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Still from video of a TDCJ officer firing a tear gas canister at a group of prisoners from just several metres. Source: ABC
If you’re in any doubt about either the power of images or the vindictiveness of prison authorities then consider this story.
Elderick Brass, a former Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) officer leaked a video in May 2015 that showed a Lychner State Jail guard firing a tear gas canister into the chest of a prisoner. The video appeared in an ABC report in August 2015.
Indicted by a grand jury in December, Brass is due to appear in court February for “misuse of official information.” The law states he could face between 2 and 10 years if found guilty.
WHY THE PUBLIC EXPOSURE?
TDCJ has already admitted the improper use of the tear gas gun, but it has not sanctioned the trigger happy guard, let alone terminate his employment. Not wanting to cause itself problems, I presume, the TDCJ is hoping the matter will be forgotten and the retraining of staff it says it has done since will prevent a repeat event. Usually, the authorities want stuff like this to go away as quietly and as quickly as possible; for it to get out and off the news. One wonders then what the prosecution of Brass does? It certainly brings the video back to public attention.
Assuming that the TDCJ are willing to tolerate the scrutiny afresh, one must conclude that they really want a prosecution for the purposes of intimidating whistle-blowers and putting staff back under the order of command. They’re bringing the boot down especially to quash internal leaks of misconduct and injustice. They’re accommodating the continued circulation of this video in order to preclude the future circulation of others.
Worth noting is that the video on ABC includes only the incident and the moments leading immediately up to it. There is a longer video depicting the before and after and giving more context to the altercation between prisoners that gave rise to this nervy cop’s point-blank violence. Get the full context of the video and the TDCJ response in the ABC August 2015 report.
NEW VISUAL PARADIGM
Between whistle-blowers, FOIA requests, court materials, leaked CCTV and contraband cellphone vids there is a wealth of visual material emerging from the Prison Industrial Complex that describes the system very differently to the descriptions of professional photographers.
Whether the video and images are amateur, operational or prisoner-made they tend to share a grain and a noise. Characterised by awkward angles, low resolution, ambient cacophony and muted tones, prisoners’ illegal vids resemble surveillance footage. Prisons and jails give rise to horrific conditions and in some ways all the images and videos in what I’m referring to as a new visual paradigm are horrifying too. Often, if a video comes to our attention it is due to the violence or injustice it includes.
Even within images and videos in which abuse is not explicit, our eyes are being trained on the aesthetics and, crucially, the psychological and existential threat of incarceration. I’m thinking this through as I write.
I’ve not put into words fully, yet, what the emergence of this distinctly new type of visual evidence means. I expect it’ll function in the courts and for journalism as it always has; to construct, confirm and dispute narrative. And so, I guess, I am more interested in what it means for us as citizens.
Are we aware that more and more of the visual representations of US prisons and jails are shifting toward raw, unpolished feeds captured by wall-mounted cameras, body cams and illicit phone-cameras?
As we are exposed to this new type of imagery do we process it with the narrative its given to us through news and Internet alongside ads and comment boards? Do we take empathetic leaps to imagine all experiences within the scenes of abuse played out on our screens? Do we appreciate that events in one prison, at any moment, may be repeating in hundreds of the other 6,000+ locked facilities in the U.S.?
Visuals are one of the key ways outside-citizens learn about prisons. They are a key tool with which authorities–and increasingly prisoners–tweak their narratives for public consumption. Being a engaged citizen means to approach this new paradigm armed with information, skepticism and visual literacy.
Google search for “Minnesota prison”
If the image above is useless, get used to it. The Minnesota Department of Corrections has banned news cameras.
Under a sub-head of ‘Special Access’, the policy, which was introduced in February, reads:
A visit facilitated by the communications unit and lasting one hour in length. The representative of the public news media may bring a recording device (if approved), paper, and a writing utensil. Video and photography cameras are not allowed.
Interviews with prisoners should not be considered special access; they should be considered key to maintaining open access to information and to accountability. Society uses prison to deny prisoners their liberty, not their voice.
Incredibly, this ban is not a response to any embarrassing or damaging event or story. It is, by the DOC’s reasoning, a shift of policy in line with other rules about contraband!
Because cellphones (with cameras) are contraband in prisons, the twisted logic of the prison administration goes that news cameras are also contraband! What?
This is reckless bureaucracy in full swing. The public will lose out by not having a free and unencumbered press on which to rely for impartial information. The biggest losers will be the prisoners who are silenced. In a reasoned OpEd for the Star Tribune, journalist James Eli Schiffer writes:
“My concern about the camera ban goes beyond the implications for my own industry. It means that the nearly 10,000 inmates of Minnesota prisons will recede even further from public view, their faces all but invisible.”
Schiffer points out that a long term project Young & Armed that he and colleagues made in 2012 about youth gun violence, which included dozens of interviews from inside prisons, just would not be possible today.
The Minnesota Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is outraged.
“The Minnesota DOC is now equating both still and video news cameras with contraband items such as pornography and lighters, which is patently absurd,” says the SPJ Minnesota Pro Chapter. “Other DOC concerns could be dealt with through policies other than a full ban on cameras. We urge the Minnesota DOC to immediately reverse its camera ban.”
Unfortunately, Minnesota Gov. Dayton sees no political advantage in calling out this nonsense policy and has backed his DOC Secretary’s decision. Ugh.
Thanks to Aaron Lavinsky for the tip.
Today, the Philly Mag published a leaked document about the devastating decline in newspapers. It was created by Interstate General Media, owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It showed massive slumps nationwide but particular downturns in the fortunes of Philadelphia’s newspapers.
The slump has been rumbling on for over a decade now but the details in the leaked document make Will Steacy‘s project Deadline even more timely. Steacy is currently raising money to make a photobook and here’s why I think it deserves your support.
DEADLINE, by WILL STEACY
I was once Skyping with an artist on a residency in Europe. During the call, in the background, Will Steacy‘s head popped round the open door. Given the time difference, it was early morning for my friend, and for Steacy.
Pre-coffee, Steacy took the time to say hello. I noticed under Steacy’s arm a stack of the newspapers. Printed news from print newsrooms across the globe. Steacy told me it was his daily ritual to read, for hours, the news stories printed on actual paper. It shouldn’t have seemed so surprising, but in this era of digital information Steacy’s insistence on printed news was, in my mind, unusual. And comforting.
It makes sense that Steacy would not only notice — but also feel attachment — to the dying news daily in his once-hometown of Philadelphia. His photographs document an atrophying Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom. The number of staffers decrease, the presses go silent, the buzz of a breaking news scoop vibrates a little less.
I tweeted last week that Steacy was “photographer, labor guy and workaholic” and deserving of your support. He’s worked on the series for 5 years. His father was an editor with the Philadelphia Inquirer for over 20 years before he was laid off in a round of cutbacks in 2011, and his family has been in the news industry for generations. Steacy talks of the newspaper as a form and as a bastion of an institution holding politicians, corporations and the like accountable to society as a whole. Steacy also believes the decline of the newsroom is a labour issue and more than just profits should dictate the operations of free press outlets.
Under corporate ownership every Inquirer asset is on the table in the strategy to stay alive. Ask any local, and they’ll tell you the Philadelphia Inquirer ain’t what it used to be. The focus on local coverage to secure it’s regional readership hails a goodbye to the days when the Inquirer racked up Pulitzers for fun.
The Philadelphia Inquirer still lives but it’s downsized from 700 to 200 staff, sold and moved out of its iconic headquarters, The Inquirer Building. This move, as documented by Steacy, is arguably one of the best visuals we have to grasp the size of the changes occuring now in news publishing.
While Deadline is specific to the Inquirer, the story is all too common. Large papers such as the Rocky Mountain News have shuttered completely in recent years. This devastating shift in news publishing was reflected in Philly Inquirer’s Hard Years Are Microcosm of Newspapers’ Long Goodbye, an article by my Raw File WIRED colleague Jakob Schiller, last year.
Deadline combines great images, great research, local and national narratives and a personal connection. The Kickstarter rewards are imaginative too: newsroom pencils and pin badges, and a limited edition artwork printed on the same presses that rolled out the Inquirer for decades.
Kickstarter reward at the $25-level. Poster: “A MIRROR OF GREATNESS, BLURRED” (Edition of 50, hand numbered, signed by artist, 20″ x 24″)
The grind and hustle of daily news photojournalism is no joke. Some people can be a bit sniffy about news photographers. Screw them.
As much as possible I try to ignore the haters and the artificial boundaries they construct in the photoworld. True, my interests primarily lie in documentary, participatory, vernacular and some fine art photography, but in every interaction with photographers I want to explore and understand the contexts in which they make work. Therefore, it was a pleasure – for the latest Eye On PDX feature – to chat with Thomas Boyd.
The lifestyle and work-style of news photographers has always intrigued me. Unfortunately, often my discussions of news photography begins with iconic or controversial images, images’ subtexts and imagery’s distribution in our larger ad-fed visual culture; rarely do I get to ask nuts-and-bolts questions to the individuals who create the widely-circulated images we see daily.
An avowed Oregonian, Boyd is a news shooter through-and-through. He is a staffer with The Oregonian, the state’s biggest paper and as such has important insights into journalism (past, present and future). Here, Boyd talks frankly about his experience with the paper; what makes a good image; the peers he admires; and the rise of the amateur.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
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Prison Photography (PP): How long have you been in Portland? How long have you been with the Oregonian? What’s the deal with this town?
Thomas Boyd (TB): I came up from Eugene five years ago, but before that I lived in the Portland area for about 10-years. I grew up in North Bend on the Oregon Coast and Portland has always been a special place for me. I find it endlessly fascinating.
PP: Day to day, what do you shoot?
TB: I shoot assignments! I shoot between one and three assignments a day and I never know what they’re going to be until the night before or even an hour before. Yesterday, I shot a basketball game in Eugene, today, I shot a portrait of a documentary filmmaker and an overweight police horse. Tomorrow, I’ll shoot a cat show. That’s a typical random week. I also shoot a lot of Duck football, Portland Timbers and track and field.
PP: I understand the photo staff has shrunk at The Oregonian in recent years? Tell us about the changes at the the newspaper.
TB: Like all newspapers, the business is eroding. With that came layoffs three years ago and buyouts before that. We now have three less photo editors and the staff is down to 10 with two part timers from 19 full timers five years ago. They hire very few freelancers. However, in a recent meeting the we heard the paper met it’s financial goals for 2012 and merit pay raises may be possible. The paper is making money.
But, even with these changes, the way I work really hasn’t changed. I pitch story ideas and I shoot assignments.
I actually see more change with the organizations I cover. I’m seeing them keeping us out of situations so they can document it themselves and drive traffic to their own websites. I’m seeing this with all types of organizations from non-profits to professional/college sports teams. We are essentially competing with the organizations we cover.
Reporters are also being asked to do more with photos, video and social media. I’ve found myself competing with them on stories as well. It’s really awkward for the people we cover. They don’t readily understand what our roles are.
The amount of bloggers covering events is big change too. If you look at the amount of journalists just covering the Timbers, you’ll see that newspapers and television stations are drastically outnumbered. It’s really strange to me. As far as I can tell, none of them are making any real money. If there are two dozen photographers on the field, maybe only four of us are actually getting paid. They do it because they are fans and have day jobs. It’s a head-scratcher for me.
PP: Do you make images outside of work?
TB: I shoot outside of work quite a bit. I take as much commercial and editorial freelance as I can, shoot a few weddings here and there, and pick away at my personal projects.
PP: Do you have time to follow the news, blogs, discussions online, or are you too busy being a producer and filing stories?
TB: I wouldn’t say I’m too busy because I somehow find the time…but I don’t follow all that stuff as much as I used to. I probably spend as much time online reading about motorcycles and home remodeling as I spend reading about photography. I also write for a blog called ApertureExpert.com.
PP: Does a lot of the gas-bagging (I’m being self-referential there) online affect the daily life and work of photojournalists? If so, how?
TB: Good question. I suppose photojournalists are influenced by influential work. We see a trend and try to emulate that or be inspired by it to some degree. I’m probably more influenced and more interested in talk about the photography business than actual shooting. As far as my daily work, I’ve become pretty good at sticking to my approach and not preconceiving a situation. It took me a long time to get to that point. When I first started I was all over the map stylistically and how I approached a story. I’m much more methodical and disciplined now, but I do still like to try new things and experiment.
PP: How do you define a successful day/shoot/assignment/image? What brings the smiles at the end of a day?
TB: The only thing that makes me happy at the end of the day is walking away with a photo I like. And, that is a rare thing. Starting out I was more into the experience of making the photo. The results were not as important to me, probably because I couldn’t differentiate between an above average image and a great one.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy great experiences on assignment and that happens all the time, but making a great image is where it’s at. I will forget all the suffering I experienced, if I end up with something worth looking at.
I really love the rare times when I’m in the creative zone and everything falls into place. I have an idea, the circumstances are ideal, and I get lucky. The thing about photojournalism is, you never really know if what you are doing will work until it’s too late to do anything about it. It’s all about anticipating what will happen instead executing a plan. If what you are striving to create is spontaneous, real and in the moment, there’s a huge amount of luck involved. It’s all about putting your self in a situation to that favors luck. I’d compare it to hitting a home run or a hole in one. The more you do it, the luckier you get.
PP: Are photo editors important?
TB: Good photo editors are important in that they can take great work and make it better. Mediocre photo editors get in the way of good work.
I rarely sit with an editor and have them go through my work. I mostly work remotely. I’ll send in my top picks and they take it from there.
I seek out advice on projects, but I believe photo editing is as important and creative as shooting. For that reason, I like to do it myself. I like the idea that I have more authorship in the final product. We make online photo galleries for the web and that’s really what I’m shooting for these days.
PP: How do you characterize the photo scene in Portland?
TB: By my estimation, there are way too many of us. Worse yet, there are too many mediocre photographers that manage to get work by under-cutting better ones. I suspect they won’t last much longer than their trust fund, but that can’t be too soon. That sounds harsh, but I’ve stood in the rental line at Pro Photo and watched a Craigslist wedding photographer rent $400 worth of gear to shoot a $800 wedding. That’s happening in all sectors of photography on different scales.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are some great, highly accomplished Portland photographers that deserve everything they get. Dan Root, Lars Topelmann, Steve Bloch, Sol Neelman, Chris Hornbecker, Bruce Ely, Jamie Francis, Brian Lee, Leah Nash, Chris Onstott, Thomas Patterson, Jonathan Ferrey, Ray Gordon, Anthony Georgis, Craig Mitchelldyer, Andy Batt, and many more that inspire me with solid, professional work.
PP: What lies in the future for you?
TB: If I could have my way, I’d retire at The Oregonian doing what I’m doing now. I’m a newspaper shooter and have been since I started stringing for the AP and The Oregonian while I was still in college at Portland State in the late eighties. I’m a home grown Oregonian and I don’t want to live anywhere else. I’m hardwired to shoot newspaper assignments and I love it.
The future probably won’t turn out the way I want. If it doesn’t, I see myself launching a successful freelance career, starting a business and riding motorcycles.
PP: Anything else you like to add?
TB: For the first time in my career, I’m worried for the future of the photography business. There are just so many forces out there driving down the value of photography and there doesn’t seem to be a bottom. At the same time, there are so many people wanting to do it and schools are cranking out more and more photographers. I’ve always believed that with desire, hard work, a bit of talent, and a little help, a person could make a go of it. I’m not so sure anymore. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it now.
The internet has created a huge demand for photography, but it hasn’t translated into more work and money for photographers.
The challenge is to avoid thinking about all the negative stuff, and keeping my level of creative energy up. At the end of day, I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to do it this long.
PP: Thanks Thomas.
TB: Thank you, Pete.
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All images: Thomas Boyd.
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I started Wednesday Words last week to throw out some brief and wise writings on prisons. I’ve got Winston Churchill, Charles Darrow and David Ramsbottom lying in wait. But they must all hold fire because I am taking the podium this week.
I have just unsubscribed from Getty’s Photoblog. Having it filter through my reader next to thoughtful and (in most cases) non-commercial blogs it became plainly obvious Getty are pandering to their audience. The result is a bland regurgitation of celebrity imagery. I guess this is what their audience wants. GettyBlog is watery gruel compared to the rest of the blogophotobiosphere.
My conclusion: Getty is effectively held captive by their audience.
Apparently, Getty Blog’s readership wants about 60 or 70% of Getty’s narrative to be about young, famous women and their clothing choices. Well, I don’t.
This minor alteration to my daily visual feed came a day after I read Confessions of a Former Online Producer, a candid piece by Jake Ellison;
During my last year at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in its last year as a newspaper, I published online thousands of pictures of half-starved, mostly naked women – celebrities and fashion models. I even became so deranged as to argue vehemently in the newsroom that those photos were necessary because we were a dying industry and people wanted to look at those women, so get on board.
The Seattle PostGlobe is an all volunteer, blog-reporting venture made up of many former Seattle Post Intelligencer journalists. The P-I went under a couple of months ago and the PostGlobe is simultaeneously a service to the now one paper Emerald City, a boredom evasion technique, experiment in new-journalism and an acknowledged unsustainable economic model. For all those reasons I love it, support it and endorse it.
I’d tweet its stories more often but the PostGlobe’s URLs are 142 characters long!
Chris Jordan was low on my list of priorities but this timely post by Mike Kelley at Change.org (a blog as impressive for its readers’ comments as it is for the straight forward presentation of Jordan’s work) compelled me to bump it up and champion the depressingly and unfathomable figures that arise when one simply runs the numbers.
In reading Change.org’s straight forward commentary on America’s broken criminal justice system, I signed up for Change.org and read a few of their older posts. In doing so I was presented with the catalyst to comment on Obama’s momentous inauguration without repeating the media-lovefest that has surrounded the 44th’s swearing in. This post will cover Jordan’s astounding artwork, Obama’s astounding tasks-at-hand and where they politically overlap.
Chris Jordan has spent his time making larger and larger photographic constructions to communicate the scale at which American society wastes its resources, its environmental future and its grasp on logic. In his effort to catalogue the linear and thoughtless waste of the US, he has progressed from crushed automobiles, to cell phone chargers, to polystyrene cups to American prisoners.
Jordan is a bright guy, now consumed by his photography (which to be quite frank is eco-hip and brilliantly executed). He talks passionately about a sea-change in our cultural consumption. He specialises in highlighting “the behaviours that we all engage in unconsciously on a collective level … the actions we are in denial about and the ones that operate below our daily awareness … like when you’re mean to you wife because you’re mad about something else or when you drink too much at a party because you’re nervous.” Jordan is no prophet, he just sees the necessary u-turn we must all make in our habits and thoughts to move toward sustainable existence.
I like to think the strength of Jordan’s visual framework that deals with soda cans to the landfill as it does with prisoners to the cell blocks is deliberate. As hard as it is to acknowledge, the majority of Americans have turned their back on a seven-figure-minority as if it were worth no more thought than discarded packaging. Mass imprisonment is the result of widespread apathy, denial and unpinnable responsibility. How unconscionable is this situation? We are all responsible. Barack Obama talked very little about criminal justice and prison policy during his electioneering. This is not surprising as helping the invisible incarcerated masses is on the electorate’s mind as much as the whereabouts of their last twinkie wrapper. But, Obama also made it very clear that this was the time for personal responsibility and accountability.
So after a week of photography gallery after gallery, the militarised eye vs. the personal touch, Gigapan-assisted user-generated snooping, faux controversy, minor mishaps, cult worship, sentimental clap-trap, unending debate, media catfights, nerdcore details, celeb fluff and even UFO’s isn’t it time we adopt the same realism that Obama trusted in for his inaugural speech?
A wonderful article from the Wall Street Journal lays out the realism and “the audacity of hope behind bars”. (Via Change.org). Angola prisoner, Mr. Dennis served up some REALISM: “He’s got his hands full: Two wars, the economy is going in the tank and the health-care costs are skyrocketing – I’d be surprised if he has time to brush his teeth in the next four years.” While another prisoner took care of the HOPE: “If the men here can have hope, then why can’t the rest of the country?”
So how does this all connect? Jordan and Obama share the same call to think, with serious intent, about the things invisible to us. Both call us to consider the reality of our society and accept our shared responsibility for its faults, weaknesses and injustices. Both men challenge conventional wisdom; the logic that just because we didn’t turn the key nor bring down the gavel, we are not complicit – by our silence – in America’s mass incarceration.
What can you do? You can start by signing this petition immediately and by using web2.0 to access Obama’s administration as his team reached you during the election.