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The Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson, NY, has just put out an open call for photography related to prisons and incarceration. They’re seeking work about prisons, prison towns, neighbours, families and children, guards, incarcerated persons and returning citizens. Landscapes, portraits and still lifes are offered as suggestions but I’d hazard they’ll take any type of imagery and I encourage the pushing of boundaries.
“This is a topic I have long wanted to present,” says gallery owner Karen Davis. “[Mass incarceration] is not a topic commonly found in our type of gallery.”
Bravo to Davis Orton to getting stuck in to the issue.
Details on how to submit your work here. The dates of the show are June 24th to July 22nd. Deadline for entry is June 6th.
During the run of the show, the Prison Public Memory Project (one of the most intriguing and layered public research projects I know) will be facilitating film screenings, discussions and presentations relating to mass incarceration.
This year marks 200 years since Auburn Prison went in to operation. Joe Librandi-Cowan grew up in the shadow of massive maximum-security prison in upstate New York. Over the past three years, Librandi-Cowan has been photographing the neighborhoods around the prison (now called Auburn Correctional Facility), has been meeting locals, diving into archives and exhibiting the work within the region. His main body of work is The Auburn System, titled after the Auburn System of prison management that added hard labour to the Philadelphia System of solitary, penitence and prayer. His photobook Songs of a Silent Wall brings together archive images of American prisons.
Librandi-Cowan has contempt for the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) in the United States and the manner in which its decentralized and embedded nature allows for its silent persistence. His work mounts a narrative that writes Auburn into the early chapters of the development of the PIC. It’s not a narrative closely examined by others in his hometown. Shaping and presenting the work has not been without its challenges.
It is Librandi-Cowan’s negotiations between critiquing the system and maintaining empathy for ordinary people who work in it–who are also swallowed by it–that fascinate me. Not least, because other image-makers focused on prisons are dealing with similarly delicate negotiations.
I’m grateful to Librandi-Cowan for making time to answer my questions.
Scroll on for our Q&A.
PP: How did your work on Auburn Prison come about? Is it still ongoing?
JLC: The project formed into the focus of my undergraduate studies and eventually into my thesis work. The project is ongoing. The work requires a slow, long-term approach. While Auburn is my hometown, I still struggle to understand and represent it visually. My relationship to Auburn, much like the town’s relationship to the prison industry, is complex. I critique and question the history of an institution that has almost always supported the community. The fact that I am a member of the community, forces me to move slowly and carefully.
The history takes a while to sift through, the relationships I make with fellow Auburnians take a while to forge, and figuring out how to represent and combat the prison industrial complex isn’t something that is simple to figure out.
PP: When did you first start thinking of the prison as a topic for your art and inquiry?
JLC: The prison sits in the middle of the city. Many members of local families, generations deep, have been employed by the prison industry. Growing up, I was vaguely aware that some of my family had worked in the prison, but I never gave the prison – which was down the street from where I lived, always in view – much of a thought.
I knew little bits about the prison’s history – that it was one of the oldest prisons in New York State, and that it was the first place to host an execution by electrocution – but the prison, and ideas related to imprisonment, were seldom discussed or explained. I never questioned or understood the prison beyond it being a place for employment.
It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t necessarily normal to have a prison down the street or to have a family member or neighbor that worked inside a prison.
JLC: As I got older, I began to learn more about the prison system, mass incarceration, the economics involved and I began to realize that the prison had a much larger influence on my community than I had initially thought or understood. I began making images to make sense of the complicated role the prison has had with my hometown, with history, and with myself as a young person living in the town. I began photographing in an attempt to make sense of the prison system from the lens of a prison host community, but immediately I realized that it further pushed me to question it.
PP: Where have you presented this work?
JLC: I have presented this at the Cayuga Museum of History and Art, which is Auburn’s local history museum. I have also shown selections of the work at LightWork in Syracuse, NY, and I recently opened a show at SUNY Onondaga.
PP: When you showed it in Auburn itself how was it received?
JLC: Reactions varied – it was positive, negative, and also a bit static/unresponsive. Much of the feedback I received were initial aesthetic responses, and not feedback on the conceptual aspects or questions the work asked.
The prison is a top employer within the community, so people are seemingly reluctant to critique or question the role of the prison, its historical implications, or what the hosting of a prison means for a community.
While showing the work in Auburn, I made it clear within my presentation that I was questioning Auburn’s role within the prison industrial complex – past and present – and that I was interested in finding a way within our community to talk about the increasing problem of mass incarceration within the United States.
JLC: I found this information to be much more difficult to present and discuss within Auburn because so many within my community are directly involved with the correctional system. It was incredibly difficult to find ways to talk about what the work questions without the perception that I was criticizing the generations of people within my community who work or have worked at the prison. Finding productive ways to critically engage, discuss, and question the livelihood of many in my community has been very difficult.
In turn, the response to the work often ends up being extremely limited. Employee contracts won’t allow for correctional officers to discuss some of these issues with me, nor they do not want to talk ill of their work. Many people within my community have a difficult time reasoning with my questioning of the prison system; their relationships to it are complex, deep, and difficult to reckon with.
While many may generally agree that the prison system doesn’t function properly or fairly, Auburn’s relationship to its prison doesn’t seem to allow for a communal discussion on the matter.
PP: You suggested to me in an email that your worry over local reactions have effected the way you edit and present?
JLC: I wouldn’t say that I’ve necessarily changed the work, but I often worry that the project, and that the directness of my stance on the prison industry, may do damage to my community – especially when presented internally. Auburn has bore witness to much trauma. It has direct and early links to the Prison Industrial Complex, the electric chair, and to correctional practices that have helped shaped modern day incarceration. Condensing and presenting that information to the community almost produces and perpetuates this trauma. While it’s not the community’s direct fault, my questioning of these practices and histories has the potential to produce the feeling that the community itself is to blame.
While it is important to combat mass incarceration and the toxic attitudes that prison work can breed, I believe it’s also important to realize and remember that prisons have direct effects on the people who work within them and on the communities that host them.
To me, the ability of many within my community to navigate between the daily entrapment of prison walls and civilian life, begins to raise many questions about how traumas and toxic attitudes are transferred and perpetuated within my community and within society in general.
JLC: Prisons not only affect incarcerated individuals – they affect those who staff the prisons, the people close to those staff too. They affect towns that host prisons and communities from which members are extracted to then be incarcerated.
Prisons shape, and are shaped, by local and regional economies connected to the prison industry, and attitudes towards race – the list goes on. I’m trying to show that the web of the prison industrial complex, while much closer to my hometown than others, is something, often almost invisible, that is local to almost every American.
While I doubt many would pick prison work as their first employment opportunity, it is one of the only financially stable options within the Auburn area. Attacking the industry that financially provides for many within the community doesn’t seem to be the best way to have these conversations or to figure out alternatives or answers to the prison.
As I continue this project, I am attempting to find ways to properly and effectively critique mass incarceration and the Prison Industrial Complex without alienating or further damaging my subjects – whether they be community members, correctional officers, or incarcerated individuals, or returning citizens.
PP: What is gained and what is lost by such slow and reflexive approach?
JLC: Being cautious and thoughtful about how the work may impact the actual people that the work represents will only help further the project and its possible impacts.
Much of the contemporary work on prisons deals with incarcerated individuals, however, I’m becoming increasingly interested in figuring out how conversations and representations of others within the prison industrial complex can impact and change our discussions on mass incarceration. Maybe if it can be shown that mass incarceration negativity effects all within the equation, different sources of change may occur?
I believe The Auburn System functions well outside of Auburn because distance from the work allows for a more general discussion around mass incarceration. But showing the work within Auburn has made me rethink how it should function within the town.
PP: Thanks, Joe
JLC: Thank you, Pete
UPDATE: You can get stickers these ways
SUBTLE, VIOLENT OMISSIONS
The ability to ignore the human rights abuse that is mass incarceration is built upon millions of small omissions, denials, and blind eyes turned. A group of students and faculty from Parsons The New School are pointing out to fellow New Yorkers one such omission.
Rikers Island, New York city’s main lock-up, is an institution beset by problems–including but not limited to environmental hazards, beatings by guards, juvenile solitary, predation, inadequate healthcare, suicide, abominable pre-trial conditions and more. On any given day it holds. Consensus is building that it is a jail that cannot be reformed and must be closed.
Ignominiously, Rikers Island jail is iconic. In a strange and depressing way, it represents NYC. Other icons for the Big Apple invariably include other structures: Empire State Building, The New York Public Library, Rockefeller Building, Statue of Liberty, The Metropolitan Museum.
The system and graphics that connect NYC’s important sites and buildings is the MTA subway map. Again, no less iconic. The subway map is ubiquitous; it is a powerful dictate of information. The subway map shapes knowledge.
The MTA and Rikers Island have a complicated relationship. Over the years the massive jailing complex has fallen on and off the subway map. An erratic absence, today Rikers Island is labeled on station maps but not inside trains, on digital versions but not in digital kiosks. #SeeRikers stickers are a simple way to acknowledge this erasure.
Whether an accidental oversight or an intentional omission – we believe it’s important to recognize a place that confines nearly 10,000 people each day and effects the lives of many more New Yorkers. So as you make your way across the city – on your morning commute or evening transfer – please help us put Rikers back on the map.
STICK RIKERS BACK ON THE MAP
You, me, anyone can be part of a rapid, insurgent and widespread correction. Acosta de la Peña, Sánchez and Volf have developed a sticker that riffs on the MTA “You Are Here” arrow. The sticker de-centers the map.
“Whereas the MTA’s label serves as an individual way-finding tool, ours signals a collective void,” say Acosta de la Peña, Sánchez and Volf.
FEEL THE BERN
Stickers will be passed out during the Bernie Sanders Rally at Washington Square Park on Wednesday, April 13th
Stickers will be handed out at the #CLOSErikers rally at City Hall.
THREE WAYS TO GET STICKERS
1. If you are a New York organization working on criminal justice reform email info[at]itsamademademademadeworld[dot]com and stickers can be delivered.
2. If you are an individual, visit the States of Incarceration Exhibition at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (66 Fifth Avenue at 13th Street, New York, NY) now through April 24th.
Cameron Rowland, “New York State Unified Court System” (2016), oak wood, distributed by Corcraft, 165 x 57.5 x 36 inches, rental at cost. Courtrooms throughout New York State use benches built by prisoners in Green Haven Correctional Facility. The court reproduces itself materially through the labor of those it sentences. (photo by Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York)
You may have sat in the chairs, or slept on the pillows, or worn the smocks. What am I talking about? You may have used goods made by prison labour. You or your kids, depending what state you’re in, may have eaten school meals made by prisoners.
Wellington boots, uniforms, mattresses, furniture, binders, paper-goods, forms, flagpoles, hardware, utensils, even cookies … the list of goods made by prison industries is long. CALPIA (California Prison Industries Authority) in California and Corcraft in New York State are just two government agencies making high-quality goods while paying low-quality wages.
Prisoners working for CALPIA earn between 30 and 90 cents per hour (the higher end is rare) and then about 50% is taken out for taxes, charges and restitution. Supporters of these multimillion dollar agencies say it they provide valuable jobs training for prisoners. Opponents say it’s slave labor. Of course, you’re opinion will be swayed by whether you think prisons and jails are a net benefit or a net cost for society.
For prison abolitionists these state-insider agencies are second only in evil to the private prison companies. Why? Because they execute the quieter but some of the more pernicious maneuvering within capitalism. They devalue labor and devalue human beings. In California, those that defend CALPIA point out CALPIA only sells to other state bodies, but a market is a market and who the buyer is doesn’t change the work, wages or conditions for prisoners. In fact, most state-run prison industries don’t sell beyond state agencies is because they’d destroy many “free” markets simply by undercutting them on price–so great is the savings on wages. Look at those benches above; the joinery on those is out of this world. A steal at $654.50 (see below).
Artist Cameron Rowland is dismayed. And energised. The benches and the jackets and desk in the images here are from Rowland’s latest show 91020000 at Artists Space in New York. Continuing his minimalist installation approach, Rowland has put a few (of the bigger) Corcraft goods in the gallery space. The project is as much an extended and deeply researched essay as it is this gallery installation.
“Property is preserved through inheritance,” writes Rowland. “Legal and economic adaptations have maintained and reconfigured the property interests established by the economy of slavery in the United States. The 13th constitutional amendment outlawed private chattel slavery; however, its exception clause legalized slavery and involuntary servitude when administered “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
To prison activists this is not new language. Even to Oprah’s List devotees this is not new. Michelle Alexander put into plain and passionate terms how the legal inequities of first, convict leasing, then Jim Crow laws and, now, expanded disenfranchisement laws in the era of mass incarceration, have maintained a “sub-class” made up disproportionately of people of colour.
Crucially, when Rowland talks of inheritance, he’s not talking about the bank accounts and assets of our parents. No, he’s talking about our shared inheritance as a nation that enjoys civic infrastructure and communities who benefit from, or not, the provision of nurturing institutions and spaces. Capitalism depends upon the movement and trade of raw materials. Roads, ports, markets, factories and comms all built upon a dependent system of inequality.
Rowland describes how convict leasing replaced a “largely ineffective” statute labor provision. And the roads in southern states got built. From there, Rowland rolls with the examples into modern day, not letting up to allow us an escape route argument of ‘This is now, That was then.’ It all connects. Read it.
Cameron Rowland, “1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011” (2016), Nomex fire suit, distributed by CALPIA, 50 x 13 x 8 inches. Rental at cost “The Department of Corrections shall require of every able-bodied prisoner imprisoned in any state prison as many hours of faithful labor in each day and every day during his or her term of imprisonment as shall be prescribed by the rules and regulations of the Director of Corrections.” – California Penal Code § 2700. CC35933 is the customer number assigned to the nonprofit organization California College of the Arts upon registering with the CALPIA, the market name for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Prison Industry Authority. Inmates working for CALPIA produce orange Nomex fire suits for the state’s 4300 inmate wildland firefighters. (photo by Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York)
Alternatively, and also, read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Case For Reparations. It looks at generations of African Americans robbed of earnings, assets and net-worth, with a focus on agriculture in the south and red-lining of properties in Chicago. Coates’ piece is not a tour de force only because of its impeccable research but because he puts figures on it.
Scholars have long discussed methods by which America might make reparations to those on whose labor and exclusion the country was built. In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued in The Case for Black Reparations that a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income. That number—$34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book—could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two. Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.
To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte. Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap. Reparations would seek to close this chasm. But as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same.
Which brings us to the modern day. And to the darker corners of American commerce.
Let’s be clear, Rowland isn’t arguing about the merits, or lack thereof, of the existing judicial system and the rightness or wrongness of the control of prisoners. No, he’s more interested in the economic uses of the prisoners, of those bodies.
I’ll argue, in Rowland’s absence, that prisons in the U.S. are morally repugnant and a violence on poor Americans to a unconscionable degree. I’ll double back round and point to Rowland’s beautifully constructed text and visual arguments as one piece of evidence for the assertion.
I’m sure Rowland and I would agree that the over-arching forces of commerce (from which all hands are a few steps removed from the control panel and therefore responsibility) are the problem.
This excerpt particularly:
But how do we conceal the theft? The question that has to be posed when people are systematically disappeared is: Where do we hide the bodies? “In prison” is only part of the answer. The deeper, more sinister response is also the most seemingly benign: we abstract them so they become only sources of labor and wealth. We reduce them to lines in an actuarial table, an oblique reference in a statute, a number in a log book. We dissolve people into fungible assets.
A lot of the time quiet gallery spaces don’t do a lot for me. They just seem sad. But when an artist can fill the space with poignancy … and especially when they are dealing with a grave matter that is–like in the case of prison labor–desperately sad, then I think it works.
Cameron Rowland: 91020000 continues at Artists Space (3rd Floor, 38 Greene St, Soho, Manhattan) through March 13. Get there if you can.
Cameron Rowland, “Attica Series Desk” (2016), steel, powder coating, laminated particleboard, distributed by Corcraft, 60 x 71.5 x 28.75 inches. Rental at cost: The Attica Series Desk is manufactured by prisoners in Attica Correctional Facility. Prisoners seized control of the D-Yard in Attica from September 9th to 13th 1971. Following the inmates’ immediate demands for amnesty, the first in their list of practical proposals was to extend the enforcement of “the New York State minimum wage law to prison industries.” Inmates working in New York State prisons are currently paid $0.10 to $1.14 an hour. Inmates in Attica produce furniture for government offices throughout the state. This component of government administration depends on inmate labor. (photo by Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York)
Installation view of ‘Cameron Rowland: 91020000’ at Artists Space, New York (photo by Adam Reich)
Thomas Roma‘s book In The Vale Of Cashmere is probably familiar to you. It has had enjoyed widespread press and positive comments. And rightly so. It’s one of my favourite books of the year. I just did a review of the book and project for Vantage.
Roma’s arresting photos go inside the Vale of Cashmere a renowned casual hook-up spot that has, for decades, hidden in plain sight on the northern side of New York’s prospect Park–an overgrown, knotty pocket of criss-crossing paths that is of Brooklyn’s most active gay cruising spots. The Vale of Cashmere is commonly, but not exclusively, frequented by African American and Caribbean men.
Not only are Roma’s portraits–that take us on long and repeated walks through the foliage and dappled light–wonderful so too is the contributing essay by G. Winston James. Between the two of them we are able to encounter, pass or pause with the men who meet among those trees.
James reminds us that sex is an activity designated for private spaces, namely the domestic space of the home. But for gay men living in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, homosexual sex could not be expressed at home so it became a public act in public space. Crucially though, gay cruising and meeting spots only function as such at designated times.
“The most defining characteristic of queer space is its temporality. Queer space is not a permanent fixture of the urban landscape, but a sudden transformation that briefly renders traditional public spaces as something more dynamic,” Shaw once wrote.
James adds, “It is precisely this process of transformation (witnessed by a relative few), this dynamism, this history, that Thomas Roma has photographed.”
Read the full review: Loving Portraits Of Gay Black Men Cruising In Prospect Park
GIVING POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Sol Aramendi is an absolute force. Community smarts, a big heart and bloody hardwork makes her THE instigator for photography and inquiry among the immigrants living in New York city. Project Luz, an organization she founded, delivers photography workshops. Most are conducted with residents of Queens — the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world.
The workshops function as cultural orientation and serve to empower immigrants who might be hesitant to explore beyond their new neighborhoods. Aramendi helps them out of their shell, onto the subway and into the boroughs. Photography is an excuse to engage with the world.
Aramendi’s moved toward teaching photography workshops after taking inspiring courses herself with Sergio Larrain (2004) and Adriana Lestido in Argentina. Aramendi also campaigns to promote breastfeeding among immigrant women, facilitates community discussion groups about domestic abuse, and provides a space for children with autism to scratch records. She is developing an App for day laborers to report workplace employer abuses.
I am fascinated by Aramendi’s emphasis on the social aesthetic above and beyond any image aesthetic, and so it was great to catch Aramendi between her many commitments and pose a few questions about her background, motivations and relationships.
Scroll down for our Q&A
Project Luz workshops in the field.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): How did you get to be here in New York teaching photography and roaming the streets with cameras?
Sol Aramendi (SA): I moved from my hometown in Argentina to Rosario to Buenos Aires where I studied furniture design, film school. Later I trained and worked as an architect. At that time I was interested in black and white photography and sign dup for workshops taught by Adriana Lestido. There was a shanty town in Buenos Aires and I was interested in the many people who lived off garbage — sourcing, salvaging, reselling, recycling.
Simultaneously, I was taking people around the city to photograph architecture. I had a photo-lab in my house and taught from home. This was 1999. There was a financial crisis. Another one! I’d been working as an architect for 10 years and I felt I wanted something different.
I had a continued relationship with one family who survived from working with garbage. I traveled with them on the train to the dumps. It was called tram blanco – the ghost train — because most people never even saw it or knew it existed. It was invisible. Worse still, the operators charged more money than a regular ticket … just to go to work with garbage.
PP: It sounds like you relocated to New York relatively recently?
SA: Yes, and I knew I wanted to continue the work. It had to be for the local community. I wrote to all the museums — MoMA, Queens Museum, and so on — asking for free tours in Spanish for immigrants.
Queens Museum immediately called me back. They had just received a half-a-million dollar grant for community engagement. The museum was empty. It was a huge building, but immigrants using the park thought it was abandoned.
We did a class. On the final day and closing presentation of my course, there were 100 people. Afterward, the Queens Museum gave me the position of that person I had been asking for! I began guiding tours in Spanish at the weekends.
PP: Since, you’ve also been contracted by MoMA, also.
SA: MoMA has 20 community partners. I am one of them. It’s only 30 hours a year, but you can get a lot done in that time. Our project—inspired by Carrie Mae Weems—is about family.
PP: What do you do in your workshops?
SA: I bring people to the museum. We look at images. We make images. Color, black and white, then film, now digital. I’ve learnt how to engage the community, about how to listen; that is the most important thing. I was teaching them basic things but always relating it to art. Everyone can have an opinion about art.
Various workshops from down the years. Sol has been involved in programs for everything from street photography, to studio portraiture, to lighting, to post production to classes on theory and photo history.
PP: What’s your approach?
SA: We learn through art but mostly we’re getting to know the city. The photography is an excuse!
Immigrants come here and they live in an imaginary space. They want to come here, but they don’t “arrive” here. They are in limbo. Through storytelling, I help them to imagine a more *real* place and being. I want them to feel a belonging to the city and to the spaces.
I had a woman who had lived here for 8 years but she did not know Manhattan. Migrants travel all this way, across borders, and then they are paralyzed in the place that they are. They don’t know more than 10 blocks around. Little by little they discover their own potential. After our MoMA visit, one student asked “Do we have another VIP tour, this week?”
People change themselves. We open a door and from there, they walk themselves. Many of them live subject to stereotypes. Understandably, some of them are embarrassed but they can know their community and space by describing it.
PP: What is the outcome of your workshops?
SA: We make publications in both Spanish and English. One for each workshop series. We’ve made 25 publications.
SA: The format is set, so it is just a case of inputting the photographs and text we create. It’s newsprint. Together, we pick the subject of the publication and always relate it to immigration and place. We made one with union workers, one with day laborers, we encouraged a conversation between those two groups.
We made a newspaper with the New York Public Library. Some publications are in Mandarin. I encourage participants to distribute. We print many and I give participants a lot to share at public events.
Aramendi (center) with children from one of her ‘Through the Lens’ workshops pose for a group photo.
PP: You seem to share everything you make?
SA: I do a lot of portrait projects. If there’s a community event, I set-up an outside studio, make portraits, upload them on Flickr. People can download for free.
Christmas portrait studio (top); “Spooky Halloween” portraits studio (bottom).
SA: Project Luz teaches classes on social media and encourage immigrants to use it to communicate. They make virtual “tour guides” for their families back home. So when we visit a place, we’re thinking how to describe it visually and later publish online.
PP: These are all immediate benefits for participants. What is the secondary audience for their photographs? Here in NYC or further afield?
SA: I made an installation inside an old bank vault which included 300 portraits of migrants at work. It was about money and security and labor. After seeing those pictures people said they realized just how many jobs around them are completed by migrants — bus driver, delivery, everything we eat and drink — from morning to night, it goes through immigrant hands.
Portraits made by Sol and her team during a Migrant Day Open House.
PP: What are the main issues that immigrants face?
SA: Access. I do a lot of work for people to go to a museum, but that work can end at the front desk … because of the way staff look at them. It can be enough to make them stop. After they cross that barrier — it is a lot, but really nothing — they realize they can do a lot of other things.
We talk about society, domestic violence, and I also teach them about the law of what they can photograph. I tell them to photograph at all the train stops. I tell them they can photograph the police. We cannot take pictures in the school. But everything else we can do. We look at the lawsuit between Philip Lorca DiCorcia and the Hasidic Jewish man who objected to his image being made on the street.
I ask students always to discuss and to defend photos or issues. Maybe they can later do the same at their work-place. Maybe they can tell their boss, “No, I only have to work 8 hours, not 12.” I let them know that it is okay to have healthy doubt and to question.
Sol has led workshops for printmaking for women.
PP: What are immigrants’ relationship with law enforcement in Queens like?
SA: This is their city – they’re living, working and contributing so they can use the public transport, public spaces, art spaces. But it’s not always so easy. For example, the park around the Queens Museum is frequently used by migrants for celebrations such as Cinquo de Mayo. Two years ago, the police started doing raids. May 2nd, 3rd, 4th; they started in Queens, so on the 5th people didn’t come out. We all know where the immigrants live.
Immigrants are convenient for the economy but they are also required to keep quiet — to stand in the corner and to look down. No.
PP: How many of your students are legally documented?
SA: I don’t ask. It is not my preoccupation. But I would guess 80%. There’s 12 million undocumented immigrants in America so there are many in New York.
A lot of the students work as photographers at the weekends photographing the community events. There’s many events and parties. One group from Project Luz created another group called Latinos En Foco so they’re getting together and learning more lighting. They’re students teaching new students.
PP: Latino communities have a lot of events. Does photography play a ritual role?
SA: They’re taking photographs all the time. It used to be you only had a photographed mad once a year in the main house, with the man with the donkey. So there is clothing and performance in photography that is very ritualistic. Photography gives the ability to communicate it immediately with the family back in the home country.
PP: Is photography ever a threat for undocumented individuals?
SA: We talk about it the first day. I go with them the first time they go out in Corona. People on the street think you’re from Immigration, but we talk about how ICE works. ICE is not going out on the street to take your photo; they know where you are.
Images from a weekend of Migrant Camera workshops at the 2014 Open Engagement conference at Queens Museum, NY.
PP: Can you measure the benefits of Project Luz’s workshops?
SA: It’s difficult. How many of them are empowered? What is empowerment? For sure, they know more about photography. Can talk about themselves and express their opinion? This, for me, it is the most important thing. I can agree or not, but at least they are expressing themselves.
PP: I’m presuming Project Luz serves people from all Central and South American countries as they are all present in Queens?
SA: In Queens, it is mostly Mexican and Columbian. Some Ecuadorian and other nationalities less.
PP: How did this all begin?
SA: I started the social practice program that Tom Finkelpearl (former Queens Museum director) did with Greg Sholette. I know I wanted to do something that gave frame to Project Luz. I am one of five social practice artists in residence and I teach on Saturdays. I have a partnership projects with United Photo Industries in Brooklyn, and with Prerana Reddy at the Queens Museum.
Photographs from Sol Aramendi’s portrait project promoting positive images of immigrant women breastfeeding.
PP: What did you think of the Open Engagement (2014) conference. What do you think of the art and social practice ecosystem?
SA: I worry about diversity, that Social Practice is too white.
Community arts have been going on since the sixties and now we’ve white students coming to the communities with credentials and think they know [how to construct a project]. There has been this debate. But not everything is like that. I understand that everyone was talking about diversity. It is a preoccupation. I would like it to be more diverse.
I worry because some artists go to immigrant communities and they use them. Tokenism. It can seem like it collaboration but it is not. There were several projects that came to Queens that proposed to make portraits of immigrants, and of “the American Dream.” Several … so that makes me nervous.
Images from Project Luz’s “Seeing With Light” workshop at El Barrio, NY.
PP: Is a long term project necessarily a better project?
SA: In my experience, things take a long time. You make mistakes and it takes a long time to get to know a community. Are we listening? This is the question I ask of myself all the time. Are they doing what I want or are they doing freely what they want? For me, long duration is good. Create leadership and then let the community go; let it build its owns groups and make their own mistakes.
It’s tricky to judge using time as criteria; results depend on the project, the teacher, the conversations, the student. Two months could be good. Two years is very good.
I worked for just two weeks in Turkey on a project and it worked. I didn’t speak the language but I could communicate.
In 2012, a workshop led by Sol visited the Cindy Sherman show at MoMA and later made images of their own based upon ideas of identity, costume and image circulation.
PP: You’re working on a new App. It sounds like true political and activist art.
SA: From a day of discussions with day laborers and NY NICE, one student suggested making an App to report issues in the building trade. NICE was also working on a App for wage theft. My role is pedagogical. I create the questions.
PP: So that employers can’t take advantage of non-documented workers?
SA: Yes. The App includes messaging, a fact-checked and filtered ‘Hall of Shame’ of bad contractors. We presented it to 11 organizations with day laborers to secure feedback as we developed it.
This App is to inform laborers and to ostracize disreputable employers. The fines are low for wage theft, so it happens often. Instead of paying $7/hour, some contractors pay $4. A laborer says they’ll complain, the employer threatens to report them. There’s also a lot of agencies that don’t pay immigrants. A business that has an immigrant worker already saves hugely on their [taxes, insurance] costs.
We have funding and it is in the development stages.
© Sol Aramendi. Meyolotzin Mexica, 2011.
© Sol Aramendi. Welcome to my hood, 2011.
© Sol Aramendi. Dancing with myself, 2011.
In her own work Sol constructs elaborate sets to write one page visual allegories.
PP: Which photographers are relevant? Which do you show your students?
SA: Latin American photographers. Sometimes we are embarrassed of our heritage, so I introduce photographers to make them proud. Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Gabriele Stabile, Miguel Rio Branco from Brazil, Adriana Lestido, from Mexico, came and gave a lecture in Spanish.
Students also have to find photographers. I ask them to research five names and bring them in. We look at contemporary photographers such as Hank Willis Thomas. We’re going to look at Carrie Mae Weems and talk about Latin American culture around the kitchen table as Weems did with her series Kitchen Table.
PP: Paula Luttringer?
SA: I admired Slaughterhouse greatly.
PP: The first project of Luttringer’s I discovered was Wailing of the Walls.
SA: Allesandro Sanguenetti. I always share her work with students. And Esteban Pastorino Diaz who made the longest exposure. Literally! The longest physical negative. Over 30 meters. He makes landscapes look like models. He’s fascinating.
Alejandro Chaskielberg from Argentina, too.
The first exhibition I worked on was ABC DF — a huge exhibition of Mexican photographers.
Daniela Rossell did Ricas y Famosas / Rich and Famous (1994-2002) which I thought was showy and tacky.
SA: I was a student of Lestido. She goes into projects 100% and with her heart. I learnt a lot from her about teaching. As a photographer, I admire Francesca Woodman’s life and work.
PP: And which organisations you admire? That may or may not include those working in photography or the arts.
SA: Organizations that DO something! For example El Puente in south Williamsburg, Immigrants Movement International (IMI) and Tania Bruguera’s projects. I like projects that don’t necessary rely on a strict idea and allow flexibility. It is a mistake to intervene in a community with your own “final” idea. Process is vital — it is important to be able to change through dialogue and engagement. The result almost doesn’t matter; the process is where connections are made.
I look to political groups such as Tucumán Arde, which was a group of previously mainstream artists in the north of Argentina who jointly denounced the Argentine’s military action. Never again has something so radical happened in Argentina.
You have to CHANGE something. You have to DO something that is useful. Life is short so better use time working on something that’s of use.
PP: Is photo central?
SA: It has been, but I am not sure it always will be.
PP: Wendy Ewald says it does none any favors if you give someone the ability to make a bad photograph. You can’t just dump cameras in the hands of people. You empower people by teaching them about photography and enabling them to make a good photograph.
SA: The goal of my work is not to make a good photo. If they can realize a good photo that is good, but the goal is for them to have access, social mobility and they can make their own decisions and they can take leadership.
PP: Long may you continue. Thanks Sol
SA: Thank you , Pete.
Last month, I popped round to Stockholm Studios in NYC and was wrapped in blankets, ginger tea and the ends of a busy shoe rack. And so it was Episode 2.13 of the LPV Show was born.
Tom Starkweather manned the mixing desk while Bryan “Photos On The Brain” Formhals probed with the important matters of the day. I can’t really remember what we talked about in the first half of the show — certainly Prison Obscura, and I recall revealing my fear of Big Brother. We also had a good laugh about all those headlines in photography writing that describe very literally the content of the photographs and immediate crush the mystery and wonder of it all. After demolishing those low-hanging topic-fruits, we moved onto more serious stuff and tried to position Peter Van Agtmael’s Disco Night Sept 11. We concluded it was one of the best — if not the best — photobooks about modern war to have emerged in the 21st century.
LPV just busted out four posts that relate: the show itself, a selection of images from Prison Osbcura, a selection of spreads from Disco Night Sept 11, some photographs of my mug and the recording in session, and (bizarrely, but lovingly) an LPV curation of my Instagram images.
It’s a right laugh getting together in ACTUALLY IN PERSON and having a conversation. You should try it!
It’s also nice to know that there is a small amount of accountability attached to your answers as it will be published and exist, for all of time, in Big-Brother-Big-Data-Centers in the deserts of the Southwest.
Every Friday Evening, in New York City, Women and Children Board Buses Headed for Upstate Prisons
Photographer Jacobia Dahm Rode Too and Documented, Through the Night, the Distances Families Will Go to See Their Incarcerated Loved Ones
There are various ways to depict the family ties that are put under intense strain when a loved one is imprisoned. Photographers have focused on sibling love; artists have focused on family portraits, and documentarians have tracked the impact of mass incarceration across multiple generations. Often, the daily trials of family with loved ones inside are invisible, unphotographable, psychological and persistent—they are open ended and not really very easy to visualise.
One of the many strengths of Jacobia Dahm’s project In Transit: The Prison Buses is that it very literally describes a time (every weekend), a duration (8 or 10 hour bus ride), a beginning and an end, and a purpose (to get inside a prison visiting room). In Transit: The Prison Buses is a literal example of a photographer taking us there. Dahm took six weekend trips between February and May 2014.
Dahm’s method is so simple it is surprising no other documentary photographer (I can think of) has told the same story this way. Dahm told me recently, that since the New York Times featured In Transit: The Prison Buses in November 2014, the interest and gratitude has been non-stop. I echo those sentiments of appreciation. Dahm describes a poignant set of circumstances with utmost respect. It is not easy to travel great distances at relatively large cost repeatedly, but families do. As a result, they take care of the emotional health of their loved ones — who, don’t forget are our prisoners — and society is a safer place because of it.
“Honestly, I don’t know why they place them so far away,” says one of Dahm’s subjects in an accompanying short film.
The women on these buses—and they are mostly women—are heroes.
I wanted to ask Jacobia how she went about finding the story and photographing the project.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Where did the idea come from?
Jacobia Dahm (JD): In the fall of 2013, I began studying Documentary Photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. When the time came to choose a long-term project, I realized I had been captivated for a long time by the criminal justice system here in the U.S., where I had lived for the past decade. Frequently the severity of the sentences did not seem to make any sense, and the verdicts seemed to lack compassion and an understanding of the structural disadvantages that poor people — who make up the majority of prisoners— face. In short, sentencing did not seem to take human nature into account.
My sense of justice was disturbed by all of this. I was shaken when Trayvon Martin was killed and his killer walked free. Or when shortly after, Marissa Alexander, a woman who had just given birth, was given a 20-year sentence for sending a warning shot into the roof of the garage when cornered by her former abusive partner. Her sentence has since been reduced dramatically. But it’s complex: Where does a society’s urge to punish rather than help and rehabilitate come from? In both cases there was a loud public outcry. What’s remarkable is that there are frequent public outcries against the US justice system, because the system simply does not feel just. So I decided to do some work in this area.
JD: But how do you even begin to photograph injustice?
My original plan was to take on one of the most worrisome aspects of US criminal justice: I wanted to photograph the families of people who were incarcerated for life without parole for non-violent offenses. But New York State does not incarcerate in that category and, as I had classes to attend, travel to further locations would have meant trickier access and less time with the subjects.
In conversation with one of my teachers Andrew Lichtenstein, who had done a good amount of work on prisons, he mentioned the weekend buses that take visitors to the prisons upstate. And once I had that image in my head — of a child on these buses that ride all night to the farthest points of New York State to see their incarcerated parent — I wanted to go and find that image.
PP: How much preparation did you need to do? Or did you just turn up to the terminus?
JD: I researched the bus companies beforehand, some of them are not easy to find or call. And I had to find out which company went where. I also looked into the surroundings of each prison beforehand. I knew I would not be able to go into prison and knew most of them are in the middle of nowhere, so I had to make sure — especially since it was in the midst of freezing winter — that I would be within walking distance of some sort of town that had a cafe.
The first time I went upstate, it was on a private minivan. I had just finished reading Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s amazing non-fiction book, Random Family that narrated life over a decade in the 1980s and 90s in the South Bronx. The characters in the book travel with a company called “Prison Gap” which is one of the oldest companies running visitor transportation in New York City, and so I felt they were the real deal and decided to use them on my first trip upstate.
It was a freezing February night in 2014 and we gathered in a Citibank branch south of Columbus Circle for two hours before the minivans appeared. Many people came in to use the ATMs and some looked at us wonderingly, but no-one would have known that these people were about to visit prisons. What they would have seen is a mostly African-American crowd, mostly women, waiting for something.
PP: I see Attica in your photos, did you just photo one route or many?
JD: The bus I ended up focusing on — because riding on the same bus would allow me to get to know passengers better — went to six different prisons in the Northwest of New York State: Groveland, Livingston, Attica, Wyoming, Albion and Orleans. Most buses and mini vans ride to a number of prisons, that way they always have a full bus because they serve a wider demographic.
I wanted to be on a bus that went to Albion, the largest women’s prison in NY State, because my assumption was, that female prisoners get more visits from their children, simply because the bond is almost always the most crucial one. But I was wrong, because as it turns out, women have fewer visitors, and for a number of reasons: Women tend to act as the social glue and make sure visits happen. And so when they’re the ones who are incarcerated, not everyone around them takes over or can take over the same way. Some dads are absent and if the children are raised by the grandmother, that trip will be very difficult to make for an elderly person.
PP: What were the reactions of the families to your presence, and to your camera?
JD: The time I traveled upstate I was squeezed into the back of a white mini van, the only white person traveling up and the only one with a camera strapped around her neck. We drove all night and barely talked. It felt otherworldly thinking we are now driving to the Canadian border, but I forced myself to take at least a few pictures through the frozen window and of hands etc. Later the next morning we were moved to a larger bus and that bus was the one I rode on for the next five rides between February and May.
JD: The first one or two times I took the trip, I did not take many pictures on the bus and I photographed the towns instead. I could quickly tell there was a sense of shame involved in having family in prison, and people where uncomfortable being photographed, which I understand. People had to get used to me first an understand what I was doing. So I did what you do when you are in that situation: I introduced myself to people, I took some pictures and brought them a print next time.
Once they had seen me on the bus more than once they were starting to be intrigued. I also told them that I too was a parent and could not imagine having to bring my children on such a long and difficult journey, and that I was sorry this was the case for them. I think it was rare for many of these women to encounter any kind of compassion from others, and it might have helped them to open up to me.
PP: You describe the journeys as emotional, tiresome, grueling.
JD: You’re on the bus all night without getting much sleep. The expectations of the visits can be tense, because the mood of your entire relationship for the next week is depending on a few hours. But the journey has also been expensive and most likely exhausted all your funds for the week. During the visit you will be watched closely by the correctional officers, some of them might be rude to you. And if you bring your kids that aspect might be particularly difficult because you’re in no position to stand your ground.
You worry and hope your kids sleep well because you want them to be in good shape for the visit. I knew a grandmother who slept on the floor so her grandson could get the sleep he needed.
JD: Another one of the moms I knew was not allowed to bring her three kids to Attica because Attica only allows for three people to visit. The child that was left at home with a babysitter or family member was upset and that puts stress on the entire family.
PP: Why are New York State’s prison so far upstate?
JD: New York has around 70 state prisons, and many of them are in rural, post-industrial or post-agricultural areas. You could not get to some of these towns with public transport if you wanted to. The prisons have been economic favors to depressed rural areas that have little else to offer in terms of jobs, but not factored in is how these favors tear families apart and further widen the distance between children and their incarcerated parents.
PP: Do other states have similar geographic distances between communities and prisons?
JD: I am only beginning to understand what the system looks like in other states, but I believe people have to travel far in most states, as there seems to be no policy on the part of Departments of Corrections to place prisoners in proximity to their families.
In California for example, most prisoners at the Pelican Bay State Prison come from Los Angeles, and that prison is a 12-hour ride away. In Washington D.C. it seems a large part of the prisoners are placed federally, rather than within state, so the distances can be even larger. And with distance come increased travel costs that poorer families have a very hard time covering with regularity.
JD: Considering that family ties are crucial in maintaining mental health and key in helping the prisoners regain their footing when they are out, it is a cruel oversight not to place people closer to those that are part of the rehabilitation process. Statistics tell us that the majority or prisoners have minor children.
PP: What can photography achieve in the face of such a massive prison system?
JD: I think at the very least pictures of an experience we know nothing about can create awareness, and at best it can move people to develop a compassion that can move them to act. I think a photograph can give you a sense of how something feels. Seeing is a sense of knowing, and it’s easy not to care if you don’t know.
In the face of the U.S. incarceration system — a system that seems to be concealed from most people’s sight but at the same time permeates so many aspects of the American life and landscape—it feels particularly important to me that photography plays the role of a witness.
PP: How do you want your images to be understood?
JD: I think my images highlight a difficult journey that many people know nothing about.
The focus of the journey, and of my photographs, is on the people that connect the inside of a prison to the outside world: the families.
It might be that by seeing how an entire family’s life is altered people seeing those images and beginning to understand something about how incarceration affects not just the person on the inside, they are maybe capable of a compassion they don’t usually afford for prisoners themselves.
PP: How do you want your images to be used?
JD: It’s hard to say because I believe an artist’s intention has limits when it comes to how the work is used.
I want people to put themselves in the families’ shoes. I want these images to help people begin to imagine what the secondary effects of incarceration are and how they could be softened. 10 million children in the US have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives, and that is not a good start in life for a very large number of the most vulnerable population.
Jacobia Dahm (born Frankfurt, Germany) is a documentary storyteller and portrait photographer based in New York and Berlin. She graduated from the International Center of Photography in 2014, where she was a Lisette Model Scholar and received the Rita K. Hillman Award for Excellence. Dahm’s photography and video has been recognized with awards from Rangefinder and the International Photography Awards. Her work has been published by Makeshift Magazine, The New York Times, Shift Book, AIAP and Prison Photography. Her key interest is documenting issues of social justice.