You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘New York’ tag.

KNIVES, BY JASON KOXVOLD

In 2004, the Schrade Knife factory in Ellenville, NY closed its doors for the last time. Operations were moved to China and, almost overnight, 500 locals lost their jobs. Suppliers and services in the area lost business too and the towns of Ellenville, Napanoch and Wawarsing where photographer Jason Koxvold lives have had to adapt to avoid massive economic injury. In 2015, Koxvold began documenting his hometown and its residents. Since the closures of factories in this pocket of the Hudson Valley, Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch is the biggest employer in the town.

The project Knives, says Koxvold, “serves as a microcosm of the larger issues facing the United States, grappling with the effects of automation and outsourcing, cuts in services, and the rise of identity politics.”

It includes portraits of prisoners, employees and former prison officers. The motif of the knife functions as a literal description of a disappeared economy and identity marker for the people of Wawarsing, but it also acts as a metaphor to the silent violence of both globalisation and incarceration. Whereas a gun mows people down in a hail of bullets, a knife cuts through and guts with a quiet, single swift action. The damage can be deep, precise. An unspectacular assault that is so often lethal.

I admire the way Koxvold has gone about peeling back the layers of his home-region. He managed to gain access into the local prison photographing prisoners. Without trying, he found many locals who had worked in the prison. He often picked up visual threads that ended up looping back to the fact of incarceration.

Koxvold is currently crowdfunding monies for the photobook Knives. We chatted about how the prison industrial complex manifests itself in his work, how it functions in the community and how exactly he got inside.

 

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Do prisons work?

Jason Koxvold (JK): As a Norwegian citizen, my answer would be yes. As a permanent resident of the United States, my answer is not as well as they should.

With that said, during the making of this project I’ve become aware of the work of the Bard Prison Initiative, and programs like that are to be applauded; but in general in this country, it’s my understanding that prisons are seen as a punishment more than an opportunity to rehabilitate. That approach is unsustainable.

 

 

PP: You’re crowdfunding to raise money for Knives book. There’s no mention of the prison in the Kickstarter video but you’ve explained to me that the prison is “woven more deeply through the work than uncaptioned photographs might suggest.” Can you flesh that out a bit?

JK: Because the prison has been a feature of the town for so long, and there weren’t many other opportunities for employment in the region, it turned out that some of the men I photographed for this project had worked as prison guards for large portions of their lives.

Specifically, one of the characters had worked in a prison for 25 years, and possessed a wealth of knowledge about the place. His is the knife with “JUSTICE” engraved into the blade, which seems perverse in some regard; he’s written comments on internet forums defending the use of the phrase “Nigger Chaser” in the name of a knife. So this history of the application of violence is etched deeply into the soul of the town, even as it now finds itself emasculated and adrift.

 

 

PP: At what point did Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch become a subject in Knives?

JK: Fairly early on in my research it became clear that it would be impossible to ignore it.

PP: Why is the prison was important?

JK: The prison looms over the town in some way; it’s an imposing, gothic style building that can be clearly seen from all approaches, despite being a secretive location. At first – not knowing much about the penal system here – I was under the impression that the prison housed inmates from the region, and assumed that would include some former Schrade employees, but primarily they are from New York City. That also changes the makeup of the town to some degree, as spouses and families move to the area to make visitation less onerous.

 

 

 

PP: What did you do to depict the prison?

JK: I made portraits of three men inside the prison, and some exteriors of how the prison relates to the landscape and the town around it.

PP: What did you do to connect (or not) with those incarcerated and working there?

JK: My initial outreach was to the NYS Department of Corrections public affairs office, to explain my project and what I hoped to achieve. I wrote letters to a group of inmates, outlining my idea and asking if they would like to participate.

 

 

PP: You say Knives raises more questions than answers. I like it when you say you’re interested in ambition, failure, hubris. But still, it seems like the failure for us to imagine a different but improving future leads people to think that jobs might come back, and I think that accounts for Trump’s appeal in the Rust Belt. Whether he could spark an impossible resurgence or not, matters less than the fact he promises he will. As best as you can estimate, what is the future for Wawarsing?

JK: The town is working to turn things around; tourism, which was a huge business in the Catskill region in the middle of the 20th century, is what people are pinning their hopes on, and the area has seen considerable growth in that regard in recent years. There’s a great theatre, Shadowland Stages, that produces several plays a year. For some time there was talk of a new casino, but ultimately another town won the bid. In place of that, there’s now a multimillion dollar sports complex in the works.

 

 

PP: What difficulties or successes did you encounter while pursuing a narrative about Eastern Correctional Facility?

JK: My original intent included making portraits of prison guards and interiors of the prison, specifically with the intent of drawing contextual lines between this secure, sanitized inner environment and the world outside, but I was limited to the visiting area and employees were off-limits.

Even determining who was currently incarcerated at Eastern was challenging; I had to file a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request, which operates under an archaic system. After some correspondence, I scheduled visits to make portraits of three inmates, not knowing what they would look like or what to expect; they were very patient and generous with their time.

 

 

JK: Interestingly, photographing the exterior of the prison was more challenging than getting inside. I tend to be quite specific about weather for my exteriors, but DOCS doesn’t necessarily have the infrastructure for rapid approvals of media visits, and certain areas that I strongly wanted to photograph were absolutely off limits.

PP: What are local attitudes toward the prison?

JK: My sense is that there’s a grudging acceptance of it. People probably wish it was elsewhere, but at the same time it provides jobs for the town.

 

 

PP: You grew up in Britain. Do you see the U.S. in a particularly different way?

JK: I grew up around Windsor and Egham, but I’ve spent the whole of my adult life in the United States. I formally arrived a few months before 9/11, and unfortunately, I think that terrible event achieved its goal. 15 years of war – which is the subject of my other major project, currently in progress – has changed the country radically for the worse, in my opinion.

PP: What next for the work?

JK: My intent is to have the book ready to go to press quite rapidly after the Kickstarter is complete; it will include some new images that haven’t been shared before; and some of the work will be shown at the Davis Orton Gallery in June and July.

PP: Good luck, Jason. Thanks for chatting.

JK: Thank you.

 

BIO

Jason Koxvold (b. 1977) is a fine art photographer based between Brooklyn and Upstate New York. Follow his activities through his website, Instagram, Twitter and Vimeo.

Support the Kickstarter for the Knives photobook.

 

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.

From the open call, Davis Orton will select two portfolios to be included in the show. They’ll go alongside works by Joe Librandi-Cowan and Isadora Kosofsky, who anchor the exhibition.

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.

SUBMISSION DETAILS HERE.

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.

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

JOE LIBRANDI-COWAN

Follow Librandi-Cowan‘s work on Instagram, VSCOFacebook, Vimeo, Tumblr and Twitter.

Rikers

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.

Estefanía Acosta de la Peña, Laura Sánchez, and Misha Volf, graduate students at The New School, and creators of #SeeRikerswrite:

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.

seerikers

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.

3. DIY. Use the #SeeRikers Print Files and print on clear sticker paper.

Follow #SeeRikers on Twitter.

 

New-York-State-Unified-Court-System-696x1024

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).

rowland

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.

1st-Defense-NFPA-1977-2011-683x1024

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.

Now read Seph Rodney‘s review The Products of Forced Labor in U.S. Prisons on Hyperallergic.

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.

Attica-Series-Desk_alternate-view_1-768x511

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)

rowland

91020000_install_1-768x506

Installation view of ‘Cameron Rowland: 91020000’ at Artists Space, New York (photo by Adam Reich)

93 copy

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.

74 copy

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.

I write:

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

29 copy

57 copy

54 copy

62 copy

132 copy

135 copy

63 copy

14226191231_7e01d7fc5d_o

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

4208701751_88f3d614d1_o

4033949008_f816372c6a_o

4033953256_1923638137_o

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.

4033953536_fd3fcf1920_o

4208701895_8609f311cc_o

4729589195_d63e419d5d_o

4033194733_b367282f5a_o

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.

PP: Wow!

aa

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.

a castlewood-photo-club2

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.

15468719363_1d4d3b59ed_k

5145688881_1c2daa0558_o

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.

6534019957_16779648f8_o

6534170339_4de9b3f5df_o

6534252515_a79198b752_o

6534129461_8a9570d2de_o

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.

8486044344_01f477c323_o

8484950775_2215d4940b_o

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.

14042840789_4a5941179b_o 14206323396_6bebcf582c_o

14042793319_29fdaca1f8_k14226191411_92d81c420e_o

14229265884_e20d023ec2_o

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.

10335893634_312cfed818_o

10335915886_8e9dfb4f98_o

10335916936_d822c06188_o

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.

5261648399_3a971df860_o

5123809201_e01d5a7ff8_o

5262108868_9ded1e0b43_o

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.

7408405256_ac2d7587e9_o

7408405550_4f9bbe7f57_o

7408406760_e6a5e207a2_o

7408409852_4813b5d81d_o

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.

LABOUR ORGANISING

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.

13_meyolotzi-mexica-low-res-by-sol-aramendi

© Sol Aramendi. Meyolotzin Mexica, 2011.

13_welcome-to-my-hood-10x6-100pxby-sol-aramendi

© Sol Aramendi. Welcome to my hood, 2011.
13_dancing-with-myself-lr-by-sol-aramendi_v3
© Sol Aramendi. Dancing with myself, 2011.
In her own work Sol constructs elaborate sets to write one page visual allegories.

INFLUENCES

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.

Follow Project Luz, Sol’s main work, on the web, on Facebook and on Flickr.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

tumblr_nl4l9pvm8r1sxw2pto7_1280

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.

My thanks to Bryan and Tom for inviting me round.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

tumblr_nl4l9pvm8r1sxw2pto1_1280

5

4

tumblr_nl4l9pvm8r1sxw2pto10_1280

3

 

 

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

Prison Photography Archives

Post Categories