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It’s unmistakable. That gazebo. That hexagonal cover to that picnic table. One needn’t notice the flowers, or even the poster, to the memory of Tamir Rice to recognize this utility structure as that under which the 12-year-old was murdered by Cleveland police. Even the bollards between us the viewer and the polygon shelter seem instantly familiar. For it was between those bollards and the gazebo that the cop car screeched to a halt, it’s door flew open and the first emerging officer shot Tamir dead. In the blink of an eye.

Tamir Rice was shot twice from less than 10 feet.

Back in 2014, as I watched the footage of Tamir Rice’s murder, I wondered then, why did the the cops mount the curb? Why did they bypass the pavement and careen the patrol car onto the grass? Into the park? Why the frantic invasion of a place for play and recreation? Why, given the clear lines of sight (evident both in this photo and in the murder footage) from a good distance away, did they not approach slowly and with caution?

“This court is still thunderstruck by how quickly this event turned deadly,” wrote Ronald B. Adrine, Cleveland Municipal Court Administrative and Presiding Judge in an Administrative Order on the case. “On the video, the zone car containing Patrol Officers Loehmann and Garmback is still in the process of stopping when Rice is shot.”

Misinterpreting a situation and mistaking a toy for a gun (in the case of Tamir Rice) — or mistaking anything handheld, or any motion toward a hip or a pocket (in the cases of thousands of others) — is the defense to which law enforcement turns repeatedly and, calamitously, the one which almost always exonerates them of their crimes.

This is a photo made by Alanna Styer. It is part of the project Where It Happened for which Styer visited and photographed 54 sites where people of color were slain at hands of law enforcement. In 2016, The Guardian reports, 1,093 people were killed by police officers in the United States.

“That is an average of three people a day,” writes Styer. “The incidents detailed in my archive span 50 years, from 1965 to 2015. This book documents only 54 of the tens of thousands of deaths that have happened over those 50 years.”

Mostly, the locations and details of those thousands of deaths aren’t known beyond the memory of friends and family, the accounts of the cops involved, and the reach of an investigation … if one occurred. Even then, the details remain contested. The majority of the places in Where It Happened are new to us, the audience. But Styer’s photo of the gazebo at Cudell Recreation Center is not new. It’s power rests, for me, in the fact that I have previous familiarity with the place through the news coverage and activism in the aftermath of Rice’s murder. I recognize the site. You probably do to. We might also recognize the site of Michael Brown’s death on that tarmac road with verges of short, thinning grass. We may recognize other sites of avoidable killings that made it to our news feeds and memory. We don’t, regrettably, recognize the vast majority of the tragic theaters to which Styer’s work speaks. There are too many.

Styer’s photo shifts our vantage point from the elevated view of the CCTV across the street and down to street level. Whereas previously the benches and the posts were rendered in the indistinguishable and out of focus action of the footage, they’re now brought into sharp focus. We see the underside of the gazebo roof, not the top. We’re provided a perspective from the asphalt where the cop car could have and should have been.

Being “in” this image, I only want to get out, of course. A world in which this wasn’t a murder site and you or I didn’t recognize it as such would be, inarguably, a better world. Specifically, I want to step back. The unnecessary haste with which officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback charged into this scene gloms onto this image. That unfathomable CCTV footage is this photo’s frame.

Loehmann and Garmback’s excessive urgency which escalated the event from zero to murder perverts Styer’s image. But it also makes it. This photo works upon and within the collective exposure we’ve had to that grainy footage. Styer’s tribute here isn’t working in isolation but in extension of previous visual feeds to which we’ve all been audience. This image is an intervention and it works to disrupt our (possibly passive) consumption of death. It revisits the space and time of an event in which Tamir Rice had, essentially, no agency. The stillness is terrifying. True, the image could be read simply as a visual description of a memorial but I argue that precisely because it grounds us between the CCTV camera and Rice’s swift execution, the photo re-activates both the event and our relation to it.

Acts of police brutality (or citizen brutality, e.g. George Zimmerman against Trayvon Martin) frequently spurn a battle of images — calls for the immediate release of dash cam footage; calls for body-cams; different photos are circulated and cast as sympathetic, or not, to the victim and the perpetrator; media outlets trawl the social media feeds of victims, perpetrators and associated individuals. Whether conscious or not, Styer is reacting to such frenzies. She is paying homage to the victims, months or years after the news story has passed and the casket lowered. Where It Happened is a dark type of pilgrimage but I feel Styer is making it in good faith and I argue she’s returning with images that are a positive contribution. Google Street View does not make imagery that is conscious or respectful (interestingly, it hovers above street level like CCTV, delivering a detached record). Cellphone images may carry as much, if not more, respect as Styer’s photographs and this might be based on a personal connection to the victim, but those amateur images are not made by an artists intent on publicly disseminating them and talking about the issues that forged them.

I admire and have reported on Josh Begley’s project Officer Involved which uses code to automatically render both satellite and Street View images of sites of deaths involving law enforcement. Thousands of sites. While the subject is the same Styer’s work is considerably different in tone and effect. If Begley manages to remind us of the scale of the problem then Styer’s work reminds us to recognize each depressing part of the problem. I can’t code or manipulate Google Maps API but I can walk, bike or drive to killing sites within my own city. Styer’s practice takes time and effort, away from the screen. In 2015, Teju Cole reflected upon the problem of the constant visibility of death. In Death In The Browser Tab, Cole recounts his discomfort with only *knowing* the death of Walter Scott through the infamous footage made by passerby Feidin Santana who was hiding in the bushes. Cole had the opportunity to visit North Charleston and with a friend he found the parking lot of Advance Auto Parts on Remount Road in which Officer Michael Slager first stopped Scott. Then Cole traced the steps of them both to the park in which Scott was slain.

“[…] being there also revealed, in the negative, the peculiarities of the video,” writes Cole, “peculiarities common to many videos of this kind: the combination of a passive affect and the subjective gaze, irregular lighting and poor sound, the amateur videographer’s unsteady grip and off-camera swearing. Taken by one person (or a single, fixed camera) from one point of view, these videos establish the parameters of any subsequent spectatorship of the event. The information they present is, even when shocking, necessarily incomplete. They [videos] mediate, and being on the lot helped me remove that filter of mediation somewhat.”

Styer’s practice is one response to the problematic mediation that Cole describes. Few of us can identify the problem, let alone respond to it. And just as Cole felt better for mindfully visiting the site of Walter Scott’s death, and just as Styer was compelled to visit 54 catastrophic sites, we can choose to seek out a different image. Away from local TV news and social media, death might become less abstract? The sheer scale of the issue might become overwhelming. It is. But are we citizens that feel or do we just talk about what it is to feel?

Are we inured and numbed by murder on our screens? Or are we compelled to act because of it? We can all easily research the institutional violence in our communities. Maybe some of us might be compelled to make pilgrimages of our own and to carve out time to think about the violence that always plays out on our streets before it is broadcasted into our homes. Styer took the time and she has mediated at these sites. Her image of the gazebo in which Tamir Rice was shot and killed gave me the opportunity to mediate. I am grateful for that.

Sometimes photographs are about what’s literally depicted. Sometimes the lessons in photographs are in the method by which they were made. In Where It Happened it is both.

Alanna Styer is currently crowdfunding a book of images from her series Where It Happened. Please consider supporting the production of the photobook, titled No Officers Were Injured In This Incident, by visiting Styer’s Kickstarter page

Listen to a radio interview with Styer about the project and her goals for the book.

 

 

 

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Chris Vernon takes a long shot in the recreation yard at SEPTA Correctional Facility. Basketball, volleyball and horseshoes are the only opportunities for physical recreation. © Victor J Blue.

VICTOR J BLUE

“What do we expect from people who go to prison? They broke the law, there was a process, they were punished, they got out. But what then?” asks Victor J Blue who’s just published Almost Out, a 4-month long reportage about SEPTA Correctional Facility in Nelsonville, Ohio. The report consists of a photo essay, a short video documentary, and a 4500 word written piece.

Blue describes SEPTA:

“Opened in 1990 to provide judges and sentencing courts in southeast Ohio an alternative to prison or probation for felony offenders, and to help convicts transition back into home communities. The idea is that locking guys up in a place where a battery of programs are not just available to them, but required of them—can cause a shift. It can change outcomes. They can learn to stop coming to prison.”

Corey Cunningham, George Fisher, and Doug Starcher, (left to right) talk with Jeff Johnson, (right) on the recreation yard at SEPTA. Prison gang affiliations and racial tensions that mark other prisons are less prevalent here. © Victor J Blue.

Blue, who is trying to build a portfolio of projects documenting and unpacking the criminal justice system, contemplates the difficult transitions and changes facing former prisoners, “They are felons now, and they will carry that distinction for good. I am interested in how guys getting out are marked, physically and psychologically, by their experience of incarceration, but do not want to be defined by it,” says Blue.

I’ve been aware of Blue’s work since he shot the b-roll for Ted Koppel’s Breaking Point (2007) about California’s overcrowded prisons. Blue consequently produced an award winning Best of Photojournalism essay in the ‘Non-Traditional Photojournalism Publishing’ category, 2009.

OHIO UNIVERSITY

Last week, I spoke about the impressive photography and multimedia work of Dustin Franz and Angela Shoemaker; both graduates of Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication, the same body that Blue and his fellow students are working within.

So, it’s high time we pay recognition to the professional output of the OU SVC student body; especially as it seems to be a leader in the production value of its material published online.

“We just finished our annual reporting project here at OU, it’s called Our Dreams are Different,” says Blue. “We are trying to build some audience for our stories. I don’t know if you are familiar with the project, but this years edition is much tighter and with better storytelling than years past.”

From the website, the approach of Our Dreams are Different is described thusly:

“The stories in this project examine the American Dream — how the dream has changed, how it persists, as well as the myths and realities of its unending pursuit. By telling these stories in the small towns of Southeast Ohio, our goal is to help folks better understand our communities, our neighbors and ourselves.”

BRAD VEST

Ohio University students are being noticed elsewhere too.

Today, DVAFOTO sung the praises of Brad Vest‘s project Adrift and ran a short interview with him about his process and access. Brad writes:

“This is a story about drugs, family and absence along a bend in the river. Travis Simmons is attempting to move past his addiction, and despite prison, parole, parents, and his devotion to his daughters, he cannot stay out of trouble.”

Photojournalism is dead? My arse.

Chris Vernon opens his locker, decorated with photographs of his family in his room. Residents wear pink shirts like the one Vernon has on when they have committed rule violations and they are restricted from furloughs and going outside on the yard. © Victor J Blue.

In an email, Dustin Franz explained that his project Finding Faith is about those who find spiritual direction “be it in any religion, while incarcerated”. It was made at the Marion Correctional Institute and documents the activities of the Horizon program, a multi-faith religious initiative.

Dustin asked what I thought, so here goes. There’s a couple of strong images in among the series. I’ve selected my two preferred photographs (above): they closely approximate to the eerie weight of both incarceration and organised religion.

Like most others, Dustin is probably not aware of my aversion to shots of receding tiers! Same goes for barbed wire. So we’ll scratch those two.

His shot of the chapel congregation is forgettable, but most B&W documentary shots are these days – that’s just the way percentages play out. His two group shots (one is below) are strong and show the connection, commitment and concentration ongoing between participants and volunteers.

The two shots of Muslims in prayer are indicative, but I wonder today if there’s a danger of stoking irrational fear by showing Islam in prison without conscientious background information? This is a reflection of my caution more than the photographer’s skill. If we are going to understand why any religions persist in prisons then we should start with a basic appreciation of their history. As a critic, I’m never satisfied.

The series is a nicely edited mixture of compositions, but I’m left feeling I need more. So often documentary photography describes the scene but doesn’t grip the emotions. Audio is a great complement, so kudos to Franz for producing the accompanying multimedia piece Hope is on the Horizon.

The narrated slideshow opens with this quote from Jeff Hunsaker, Horizon program coordinator, “If you stop and think about it, prisons today have become human junk yards. This is where we throw away the people we don’t want.”

Bang. Done. I’m hooked.

Quickly following Hunsaker’s words are those of a prisoner explaining that it is not about Christian bible-bashing (Horizon is billed as an ecumenical program) but about taking responsibility. Basically, as we all know, situations peered upon by journalists are often better described by the subjects than the reporters. Franz and his co-producer, Angela Shoemaker, were wise to adopt multiple media to tell the stories at Marion prison.

Dustin Franz is the photo editor for The Athens News. In the past, he has worked for The Aspen Daily News, Colorado. He’s the latest in a long line of budding photographers from the photojournalism program at The School of Visual Communication at Ohio University. Others include, of course, Angela Shoemaker (whose work I’ve pointed out before) and Maddie McGarvey who just won the LUCEO Student Project Award and took Dustin’s bio portrait. Dustin lives and works in Athens, Ohio and blogs here.

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Jessica changes Kyree inside the 12-by-6-foot cell they share at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. The inmate mothers have special privileges the other inmates don’t have like leaving their cell at night to warm a bottle and a special outdoor play area.

I while back I posted a nod to Angela Shoemaker and her work at the Prison Nursery at Ohio Reformatory for Women, Marysville, OH.

Since then, Angela has been busy with her multimedia work on families and the recession, updating her website theme & images and securing a Fulbright Grant to photograph Muslim youth in the Netherlands.

Check out Angela’s series about mothers and babies in prison. She has provided us with good background information to the program.

The stand out stat for me was that only 16 of the 138 women who have passed through this program have re-offended which is good for them and very good for us as a society.

Angela also teamed with Dustin Franz on the multimedia piece Hope is on the Horizon.

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Past and present ruminations about what is and isn’t a photograph have been a source of frustration for me. For one, people can draw whatever lines they wish to determine the point at which manipulation tricks out a photograph and thus qualifies it as photo-illustration. And for another, as Errol Morris keeps banging on about, ALL photography is lies (and manipulation).

These debates are not about truth. Interventions – power relations, habit, photographic custom, complicity among subjects, props, political agendas (and framing), cropping, tweaking of exposure levels before and after development, digital alterations – mean that photography can never be, will never be truthful.

People forget that often it is the ingenious tricks that have spurred the largest wonder among viewing public – think Oscar Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life, Spirit Photography and – in a different sense – Ansel Adams’ Zone System.

It is therefore, with some relief that an artist like Azzarella comes along using photo-manipulation as the tactic and purpose for his work.

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Last week, I questioned Anton Kratochvil’s Homage to Abu Ghraib, mainly because I think it makes little contribution to the discourse on the political aesthetics of Abu Ghraib. The blurry references to torture in Kratochvil’s images are in response only to a personal, conscious and willing point of view. I understand that Kratochvil’s work was an exercise in self-therapy but that shouldn’t stop me comparing it to Azzarella’s broader concerns about more general and unconscious reactions to well-circulated images.

If I w re to wr t th s sent nce wi h lette s m ss ng, you can still read it. The human brain is a wonderful instrument drawing on past experience to quickly filter out the non-possibilities. Just as the brain instantaneously deciphers gaps in text so it does with gaps in images.

With every passing hour the Spectacle suffuses itself further. It isn’t so much us reading images but images reading us. Our involuntary responses to images are predictable, predicted, precoded. The redacted action of violence in Azzarella’s pictures plays second fiddle to the original image, for it is the original image we drooled over and devoured.

The hooded detainee, dead student, wailing child or falling soldier needn’t even be present; our internal, emotional feedback spun by these images will forever be the same. We fill in the gaps and short circuit to prescribed disgust, sadness and politics, thus confirming our prevailing bias.

Azzarella’s works expose the fraud in us all … and our cheapened, robotic response to image.

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ALL IMAGES © JOSH AZZARELLA. FROM TOP TO BOTTOM: UNTITLED #13 (AHSF); UNTITLED (SSG FREDERICK); UNTITLED #24 (GREEN GLOVES); UNTITLED #35 (CAFETERIA); UNTITLED #39 (265); UNTITLED #20 TRANG BANG; UNTITLED #43 (PAR115311).

Copyright: Angela Shoemaker

Copyright: Angela Shoemaker

Angela Shoemaker, visual journalist and graduate of The School of Visual Communication at Ohio University, informs us, “Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW) nursery, one of four such programs in the U.S., offers a unique opportunity for female inmates to keep their babies while serving out their prison sentences.”

Angela has also produced Prison Nursery: Keeping Mothers and Babies Together in an audio slideshow format Prison Nursery.

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