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“Angola Prison, 2004,” by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick.

It was gratifying to be mentioned in Sabine Heinlein’s recent NYT article Artists Grapple With America’s Prison System which surveyed the ways artists, curators and thinkers are responding to mass incarceration. The cue for the article, I’m guessing, was the two exhibitions currently on show in NYC–Andrea Fraser at The Whitney and Cameron Rowland (covered on PP) at Artists Space.

There’s some wonderful practitioners and projects profiled, including Deana Lawson, Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, Ashley Hunt and Sable Elyse Smith among others.

The paragraph that immediately follows the mention of Prison Obscura reads:

Ben Davis, the author of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, praises artists for taking up the topic, he warned: “We should push the question beyond just consciousness-raising. There is this progressive-era style of political art where well-to-do people throw banquets for homeless people and then stand up on the balcony and congratulate themselves. There is an icky history of using the suffering of the people at the bottom as a spectacle.”

Can’t argue with that.

Keeping check of ones own interests and benefits relative to those of prisoners and prisoners’ families is critical. I believe my work has not exploited incarcerated people but I never assume that the assessment of Prison Photography, Prison Obscura or any of my other projects is fixed or final.

With criminal justice reform and prison reform emerging into the mainstream over the past, say, 5 years, I habour a continuous niggling suspicion that my writing–my blogging–has less and less effect. This is down to several factors, most of them having to do with the way we consume content on the Internet today as compared to how we consumed in 2008 when I started Prison Photography. These include, but are not limited to, the dominance of Facebook and it’s pay-to-see algorithms (I’m not on Facebook); the killing of Google Reader which in turn made RSS and the independent sources/blogs RSS aggregates more impractical to access (not to say there aren’t other RSS readers out there, but none are as elegant, or free, as Google Reader); Tumblr and the trend toward infinite scrolls of visual content, not text; and, of course, the fact that on any given day NYT, WaPo, NPR, The Guardian, The Marshall Project, The Intercept, VICE, CJR and countless other international news outlets are covering the U.S. prison industrial complex–against a backdrop of such comprehensive coverage, Prison Photography barely registers.

Some days, it feels like I’m scrapping just to stay visible. That’s an icky place to be. It’s a dangerous place too; I think it’s a place where motives and energies can be tainted and focus on the issues can diminish. For that reason, practitioners–myself included–must be subject to continuous criticism and critique.

If you ever see me standing on the balcony and congratulating myself, call me out. Shoot me down.


Dale Hammock at the Amity Foundation in Los Angeles. Credit Damon Casarez for The New York Times. From the story ‘You Just Got Out Of Prison. Now What?

True to form in traditional media another impressive feature piece about the criminal justice system You Just Got Out of Prison. Now What? was released by the New York Times last week. The story is summed up perfectly in the sub-header: “Carlos and Roby are two ex-convicts with a simple mission: picking up inmates on the day they’re released from prison and guiding them through a changed world.”

Carlos and Robery help people like Dale Hammock (above) who was imprisoned for 21 years to readjust to the outside world.

It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that this looming ‘‘prisoner re-entry crisis’’ became a fixation of sociologists and policy makers, generating a torrent of research, government programs, task forces, nonprofit initiatives and conferences now known as the ‘‘re-entry movement.’’ The movement tends to focus on solving structural problems, like providing housing, job training or drug treatment, but easily loses sight of the profound disorientation of the actual people being released. Often, the psychological turbulence of those first days or weeks is so debilitating that recently incarcerated people can’t even navigate public transportation; they’re too frightened of crowds, too intimidated or mystified by the transit cards that have replaced cash and tokens.

The quality of the photography met the quality of the writing. The two pictures accompanying the piece were made by Damon Casarez.

An unfamiliar name. I looked him up. This was great assigning by NYT. Throughout Casarez’s other bodies of work is something of the uncanny. From an early project depicting the “Utopia” of the suburb he grew up in (Clearly effected, he mentions “suburb” in his bio) to a series of actors playing out cliche types who live in his neighbourhood, it seems Casarez is obsessed with the weird around him.

Or more precisely he teases the weird out.

From the unnatural order of Boomerang Kids (children that return to parents’ home after college graduation) to a series titled Dioramas of recreations of peculiar vignettes in everyday life around him, Casarez channels Jennifer Karady, Holly Andres, early Gregory Crewdson, the vulgar Jill Greenberg, and David Lynch, (and, yeah, I guess, even Hopper).






Everyone has been talking about Google’s neural network DeepDream recently saying that it might be the closest thing to what Androids dream of when they sleep or what pure (LSD-inflected) visuals look like. The world is a freaking bizarre place and it only because of inbuilt systems to filter most of it that our brains don’t get overrun.

Casarez’s work is so appealing to me because it bucks that tendency. He searches out the ill-fitting and garish surface tensions we put on, prop up and rely on daily.

It makes sense why the worlds of (predominantly) Southern California would weird him out. One day he’s photographing victims’ families of street violence, and the next the aspiring and upper classes basking in the arts-industrial complex.

As odd places, prisons do nothing if not produce odd behaviours and characters. Carlos and Roby have been out years but still fantasize about prison food. They are the sanest folks engaging with the prison issue because they see reentry from a personal and informed perspective .. and yet they sit for hours in their car under the words “Now what?” waiting for a man who’ll probably arrive. He does and their work begins.


Roby So (left) and Carlos Cervantes in Pomona, California. Damon Casarez for The New York Times. From the story ‘You Just Got Out Of Prison. Now What?

For all the quantitative research, NGO white papers, expert testimony, politicians’ best intentions, it is still the one-one-one, face-to-face, simple and small things that make the biggest difference in getting people out and keeping people out. That might sound crazy but it is not; it’s true. For example, the Prisoner Reentry Network does something as simple as send directions to prisoners pre-release so that they know how to get from the prison gate to the their hometown. Having not navigated the free world for years or decades that’s key information the rest of us take for granted.

No one has experimented so perversely with prisons as California. The unexpected details, the frank reporting and the NYT’s choice of photographer all worked well together here and described an unnatural situation and set of problems to which committed folks are trying to find solutions.

Follow Damon Casarez on Tumblr and Instagram.

© Matthew Ryan Williams

Oregon spotted frogs at the Cedar Creek prison, WA. © Matthew Ryan Williams for the New York Times

Seattle photographer and all round nice guy, Matt Williams had his work published by the New York Times recently in an article titled Raising Frogs for Freedom, Prison Project Opens Doors. Williams himself pitched the story about the Prison Sustainability Project and teamed up with writer Kirk Johnson. The story has all the right ingredients – charismatic fauna, positive environmental change, a challenge of stereotypes, and social justice thought that bucks the lock ’em trend and attitudes.

Johnson writes:

“The prisoners, who trained with a state biologist but also learned from one another, must compete to enter the program and maintain a record of perfect behavior to stay in it. They are paid 42 cents an hour, standard prison wages, for 10-hour workdays that involve sometimes tedious tasks like monitoring the frogs’ water temperature or harvesting the hundreds of crickets grown for frog food — something that even an oppressed graduate student might avoid at real wages.”


“It is about procedural order, point A to point B, with every step measured and marked for others to check and follow. And when the focus of that work is a creature that undergoes a profound metamorphosis from egg to tadpole to adult, the lesson is also one about the possibilities of change.”

The program is exemplary, as are the other prison environmental/education programs mentioned in the article. Good stuff.

You can see more images over at Matt’s blog.


I’ve held the Prison Sustainability Project in high esteem for some time:

Science in Prison, Change within Ourselves
Benjamin Drummond, Sara Joy Steele, Nature and Washington State Prisons
Prison Moss Project

Photo: Chip Litherland

I spent all day looking at photography and this was the last thing through my RSS. Exhausted but pissed off, I have to post.

Chip Litherland (@chiplitherland) was on assignment for this story in the New York Times, and shared a few images on his blog. I simply copy & paste the comment I left with Chip here:

The red hues, the spot light (recalling war photography), the drama in general but most of all the solemnity of Jones who poses between the ultimate Hollywood myth and a shooting target – it reeks of a man who’s more obsessed with theatrics & violence than he ever will be with reality.

I expect this was one time you wanted to put down your objective journalist persona and tell him straight he’s a liar, a nutter and a danger to those fooled by his hate.

More of Chip’s images here.

Fair Warning: This will probably be the only post I do about the Islamophobia gripping the vocal minority in America. There’s no point talking about it; it’s hate and those spewing it are dangerous simpletons. My only worry is that TV will continue to bombard people with heady graphics, drastic statement and “passive wonderment” (as Jon Stewart has best described it). At this point, Fox News conjures the wildest conspiracy theories in America.

New York Times video The ‘Innocent Prisoner’s Dilemma pores over the profound moral dilemma innocent prisoners face when they present themselves to a parole board. The piece focuses on the case of Herbert Murray (above).


Showing remorse for the crime for which they he/she was sentenced increases a prisoner’s chances of parole; the parole board wants to see contrition, wants to see the individual accept the charges, faults and responsibility the court defined many years previous.

One problem. What if the offender was wrongfully convicted? What if he or she IS innocent? The situation becomes Kafkaesque; he or she must agree to a terrible and false scenario (their agency in a crime) in order to escape a much worse scenario (further imprisonment). If an innocent man or woman acknowledges responsibility in order to curry favour, they then become the writers not only of their own history but of their own future. The individual will be forever tied to his or her parole record and the “admission” of guilt.

Herbert Murray’s story is shocking. He spent more than 29 years in prison (he was eligible for parole after 15). Murray only got out due to advanced interventions from his original lawyer and the Second Look Clinic at Brooklyn Law School.


Have you ever wondered who sits on a parole board and makes the decisions that affect tens of thousands of prisoners lives each year?

This article Convicted of Murder as Teenager and Paroled at 41 by Trymaine Lee details the job-track:

“Parole Board members, who must have a college degree and five years of experience in criminal justice, sociology, law, social work or medicine, can serve an unlimited number of six-year terms, earning $101,600 a year. By law, they must interview inmates in person and are required to consider their criminal histories, prison achievements and sense of remorse. Ultimately, though, parole decisions are subjective.”

It is great to read reporting that brings a focus to the rudimentary details of staffing and regulation, in this case that of the parole systems. There are many different arms to the criminal justice system and often they don’t compliment one another. In Murray’s case, the parole system reinforced the mistake of the judicial system.

This expository journalism reminds me of NPR’s investigative series on the bail system in January, 2010.

– – –

Thanks to Stan for the tip.

As a foil to the non-committal position of my last post, Jim Johnson has posted a very important statement about the label – and according judgement – that should fall upon America’s homegrown terrorists.

What’s the difference between a terrorist and an “apocalyptic Christian militant”? A must read.

My post, Staring at Death, Photographing Haiti got a lot of attention. It was a simple format – an extensive collection of links to online photography coverage of Haiti. It was posted a week after the earthquake and very soon after was out of date.

It may have been apparent from my other posts on Haiti [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] that I appreciated words alongside images.

I was grateful for the interviews by the New York Times of Damon Winter, Maggie Steber and Daniel Morel.

Well, add Lynsey Addario to that list.

Even Orphanages Spawn Orphans in Haiti is the type of approach and reflexivity I admire in journalism. It is a great salve to the overly-anxious who worry that photojournalism has lost it’s soul.

Of course, I have a few buddies who’d insist that Haitian voices be heard also, so I don’t want to suggest that PJ audio interviews are the crowning point of crisis reporting – they obviously aren’t but they are a necessary component.

To hear the photojournalist’s voice and responses to their subject reminds us that photographers are not camera-wielding automatons operating in vacuums.

© Daniel Morel / Corbis

Amidst the all the coverage of Haiti, I have found the interviews and words of photojournalists (eg. Damon Winter; Melissa Lyttle) FAR more interesting and informing than the images.

What an essential privilege to hear Haitian photographer Daniel Morel speak about not only his placement during the earthquake, but also the behaviour of the media, the complaints of Haitians toward said media and where he and Haiti go from here.

If I am going to put weight on any opinion it is Morel‘s.


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