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Artist-filmmaker Nirit Peled and director Sara Kolster have produced A Temporary Contact, a real time series of text messages and short videos delivered via WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, that allows users to join family members as they journey from New York city to upstate prisons and back.

Over 30-hours, beginning at 10pm the evening after you sign up, you’ll receive at first few texts and then consistent volley of 22 short videos. The main protagonist is Amanda, a 20-year-old from Brooklyn who is visiting her brother, but other women speak to the camera and relay their experiences. Most videos are 45 seconds long and shot from the aisle of the bus. Gas station and restroom breaks are a relief for all. Audio is overlaid the blurred land at 60mph. I include a few screencaps for the purposes of this commentary.

 

 

As we know, the majority of new prison construction in the past 30 years has occurred in rural America and in post-industrial towns. The “logic” was to replace the dead agriculture and manufacturing jobs with prison jobs. However, the small (and ever-decreasing) benefits that may have been brought to struggling, job-scarce populations are eclipsed by the hardships wrought upon prisoners and their distant friends and families. A Temporary Contact takes us on the weekend journey that family–mostly women and children–make; a journey essential for keeping family ties. Bear in mind that, for incarcerated persons, maintaining close relations with loved ones is the most important factor in helping them stay out the system after release.

New York state, as with other large states such as California, Texas and Illinois, is one of the worst offenders in siting prisons hundreds of miles from the communities from which prisoners are extracted. A Temporary Contact offers users a moment inside the collateral damage done by this particular extended and prohibitively expensive travel.

Some thoughts on the title: Temporary contact is fleeting, it’s real but not sustained. The title simultaneously recognises the intermittent opportunities that family have to make in-person visits (those with financial means and time, might make the journey as often as twice a month), but also points to our passing point of contact with a time-consuming (and likely foreign) travel-commitment which prisoners’ loved ones regularly and necessarily sign up for.

Despite the journey’s substantial 30-hour timeframe, it’s one that is largely self-contained and not seen … except for maybe the lines of people waiting for pick up at 34th street or Columbus Circle in NYC late on a Friday or Saturday evening. (For an in-depth photo essay on prison buses, please see Jacobia Dahm’s work; read the interview she and I did; and then read this follow-up conversation Dahm had with Candis Cumberbatch-Overton, who Dahm photographed as she visited her husband John.)

There are many revealing moments in A Temporary Contact and it’d be foolhardy to describe them; you should just sign up for the messages toy our own smartphone. The presence of time–and time seen–is part of the art’s structure! That said, I thought it instructive that immediately following their departure from the prisons, the women shared photos of their loved ones and talked about the costs to have the portraits made.

“The only thing we take out the visits,” says Amanda, “are the pictures.”

 

 

The women compare costs of a single Instax picture. In one prison it is $2 per photo. In another it is $4. They talk about physical changes, new facial hair, how they all appear in one another’s photos. They laugh and gripe about the quality of the murals in front of which they must stand for the portraits.

Visitors are allowed to have five pictures made on each visit. Despite the huge expense (relative to single prints in free society) the women tend to get five. Max out on memories. Optimise the presence of their loved one in the world. A photo is a thin slice of time, but it is a substantial presence in the free world of someone who is behind bars in a limbo-state of social death.

 

 

It seems that every photography conference these days is talking about getting beyond the frame, and using new technologies and digital platforms to tell stories. Peled and Kolster propose a model that delivers important, compelling content with direct efficiency. The bar for access is as low as it gets; who doesn’t have WhatsApp or Facebook on their phones at this point? The temporal quality of the project is key. The success of A Temporary Contact rests on the fact that, every one or two hours, users are prodded with gentle reminders of other’s devotion to time … time spent in love and support of prisoners.

I wholly recommend A Temporary Contact. I learnt new things, I think you will too.

A Temporary Contact was developed within the framework of the veryveryshort competition, a NFB and ARTE co-production in collaboration of IDFA Doclab. Very very short is a collection of 10 interactive projects for smartphones, exploring the theme of mobility through very, very short experiences – all under 60 seconds.

Credits
Creators: Nirit Peled & Sara Kolster
Camera: Aafke Beernink
Editor: Wietse de Swart
Additional editing: Paul Delput
Sound mix: Sander den Broeder
Color: Maurik de Ridder
Developer: Martijn Eerens
Scripting: Wireless Services
Music: Amit Gur & Itai Weissman
Cast: Amanda, Diamond, Gina, Latoya and Stephany
Research help: Ilja Willems, Five Mualimm-ak, Ray Simmons
Special thanks: Katie Turinski, Junior from Flambouyant Transportation Inc., Het Raam, Hortense Lauras

 

 

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Just a quickie. All of these names can be found on my list The Talent, but I figured they can get lost in there and I’d push them up to the surface for you all.

Scan the names and see if you’re missing out on the important/irrelevant bleatings of these notable camera-lords and camera-ladies.

StephenVoss
Steven Voss, Washington, DC
andrewcutraro
Andrew Cutraro, Washington, DC
edkashi
Ed Kashi
heislerphoto
Todd Heisler
rspencerreed
Ryan Spencer Reed
JasonEskenazi
Jason Eskenazi
AlanSChin
Alan Chin, Brooklyn, NY
davidb383
David Burnett, Washington DC
stevebloomphoto
Steve Bloom, England
dpeveto
Daryl Peveto
evanvucci
Evan Vucci
jmott78
Justin Mott, Hanoi, Vietnam
StrazzPOY
Scott Strazzante, Yorkville, IL
jonkgoering
Jon Goering, Lawrence, KS
sinclair_photo
Mike Sinclair, Kansas City
PhotoPhilan
PhotoPhilanthropy, California
radical_images
Radical Images, East Midlands UK
Kastenskov
Henrik Kastenskov, Vejle
maisiecrow
Maisie Crow, New York
jturnley
James Turnley
juansierraphoto
Juan Sierra, Germany
OLOLtoo
Kendrick Brinson, Atlanta, GA
AaronJoelSantos
Aaron Joel Santos, Hanoi, Vietnam
jeffcurto
Jeff Curto, Chicago, IL
martincregg
Martin Cregg, Dublin
consumptive
James Luckett, Ohio
jesshurdphoto
Jess Hurd, London
VizJournalist
John Waskey, Portland, OR
tomtveitan
Tom Tveitan, Norway
fotofugitive
Tim Humble, Noosa, Sunshine Coast
photomorel
Daniel Morel, Haiti
davidalanharvey
David Alan Harvey, NYC, Outer Banks
FredoDupoux
Frederic Dupoux
wemarijnissen
Wendy Marijnissen, Islamabad, Pakistan
dascruggs
Daniella Scruggs, D.C. Metro Area
themexican
Raul Gutierrez
sheimages
Sheila Pree Bright
Moishevitz
Juliana Beasley, Jersey City, NJ
tajforer
Taj Forer, Connecticut
jeffantebi
Jeff Antebi
mattshonfeld
Matt Shonfeld, Bath, UK
jonsnyder
Jon Snyder, San Francisco
americanyouth
American youth book, NYC
douglaslowell
Douglas Lowell, Portland, OR
imaclellan
Ian MacLellan, Lincoln, MA
EmilyShur
Emily Shur
JaneFultonAlt
Jane Fulton Alt, Chicago
brazil_photos
Ricardo Funari, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
toddhido
Todd Hido, San Francisco Bay Area
billvaccaro
Bill Vaccaro
adamvlau
Adam Lau, San Francisco
PipAndrews
Philip Scott Andrews
DannyGhitis
Danny Ghitis, Brooklyn, NY
pangeaphoto
Pangea Photo
prospektphoto
Prospekt, Milan, Italy
terakopian
Edmond Terakopian, UK
NoBarriersPhoto
No Barriers Photogrphy, Vancouver, BC
CollegePhotog
CPOY, Columbia, MO
dsheaphoto
Daniel Shea, Chicago
dominicnahr
Dominic Nahr, Kenya
mrubee
Michael Rubenstein
greglutze
Greg Lutze, Pacific Northwest
reduxpictures
Redux Pictures
johnkeatley
John Keatley, Seattle, WA
hillerphoto
Geoffrey Hiller, Dhaka, Bangladesh
ChrisHondros
Chris Hondros, New York, NY
tammydavid
Tammy David, Manila, Philippines
vigbalasingam
Vignes Balasingam, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
timmatsuiphoto
Tim Matsui, Seattle, WA
coreyfishes
Corey Arnold, Portland, OR
jimbourg
Jim Bourg, Washington, DC
stupilkington
Stuart Pilkington, High Wycombe, UK
Donaldverger
Donald Verger, Portland, Maine
NickTurpin
Nick Turpin, France
noahkalina
Noah Kalina, Brooklyn, NY
terukuwayama
Teru Kuwayama
benrobertsphoto
Ben Roberts, Bournemouth, UK
alvarezphoto
Stephen Alvarez, Charlotte, NC
davidsolomons
David Solomons, London
erikborst
Erik Borst, Amsterdam, Holland
squarerootof9
Trey Hill, Dallas, TX
quesofrito
Emiliano Granado, NYC
50statesproject
50 States Project, USA
RachelPapo
Rachel Papo, Brooklyn, New York
alphabetproject
Alphabet Project
danielemattioli
Daniele Mattioli, Shanghai
shawnrocco
Shawn Rocco, Raleigh, North Carolina
jaredsoares
Jared Soares, Roanoke, Virginia
yingang
Ying Ang, Melbourne, Australia
jennyjimenez
Jenny Jimenez, Seattle, WA
hinius
Hin Chua, London
photogjack
Jack Kurtz, Phoenix, AZ
renaudphilippe
Renaud Philippe, Québec
thetravelphotog
Tewfic El- Sawy, NYC/London
A_Jax
Andrew Jackson, Birmingham, UK
alvarezmontero
Carlos Alvarez Montero
Peter_Marshall
London
mellyvanilla
Melanie McWhorter
ptrbkr
Peter Baker
dellicson
Davin Ellicson, Bucharest, Romania
OlivierLaude
Olivier Laude, San Francisco
matgrandjean
Mathieu Grandjean, Los Angeles
noahbeil
Noah Beil, Oakland, California
demotix
Global
claytoncubitt
Clayton Cubitt, New York
benblood
Ben Blood, Seattle, WA
ianvancoller
Ian van Coller, Bozeman, MT
natelarson
Nate Larson, Baltimore, MD
mrthibs18
Brandon Thibodeaux
gracegelder
Grace Gelder
andrewquerner
Andrew Querner, Alberta
jonfeinstein
Jon Feinstein, NYC
hellenvanmeene
Hellen van Meene, Heiloo, Holland
bendrum
Benjamin Drummond, Seattle, WA
tonystamolis
Tony Stamolis
liankevich
Andrei Liankevich
davewyatt
Dave Wyatt, Somerset, UK
coombskj
Kevin Coombs
miketsangphoto
Mike Tsang, London
lgreen66
Lauren Greenfield
KatharinaHesse
Katharina Hesse, Beijing
aphotostudent
James Pomerantz, New York
NadavKander
Nadav Kander, London
visualjourn
Brent Foster, Delhi, India
balazsgardi
Balazs Gardi
rogercremers
Roger Cremers, Amsterdam
shahidul
Shahidul Alam, Dhaka. Bangladesh
chrisdebode
Chris Debode, Amsterdam
abbiets
Abbie Trayler-Smith
foreilly
Finbar O’Reilly, Dakar, Senegal
rasermus
Espen Rasmussen
stevesimon
Steve Simon, NYC
borutpeterlin
Borut Peterlin, Slovenia
moooose
Mustafah Abdulaziz, Philadelphia
oeilpublic
Oeil Public, Paris, France (Now out of business)
gallagher_photo
Sean Gallagher, Beijing, China
jennackerman
Jenn Ackerman, New York
Amivee
Ami Vitale, Miami
ninaberman
Nina Berman
luceo
Luceo Images, US, Southeast Asia, Mexico
mattlutton
Matt Lutton, Belgrade, Serbia
Nathan_Armes
Nathan Armes, Denver, CO
timgruber
Tim Gruber, New York
timhussin
Tim Hussin, Washington D.C.
alan_w_george
Alan W George, San Francisco
MrToledano
Phillip Toledano, New York
mattslaby
Matt Slaby, Denver
wearemjr
MJR, Brooklyn, New York
caryconover
Cary Conover, Lower East Side, NYC
robot_operator
Dalton Rooney, Brooklyn, NY
loujones2008
Lou Jones, Boston, MA
gerik
Gerik Parmele, Columbia, MO
benlowy
Benjamin Lowy, Brooklyn, NY
tom_leininger
Tom Leininger, Texas
tomasvh
Tomas van Houtryve
timobarber
Tim Barber
newmediatim
Tim Lytvinenko

That the Ministry of Justice and Prison Service have embarked on a course of activity in an effort to disrupt my blog only reinforces my view that I was right to intrude on the public. That the MoJ and the HMPS have the brass neck to portray themselves as guardians of the law while traducing it reveals the very underbelly of criminal justice morality that my blog wishes to illustrate.

Ben Gunn, Guardian. Monday September 14th, 2009

There is an interesting debate growing in the UK. Should prisoners be allowed to blog?

bbcprisonblogging

Ben Gunn, who claims to be the only serving UK prisoner who blogs, had a letter to his wife intercepted by the prison governor and told “the content is interesting enough to be published on the internet” and on this ground it was stopped from leaving the prison.

Gunn set up the blog at the end of August. He writes the content and his editor posts it to the web.

Gunn has caused a stir with forthright opinions on politicised victims groups, spineless politicians and poor prison management. These, he argues, are not fallacious rants, but genuine problems of an overly-punitive system and disengaged society.

Furthermore, Gunn argues that despite his original sentence of 10 years, he remains in prison after 30 because he has continuously challenged the prison authorities. At present Gunn is engaged in research towards a PhD, focused upon the role of Human Needs Theory in prison conflicts.

My question “How do we feel about Prison Bloggers?” is largely rhetorical. How we feel about them makes no impingement on their lawful right to write and publish from prison. Let’s be absolutely clear here. Gunn is breaking NO LAW.

The only law that may pertain is that Gunn may receive no compensation for his writing while a ward of the prison service. But this was never the issue at stake. Gunn’s free speech was deliberately quashed by the administration of a system that stood to face criticism through his words.

The official position as summarised by another excellent prison rights blogger John Hirst (The Jailhouse Lawyer):

The Ministry of Justice writes: “There is no specific Prison Service policy on prisoners using or posting blogs, as they do not have direct unregulated access to computers or the internet”. However, the reply goes on to to say that it can be implied from Prison Service order 4411, that a prisoner cannot ask someone else to communicate what the prisoner is not in a position to do himself and which violates the rules. The MoJ has clearly failed to take into account the human right to freedom of expression guaranteed under article 10 of the European convention, and prisoners’ rights to contact the media “on matters of legitimate public interest“.

I agree with many of Gunn’s positions, I don’t appreciate his tone sometimes, but I think he must absolutely exist within the dialogue about British criminal justice. His thoughts as a serving prisoner are of central value to debate and an informed public.

The echoes ring true and far. Gunn’s concerns over misinformation, scare-mongering and codes of silence are as acute (if not moreso) in the US prison industry.

I’ll leave you with Gunn’s view on prevailing distortions to debate and his admirable defiance:

In reducing discussions to trite slogans and vote-grubbing soundbites, we debase ourselves as a collective and as people. I realise that I pose a challenge, but regardless of any efforts expended by the government I am not going away.

_____________________________________________________________

As well as the Guardian sources linked in this article, the BBC picked up on this story and includes a brief but informative audio discussion of the issue.

_____________________________________________________________

Editor’s note: It seems strange that in the UK this quasi-controversial issue has taken a long time to rear its head – after all, Michael Santos has been blogging from US federal prisons at his own Prison Journal and as a guest at Change.org since January 2009.

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