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Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins, from the series Supplication
Bit of housekeeping folks! I need to let you know three things about Prison Obscura:
- Prison Obscura is going to Washington State.
- Prison Obscura is going to Oregon.
- Prison Obscura will be retired in June, 2016.
The exhibition opens at Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington this Thursday, January 16th, from 4pm-6pm. I’ll be there giving a curator’s talk.
Prison Obscura Installation in progress, Evergreen State College.
The show is up January 14 – March 2 at Evergreen Gallery, Library 2204, Evergreen State College, 98505 (Google Map)
Mark your calendars waaaaaaay in advance for the opening reception 6-9pm on Friday, April 1st (no joke). I’ll be in Portland all weekend, giving a curator’s talk at the opening and then convening with others for events and panels.
1632 SE 10th Ave., Portland, OR 97214. (Google Map)
Supplication #4, Landscape. From the series ’Supplication.’ “The Pryor Mountains. It is so special to me because I am from Pryor and I miss home. Castlerock at sunset.” Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins.
Supplication #4, Landscape. From the series ’Supplication.’ “The Pryor Mountains. It is so special to me because I am from Pryor and I miss home. Castlerock at sunset.” Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins.
RETIRING ‘PRISON OBSCURA’
To say that the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford had never travelled a show before, they–namely Matthew Callinan–have done a magnificent and utterly-indispensible job in administering Prison Obscura over what will be seven venues.
I didn’t know exactly what was involved in traveling a show such as this and I’m so so grateful that Callinan had the support of his peers at Haverford College to produce an exhibition that could stretch beyond Philadelphia where it all began. We learnt together.
It’s been a great run. After Olympia and Portland though, it’s time to say goodbye. I celebrate Prison Obscura‘s unexpected and gratifying success, but I know that after 2-and-a-half years, it’s time to move energies on to other things. I need to step back and to think about what next, if anything, is appropriate for a prison-based exhibition.
There are massive amounts of vital work and organizing being done around prison activism, policing, power and community-empowerment. I’d like to learn more; take the time to hear and see. Observe and act more; perhaps talk and type less–for a while, at least.
No doubt, I’ll have more to say when Prison Obscura wraps up in Portland, the final show, toward the end of May. For now, I hope that if you are in the Pacific Northwest you’ll be able to check out the show and engage with the ideas its artists propose. Thanks to Alyse Emdur, Robert Gumpert, Steve Davis, Mark Strandquist, Kristen S. Wilkins, Josh Begley and Paul Rucker and the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the men of the Restorative Justice Project at Graterford Prison.
David Wells, Thumb Correctional Facility, Lapeer, Michigan. From the series ‘Prison Landscapes (2005-2011).’ Photo: Anonymous, courtesy of Alyse Emdur.
If you live in Portland, Oregon and you’re planning to get wed over Memorial Day weekend, why not let a Magnum Photos photographer come by and make some shots? Via.
Portland’s a pretty small town. When I lived their I was a fellow panelist with Julie Perini. Jodi Darby once beat me, by mere seconds, to a killer secondhand sweater in a donation pile on the street. I’ve never met Erin Yanke. The three producers have recently completed Arresting Power, a documentary about resistance to police violence in Portland, Oregon.
I supported the Kickstarter to get the film over the finishing line, so I am happy to see it out in the world. On Friday, May 8th, Arresting Power will screen at the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, CA.
Arresting Power – Resisting Police Violence in Portland, Oregon provides a historical and political analysis of the role of the police in contemporary society and the history of policing in the United States. It provides a framework for understanding the systems of social control in Portland with its history of exclusion laws, racial profiling, gentrification practices and policing along lines of race and class. It serves to uncover Portland’s unique history of police relations and community response.
Arresting Power features interviews with the families of people who were killed by Portland police, victims of police misconduct, local historians and community organizers. Utilizing archival newsreel from the Oregon Historical Society’s moving image archive, the film explores the history of police reform and abolition movements that have been active throughout the past 50 years.
Watch the trailer here.
Friday, May 8, 7pm
Kala Art Institute
2990 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, CA
Sliding scale $5 – $15
Refreshments will be served
Screening followed by Q&A with the filmmakers
Happy Halloween, folks. Here’s a fun series. Photographer Neil DaCosta went to Oregon’s kookiest Halloween attractions during daylight closing hours. However, the scenes he discovered and shot on color film ended up looking as sinister as they appear when shrouded in darkness and staged for the frightened masses.
Week to week, DaCosta works long hours as a commercial and editorial photographer. But that doesn’t stop him throwing his camera gear in the car and heading out on his free weekends to shoot personal projects. Shooting stuff to scratch his creative itch is what has kept him sane. At least that was the case until last weekend when his excursions to into haunted houses, forests and corn mazes may have just driven him over the edge.
The ghastly result is a series called With The Lights On.
It all started harmlessly enough. DaCosta stumbled across a haunted trail walking his dog and reasoned that photographing halloween attractions during daylight hours would make for interesting pictures.
“When I was younger, I use to volunteer at a similar haunted trail and remembered how spooky it was even during the day,” he says.
Despite his ghoulish memories of younger experience, DaCosta thought a throughly mature and deliberate diurnal examination of the sites would reveal them for the low-budget, facade dependent constructions they are. DaCosta thought his images would draw back the curtain.
And, so, DaCosta trudged with his 4×5 camera to the West Linn Haunted Trail, the Fear Asylum, and The Haunted Maize — tourist spots all within half-an-hour of his hometown, Portland.
“I captured them empty, during off hours, with the lights on,” explains DaCosta. “But the dark humor I was envisioning, ended up being just more dark than humorous. Goes to show that some of our fears don’t rely on the dark to manifest.”
Photographing on site was eerie. Dead dummies swung and tarps billowed in the dank air. DaCosta got the jitters which were not helped by joggers in the forests who crept up while he was under the dark cloth of his medium format camera.
Those that operated the attractions were welcoming. “Everyone was in to it. Owners put a lot of work into these haunts and they are only seasonal. They are excited someone wants to photograph their hard work,” says DaCosta.
Like all good Halloween antics, DaCosta’s unsettling images jangle the nerves and provide relief and laughter.
Being a procrastinator, DaCosta has yet to decide on his costume for tonight, but he’ll be channelling photographer Joel Peter Witkin, who is his favorite macabre showman.
Happy Halloween folks! Enjoy these pics and then get out there, Trick ‘o’ Treat, and spook some people!
Inside the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) at Oregon’s Snake River Correctional Institution, Nakamura photographed the Blue Room, a space in which prisoners watch videos of nature. Nakamura’s photographs and Denson’s words is the first news reporting on this fringe behavioural management method.
Firstly, why does the Blue Room exist? Prisoners in solitary are completely deprived of nature. In the IMU at Snake River, they are locked in their cell for 23 hours and 20 minutes every day. Prisoners’ only time outside of their windowless cell is 40 minutes in a concrete pen with high walls and a metal grate between they and the sky. IMU, the hole, SHU, the cooler, the box, solitary, call it what you like, extreme isolation makes men mad. Solitary is psychological torture. Neuroscience proves as much. Solitary is deprivation made physical.
The working hypothesis of the Blue Room is that exposure to video recorded scenes of nature will calm prisoners. It began operation in April 2013.
Let’s just pause right there and consider what is happening here. Let’s consider the carceral logic and policies from which the Blue Room has emerged. The state has decided to isolate prisoners in bare cells, with only artificial light, in a state of near total sensory deprivation, for 23 in every 24 hours. Let’s not speculate why prisoners are isolated; I’m less interested in what behaviours land a prisoner in the harshest custody conditions, and more interested in if and how those custody conditions improve or exacerbate existing problems and/or create new problems.
There are many employees of the state — such as Capt. Randy Gilbertson, who oversees the IMU at Snake River — who acknowledge that solitary destroys one’s sense of self. In his article, Denson quotes Gilbertson:
“I’ve seen over the years how an inmate will come into the facility, and they’ll almost appear to be completely normal,” Gilbertson said. “After a phase of isolation, those guys – especially those guys with mental health issues – tend to decompensate. They break down and go a different route. And it brings out a whole different person in them.”
Nearly two-thirds of the 200+ men in Snake River’s IMU suffer moderate to severe mental illness. Solitary makes them more prone to violence.
In the past 25 years, states across the U.S. have built, staffed and populated Supermax prisons that specialise in abuse. Once in operation, even well-meaning employees and mental health care-givers can’t change the structure therein; their primary function is to limit the damage of the rigid, brutalising environment.
If we really wanted to provide prisoners with some nature, we could open a gate and let them go sit out in the yard for the afternoon! Put a window in their cell?! Give them exercise options beyond the standard “dog-pen.” But no. From within a carceral logic that says controlled bodies stay within the walls, ludicrous makeshift responses such as the Blue Room emerge.
When I first learned of the Blue Room’s existence, I immediately thought to the scene from the film A Clockwork Orange in which the character Alex has his eyes pinned open and is forced to view “scenes of ultra-violence.” The notion that psychological ills can be rectified by the sights and sounds of projected montages, for me, is the domain of fiction. What would Stanley Kubrick make of this private screening room? Or Anthony Burgess, for that matter? Would they conclude that Snake River prison is as dystopic as the near-future-Britain they created in novel and cinema?
Film still, from A Clockwork Orange (1971), by Stanley Kubrick.
My first question about the Blue Room is not does it work? Rather, I have to wonder, why does it need to exist? What conditions of social order and disciplinary regime give rise to its “need” and justification?
The Blue Room is a pilot program drawing upon lesser-tested theories in eco-psychology. Denson explains that it came into being through a series of conversations.
In a 2010 TED talk, biologist Nalini Nadkarni talked generally about how nature can be used to rehabilitate and prisoners with jobs skills. At the time, I thought Nadkarni’s implementation of programs to identify moss species and raise endangered frogs as part of the Prison Sustainability Project was fantastic. I still do. Laudable initiatives. (I’ve talked about Nadkarni-started projects here and here on the blog before).
During her TED talk, Nadkarni mentioned she was thinking about installing large-scale murals of nature in the Supermax facilities of Washington. The Washington DOC was supportive but the correctional officers were opposed and the idea was shelved. Then, in late 2012, a Snake River corrections officer named Kevin Karpati watched the TED talk. Karpati emailed the link to Mark Nooth, the prison’s superintendent. Nooth, in turn, emailed the link to Capt. Randy Gilbertson, who oversees the IMU. Gilbertson contacted Nadkarni and asked if it could work.
This is where I wish to acknowledge that the people involved in instituting the Blue Room are making — from within a very restrictive law enforcement environment — efforts to improve the lot of prisoners. They have initiated the Blue Room as a response to severe deficiencies in the system. They cannot change the penal codes and administrative laws, but they can change the available practices within the walls. The Blue Room is an attempt to restore positive sensory input within a facility that routinely denies such inputs.
Nadkarni said she hoped it would work but had no evidence. All agreed that the only way to know was to test the hypothesis. An interior exercise room was converted to a screening room with projector and two chairs.
Nadkarni, along with National Gepgraphic documentary-maker Tierney Thys sourced nature videos. Many came from the NatGeo archives: Big Sur, New Zealand, Costa Rica, mountains, rivers, forest, tropical beaches, underwater reefs, roaring fires and a couple dozen other videos.
[Previously, I’ve written about bibliotherapy (the calculated use of reading lists to spur prisoners’ self-directed correction of “deviance”) in San Quentin Prison in the 1950s. The videotherapy at play in the Blue Room could be interpreted as a modern day equivalent. Words replaced by images?]
Denson reports that early anecdotes and observations suggest that the Blue Room can have a calming effect. “Lance Schnacker, a researcher for the Oregon Youth Authority, studied the disciplinary records of Snake River’s IMU inmates in the year before, and the year after, the Blue Room opened,” writes Denson. “He calculated that those who didn’t get the unique therapy posted more referrals for disciplinary infractions, while those allowed to use the Blue Room showed a slight dip. Schnacker cautioned that these data were preliminary, but promising.”
Should we be surprised? Give prisoners any small amount of added agency and the opportunity to take-in stimulus that breaks the norm and the monotony then, I’d argue, we would observe a change in behaviour. And most likely, toward the positive. Again, I am left to wonder why prison administrations are initiating small-scale projects such as the Blue Room, instead of taking a step back and recognising that the institutional logic which returns to solitary time-and-time again is the more fundamental issue to address.
Nadkarni, Thys, Schnacker and eco-psychologist Patricia H. Hasbach are set work with Snake River staffers to observe prisoners, conduct surveys and correlate results to existing mental health files. They hope to be able to determine to what degree exactly the Blue Room calms prisoners.
However, determining whether the Blue Room does or does not reduce suicidal or violent tendencies is a red herring. The study misses the point. Whether prisoners see 20-minute long reels of guppy fish and seaweed, or not, doesn’t alter the fact that solitary confinement makes people lose their minds. Why are we interested in mitigating the effects of a barbarous facility when we should be dismantling the walls of the facility altogether?
All images: Beth Nakamura
Angel Gonzalez wears a stuffed animal throughout his day as part of parenting classes he is enrolled in at the prison. The stuffed animal will eventually go to his children, one of whom is tattooed on his arm. Snake River Correctional Institution, Oregon.
Beth Nakamura is a staff photographer with The Oregonian. In recent months, she and writer Bryan Denson have toured numerous Oregon state prisons with part of “an occasional series” on the Beaver State’s correctional landscape. Thus far, they’ve visited on Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, Snake River Correctional Institution in Malheur County, Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla County, and Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland. They’ll visit many more.
Denson and Nakamura have uncovered some mismanagement such as a medical records debacle, but generally the reporting has been neutral and non-too-critical. Just gaining access was a massive victory in and of itself.
OREGON’S PRISONS AND EVERYTHING BEFORE
During her visits to Oregon’s prisons, Beth has been acutely aware of her privileged access and responsibility to report faithfully. Often the word and meaning of “faithfully” is confused with “objectively” which is often interpreted as “robotically” or “without personal response,” almost. It is, however, impossible for anyone to be totally objective. Journalists included. I suspect many journalists deny the extent to which their emotional and human response to stories they cover shape the eventual reporting. When Beth and I chatted it became clear we were speaking to this tension between the professional and personal self.
“I feel like I have a right to my own story,” she says.
This Q&A is a long time in production. Beth and I have jointly edited it from a longer conversation. It’s meandering and there are some loose ends. It exists within the wider context of a changing media landscape and the growing expectations of journalists to report and produce 24/7.
With regards timing, it is a thoughtful release. Beth continues to photograph in Oregon prisons and wants to place her professional responsibilities within the context of her life’s experience dealing with all sides of, and many people within, the criminal justice system.
We talk about Oregon’s death row, Beth’s first visit inside a prison, upbringing, family members’ run-ins with the law, prison administrations’ reactions to journalists and, to end, we reflect upon a heartbreaking jail scene that photography simply could not do justice.
I have selected the images that smatter this interview from Beth’s vast portfolio.
Scroll down for our Q&A
A prisoner in minimum security watches television from his bunk, Snake River Correctional Institution.
Stacks of tooth paste in cell block 800, Josephine County Jail, Oregon. Josephine County Sheriff’s Office released 39 prisoners in May, 2012 week from the jail after people voted against a law enforcement property tax levy in a May primary. The measure would have funded the sheriff’s office, district attorney and juvenile justice program. The jail once housed several of the released prisoners, is now being used as an intake area.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Beth, thanks for chatting with me. I got in touch with you soon after your photographs of Oregon’s “new and improved” execution facility were published in the Oregonian. That was a media tour at Oregon State Penitentiary, Salem, right?
Beth Nakamura (BN): Yes. The tour was in advance of Gary Haugen’s scheduled execution, which Governor Kitzhaber intervened and stopped. Kitzhaber is a physician, so here’s a Hippocratic oath guy in office “presiding” over executions. I imagine there was some moral wrestling going on. The execution was indefinitely postponed — against Haugen’s wishes.
PP: Kitzhaber called the death penalty “morally wrong and unjustly administered.”
BN: Yes, but before that happened I toured the chamber. The tour was strangely performative and austere.
PP: The images seemed anemic. The space, flat and deadened.
BN: The warden sat media from around the state and from his podium in a little room *walked us through* exactly what was going to happen during the execution — everything leading up to it, during, and after.
Then we took the tour. “… then we place the bottles on the aluminum table … then we walk to the …” Every step was accounted for. It was one of the most riveting hours of my career. Everything that was described and presented was so ritualized. It had a sterilizing effect. But also consider they hadn’t executed anyone in 16 years. It felt to me like them saying “we got this” and being officious about it, but I have no idea, really.
PP: Sounds akin to the freaky re-reenactment that Werner Herzog specializes in? How many members of the press were there?
BN: Probably ten. Approximately.
PP: You’ve photographed a quilting workshop at Coffee Creek?
BN: The coordinators of the workshop asked me to photograph. Being a freelance photographer and not a journalist, in this instance, was a whole different experience. Much warmer. I was just with them. And once you take off the journalist hat, it’s disarming for the authorities.
PP: Are Oregon prison authorities suspicious of journalists?
BN: I’m not sure suspicious is the right word. I will say the Oregonian has a fine tooth-comb and they know how to use it. That would make anyone guarded, right? A lot of the DOC’s concerns have to do with security, and with pictures revealing too much. Like the concertina wire, stuff like that. It isn’t stuff we tend to consider as photographers. To them it’s a big deal.
PP: Coffee Creek was where the sexual abuse scandal broke in 2012. It’s my impression that the Coffee Creek administration has been doing it’s best to promote a much improved public presentation of itself. For example, a Kaiser sponsored program is funding an organic garden that went into the center of the yard. They tore up hundreds of square feet of concrete. Diabetes is down, violence is down.
BN: Great program.
PP: Have your attitudes toward jails and prisons remained the same over your career?
BN: I’m 51 years old now! With any luck I have a little bit of a wider worldview and insight into all the different layers that are a part of any system. In my career, I’ve had a lot of dealings with beat cops, sheriffs, lawyers — everyone that’s in all the legal layers as you move outward from the prison cell. I see that it’s complex … but it’s always been complex for me, though.
PP: Why is that?
BN: I grew up in a very gritty little town in New England where it was not uncommon that someone would end up in jail. Mostly, people didn’t get caught, but every once in a while someone would get caught and they would end up in jail.
Convicted killer Dana Ray Edmonds, 32, shown in prison with his lawyer the day before he was executed in Virginia. He was the first person in the state to be exectuted by lethal injection. Edmonds murdered a grocery store owner by smashing a brick into his head and thrusting a knife into his throat. He lost last-minute appeals to both the Virginia governor and the U.S. Supreme Court. His final words: “No one can take me from this earth, and I forgive everyone here.”
PP: Was it in your personal life or your professional life you first stepped inside a jail?
BN: Professional. It was a Massachusetts Correctional Institution. Maybe Shirley or Framingham? I was working for a tiny local paper. I don’t even remember the news story.
PP: Describe the experience.
BN: I remember the administration was heavy-handed. I’ll use the word indoctrination, because it really did feel like that. They delivered a weird, scared straight narration. I don’t know if the guard did it all the time or if he preached in order to protect us *little neophyte-media-types*! They’re presuming I’m some upstanding person. It’s like I crossed over.
PP: From your tough upbringing to respected professional? As it is perceived by society?
BN: Yes. I’m crossing over but when you do that you never quite fit in any world anymore.
PP: The position of many journalists, some might say?
BN: Maybe. But they’re saying, “Don’t look them in the eye, don’t do this, don’t do that.” The assumption is that I am somehow different from the people in the cells.
Anyway, we get into the prison area and the first thing that happens is someone calls out my name. “Beth.” I turn around and it was Patrick, an old friend.
“Patrick, what the hell are you doing here?” I asked.
Whatever wall the prison staff had tried to erect around me just completely collapsed in that instant. He was in there for a bunch of nothing — many little things. And that’s what a lot of them, in my experience, have done. Parole violations, driving with no license, petty theft.
I don’t remember so much about how I handled the establishment that day but I remember talking to Patrick distinctly. I was in the vortex of these worlds just swirling in me and around me. I looked at Patrick (and I was close) but he just completely went blurry. It was like I was in a dream. I couldn’t carry everything that was happening. I was just happy to see my old friend, Patrick Beaudette.
It was the late 80s. I recently looked him up. He died. What happened to Patrick happened to so many. He must have died in his forties.
Cafeteria and visiting area at Columbia River Correction Institution, which is minimum security, and tries to create a smooth transitions for prisoners before reentering the community.
Jayson Alderman, Ken Strand and Ralph Kautz participate in Moral Recognition Therapy while incarcerated at Columbia River Correctional Institution. The therapy attempts to teach cognitive restructuring habits, or a kind of rewiring of the mind, to the prisoners.
A large mural, painted entirely by inmates, lines a wall of offices at the entrance to Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution.
PP: The 80s were the start of mass incarceration in America. What’s your position on prisons and incarceration, now?
BN: My brother was in in prison. He’d never looked better! He looked clean.
I know there are some really bad people who are better off in prison. I don’t have the instant liberal-Portland empathy for anyone who walks through those prison doors because I also know those people have probably crushed a lot of hearts while outside of that cell. So, I’m not all softy, but at the same time I think a lot of people are in prison for drug addiction and for mental health reasons. These individuals are in the midst of correctional systems that are, now, our de facto mental health institutions.
PP: Hospitals replaced by prisons.
BN: It’s a tragedy. That is an injustice. I don’t pretend to know how to fix it but that’s what they’ve become. A lot of times it starts with people (self) medicating over a diagnosis and creating problems for themselves, compounding problems. One thing leads to another and, however many problems later, they wind up incarcerated.
Some can’t get clean on their own so they are forcibly cleaned up. Sometimes that works. I don’t have a black and white opinion about people being incarcerated but I do feel prisons have become de facto mental health institutions and that’s wrong.
Most of the women I’ve met are locked up for drugs. A lot of the players are male and they’ve got younger girlfriends. You see that dynamic writ large and small all the time, and see how women are involved.
A housing unit inside Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland, Sept. 11, 2014.
Prisoners work as operators at a call center in Snake River Correctional Instituion. Perry Johnson Inc., a south Michigan based consulting firm has employed SRCI prisoners for over a decade. Little has been published online about the SRCI call center in recent years. Here’s a 2004 article about it.
Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, OR, is host to a jeans factory . The business is called Prison Blues.
PP: How does news photography play a role? If prisons are de facto mental health institutions and incapacitate a lot of addicts then maybe prisons aren’t the best place for those groups? Does news photography serve to inform citizens about that?
BN: Not anywhere near enough. I don’t think journalism is doing enough. Journalism can apply pressure in high places and accomplish all kinds of things. But, I see so much documentary photography. It would be much more interesting to me to hear stories from their own mouths and see stories made by prisoners’ own hands; stories not filtered by photojournalists. It’d be more powerful. What do you think?
PP: You’ve got me at a moment right now I’m harboring strategic reservations toward documentary. I’m consciously looking elsewhere so I’m sympathetic to your point. Maybe once I’ve interrogated those other genres or forms or methodologies, then I’ll swing back the other way? If a photographer is invited into a prison, it’s not like they’re doing an exposé. They’ve been invited so with that is a valid argument that they’re an extension of the prison’s power. Well then, for us, it’s incumbent to look elsewhere.
PP: I think it’s the case that photography is not the medium that prison programs use for prisoners to tell their own stories. They use art, painting, creative writing and in some cases they use voice and audio recordings. But photography causes all sorts of problems. A camera is a security threat.
PP: Why do you think journalism isn’t doing enough?
BN: One: It’s a resource thing. Two: These are complex issues that are harder to make a clear narrative out of.
When you look at any (crime) story in depth, often there’s no clear bad guy or clear good guy. There are complex histories, many characters. For journalists, those types of stories are doable and they’re more effective, but they require a lot more resources and higher skill.
What do people want from journalism? That question has got to play into this conversation. In the news, stories about the public school district, whether the streets are being fixed, will likely interest more people.
Inside Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution.
Vance Lee Moody, left, John William Belcher and William Harley Dugger participate in group programs held for inmates at Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland on Sept. 11, 2014.
A prisoner looks over a workbook during a group session on Sept. 11, 2014, at Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland. Prisoners attend cognitive restructuring group programs while incarcerated at the facility.
BN: Stories about people locked up for crimes, whatever the reason and however complicated and however frayed the threads are that got them there, people may just be closed off or uninterested. We can be very emotional and very dogmatic, too. How do you break through the “lock them up and throw away the key” attitude?
PP: For me some of the most interesting photojournalist bodies of work have been when there’s been tension between the rank-and-file and the administration or between the administration and the politicians.
PP: When there is an internal power play and political battle staff of administrations can think, “If we bring press in here then we’ll stoke up some public opinion and force our position.”
BN: If journalists get that window and seize it, they can certainly get a little more done. I mean I’ve been in prisons where your every move is watched and it’s almost impossible.
I love documentary photography, but it doesn’t feel personal to me enough when I think of prisoners I’ve known. I think the narrative is too complex for the typical news photography frame. I don’t know if photography in that mode even hints at who those prisoners really are. I guess I have a preference for other forms or approaches sometimes. I say that with all due respect.
PP: I agree with you. A lot of the time news photography is an illustration (often a silhouette) of Patrick or any prisoner as that body out in the prison uniform, out in the yard. Perhaps with a receding chain link fence.
BN: Years ago when I worked with that same little Massachusetts paper there was news of a person from that area who was shot and killed in a drug-related shootout in Dallas, Texas and his name was Tommy Tito. I knew Tommy growing up. He ended up in Dallas. “He got out!” was my first reaction. But he got killed in a drug deal gone bad. It was terrible but it didn’t shock me. Reporters searched out Tommy in a yearbook. That’s what they reduced the visuals of his story to. I kissed him under the boardwalk and we held hands. Did I tell my colleagues? No. What I brought to Tommy’s story was as limited as what they were bringing.
PP: Facts not stories?
BN: Most of news is just quick and dirty. Experiencing things from the other side you see how narrow and incomplete news can be. A quick pass. Does that fulfill the function of the higher calling of journalism? Not even close. And I’m as guilty as anybody, or even more so.
BN: I cover people with way more issues than I ever had. I’m no sob story. I go into communities and bring it on a professional level. It’s entirely possible they feel something more coming from me, on a purely energetic level, but I don’t tell them my story. I am basically a bartender. I listen to them and I am witness to them.”
PP: Don’t presume you hover above society so you can frame it, you’re in it.
BN: I’m deep in it. My mother was a single mom, a waitress, and a high school dropout. So I go into situations where I probably have a little more understanding. It’s important to have people in journalism, in whatever form they practice, who get that and I worry that increasingly that will just not be the case. I mean if you can afford to practice journalism, if you have the right pedigree, if you code, which is largely a male pursuit, then you’re already separated by class. The days of the copy boy going up the ranks are long gone.
PP: When you accepted my invitation to talk you said out conversation might be “instructive.’ What did you mean?
BN: I guess it would be good for people in my life, in my work life and colleagues to know a little bit more about me, to close the gap a little. A lot of people ask how I get access or how I’m able to talk to people. The truth is, on some level, I guess I do show myself. But I’m not really comfortable with emerging like this; it feels really uncomfortable. But also it feels right.
PP: You don’t see the necessity for journalists to always don the objective cap.
BN: Well, I feel like I have a right to my own story. It’s mine and I own it. And I want to honor the people that loved me and deserve to be known. That’s what I try to do in the better journalism I make. I try to just see people, and by working in a mainstream publication I can somehow legitimize them or help them to feel heard. It’s a really important function of the media and I think maybe I’ve gone a little further to bring that to my subjects and to the readers.
Rose City Graphics, located inside Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland. Prisoners are able to learn photoshop and several other skills while incarcerated in the facility.
The recreation yard at the Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland.
PP: Can I ask how your brother’s doing?
BN: I’ve gone to visit my brother in jail not even knowing what he was in there for! If the average person in journalism encountered me in line waiting to see a sibling and I said,” I don’t know what he’s in for,” they’d think I was out of my mind. Red flag! But when you’re slogging in it and it’s just one thing after another, a million small things and there’s a lot of alcohol and drugs involved and, bottom line, what does it matter what he’s in for? Does he have a court date? Really I’m here for my mother, on and on.
We were out of touch for long periods. I found something online stating in 2008 he was arrested for attacking a person — someone over 60 years old — with a 3-foot metal pipe. He was held for bail and it was the little arrest notice in the paper I found.
He was an amazing guy in his earlier years — very handsome, very smart, an excellent football player — scouted by the New England Patriots, actually. He was heroic to me. He was my older brother. My mother had children from different situations. He was my oldest brother from a marriage my mother had before my father. He became a vicious alcoholic, which devolved into using whatever he could get his hands on. At this point though, he’s almost mythologized. It’s just tragic.
George Dee Moon, an inmate at the Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland, takes in the sunlight after getting his hair braided by fellow inmate Edward Martin in the recreation yard.
Snake River Correctional Institution houses a hospice program inside the infirmary, shown here. The concrete walls were painted over by inmates and feature scenic landscapes.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
BN: Yes, I just recalled a moment I witnessed recently, an incredible scene, pregnant with emotion, and it said a lot about our inability to communicate such unique experiences to readers. You, know, really crucial and telling moments that hit you hard and say everything so instantly, poignantly.
PP: Better than any words or pictures?
BN: I witnessed an intake of a young woman in Polk County. I was on a ride a long with the police and they delivered a suspect to the jail after a multi-vehicle car chase, so I was there at the jail with the officers when they took the guy to jail. A female sheriff’s deputy sits behind the counter. The young girl approaches the counter. She’s waif-like. 18 or 19 years old.
I’m in with the sheriff’s deputies behind the counter and the woman, the female sheriff’s deputy, is asking her the mandatory series of questions. The answers, the voices, the tap of the keyboard recording the information, which is incredibly personal, but it’s a routine deputies go through everyday and it quickly becomes like a drone, dulled.
“Do you have any illnesses?”
“Well I’m pregnant.”
“Are you on medication,” asked the deputy. To which the girl made no eye contact.
“Are you taking any medications?”
“No I do not. I’m on pre-natal vitamins.”
“Do you have any mental illness, any diagnoses we need to know about?”
“No, but, well, my mother just died so I’m sad about that.”
It was just this incredible encounter that was so alive and yet so dulled in that context. I’m looking at the girl as it’s unfolding before me and I feel a little bit like I’m violating her, you know? I’m behind that counter and she’s spilling. I turned around; it was the least I could do to give her some semblance of privacy where there is none.
But then! When I turn around there’s a screen tiled with nine smaller squares running images from cameras inside those cells.
The sensory experience becomes the voice of this fragile waif-like girl and her tragic details prompted by the drone of the female deputy. The visual is nine miniature feeds of male prisoners. One guy is pent up in his cell, pacing like a zoo animal. I think there was meth involved. Mental illness covered with meth, covered with some public act of something that landed him in there for something. Next to him on the screen is the guy they just threw in there who’s sitting on the toilet with two fingers up his asshole trying to get his drugs up out of there. The sheriff’s deputies could care less because they’ve got him; he’s gone for ten to fifteen. Let him flush his drugs.
It was a collage of the most dramatic acts playing to the audio of this young pregnant 19 year-old girl’s story. I’d have loved nothing more than to just press record on those screens and get that audio. That’s how I experienced it and it’s not a single picture. And words don’t come close to describing the experience as it unfolded.
There’s so much happening in the low hum of those little rooms. Below the surface, behind those walls, it’s so very dramatic. But photography remains at the surface.
PP: I wonder what happened to her?
BN: After the questions, she went for her booking photograph. Last I saw, she was posing for the picture, a faint smile on her face.
PP: Thanks Beth.
BN: Thank you, Pete
A prisoner sleeps during the day inside the minimum security section of Two Rivers Correctional Institution, June 1, 2014.
Old jail cells are no longer operable inside the 103-year-old Multnomah County Courthouse, which is in need of upgrades. Portland, Oregon, Oct 9, 2012
BIOGRAPHY AND SOCIAL MEDIAS
Beth Nakamura is an Emmy nominated visual journalist and writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been recognized by POYi, Society of Professional Journalists, National Press Photographers Association, National Black Journalists Association, and many others.
Christopher Onstott is a freelance photojournalist, photo editor, and videographer working out of his native Portland, Oregon. Before he turned to image-making, he bounced around in various jobs — most of the sales. He was once high-interest loan officer, pizza delivery boy and used-car salesman. At the age of 24, he took a leap of faith and signed up for a college photo program.
I may have left Portland, but I still have friends there and interviews in the can, so here is Christopher and I talking about PDX, rural Oregon, disaster kits, the grounding effect of portraiture, setting up a business, and specifically setting up a business with your love.
In summer of last year, Christopher went inside Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) as part of the Oregon Project Dayshoot+30. Our discussion begins there. The two images (above and directly below) are from inside OSP. Other images included are from Christopher’s portfolio.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about your decision to shoot in Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).
CO: It was with Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 which was the 30 year anniversary of a day of photographing Oregon by 90 photographers back in 1983. I own the original book One Average Day and the images that stood out to me were the penitentiary photos. In between the usual ‘day in the life’ shots, vineyards, cattle and farmer photos were photographs of a guy in his cell smoking cigarettes.
PP: What was the intrigue?
CO: Prisoners are the under-represented group in Oregon. If you think of Oregonians, you don’t think of prisoners. But they’re residents here.
PP: There’s 14 or 15 thousand people in Oregon’s state prisons these days. Thousands more in county jails.
CO: The Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 was a good reason to get access to OSP which I wouldn’t usually get access to.
I contacted the public liaison office, told them about the project, sent them to the site, sent them a couple of photos of the book that I’d taken on my phone. “Here’s what they did 30 years ago, can I come and shoot?” essentially. They did a security background check and we set up a time. I had only an hour window to shoot. The rest of the day I photographed around Salem.
CO: When I got to the prison, the gentleman I’d been emailing with was not the man I met. The man I’d been in communication with was off work sick. So, immediately there was this disconnect between what I’d asked for and what was being presented to me.
It wasn’t a good experience.
PP: How so?
CO: I wanted to photograph the residents of OSP with a documentary approach, in the vein of the original project. But, my escort’s perception was I wanted take an updated version of the photo from 30-years-ago!
He asked, “So, you want to take this picture?” as he pointed at a print-off of a camera-phone picture of a image in a book! He walked me to a cell, there were two prisoners. He told me I could only photograph one and he gave me 3 minutes. [Laughs]
PP: You had your own art director!
CO: “The image your holding is an example,” I said. “But let’s look at the whole penitentiary.” He said we were not cleared for that, because all the prisoners were about to move for count. There was no flexibility. My escort was accountable to his boss and he didn’t know what had been said before.
PP: What did the subject think about you photographing?
CO: He was totally okay with it. He thought it was cool. I got the impression he knew he was going to be photographed. He was on LWOP (Life Without Parole). Pretty docile.
PP: You think he’s seen the photograph?
CO: I don’t know. I emailed the prison a copy of the photograph in a thank you email.
PP: when you were in OSP, did you cover your tattoos up?
CO: I wore short sleeves. I don’t really think of myself as being tattooed.
PP: Believe me, the prisoners and staff noticed! Do you think there was more to be seen at OSP?
CO: Definitely, just walking in we passed so many people. There was activity and work details everywhere. I was eyeing pictures everywhere but I couldn’t take them. It’s an entire town in there, right? A cultural complex. There’s a million photographs to be made. But I was only to capture a very slim sliver of life.
Still it’s important that there’s at least a representation of prisoners as residents of Oregon 30 years from now.
PP: Shifting gears. You grew up in Oregon.
CO: Grew up in Portland, spent a year in Texas, went to college in Washington State, spent a year in Texas, worked for 4 years at the Spectrum and Daily News in St George, Utah. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The weather sucks five months out of the year.
PP: There’s lots of buzz about Portland, right now.
CO: Oregon really is two different states of mind.
You’ve got the Willamette Valley and the city of Portland and then you’ve got the rest of the state. The one area that doesn’t get attention is Southeastern Oregon. Not a lot of roads, no freeways, hardly a population density. Very rural.
PP: How do you characterize the Portland photo scene?
CO: I think it’s really supportive. We’ve got ASMP Oregon and Newspace. Photographers will move work back and forth and offer one another help. But, on the otherhand, there’s a lot of photographers, so it can be competitive at the same time.
PP: Journalism, editorial?
CO: Magazines. There’s a lot of international attention on the city so we’ve people coming here asking for images. Those stories tend to lean the way of food, style travel; not hardcore news stories. There’s no tornadoes or hurricanes here!
PP: Maybe an earthquake?
CO: I’ve got my 72-hr disaster kit and spare film ready [laughs].
PP: Have you always been a photographer?
CO: No. I’ve been pizza delivery driver. Worked in my dad’s automotive shop. I was a used car sales man for four years. I’ve been a high interest loan officer. I was a bartender for two years. When my father passed away in 2001, I inherited his camera and I was left with “What do I do now?”
My father always told me to be a salesman. But I couldn’t stomach earning a living by getting one over on people. I’d never been to college, so after he died. I decided to go back to college. I was a freshman at 24-years-old! I did Photojournalism at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington.
I took a picture of a girl’s basketball game and they ran it big in the paper and that was me hooked. [laughs]
PP: What’s easier to sell? Photographs or used cars?
CO: They’re both really hard!
PP: How do you feel about photography. Is it as bad as it’s often made out? Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty thinker.
CO: I think the glass is awesome. The fact you can wake in the morning, pick up a camera and go make a living. I don’t care if your shooting fashion or street photography or using your iPhone, you just have to make pictures. We’re a society that is devouring images.
PP: But a photographer still has to package and shape stories. Can’t just churn them out!?
CO: You still gotta be good. My degree was in visual rhetoric; saying something with an image. Manage that and you’ve accomplished something as a photographer. If you’re a one trick pony, then you’re not gonna last.
PP: I recently met Randy Olson and Melissa Farlow recently.
CO: Randy was my mentor at Missouri Photo Workshop last year.
PP: They’re a couple. There’s a few photo couples out there.
PP: Two great photographers. Yourself and Leah Nash are a couple. Is there any element of professional competition between you two?
CO: The secret to being in a relationship with another photographer is to be open to criticism and not to take it personally. If you want to grow, take honest feedback from someone who knows you really well and how you operate.
Leah and I edit one another’s work and we don’t take it personally. There’s no relationship argument to be had over photographs.
We’ve agreed not be chasing the same jobs. We’ve formed a separate company, NashCO (Leah Nash & C. Onstott) outside of our own work stylistically that’s focused on corporate and commercial work.
PP: What you working on now?
CO: Street photography. I’m carrying my camera everyday capturing people in moments.
I’ve been working on a personal project of portraits for 5-years now. Using my Hasselblad. It’s slower. Because when I was at the newspaper I was running around photographing people but not really meeting them, you know? I was encountering into people who … I wouldn’t say were marginalized … but they were people who wouldn’t normally be paid attention to by the news. I wanted to slow down.
CO: In news you’re photographing people in the highest points of achievement in their life, or at the lowest points of their life. The big award, the win at the big race, or the battle with cancer. Most of the time, we’re overlooking the median, the mean of existence.
CO: I want to give those everyday people and experiences some attention. In Nevada, New York, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California. Any time I travel, I try to make portraits.
Pick out the person who is trying not to be photographed and ask their name and their story. Often they reply, “Why me?” and my response is “Because you’re interesting.”
I’ve been the only photographer at some of the newspapers I’ve worked at. I was shooting car accidents, house fires and high school sports. My way to decompress from that is to take pictures that I wasn’t taking on the job.
CO: Used to Instagram a lot. When I got my [digital] Leica I stopped posting on Instagram so much. I try to follow people who are making good pictures because I want to be inspired. I don’t want to see pictures of peoples kids.
PP: Where do you shoot?
CO: I’ve been shooting a lot around my neighborhood, the Alberta neighborhood, because it is a gentrified ghetto. There’s a lot of collision. Walk up Alberta or Killingsworth Streets and there’s a photograph every 10 metres. But here’s the hub of Portland’s gentrification.
PP: What else keeps your eye busy?
CO: Portland Squared. It’s a project that Leah started a couple of years ago. 50 photographers. one square mile divided up into fifty squares and you spend the day shooting a square and ASMP event. Last year, they did a bigger square. 2 x 2 miles and 70 photographers. for 24 hours.
PP: Whose work do you admire here in town?
PP: Anything else to add?
CO: Don’t move to Portland! There’s too many photographers here! [Laughs]
PP: Ha! Thanks, Christopher.
CO: Thank you, Pete.
EYE ON PDX
A single wall representing the meals of men and women executed in Texas, part of Julie Green’s The Last Supper: 500 Plates exhibited at Marylhurst University, Oregon (April 16 – May 17, 2013). Photo: Pete Brook.
In The Make — a new(ish) website that celebrates artists in their crafty environments with dedicated studio visits and conversations — has a smashing feature on my friend and fellow Oregonian Julie Green. It sure beats the 2011 write-up of my visit to Julie’s studio!
I’ve been thinking a lot about productivity and it’s obstacles recently and I think Julie maintains an incredible output. Part of that is the security of teaching for her but mostly it is passion and commitment to connections and getting the work seen. What use is studio time if the products are not then widely shared?
Julie’s The Last Supper which is now 552 plates deep, is broad and grasps solidly the size of the issue it takes on. Bravo to Julie for leveraging the agency she has as an artist.
Pop over to In The Make and read what makes Julie tick. Here’s a snippet:
Shipping and installation of fragile ceramics is quite an undertaking. I am looking for a library or a university or a museum- in Texas would be great—to donate the project on a ten-year loan. The Last Supper is not for sale.
I plan to continue adding fifty plates a year until capital punishment is abolished. A poet asked if I ever get tired of painting lumpy blue food. No, I don’t.
Oklahoma has higher per capita executions than Texas. I taught there, and that is how I came to read final meal requests in the morning paper. Requests provide clues on region, race, and economic background.
Why is this important? It is because the death penalty is applied unequally depending on the race of the defendant and the victim, not to mention access to adequate counsel, jury bias, prosecutorial misconduct and a whole plethora of factors that make wrongful convictions too frequent to dismiss. End the death penalty and we’ll end the murder of innocent people. As Bryan Stevenson brilliantly puts it, the question isn’t so much does a person deserve to die, it is do we deserve to kill?
Coincidentally, I edited a story for Wired about the work of Klea McKenna who is editor of In The Make. Check out Crumpled and Abused Photo Paper Makes for New Landscape Photography