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(Untitled) © Petey, 2016. From the Humanize the Numbers Workshop.

 

In the Exposure Magazine interview It’s Time to Talk Social Justice, Isaac Wingfield lays out the strategies, challenges and successes of facilitating a joint prisoner/college student photography workshop in prison.

Through the support of the University of Michigan, Wingfield coordinates the Humanize the Numbers project, which began its work in late 2015 at the Thumb Correctional Facility and has since moved to another prison after a leadership change at Thumb.

Humanize the Numbers began from a conversation with the incarcerated men about what they wanted their photography to do. Suspecting that many representations of prisoners dehumanize, they wanted to change the script; they wanted to take the unfathomable and depressing statistics that dominate commentary about prisons, locate their position in relation, and then go beyond mere numbers. The men wanted to focus on the personal and the individual. They wanted to be accountable and to represent to themselves.

There’s a lot of common sense in the article. Wingfield covers everything from diligent planning, to acknowledging that the department of corrections is a key partner. From understanding that any in-prison program is vulnerable to abrupt changes of rules by prison administrators, to an honesty that Michigan students gain as much through the program than the men on the inside.

Critically, Wingfield and his collaborators discussed who their audience was. They decided to get the work into the hands of lawmakers in Michigan. Having that intention can direct and galvanize art making. Below, in italics, I’ve pulled what I believe to be the article‘s most important talking points and points of departure for further discussion.

“Skill building with cameras was popular among a group that was mostly preparing for reentry, but telling personal stories was more important among a group of lifers.”

“I wanted to avoid the traditional service-learning dynamic with students coming in to serve a needy population by providing something that well intentioned outsiders (professors or students) thinks the community needs. Power relationships are often neglected in these traditional service-learning courses…”

“This project is ultimately about humanizing people, acknowledging their individual stories and skills. If that doesn’t happen in the workshop itself, how will it ever happen when the resulting photographs make their way beyond the workshop?”

“It is helpful to recognize the lurking collaborator in the project: the MDOC is often silent participant but still an essential partner.”

 

In-process workshop, courtesy Humanize the Numbers.

(Untitled) © Jamal Biggs, 2016. “Me along with my brothers and cousins when we were younger. Half of them have since passed away at young ages. Of the others still living, only one of them has remained in contact with me since my incarceration. The pain and blessing of prisonseverely straining and often severing family relationships, but also giving me time to grow up and saving me from the same fate of dying young which has befallen my other family members.” From the Humanize the Numbers Workshop

In-process workshop, courtesy Humanize the Numbers.

 

“After discussion in one workshop about the intended audience for their photographs, we mailed photographs to two Michigan advocacy organizations, the MDOC Director and to every Law and Justice Committee member in the Michigan state House and every member of the Judiciary Committees in the Michigan state House and Senate. […] we never saw any responses from the policymakers who received images, [but] simply getting the images in front of them and sharing the perspective and the stories of the incarcerated men from the workshop made it a success.”

Despite only positive feedback “the new warden unexpectedly denied our request for a third workshop […] a few weeks before we were scheduled to start I was on the search for a new facility to host the workshop/course.”

“For those students (and there are many) who have never seriously considered the criminal justice system, getting to know the men inside the system is perhaps the most transformative part of the course.”

 

Read and see more: It’s Time to Talk Social Justice: Isaac Wingfield & the Humanize the Numbers Prison Photography Workshop

Visit the Humanize the Numbers website.

 

For the purposes of social media, I highlighted these same main talking points in a Twitter thread too.

 

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Salute

I’ve been stumbling across some mind-blowingly novel prison photographs recently. This incredible Facebook Album by Steve Milanowski fell on my radar and the colour is something special.

Milanowski photographed at three prisons during the eighties — Walpole, Massachusetts (1981, 1982); Ionia, Michigan (1984); and Jackson, Michigan (1985). In 2012, he began shooting the outside of Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin. In each case, Milanowski was working independently and not on assignment.

As colourful and characterful as these images are it’s worth bearing in mind that prisons of this era were beginning to creek. Dangerous overcrowding existed in Michigan prisons in the early eighties, and Jackson in particularly was renowned as a tough prison with gangs and enforced convict codes.

These prison photographs have, up to this point, only had limited circulation. Some feature in Milanowski’s book Duplicity, others on his website. A few photographs have appeared in museum exhibitions around the country. I wanted to know more, so I dropped Steve a line with some questions.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

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Fez

Prison Photography (PP): Where did your interest in prisons come from?

Steve Milanowski (SM): It dates back to my childhood: my dad was an attorney in Michigan and very occasionally had clients that he had to visit in prison. When I was in 5th and 6th grades, maybe twice, he took me along (taking me out of classes) on the prison/client visits. For a 6th grader, these visits were absolutely unforgettable. Indelible. This was an environment that was utterly foreign to my existence. It was almost as if my eyes weren’t fast enough to take it all in. To a kid, nothing in the world looks like a prison.

PP: What was the purpose of your visits the these four prisons?

SM: Simply to make new photographs in places that have mostly been, in the past, photographed with visual cliche and with the perceived grittiness of black and white films.

Ionia Prison Group 2

laying down

PP: How did you gain access?

SM: My first permission was with Walpole in Massachusetts. I sent a letter to the Walpole warden; it was written on MIT stationary. I was a graduate student at MIT and I think the name helped in getting me access. I found that once one gets permission to photograph in a prison — that permission leads to more permission. I used the Walpole photographs in gaining access to Jackson and Ionia prisons. No negotiations were needed; they all gave me fairly easy access. Initially, I only asked for single-visit access.

PP: How would you characterize the atmosphere of the prisons?

SM: The atmosphere was taut, tough and difficult at most turns — very regimented and formal. In some instances, I was assigned a female escort which made my shooting more difficult because the inmates had no hesitation in shouting out awful, obscene things; and, the female escorts seemed bent on proving that they were not bothered or intimidated by these nasty shout-outs.

PP: How does this body of work relate to your other projects and your philosophy/approach to photography generally?

SM: I consider my work to be the work of a portraitist. My prison portraits are stylistically in line with the portrait work that I pursue “out in public” at public demonstrations, holiday parades, festivals, fairs, and competitions.

Female counselor at Ionia Prison

office

tatoos

PP: What were the reactions of the staff to your photography?

SM: I never really sought out their reactions. My photographs did seem to always successfully get me more access though.

PP: What were the reactions of the prisoners?

SM: Never really got reactions, per se. But with each portrait, I offered a free print if they wrote me a request and visually described themselves; some inmates wrote back and praised the images. Some seemed to want to start a pen pal relationship, just because, it seemed, some inmates had few contacts with the outside world.

PP: What is your personal opinion of prisons? Have they changed since you visited in the eighties?

SM: Prisons, then and now, in America, seem to continue to be warehouses; I think most Americans are aware of the fact that we, as a nation, have one of the largest prison populations in the world — and that we incarcerate at a level that far exceeds almost all other nations.

Have prisons changed? One change I’ve noticed with great concern is the concept and use of Supermax prisons which seems to be uniquely American. With older prisons as well as Supermax prisons, we seem to never be willing to spend much money on reducing recidivism.

The conservative right loves to convey the idea that they are tough on crime — tough prisons, tough sentencing, and the idea of “throw away the key.” So, our prison populations grow, and we build more prisons than any other nation. We’ve seen the expansion. And the Democrats? They do their best to avoid being tagged as “soft on crime.”

PP: What are Americans’ feeling toward crime and punishment?

SM: Americans very much ignore prisons and prison life — unless they live near a prison where the prison is the source of some level of local employment. Americans seem to only take notice of prisons when there is a problem, an escape, a prison disturbance (that receives national media attention), or when there is some breakdown in the system.

There seems to be a real void in political or community leadership especially in the realm of education as a path to reducing crime and reducing prison populations; the idea gets plenty of lip service.

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fuck it

Thumbs

PP: What role has photography in telling publics about prisons? Is it an effective tool?

SM: I think photography can help — and be an effective tool in informing the public about prisons and who inhabits American prisons; but, I’m not sure at all that our society wants to look at prisons and prison life … its too easy to ignore.

PP: What camera and film did you use?

SM: 4×5 Linhof and 4×5 Kodak and Fuji color negative. Sometimes a Pentax 6×7 with Fuji and Kodak color negative film. And, always combining flash with ambient light.

PP: The color you introduce is unusual for prison photographs. From looking at your other work, it is clear you revel in colour portraits. Were you aware that you were making unique images; splashing color all over these darkened corners of US society?

SM: Unique images? Well you have hit on something that was a primary intention: I wanted to make photographs that told you something new. Pictures you hadn’t seen before. Prison photography is rife with cliches. I thought if I were given access to prisons, I’d make different photographs. I was not arrogant about this — just determined to make images that had not been seen before.

I was determined, self-directed and wanted to get as many photographs as I could accomplish in, typically, a 1 to 2 hour visit. I limited my talk and conversations — I was on a mission.

Ionia Prison group

BIOGRAPHY

Steve Milanowski is a photographer and, with Bob Tarte, co-author of Duplicity, a monograph of his own portraits. Milanowski earned his BFA from The Cranbrook Academy of Art and his MS from The Creative Photography Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His photographs are part of the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, The Houstin Museum of Fine Arts, The High Museum of Art, and The Polaroid Collection and numerous public collections. MoMA published his work in Celebrations and Animals; his work was also included in MoMA’s recent survey of late 20th century photography in the newly reinstalled Edward Steichen galleries.

Waupun

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Okay, Jeff Barnett-Winsby did not aide and abet anyone.

He was, however, indelibly tied to a fugitive pair of lovers – one an inmate, the other a prison volunteer. Winsby had done a couple of photo series at Lansing Correctional Center, Michigan. He knew – and photographed – both John Manard and Toby Young before Young drove a van out the prison with a dog-crate in the back. Manard was in the dog-crate. They were on the run for twelve days until the authorities caught up with them in Tennessee.

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All the details about the police hunt and climactic high speed car chase, car crash and return to custody can be found here.

Toby was the founder and coordinator of the Safe Harbour Program, and John Manard, a dog-handler and Young’s escort within the prison. She was vulnerable, he was hopeful, they were close. Manard did most of the planning. “By the time he brought me in to what he was doing, I was in love with him and I couldn’t say no,” Young said. “I was not in a safe and sane place in my life, but I still could’ve said no, but I didn’t.” It seems like a straight up case of manipulation; a true power imbalance.

This tale is like something out of a movie. Jeff has muttered things about making a movie. We’ll see. At the very least, we can all look forward to his book Mark West & Molly Rose published J&L Books. Mark West and Molly Rose were Manard and Young’s aliases.

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Barnett-Winsby dissects events as he experienced them over at Feature Shoot:

‘Early on, after the escape, I was contacted by the prison. I had taken the latest photos of John and they needed images which featured his newer tattoos. These photos ran on America’s Most Wanted and in other newspapers around the country. I was obligated to give these photos and felt pretty conflicted.

‘After they were transfered back to Kansas, John wrote an open letter to a Kansas City TV station professing his love and Toby’s innocence. I started writing to John in response to this and we traded several letters over a couple months. In them, he covered much of the escape story and described what sounded like a honeymoon.

‘Post graduation, I decided I needed to see where they had been so I headed to Tennessee, rented the same cabin and stayed there for several days. I thought a lot about how I should be spending my time while in Tennessee.

‘What I realized was that my interest in this story was not specifically about the escape, it was about what they were escaping for. I think I was down there trying to honor that’.

Barnett-Winsby’s gloss portraiture is pretty atypical of prisoner representations. It’s very giving.

The accompanying images of prisoners and their dogs work as a foil to the straight portraits. Instantly, our response to the inmate changes. Barnett-Winsby plays on visual dissonance. He exposes our inbuilt prejudice and softness toward animals: “If someone loves an animal they can’t be violent, right?”

As well as Safe Harbor, Barnett-Winsby also photographed the objects in single occupancy cells for his project Marks of Intention (below).

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Barnett-Winsby has collapsed Safe Harbour and Marks of Intention along with images from the Mark West and Molly Rose story; it is a wide-reaching anthology of the Lansing facility and two lives that temporarily escaped its control.

You could say Barnett-Winsby had luck photographers only dream about when hunting for a good story.

Buy Mark West and Molly Rose.

Mark West and Molly Rose is published by J&L Books. The owner of J&L Books Jason Fulford was recently interviewed at Too Much Chocolate as was Jeff Barnett-Winsby.

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