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Rendition. Photographer Unknown

Last week, Eliza Gregory at PhotoPhilanthropy got knee-deep in speculations about prison photography.

Eliza was spurred by NPR’s On the Media which “did a story about a series of images that the International Committee of the Red Cross made of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. The ICRC made pictures of the prisoners to send to their families, and allowed each prisoner to choose which particular image would be sent. Naturally, the images the prisoners collaborated in making are very different from the images we’ve seen of them in the news.”

Eliza contacted me and asked me to leave some comments.

I rounded off my comments with a question I think is very important: Could an American photographer complete a project with the access, familiarity and story-telling-verve as Mikhael Subotzky did in South Africa for his project Die Vier Hoeke?

Not wanting to funnel my diatribe down just one web avenue, I copy my comments here …

Eliza,

I’d like to talk about two issues that you point to in your post. First, the general absence of prison imagery in contemporary media and secondly the urge to judge the subjects of the imagery that does crop up.

I doubt highly that Guantanamo would’ve been closed if more photographs had come out of there. While there is no question visuals out of Gitmo were controlled stringently, the MoD had proven itself impermeable to even the most reasonable requests by human rights advocates and legal watchdogs.

The point you make about smiling detainees instantly changing ones perception could be applied to all prison populations. Phillippe Bazin, Luigi Gariglio and Dread Scott have each used straight portraiture to cause audiences think about the individual character of prisoners.

I recommend books by Douglas Hall Kent, Morrie Camhi, Bruce Jackson, Jane Evelyn Atwood and Ken Light. I recommend work by Carl de Keyzer, Joseph Rodriguez, Steve Liss and Andrew Lichtenstein for imagery of prisons beyond the press shots of tiered-cells and orange jump-suits.

More than any of these though I recommend photography of self-representation. I have speculated on it before, and it has been done by Deborah Luster in Louisiana, and by the inmates of Medellin prison, Bogota, Colombia.

All of these photographic interventions are inspiring but barely make it into the mindshare of media consumers. I believe the unforgiven monster who deserves no thought is the predominant version of “the prisoner” in the minds of most Americans and many others in the Western world.

Of course, the invisibility of prisons is a collective tactic. We are molly-coddled by zealous enforcement agencies to whom we’ve outsourced management of transgressors. We have no interest in dealing with the difficult issues surrounding mistakes, mental health, inequalities and human frailty … this is where the “lock ’em up” mentality comes from.

Prisons and prisoners are not scary places because they are threatening and violent, they are scary places because they are wasteful, boring, soul-sapping warehouses. This is the document we never see. America’s prisons are a human-rights abuse.

Photography will play its part, but it’ll take a monumental cultural and media shift to change sentencing and prison policies in the West.

In the meantime, It’d be interesting to see if a long-term project similar to Mikhael Subotzky’s could ever be completed in an American prison?

© Mikhael Subotzky, from the 'Die Vier Hoeke' series.

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