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DOUBLE METAPHOR

“Being in the prison system is like you go into a maze and never come out,” said an incarcerated to man to artist Sam Durant in the months preceding Open Source, a city wide public art project in Philadelphia.

Durant has erected Labyrinth, a 40x40ft maze of chain-link fence, in Thomas Paine Plaza, across the street from City Hall. The public have been hanging personal responses on the maze fence using it as a stage to consider mass incarceration. Durant intended that the structure which begins as transparent will gradually become opaque with the publics additions.

Philadelphia is a sadly fitting venue. The prison industrial complex has had a particularly acute effect on Philly communities and Pennsylvania as a whole. PA has one of the largest and strictest prison systems. Philadelphia has a jail system with a history of beatings, discrimination and scandal.

It would be folly to think that politicians are going to correct the problems of a bloated, abusive system without the help of the citizenry.

“The maze functions as a double metaphor, symbolizing not only the struggle of criminals caught in the Department of Corrections but for how, as a society, we are all navigating the labyrinth of mass incarceration,” says the Open Source website.

During his recent visit, the Pope didn’t take the opportunity to publicly shame City Hall and those who work within, but Durant’s sculpture obliquely does.

I like this art.

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Sam Durant

Sam Durant is a multimedia artist whose works engage a variety of social, political, and cultural issues. Often referencing American history, his work explores the varying relationships between culture and politics, engaging subjects as diverse as the civil rights movement, southern rock music, and modernism. He has had solo museum exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Dusseldorf, Germany; S.M.A.K., Ghent, Belgium; and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand. Durant shows with several galleries, including Blum and Poe, Los Angeles; Paula Cooper Gallery, New York City; Praz-Delavallade, Paris; and Sadie Coles Gallery, London. His work can be found in many public collections, such as the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; Tate Modern, London; Project Row Houses, Houston; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Durant teaches art at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

CREDIT

Photos by Steve Weinik.

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This is the embarrassing shit — the unconstitutional and serious shit — that politicians get up to when they are driven by fear, assume constituents are docile, and think no-one will call them out.

Well, I and many other good people in the Quaker State are calling them out.

This brouhaha began last month when people were up in arms at political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal delivering the commencement speech for students at Goddard College. Abu-Jamal attended Goddard via correspondence course while imprisoned. Many of the Pennsylvania legislators have admitted they had not heard or read Abu-Jamal’s speech and yet voted unanimously to introduce into law procedures that prevented Americans from exercising their 1st amendment right. This debacle is politically motivated; by signing the so-called “Revictimization Relief Act” into law Governor Corbett and the lazy lawmakers around him are attempting to not look soft in the face of Abu-Jamal’s continued and bare logic. They want him silent and they want all like him silent.

The Abolitionist Law Center say this:

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s scheduled signing of what the Harrisburg Patriot referred to as the “Muzzle Mumia Law” today allows those who have been victims of a personal-injury crime to sue an offender for conduct that causes the victim “mental anguish.” The statute is so devoid of definition or standards that the Harrisburg Patriot wrote: “Some victims of terrible crimes will be in a ‘state of mental anguish’ as long as the person who did it to them is alive and breathing. Does ‘breathing’ qualify as ‘conduct’ that’s now subject to court action?”

Things in the prisons of Pennsylvania are desperate; the activist group DecarceratePA are at the forefront of exposing the repeated arrogance of politicians and the Fraternal Order of Police, who some believe are the driving force behind this law to silence prisoners.

Many prisoners in Pennsylvania are smart and many know what is going on. They know that their state disallows journalists’ visits with cameras and now the State of Pennsylvania is prohibiting prisoners to read their own writings. It’s a scandal. In the final two minutes of the Democracy Now! clip (above) journalist Noelle Hanrahan puts into great context the continued silencing and attacks on prisoners’ agency over the past few decades in Pennsylvania.

Fortunately, immediate legal response is in swing. More from the Abolitionist Law Center:

Prison Radio and imprisoned intellectual and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal have retained the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) to provide legal representation for them in response to Pennsylvania General Assembly’s passage of a bill intended to subvert the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and repress their free speech rights. The Abolitionist Law Center is working with the attorneys Kris Henderson and Nikki Grant of the Philadelphia-based Amistad Law Project on this matter as well. Amistad Law Project is a public interest law center that advocates for the human rights of all people and currently focuses its work on those inside Pennsylvania’s prisons. ALC, along with the Amistad Law Project, are representing Robert Saleem Holbrook, an imprisoned activist, writer, and member of the Human Rights Coalition.

The law was passed in response to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s selection as a commencement speaker to Goddard College students at his alma mater in Vermont. Leading up to and in the wake of this speech, the Fraternal Order of Police, Governor Corbett, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, and a number of legislators staged a media campaign designed to whip up a frenzy of support for depriving Abu-Jamal, and any other person convicted of a crime, of their constitutional right to free speech. The law also permits the District Attorney where the criminal conviction was obtained, or the state’s Attorney General, to use their public offices and taxpayer funds to file the lawsuit, raising the possibility that Mumia will be sued for his speech by politicians and government officials who have made a habit of attacking him in order to win the support of the FOP for their election campaigns.

On October 17, Mumia Abu-Jamal issued a statement (broadcast at Prison Radio) from the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Mahanoy where he is serving a sentence of life-without-parole after being framed for the killing of a Philadelphia police officer:

I welcome Governor Corbett’s signature on an unconstitutional bill that proves that the government of Pennsylvania, the executive and the legislature, don’t give one wit about their own constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, nor the United States Constitution. I welcome that because it proves that they are the outlaws.

Abu-Jamal has spent 33 years in prison, 30 of which were in solitary confinement on death row, after being convicted at a 1982 trial that, according to Amnesty International, “failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings.” (see Manufacturing Guilt to learn more about the case) By continuing his journalism as well as maintaining his innocence and attracting a massive international movement of supporters, Mumia has long been targeted by the Fraternal Order of Police and their political counterparts. “Having failed to kill Mumia on the street in 1981, and having failed to execute him during his over 30 years on death row, the FOP and the government of Pennsylvania continues to try to silence him, this time by extinguishing his speech,” said Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio.

Abu-Jamal has given three other commencement addresses in the past: Goddard in 2008, Antioch College in 2000, and Evergreen College in 1999. He has recorded more than 3,000 essays, published seven books in nine languages, with two more books set for publication in 2015, and has been the subject of three major broadcast and theatrical movies. The latest film, Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary, is currently airing on the Starz network, sold out theatres coast to coast, and has sold more than 20,000 DVDs.

“The ‘Silence Mumia Law’ should be understood as part of a reaction against recent criticisms of the prison and criminal legal systems. In the wake of the Ferguson rebellion, race and class-based mass incarceration, and the role of police in enforcing it with arbitrary arrests, frame-ups, and extrajudicial killings, is being questioned more than ever. The Fraternal Order of Police and the government are scrambling to silence those questions, disingenuously using the language of ‘victims rights’ to re-establish the lie that police forces and other institutions of state violence are righteous protectors of public safety that are beyond question. This illegal attack on our clients’ constitutional and human rights will be fiercely challenged in the streets and the courts,” said ALC Legal Director Bret Grote.

For more information contact Noelle Hanrahan on globalaudiopi@gmail.com or 415-706-5222. Alternatively, contact Bret Grote on bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org or 412-654-9070

Sign the petition against the bill.

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Just a quick post to say …

It happened. Prison Obscura opened. With a fantastic turnout. Gallery was crammed for the curator’s talk and people said many nice things. I pulled my usual trick, clocking silly hours until the early hours most of last week during install. Matthew Seamus Callinan, the Associate Director of Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery and Campus Exhibitions at Haverford College did the same. I cannot thank Matthew enough for his support throughout the creation of the show. Legend. More thanks to so many people.

I haven’t any pictures of the opening because my head was spinning. There’s some on Facebook. I’m sure others have some too (send ‘em over!) but I wanted to do a quick post with some installation shots. Taken at different points during the week during install and may not reflect exactly the final layout. (Buckets and hardware not part of the show).

Prison Obscura is up until March 7th at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, just outside Philadelphia, PA. All you need to know about the exhibit is here.

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It is with giddy, air-punching pride and mammoth-sized gratitude for those that helped me along the way that I announce the imminent opening of Prison Obscura.

This exhibition is my first solo-curating gig and reflects my thinking right now about images of and from American prisons. Prison Obscura includes works, approaches and genres that — after 5-years of looking at prison photographs — I consider most informative, responsible, challenging and useful.

Prison Obscura is on show at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery from January 24 through March 7. The CantorFitz built a remarkable Prison Obscura website to accompany the exhibition, at which you can find a lengthy 5,000-word essay as to why I have shied away from traditional documentary work and focused instead on surveillance, code, vernacular snaps, prisoner-made photographs and rarely-seen evidentiary images.

I posit that certain images can more accurately speak to political realities in America’s prison industrial complex. I also celebrate photographs that were made through processes of collaboration with prisoners and with intention to socially engage the subjects and educate audiences. I want you to wonder why you — a tax-paying, prison-funding citizen — rarely gets the chance to see inside prisons, and I want us to think about what roles existing pictures serve for those who live and work within the system.

Scroll down to learn more about the Prison Obscura artists.

Clinical contact holding cage, Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU), C-Yard, Building 12, Mule Creek State Prison, California. August 1st, 2008

Photographer Unknown. Clinical contact holding cage, Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU), C-Yard, Building 12, Mule Creek State Prison, California. August 1st, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
Group holding cages, C-Yard, Building 13, Administrative Segregation Unit, Mule Creek State Prison, August 1st, 2008
Photographer Unknown. Group holding cages, C-Yard, Building 13, Administrative Segregation Unit, Mule Creek State Prison, August 1st, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
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Suicide watch cell, Building 6A, Facility D, Wasco State Prison, California (August 1st, 2008). This photograph document was submitted as evidence in the Brown vs. Plata class action lawsuit (Supreme Court of the United States, May 2011). Photo: Anonymous, courtesy of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP.
Reception Center Visiting : Clinician Office Space, North Kern State Prison, July, 2008
Photographer Unknown. Reception Center Visiting / Clinician Office Space, North Kern State Prison, July, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.

PRISON OBSCURA ARTISTS

Alyse Emdur’s collected letters and prison visiting room portraits as well as Robert Gumpert’s recorded audio stories from within the San Francisco jail system provide an opportunity to see, read, and listen to subjects in the contexts of their incarceration.

Juvenile and adult prisoners in different workshops led by Steve Davis, Mark Strandquist, and Kristen S. Wilkins perform for the camera, reflect on their past, describe their memories, and self-represent through photographs.

Prison Obscura will also feature work made in partnership with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Men from Graterford Prison who are affiliated with both its own Restorative Justice Program and Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice Group are collaborating to create a mural for the exhibition.

The exhibit moves between these intimate portrayals of life within the prison system to more expansive views of legal and spatial surveillance in works like Josh Begley’s manipulated Google Maps’ API code and Paul Rucker’s animated videos, which offer a “celestial” view of the growth of the prison system.

Prison Obscura builds the case that Americans must come face to face with these images to grasp the proliferation of the U.S. prison system and to connect with those it confines.

Scroll down for media, details and events.

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Mark Strandquist. Pocahontas State Park, Picture of the Dam. One Hundred and Thirty Days (top); text describing the scene written by a Virginia prisoner (bottom). From the series Some Other Places We’ve Missed.
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Josh Begley Facility 237. From the series Prison Map.
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50 of the 5,393 facilities imaged by Prison Map, a data art project which automatically “photographs” every locked facility in the U.S. by gleaning files from Google Maps with use of code modified from the Google API code by artist Josh Begley.
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Josh Begley Facility 492 From the series Prison Map.
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Photographer unknown. Incarcerated girls at Remann Hall, Tacoma, Washington, reenact restraint techniques in a pinhole camera workshop, 2002. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
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Photographer unknown: Untitled, Green Hill School, Chehalis, WA. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
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Photographer unknown: Steve Davis Untitled, Green Hill School, Chehalis, WA. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
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David Wells, Thumb Correctional Facility, Lapeer, Michigan. From the series ‘Prison Landscapes (2005-2011).’ Photo: Courtesy of Alyse Emdur.
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Alyse Emdur. Anonymous Backdrop Painted in Woodbourne Correctional Facility, New York. From the series ‘Prison Landcapes’ (2005- 2011)
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Robert Gumpert. Tameika Smith, 9 July 2012, San Francisco, CA. From the series ‘Take A Picture, Tell A Story.’
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Robert Gumpert. Michael Johnson, 15 August, 2009, San Francisco County Jail 5, San Bruno, CA. From the series ‘Take A Picture, Tell A Story.’

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Kristen S. Wilkins. Supplication #17 (diptych). “It might be hard to find, but it’s called Trapper Peak near the Bitterroot Valley.” From the series ‘Supplication.’

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Kristen S. Wilkins. Supplication #17 (diptych). “It might be hard to find, but it’s called Trapper Peak near the Bitterroot Valley.” From the series ‘Supplication.’

EVENTS

I’ll be giving a curator’s talk in the gallery on Friday, January 24, 2014, 4:30-5:30pm, followed by the opening reception 5:30–7:30pm.

Additionally, poet C.D. Wright will be on campus for a Tri-College Mellon Creative Residency in conjunction with the exhibit, and on January 31, at 12 noon in the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, Wright and I will host a dialogue about Prison Obscura.

DETAILS

Prison Obscura is presented by Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities with support from the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

Part of the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and located in Whitehead Campus Center, the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery is open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Wednesdays until 8 p.m.

Haverford College is located at 370 Lancaster Avenue, Haverford, PA, 19041.

SPREADING THE WORD

View and download press images here. For interviews or variant images contact me. Here’s a big postcard.

For more information, please contact myself or Matthew Callinan, associate director of the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery and campus exhibitions, at (610) 896-1287 or mcallina@haverford.edu

Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery on Facebook (including installation) and Twitter.
Haverford College on Twitter.
Hurford Center for the Arts on Twitter.

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Poster showing the statistics and aesthetic of ‘Proliferation’ an animated video of prison construction in the United States (1776-2010). Image: Courtesy of Paul Rucker.
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Graphic design for Prison Obscura by Ellen Gould.

Between 2002 and 2003, New York based photographer Serge J-F. Levy, visited six maximum security prisons across multiple states. The series is called Religion in Prisons.

I am decidedly ambivalent about the role of religion within prisons – it can be a force for good and for positive change, but it can also be reductive in scope and used for manipulation. I wanted to ask Serge a few questions to see if he could help me, and us, through some of the issues and interactions religions bring about in prison environments.

Q&A

Prison Photography: Tell us about your approach.

Serge J-F. Levy: When I did the project, I did my best to approach each individual (inmate) tabula rasa. I did everything within my power to try and understand who they were in the moment I met them and to understand who they wanted to be from that moment onward. In most cases I did not know what each person was punished for.

Though I feel a general compassion for humanity and a desire to understand troubled people, I also understand that the acts of many of the people I photographed often had dire and unimaginable consequences on the lives of their victims and the victim’s families. So, my compassion and understanding is measured with an awareness of the distinct nature of my relationship to my subjects.

It seems like you’ve been to a few states. Which prisons have you photographed in and in what time period?

I started in Greenhaven Maximum Security in New York State. I went on to photograph at the Muncy Women’s Unit in Pennsylvania, MCF (Minnesota Correctional Facility) – Stillwater, MCF-Oak Park Heights Super Maximum, MCF- St. Cloud, and Angola in Louisiana.

What attracted you to prisons and specifically religion in prisons?

When an accused criminal is locked away, we, as a country and a society, have assumed the inmate will be experiencing some degree of “rehabilitation.” Instead, it would appear these environments quite often breed further damage, dysfunction, and pathology. I became interested in how inmates used their time to pursue a form of healing outside of the prescribed forms of daily routine. Through religious communities, inmates were often seeking a form of spiritual rehabilitation. This spiritual rehabilitation often provided the inmates a way to metaphorically experience a freedom beyond the obvious confinement and constraint they experience in their present lives. Religion also provides many adherents a lasting form of reflection and cleansing to purge the remains of unresolved tragedy from their pasts. So you asked why I was attracted to this project? Because I feel the literal experience of being imprisoned, stripped of freedom, and confined in a den of thieves (and murderers, etc.), is a powerful figurative example of aspects of the more general human experience. The ability to find a way to transcend the reality of one’s current circumstances and experience a healing and freedom through the channels of spirituality and reflection… that’s a valuable tool.

How did you negotiate access? Did different DOCs react to your request differently?

I got access through the most classic technique I know of; I met someone in the mailroom who introduced me to someone who worked on the second floor who introduced me to the fourth floor and on up the chain until I had an endorsement to enter my first prison. After working in Greenhaven Maximum Security Prison for several visits, I had created a body of work that would encourage future prisons of the valuable intentions and ideas behind my work.

And related to the last question of how I got access, the work I was doing was not much of a security risk for prison administrations as I was mostly working in areas and in ways that could only make the prison system and its staff look good. However, I guess there was always the risk that I could have turned my camera in a different direction and as was the case in many instances, I was left alone with inmates long enough that I could have seen more than I was potentially supposed to. But that’s not who I am or how I work.

Any memorable interactions?

One warden in Texas suggested we grab tea and beer when I made it down. I never made it down but I was always interested in whether that was an obscure Texan custom.

Is photography a security risk for prison administrations?

I just don’t know the nuances of security well enough to weigh in on that question. I could imagine that with a particular intention, a photographer may be able to provide the necessary coverage to develop a plan, but I am mostly constructing this from my avid movie watching hobby!

Some of the services/prayer/rituals you’ve photographed seem quite involved. How much time did prisoners spend involved in religious observance? Were their other outlets available to them for self-reflection and improvement, e.g. sports, industries, education, group counseling, libraries?

I found it interesting how religion served multi-faceted functions for the inmates. On the most direct level, it was a form of spiritual cleansing and growth that would happen in services and weekly or daily gatherings and meetings in chapels and make-shift religious venues. But beyond these formal locations, religion becomes an identity and an opportunity to develop a social circle; a comparison to how gangs function in prison might be an apt comparison because as I understand it, competing religions would at times seek to sabotage the work of each other. One such case was how the baptism tank had to be replaced by a laundry cart because it would constantly develop mysterious holes at Stillwater Maximum Security Prison in Minnesota.

But religion was also practiced in the art inmates created; from sculptural effigies to paintings and drawings of religious scenes, the hobby shops and prison cells often contained quite a bit of religious memorabilia. There were several outlets for inmates to reflect and experience spirituality; the arts, group meetings of various sorts (including therapy), formal religious gatherings, one-on-one consultations with chaplains, and library hours.

Policies varied from prison to prison and in each case I would hear inmates express grievance as to the limitations that were imposed upon them. I was only there for small slices of time and generally wasn’t able to get a more holistic sense of what the greater experience was like.

What did the prisoners think of your presence?

I think the inmates respected the integrity of my stated goals and the ideas I had for my work. I also think, rightfully so, many inmates were skeptical as to my intentions and my affiliation with the media. After all, many of the people I worked with were directly featured and often intensely maligned in the media during their prosecution and processing through the judicial system.

What did the correctional officers think of your presence?

The correctional officers, were largely very helpful but also insistent upon reminding me of the omnipresent dangers. On more than one occasion I was told that a particular inmate was trying to con me into believing one story or another. I generally felt that the correctional officers had seen or heard quite a bit during their time working inside.

Were their any days and/or experiences with the prisoners that shocked, surprised or delighted you?

Kneeling in a small room for Friday Jumma with 300 Muslim inmates listening to and responding to the call of Allah Oh Akbar is something that can’t be explained but only felt. Same for a Baptist or Pentecostal service.

On one occasion, I sat in a room of 10 women gathered with a Catholic chaplain, and listened to one woman recount her experience of being raped and simultaneously attacked by a dog. Sometimes, it was more important for me to listen, feel and internalize the moment without the filter of photography.

Do you follow a creed or religion?

I don’t follow any particular religious path. I lead a life that is guided by principles that I have culled from religious practice and ideas that have resonated with me over time. My “religion” is constantly evolving. The sources behind my spirituality that I can identify are Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and many other faiths and disciplines I have encountered throughout my life.

What has been the reception to these images?

I think people like it. But due to the limited exposure these images have had, I have yet to hear strong dissenting opinions if there are any.

How do you think your images fit into the visual landscape of prisons and prisoners in America. Do they confirm or counter stereotypes or common narratives?

I am seeking to provide a record of the people practicing religion in prison. Of the work I have seen done in prisons, much of it addresses religion as a component of life inside, and therefore seems to be geared toward molding the religious component of prison life into a greater aesthetic and narrative whole.

My work is more thorough in exploring this particular [religious] angle of prison life. Of course, I could be very wrong about the full breadth of quality work done on this specific topic.

Thank you for your time Serge.

BIOGRAPHY

Serge J-F. Levy’s work is represented by Gallery 339 in Philadelphia and has been exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Schroeder Romero Gallery in Chelsea, and The Leica Gallery (New York City and Tokyo) among many other national and international solo and group exhibitions. In 2011 the Princeton University Press published a book of Serge’s photographs made during his yearlong photography fellowship at the Institute, along with essays by Institute members. Serge’s magazine photography has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Life, ESPN The Magazine, and Harper’s Magazine among others.. For over 10 years Serge has been on the faculty at the International Center of Photography in New York City where he is a seminar leader in the documentary/photojournalism program and teaches street photography, editing, portraiture, and several other courses. In addition to his street photography practice, he is an avid draftsman and painter. Serge lived in New York City for his whole life … until recently moving to the Sonoran Desert.

MORE ON RELIGION ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY

Body vs. Structure: Islam in Prisons
Dustin Franz’s ‘Finding Faith’
Andrew Kaufman and the Incarcerated “Jesus Freaks”
Photog Searches for Healing on Texas’ Deathrow

Forest, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, 2010

Dana Mueller ‘s series The Devil’s Den are studies of former prisoner-of-war camps in which German POWs were put to work by the US military. At the end of WWII, there were over 400,000 prisoners who worked on local farms and in small industries.

From Mueller’s project statement:

“There is an irony where these German soldiers, both high-ranking Nazi officers and foot soldiers, were tilling the fields, cutting the lumber, picking apples, taking care of the American soil. This caring, benign work with the land stands in complete contrast to the horrific actions by Nazis and German soldiers in Eastern Europe of that time, such as Hitler’s scorched earth policy. […] Romanticism has played a role in understanding the relationship of Germans to the landscape. In some photographs the land is overgrown appearing in a kind of primal state, suggesting the return to the original forest. It also suggests a Fascist aesthetic of purity promoted by pre-war German culture. Innocence and purity can be seen as a natural desire to regress after one has become corrupted.”

I was fascinated by this little known chapter of U.S. history. Dana answered a few of my questions.

How did you arrive at this subject?
History, politics, memory and our understanding of individual experiences verses collective memory of past events, especially war, always interested me. As East German, my ‘German’ identity was shaped by the two wars. I talked at length with Art Space Talk about my personal responses.

As much as this is a personal investigation I want there also, ideally, to be a collective engagement with places of our past. With passage of time comes nostalgia and romanticism, which is a very complex way of relating, looking at the past.

Jeff N. Wall – for Southern Photography – recently wrote about one photograph of mine; it was wonderful to know that someone would spend actual time discussing a photograph and as an American to relate it to his own American history.

Camp Edenton field, Northeastern Regional Airport, Edenton, North Carolina, 2009, Photograph by Dana Mueller and Bonnell Robinson.

Near Camp Camden, Kershaw County, South Carolina (branch camp under Fort Jackson, SC) 2010.

Site of Pickett’s Charge, Gettysburg, Adams County, Pennsylvania, 2009. In 1944 tents for a German prisoner-of-war camp were erected on the field of Pickett’s Charge.

How do you think of landscape?
There is power at just looking at a landscape knowing that an event took place at one time, it is not what we see that sparks our fascination with the past, it is what remains invisible.

Photography is often about witnessing and revealing, but not here. In The Devil’s Den I suggest and contemplate; in relation to the experiences the soldiers had, the American guards had and the civil population who had them work on their farms, married their girls, etc.; in relation to the landscape and German identity – both the mythical and very real ties to the land, the homeland which define one’s nationality, and the irony that German soldiers found themselves here.

I am interested in crossing historical planes, i.e. the site of Pickett’s Charge is not only relevant to my ideas but also to American [Civil War] history, and those two come together; both relate to war, participation, consequences and follies.

What are your influences?
Romanticism in literature: all W.G Sebald’s works, especially Rings of Saturn, Emigrants and On the Natural History of Destruction, Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, and many others that not necessarily discuss memory and landscape but have Eastern European backgrounds, i.e. Brodsky, Eva Hoffman, Milan Kundera, Czeslav Milosz. Also, the visual works of Anselm Kiefer and Casper David Friedrich.

How were the prisoners originally captured?
The North African Campaign by the allies began in 1940, between the Brits and the Italians. The Germans moved in in 1941. The U.S. got involved in late 1941 and militarily in 1942. Shortly after, the US Army created a prisoner-of-war camps all over the U.S. for captured German soldiers, many of whom were from Rommel’s African Tank Corps.

Others were captured at sea as German U-Boats neared the east coast, but there were not that many, and it happened sporadically. Many Germans were shipped from interim camps for German POWs in Normandy, France.

PPC factory near Camp Camden, Kershaw County, South Carolina, 2010. German prisoners-of-war worked at PPC factory between 1942 and 1946.

Camp Lee at Fort Lee Military Base near Petersburg, Virginia, 2009.

Camp Edenton, Northeastern Regional Airport, Edenton, North Carolina, 2009. North Carolina received its first group of POWs when German sailors were rescued from U-boat 352 that sank off the coast on May 9, 1942. The War Department eventually set up seventeen base and branch camps of Fort Bragg including Camp Edenton.

What happened to the prisoners?
Most prisoners were sent back to Germany after the war ended or a year later. The camps were in general also seen as rehabilitation facilities, where the American government wanted to re-educate the Germans in terms of democratic societies. As I talked to some historians, they mentioned that the foot soldiers and those less tied to Hitler’s ideology were stationed in camps on the east coast, higher ranking Nazi officers were send down south or west (Texas for instance).

Within a camp if there were a mix of soldiers, those who had allegiance to Hitler and never wavered and those who were happy to get out of the war, tensions existed and fights broke out. Therefore, they separated them depending on how ‘re-habitable’ they were. Nazis would rally at times in the camps but it never got out of hand as guards prevented revolts.

Most prisoners made friends with the Americans, they had their own newsletters, celebrated their holidays and some married American women. There were isolated escapes, most were caught soon after they fled. Most escapes were a result of the soldiers not wanting to return to Germany because Germany was completely devastated and life was better here, or Nazis knew they were not welcomed at home. Most prisoners had to return home unless, as I said, they married but those were very isolated instances.

Camps maintained strict guidelines and soldiers were treated well – times have changed when we look at Guantanamo Bay today.

Prisoners were used for labor, and some made even a little money so they could buy cigarettes and such. Off-and-on, some former German POWs come back to visit the camps and celebrate anniversaries even today. It’s strange to imagine that anyone would want to come back to where they were imprisoned. Not all was rosy – there were tensions between American guards and the prisoners, but overall the soldiers contributed to lumbering, harvesting, laboring in factories, etc and were tolerated by most of the American public. Of course, there were many Americans who thought ‘Why spend money to keep these people here?’ but as long as the prisoners contributed in terms of labor the practice became more accepted.

Melon field, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, 2010

Tomato field, St. Helena Island, South Carolina 2010. German prisoners-of-war stationed in Beaufort, SC, lumbered forests, worked in the fields and on farms at St. Helena Island.

Gettysburg, Adams County, Pennsylvania, 2009.

Are these sites marked?
Not all of them are forgotten. Only some are marked and some are just known to be sites by locals or at the Historical Societies in towns. For example, the site of Pickett’s Charge which is imbued with American Civil War history was also, amazingly, the field where they decided to put up a German POW camp. I found a sketch of the camp in Gettysburg. In 1944, it was mostly just tents. Once winter arrived, they moved POWs to more solid structures, some existed on military bases already and others were built for them, such as Camp Pine Grove, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. The foundations of the camp’s facilities are still visible underneath the overgrowth.

Other areas where prisoners actually worked I found through coincidence as I traveled along and inquired, for instance Sheldon’s farm and cotton field was owned by an American family whose son I met by chance near Elizabeth City, NC and who told me that he remembered the prisoners working in the field. His parents treated them well and the soldiers seemed content.

Camp West Ashley (below) is only place I photographed that had a marker. The ruin, which consists of a chimney, was saved by the residential neighbors who petitioned to save the historical spot instead of having it torn down, moved and the small piece of land used for development.

Other places are still working military bases, such as Camp Peary in Virginia (below) which I had no access to because today it’s the location of a covert CIA training facility known as “The Farm.” and I needed to improvise and find other ways of photographing it.

The camp at Beaufort, SC (below) was very interesting as the camp was located where is now a recreational park and structures of the building were only recently demolished, which made local news. So in terms of finding things, I base my direction of where I go on facts from literature, see below, or I just go to areas that are known to have had prisoners and I talk to people who might know the local history and then they tell me stories, or I find references at the local library or Historical Society.

Camp West Ashley, Charleston County, South Carolina 2010. The remaining chimney marks one of five prisoner of war camps established in the Charleston area toward the end of World War II. The West Ashley camp existed for only two years and consisted mostly of tents.

Camp Peary across the York River, York County, Virginia, 2009.

Site of former German prisoner-of-war camp, Beaufort, South Carolina 2010. The camp was located at Pigeon Point Park where barracks of the camp were recently demolished.

And finally, what resources exist for readers who want to know more about his shrouded episode of American history?

In regards to contemporary American politics, Hendrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker wrote Prisoners, a very interesting article some months ago. As for books, I recommend:
Stark Decency: German Prisoners of War in a New England Village, Allen Koop
Nazi Prisoners of War in America, Arnold Krammer
Hitler’s Soldiers in the Sunshine State: German POWs in Florida (Florida History and Culture), Robert D. Billinger Jr.
Stalag Wisconsin: Inside WWII Prisoner of War Camps, Betty Cowley
We Were Each Other’s Prisoners: An Oral History Of World War II American And German Prisoners Of War, Lewis H. Carlson
Behind Barbed Wire: German Prisoner of War Camps in Minnesota, Anita Buck
Guests Behind the Barbed Wire, Ruth Beaumont Cook
The Barbed-Wire College, Ron Theodore Robin
Nazi POWs in the Tar Heel State, Robert D. Billinger Jr.

Local libraries and Historical Societies have references to communities that housed German POWs. Both will have actual news materials and old photographs available. I found these original photographs of German POWs and campsites in Pennsylvania, at the Adams County Historical Society, PA.

Copyright: Adams County Historical Society, Gettysburg, PA.

Copyright: Adams County Historical Society, Gettysburg, PA.

The Great Dismal Swamp, Virginia/ North Carolina border, 2009. © Dana Mueller

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*There’s some irony in the fact that one of the U.S. camps Mueller photographs is called Edenton. Eden? Paradise it was not. Likewise, in the UK, the most famous former POW camp is Eden Camp in Yorkshire, which is now a heritage museum.

In 2005, Powerhouse Books published Thomas Roma‘s book In Prison Air: The Cells of Holmesburg Prison.

Arguably, the introduction by John Szarkowski is more interesting – or at least more complex – than Roma’s images. Szarkowski tackles head on the common question that looms over photographic studies of prisons:

“Roma’s book is in fact an odd and possibly perverse work, designed for who knows what audience. There are probably a few aging sociologists, still completing their works on what prisoners write on their walls, to whom the book might be useful (although it might be faulted on the basis of a lack of systematic rigor), and there might be another small but dedicated segment of our population that is interested in thinking about what life in prison might be like – not in terms of dramatic narrative, as with Cagney, Bogart, Robinson, etc., but rather (I am tempted to say) in terms of the aesthetics of incarceration.”

“But that is only a quick, superficial and comfortably middle-class response; and on second thought it is surely wrong.”

“Perhaps it might be more useful to ask why a photographer of high talent and conspicuous achievement might decide to make a book of photographs looking into empty prison cells. This is the same photographer who gave us the great, free-spirited dogs of Brooklyn, and the great open pastures of Sicily; and it is not unreasonable to ask why a photographer dedicated (or half-dedicated) to the cause of freedom should make this extended, serious, hermetic effort to produce a book of photographs concerning the very essence of subjugation.”

Szarkwoski then meanders through speculations about the photographs as a warning – even preparation – for forthcoming and unknown (possibly increasing) uses of incarceration:

“We might therefore, to be on the safe side, consider whether their evidence might help us prepare us for our possible future.”

To hammer the point home, Szarkowski lists common human preoccupations:

“According to their wall drawings and other graffiti, it would seem that the principled interests of Roma’s inmates were God, sex, time and to a lesser degree, art, the last being perhaps merely a method of dealing with the first three. These issues have been historically important to men in and out of prison.”

Szarkowski flourishes the introduction with reference to Conrad and Kafka and ends on an unfinished train of thought about medical experimentation on humans. Relevant, but not finished.

All in all, it is a bizarre essay. Szarkowski seems to grapple with the fact he has no connection to the content nor anchor with which to investigate and make sense of Roma’s work. But maybe that is the point he’s [un]intentionally making about photographs of prisons and of places one’s never been?

Alabama Death House Prison, 2004. Silver print photograph. Stephen Tourlentes

Alabama Death House Prison, Grady, AL, 2004. Silver print photograph. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Stephen Tourlentes photographs prisons only at night for it is then they change the horizon. Social division and ignorance contributed to America’s rapid prison growth. Tourlentes’ lurking architectures are embodiments of our shared fears. In the world Tourlentes proposes, light haunts; it is metaphor for our psycho-social fears and denial. Prisons are our bogeyman.

These prisons encroach upon our otherwise “safe” environments. Buzzing with the constant feedback of our carceral system, these photographs are the glower of a collective and captive menace. Hard to ignore, do we hide from the beacon-like reminders of our social failures, or can we use Tourlentes’ images as guiding light to better conscience?

Designed as closed systems, prisons illuminate the night and the world that built them purposefully outside of its boundaries. “It’s a bit like sonic feedback … maybe it’s the feedback of exile,” says Tourlentes.

Stephen Tourlentes has been photographing prisons since 1996. His many series – and portfolio as a whole – has received plaudits and secured funding from organisations including the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Artadia.

Stephen was kind enough to take the time to answer Prison Photography‘s questions submitted via email.

Penn State Death House Prison, Bellefonte, PA, 2003, Stephen Tourlentes

Penn State Death House Prison, Bellefonte, PA, 2003. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Carson City, Nevada, Death House, 2002. Gelatin silver print. Stephen Tourlentes

Carson City, Nevada, Death House, 2002. Gelatin silver print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Blythe Prison, California. Stephen Tourlentes

Blythe Prison, California. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Pete Brook. You have traveled to many states? How many prisons have you photographed in total?

Stephen Tourlentes. I’ve photographed in 46 states. Quite the trip considering many of the places I photograph are located on dead-end roads. My best guess is I’ve photographed close to 100 prisons so far.

PB. How do you choose the prisons to photograph?

ST. Well I sort of visually stumbled onto photographing prisons when they built one in the town I grew up in Illinois. It took me awhile to recognize this as a path to explore. I noticed that the new prison visually changed the horizon at night. I began to notice them more and more when I traveled and my curiosity got the best of me.

There is lots of planning that goes into it but I rely on my instinct ultimately. The Internet has been extremely helpful. There are three main paths to follow 1. State departments of corrections 2. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and 3. Private prisons.  Usually I look for the density of institutions from these sources and search for the cheapest plane ticket that would land me near them.

Structurally the newer prisons are very similar so it’s the landscape they inhabit that becomes important in differentiating them from each other. Photographing them at night has made illumination important.  Usually medium and maximum-security prisons have the most perimeter lighting.  An interesting sidebar to that is male institutions often tend to have more lighting than female institutions even if the security level is the same.

Holliday Unit, Huntsville, Texas, 2001. Gelatin silver print. Stephen Tourlentes

Holliday Unit, Huntsville, Texas, 2001. Gelatin silver print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Springtown State Prison, Oklahoma, 2003. Archival pigment print. Stephen Tourlentes

Springtown State Prison, Oklahoma, 2003. Archival pigment print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Death House Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming, 2000. Archival pigment print. Stephen Tourlentes

Death House Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming, 2000. Archival pigment print. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Arkansas Death House, Prison, Grady, AK, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Arkansas Death House, Prison, Grady, AK, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. Are there any notorious prisons that you want to photograph or avoid precisely because of their name?

ST. No I’m equally curious and surprised by each one I visit. There are certain ones that I would like to re-visit to try another angle or see during a different time of year. I usually go to each place with some sort of expectation that is completely wrong and requires me to really be able to shift gears on the fly.

PB. You have described the Prison as an “Important icon” and as a “General failure of our society”. Can you expand on those ideas?

ST. Well the sheer number of prisons built in this country over the last 25 years has put us in a league of our own regarding the number of people incarcerated. We have chosen to lock up people at the expense of providing services to children and schools that might have helped to prevent such a spike in prison population.

The failure is being a reactive rather than a proactive society. I feel that the prison system has become a social engineering plan that in part deals with our lack of interest in developing more humanistic support systems for society.

PB. It seems that America’s prison industrial complex is an elephant in the room. Do you agree with this point of view? Are the American public (and, dare I say it, taxpayers) in a state of denial?

ST. I don’t know if it’s denial or fear.  It seems that it is easier to build a prison in most states than it is a new elementary school. Horrific crimes garner headlines and seem to monopolize attention away from other types of social services and infrastructure that might help to reduce the size of the criminal justice system. This appetite for punishment as justice often serves a political purpose rather than finding a preventative or rehabilitative response to societies ills.

State Prison, Dannemora, NY, 2004. Stephen Tourlentes

State Prison, Dannemora, NY, 2004. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Prison, Castaic, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Prison, Castaic, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Atwater, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Atwater, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Utah State Death House Complex, Draper, UT, 2002. Stephen Tourlentes

Utah State Death House Complex, Draper, UT, 2002. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. How do you think artistic ventures such as yours compare with political will and legal policy as means to bring the importance of an issue, such as prison expansion, into the public sphere?

ST. I think artists have always participated in bringing issues to the surface through their work. It’s a way of bearing witness to something that collectively is difficult to follow. Sometimes an artist’s interpretation touches a different nerve and if lucky the work reverberates longer than the typical news cycle.

PB. In your attempt with this work to “connect the outside world with these institutions”, what parameters define that attempt a success?

ST. I’m not sure it ever is… I guess that’s part of what drives me to respond to these places. These prisons are meant to be closed systems; so my visual intrigue comes when the landscape is illuminated back by a system (a prison) that was built by the world outside its boundaries. It’s a bit like sonic feedback… maybe it’s the feedback of exile.

PB. Are you familiar with Sandow Birk’s paintings and series, Prisonation? In terms of obscuring the subject and luring the viewer in, do you think you operate similar devices in different media?

ST. Yes I think they are related. I like his paintings quite a lot.  The first time I saw them I imagined that we could have been out there at the same time and crossed paths.

PB. Many of your prints are have the moniker “Death House” in them, Explain this.

ST. I find it difficult to comprehend that in a modern civilized society that state sanctioned executions are still used by the criminal justice system. The Death House series became a subset of the overall project as I learned more about the American prison system. There are 38 states that have capital punishment laws on the books. Usually each of these 38 states has one prison where these sentences are carried out. I became interested in the idea that the law of the land differed depending on a set of geographical boundaries.

Federal Prison, Victorville, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Federal Prison, Victorville, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Prison Complex, Florence, AZ, 2004. Stephen Tourlentes

Prison Complex, Florence, AZ, 2004. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

Lancaster State Prison, Lancaster, CA, 2007. Stephen Tourlentes

Lancaster State Prison, Lancaster, CA, 2007. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. Have you identified different reactions from different prison authorities, in different states, to your work?

ST. The guards tend not to appreciate when I am making the images unannounced. Sometimes I’m on prison property but often I’m on adjacent land that makes for interesting interactions with the people that live around these institutions.  I’ve had my share of difficult moments and it makes sense why. The warden at Angola prison in Louisiana was by far the most hospitable which surprised me since I arrived unannounced.

PB. What percentage of prisons do you seek permission from before setting up your equipment?

ST. I usually only do it as a last resort.  I’ve found that the administrative side of navigating the various prison and state officials was too time consuming and difficult. They like to have lots of information and exact schedules that usually don’t sync with the inherent difficulty of making an interesting photograph.  I make my life harder by photographing in the middle of the night.  The third shift tends to be a little less PR friendly.

PB. What would you expect the reaction to be to your work in the ‘prison-towns’ of Northern California, West Texan plains or Mississippi delta? Town’s that have come to rely on the prison for their local economy?

ST. You know it’s interesting because a community that is willing to support a prison is not looking for style points, they want jobs. Often I’m struck by how people accept this institution as neighbors.

I stumbled upon a private prison while traveling in Mississippi in 2007. I was in Tutweiler, MS and I asked a local if that was the Parchman prison on the horizon.  He said no that it was the “Hawaiian” prison. All the inmates had been contracted out of the Hawaiian prison system into this private prison recently built in Mississippi. The town and region are very poor so the private prison is an economic lifeline for jobs.

The growth of the prison economy reflects the difficult economic policies in this country that have hit small rural communities particularly hard. These same economic conditions contribute to populating these prisons and creating the demand for new prisons. Unfortunately, many of these communities stake their economic survival on these places.

Kentucky State Death House, Prison, Eddyville, KY, 2003. Stephen Tourlentes

Kentucky State Death House, Prison, Eddyville, KY, 2003. © 2009 Stephen Tourlentes

PB. You said earlier this year (Big, Red & Shiny) that you are nearly finished with Of Lengths and Measures. Is this an aesthetic/artistic or a practical decision?

ST. I’m not sure if I will really ever be done with it.  From a practical side I would like to spend some time getting the entire body of work into a book form. I think by saying that it helps me to think that I am getting near the end.  I do have other things I’m interested in, but the prison photographs feel like my best way to contribute to the conversation to change the way we do things.

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Author’s note: Sincerest thanks to Stephen Tourlentes for his assistance and time with this article.

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Stephen Tourlentes received his BFA from Knox College and an MFA (1988) from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, where he is currently a professor of photography. His work is included in the collection at Princeton University, and has been exhibited at the Revolution Gallery, Michigan; Cranbook Art Museum, Michigan; and S.F. Camerawork, among others. Tourlentes has received a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Polaroid Corporation Grant, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship.

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This interview was designed in order to compliment the information already provided in another excellent online interview with Stephen Tourlentes by Jess T. Dugan at Big, Red & Shiny. (Highly recommended!)

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