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Last month, I gave a tip of the hat to Melinda Hawtin’s graduate work. Thereafter, Melinda’s graduate advisor Amanda Crawley Jackson dropped me a line to tell me about the exhibition L’IMPOSSIBLE PHOTOGRAPHIE, Prisons Parisiennes (1851-2010) at the Musee Carnavalet in Paris early next year. (Details via Google translate)

I have already enlisted a reporter in the field to visit and review the exhibition for Prison Photography, so there’s something to look forward to in the new year.

Amanda also pointed out the collection of over 2,500 photographs by Henri Manuel archived at the National Museum of Prisons, France.

Between 1929 and 1931, the Henri Manuel studio documented prisons and juvenile institutions for the Ministry of Justice.

Manuel’s photographic survey is characterised by its scope, its exhaustiveness and its will to show that prison is not merely a place of detention and punishment but education and work also.

The survey resulted in craftsman-made albums for each prison, and several photographs were published in the press or distributed as postcards.

However, no records exist so exact reasons for the contract such as who ordered the work (and for what purpose) remain unknown. (Source)

Some of Manuel’s photographs blow my mind.

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© Philippe Bazin

Last month, Melinda Hawtin contacted me about her interest and graduate research into the representations of prisons in French contemporary photography.

My position in the world is a little more comfortable knowing that another human has the niche commitment to prison photography!

Hawtin’s geography-specific project is even more narrowly defined as mine. She humbly referred to her blog as “yet a vessel for my (mostly) unresearched musings but I am hoping that in time it will take on a more coherent form”. Martin’s posts are far more than her modesty suggests – they are important introductions to academics, works and points of analysis.

Hawtin introduced me to the work of Philippe Bazin, whose series Détenus is a straight photographic study of French prisoners. Hawtin is discomforted somewhat by Bazin’s sentimentalisation of prisoners, “it seems strange and rather naive that artists like Bazin are so keen to portray the humanity of inmates. I’m not suggesting that they demonise them instead but monochrome, close-up images of prisoners could be seen to be over-romanticising the prisoner”.

© Philippe Bazin

My take? Intimate shots do not automatically translate to sentimentalisation or captures of “true” humanity. It is always hazardous to prescribe the reaction of an audience to a photographic style. I would step back (possibly cowardly) and suggest that Bazin’s portraits are worthwhile simply because they differ in tone from the vast majority of other photographic studies of prisoners.

Hawtin and I swapped resources and names including the excellent Visa pour L’Image web documentary winner, Jean Gaumy and Lizzie Sadin, whose photography focuses on juveniles in prisons across the globe, including her own nation of France.

Investigations into the portrayal of French prisoners could not be more timely:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called French prisons “the shame of the nation”, and the European Union has demanded that France improve the detention conditions of its inmates to meet minimum European standards.

I’ll be sure to check in with Hawtin’s blog regularly.

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