows are mounted within prisons. Very special. In early 2013, Working Spaces, Punishing Spaces will be exhibited in three other Scottish prisons. The show will go on public view at The Briggait gallery, Glasgow in February 2013.

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