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Hospital lobby. © Kim Rushing

Long before I started writing about prison imagery and before I even set foot in the United States, photographer and educator Kim Rushing was making images of the men at the infamous Parchman Farm, known officially as Mississippi State Penitentiary. Rushing made these photographs and others over a four year period (1994-1998). They recently been published by University Press of Mississippi as a book simply titled Parchman.

After a first glance at the photographs I was surprised to hear they were made in the nineties. Many images appear as if they could have been captured in much earlier decades, but such is the nature of prisons which either change at glacial pace or remain in a temporal stasis–uniforms replace identifiable fashion; hardware is from eras past; conditions can appear mid-century; and the vats of the kitchens and gas chamber seem permanently footed to the concrete foundations.

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Spaghetti, central kitchen. © Kim Rushing

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Gas chamber. © Kim Rushing

Rushing’s photographs are a welcome view to a past era and a brief step back in time. My overriding takeaway from the project is that time, as in all prisons, operates by its own rules.

Rushing’s contribution to the emerging visual history of American incarceration is valuable, not least because it contains some hope. Whether the absence of violence is a fair reflection of Parchman would be a worthwhile discussion but for broader research some other time. Take the images at their face value and we can identify other prevalent characteristics of prisons, namely boredom, containment, some programming, and certain longing. (I’d hazard to guess the programming such as gardening have been scaled back.)

To insist that an almost predictable perspective on prisons exists in Rushing’s work is borne out in close comparison of the work of other photographers. Rushing’s portraits are very similar to those of Adam Shemper’s made at Angola Prison, Louisiana in 2000.

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Cornelius Carroll © Kim Rushing

There are also quiet echoes of David Simonton’s 4×5 photographs of Polk Youth Facility in North Carolina made in the nineties. Except in Rushing’s images prisoners inhabit the scratched, peeling interiors. Interestingly, both bodies of work remind me of Roger Ballen‘s dark worlds, but that might be a leap too far given the specific psychological manipulations by Ballen in his native South Africa.

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Gregory Applewhite at window © Kim Rushing

In terms of touchstone and stated portraiture projects, I see fair comparisons with the incredible work of Ruth Morgan in San Quentin Prison, California made in the early eighties.

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Billy Wallace. © Kim Rushing

And in terms of predictable moments, I cannot help but think of Ken Light’s portrait of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas from 1994, when I view Rushing’s photo of Kevin Pack (below).

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Kevin Pack watching TV. © Kim Rushing

In the book Parchman, alongside Rushing’s images are the handwritten letters of 18 prisoners–ranging in custody level from trustee to death row–who volunteered to be photographed. “What does it feel like when two people from completely different worlds look at each other over the top of a camera?” asks University Press of Mississippi. In this case, I’d argue, the successful insertion of humanity into an institution that has historically crushed the spirits of those inside. Clearly adept in his art, Rushing has made a stark and sometimes touching portrait of an invisible population.

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Feeding the spider © Kim Rushing

Parchman (cloth-bound; 10 x 10 inches; 208 pages; 125 B&W photographs) is now available for $50.00 from University Press of Mississippi.

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A rally in Stonewall, Mississippi calling for the indictment of Officer Kevin Herrington on charges of murder of Jonathan Saunders

The last thing I consumed on the internet yesterday was a story Another Reason To Question Whether Black Lives Matter In Mississippi by Alan Chin about the fatal shooting of a black man by a cop in rural Mississippi. His name was Jonathan Saunders.

The first thing I consumed on the internet this morning was a cop body cam video of said cop shooting an black man in the head. His name was Samuel DuBose.

Is it now a daily, normalised experience for myself, and for others, to consume death, filmed and online?

In between last night and this morning, I put the finishing touches to an essay for a fall publication about some haunting and frantic sketches made by a prisoner in solitary confinement. What is happening in the darkest, invisible, coldest cells of our criminal justice has everything to do with what is happening on our streets (after all, solitary confinement is disproportionately used against men of color and black men are 250% more likely to be thrown in the hole.) In my essay last night I wrote:

The Black Lives Matter movement has successfully tied over-zealous community policing, to stop-and-frisk, to restraint techniques, to custody conditions, to a bail system that abuses the poor, to extended and unconstitutional pretrial detention, to solitary confinement in a devastating critique of a structurally racist nexus of law enforcement. #SayHerName. Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas; Jonathan Saunders in Mississippi; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Charly Leundeu Keunang in Los Angeles; Sgt. James Brown in an El Paso jail; James M. Boyd in the hills of Albuquerque; John Crawford III in a WalMart in Ohio; Walter Scott in North Charleston; Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in New York; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and thousands of more people over the past 12 months alone killed by law enforcement.

The Guardian is trying to keep track, and Josh Begley at the Intercept is trying to visualize killings by cop, but the statistics are frightening and as the cases come more and more often, they seem to get more and more egregious. Ray Tensing straight up murdered Samuel DuBose. No question. July is set to be the deadliest month of the year for people killed by police.

The tragedy heaped upon tragedies that Chin’s article hit home for me was that the news cycle can only deal with a handful of cases at any given time. But there’s scores of officer involved deaths every month. If the rate of killings continues, we’ll have seen over 1,100 deaths at the hands of law enforcement by the close of 2015.

I can’t imagine the trauma, anger and sense of injustice in Saunders’ family and community. I cannot fathom that 1,100 times over. I’m almost lost for words except for this thought. Pre civil rights, photography was used to boast of lynchings and hate crimes. During the civil rights struggle photography was ammunition in the fight for justice and the abolishment of racist laws. Since civil rights photography has broken from its usual documentary constraints to power the biggest growth of any society in the history of man, but despite massive wealth, we are still so poor in terms of understanding inequality and the combined effort by a society to fend it off. Now, images–moving and still–are taking center stage in public outrage and prosecution attempts toward law enforcement personnel who kill citizens. I just wonder what we will do with the footage of death — the jail surveillance tapes and the police body camera videos — if, in 10 or 20 years, we’ve not been able to change anything.

If nothing changes, the footage will become evidence against our own inaction in the face of massive racism and social inequality.

Change we must.

As I am lost for words, I’ll leave you (as Alan Chin did in his article) with the words of Frances Sanders, the mother of Jonathan Sanders.

“He is my son and I loved him and he didn’t deserve to die. There ain’t but one policeman who came to offer his condolences and he was black. So don’t tell me it wasn’t racism. We got a long way to go.”

See more of Alan Chin’s photos from the assignment at Facing Change.

Born: November 27, 1932; Philadelphia; Arrested July 30, 1961; Train station, Jackson; Then: Student, Santa Monica City College; Since then: Arts administrator, now retired; Then and Now: Marrried to Robert Singleton; Photographed: August 24, 2005; Los Angeles. © Eric Etheridge

I’ve been meaning to write about Eric Etheridge’s project Breach of Peace for too long. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders and their key 1961 victory for civil rights.

Today, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther Kings 1968 assassination, is an appropriate moment.

Firstly, a brief history of the Freedom Riders, as told by Etheridge:

In the spring and summer of 1961, several hundred Americans — blacks and whites, men and women — entered Southern bus and train stations to challenge the segregated waiting rooms, lunch counters and bathrooms. The Supreme Court had ruled that such segregation was illegal, and the Riders were trying to force the federal government to enforce that decision.

Though there were Freedom Rides across the South, Jackson soon became the campaign’s primary focus. More than 300 Riders were arrested there and quickly convicted of breach of peace — a law many Southern states and cities had put on the books for just such an occasion. The Riders then compounded their protest by refusing bail. “Flll the jails!” was their cry, and they soon did. Mississippi responded by transferring them to Parchman, the state’s infamous Delta prison farm, for the remainder of their time behind bars, usually about six weeks.

A few days after the last group of Riders were arrested in Jackson, on September 13, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued new regulations, mandating an end to segregation in all bus and train stations.

Etheridge’s book Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders features his new portraits of 80 Riders and the mug shots of all 328 Riders arrested in Jackson that year, along with excerpts of interviews with the featured Riders. (See the Breach of Peace archives here)

The Mississippi Museum of Art is showing the mugshots of all 329 Riders arrested in Jackson as a giant, 54′ long mural, along with 20 of Etheridge’s portraits (March 19 – June 12). Free to the public.

Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Freedom Riders installation, Mississippi Museum of Art, March 2011

Etheridge’s work is a continuing multi-year effort. Through interviews and his camera, Etheridge gives his subject the opportunity to return to their political heroics. For those alive in the sixties, Etheridge’s work is an antidote to historical amnesia and for those who weren’t it’s an education.

KING’S GIFT TO HISTORY; A POLITICAL PHILOSOSPHY NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN, ALWAYS TO BE ACTED UPON

And so to King, whose politics are as relevant today as they were 43 years ago. As Jim Johnson reminds us, at the time of his assassination, King was in Memphis in solidarity with sanitation workers, who were striking the city not just for decent pay and working conditions but for recognition of their right to form a union. In light of the concerted, ongoing campaign by Republicans to subvert unions, it surely is plausible to wonder how far we remain from the promised land.

History is very important. Despite their self-label, progressives look back in time as readily as conservatives to pinpoint historical moments to justify their politics. Progressives look to the golden era of people power and the Peace Movement, conservatives hark back to the space-race and Reaganomics.

When history is at our backs, we must choose to leave it behind or let it propel us forward. In the case of the Civil Rights movement, its lessons should be forever in America’s conscience. The work toward social and economic equality is not yet complete, not by a long distance.

We have choices to make and a society to shape.

Which brings me to this potent image of the back of James Earl Ray, who was Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassin.

While hundreds of thousands were marching on the streets and millions across America swelled the turning political tides, James Earl Ray choose a different worldview.

Regardless of colour or creed, Martin Luther King’s promised land was for all … and for a better America. No doubt James Earl Ray was a troubled man but his rejection of America’s sea-change thrust him only in the direction of a dead-end.

James Earl Ray  facing the wall at Shelby County Jail. Photo by Gil Michael/Shelby County Sheriff’s Office

As Etheridge explains this is not an act of defiance. Shoved into a Shelby County Jail cell, Ray faces the reality upon him; the physical finality of confinement with nowhere to go. As he abandoned history, so history moved on without him.

TO END ON A GOOD NOTE

REMEMBER.

INSPIRATION, LOVE AND GOOD HEARTS ARE NOT FORGOTTEN BY HISTORY

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