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This weekend, the BBC ran a piece about a pinhole photography workshop in a women’s prison in Argentina. I greatly admire pinhole photography in prisons.

The images are atmospheric – retro, a little blurred and with almost fish-eye perspective in some. They look like stills from some 90s skate video or something (I don’t know why that matters). They are awash in color, not unlike every hipster’s favorite, the aura portrait (not sure why that matters either).

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Maybe it was precisely because these images didn’t look like a prison that I was attracted to them. If they weren’t the feature of an article about prison and rehabilitation, they’d have scuttled right by during my day of contestant image flow. naturally, I wanted to know more about their production.

[ SEE MORE OF THE IMAGES HERE ]

They were made during a workshop offered YoNoFui, a organization that provides teaching, community, skills, personal development to prisoners. The organization was founded by Maria Medrano who believes prisons can become productive places for women, cultivating their individuality, esteem and confidence. Currently, they offer nothing of the sort. Medrano has ben recognized as an esteemed Ashoka Fellow and upon the Ashoka website we can find out more about her and YoNoFui’s philosophy.

“Convinced that the prison is the last link in a chain of exclusion and disenfranchisement that ensnares poor women, Medrano pioneered a relationship-centered continuum of education and engagement for women prisoners and ex-convicts to create concrete opportunities for women out of prison and to change the mindsets of prisoners, their families and communities,” it reads.

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YoNoFui (translated as “It wasn’t me) also offers courses in poetry, journalism, textiles, bookmaking and carpentry. It’s providing a “holistic approach to transform the way the criminal justice system conceives of and treats women prisoners, making it a productive and more nurturing place. […] Maria’s program deals with the root problems affecting the women, including their lack of labor skills, emotional marginalization and poor self-confidence.”

Some of this language is familiar to us, but a lot of it has not been implemented in Medrano’s home country.

“Women prisoners are the most marginalized segment of Argentine society,” writes Ashoka. “The vast majority are mothers and housewives from very low economic segments of society. 90% of them also come from broken and dysfunctional families, with abusive or drug-addicted husbands and children—whom they often bore while in prison. Many come from two or three generations of women who have been unemployed, and who lack formal education and the social customs that familiarized them with a culture of work. Most never learned the values a healthy workplace inculcates, such as personal responsibility and self-respect. The children of these women are often either neglected or abandoned outright, sent to live with a relative or put into state institutions. About 41% of these women are immigrants with few connections to the local society, having migrated on their own without official papers to seek a better fortune in Argentina, or who were victims of transnational trafficking rings.”

Women end up committing low-level crimes and misdemeanors in Buenos Aires, more out of desperation or necessity rather than from a pathological sense of criminality. However, once sentenced the path is predictable. Argentine prisons reflect upon the most disenfranchised exactly what they had experienced in free society – social exclusion, and permanent second class status. The effects of this exclusion are ben more pronounced upon immigrant women. The majority of people in Argentina are unsympathetic to female prisoners unaware of the complex web of causes to their situation.

Rehabilitation has not been the way.

“Prisons in Argentina function in a militarized way, due to a law passed in 1973 under the military dictatorship. They bear very little emphasis on policies and practices that help support reinsertion of men and women into the labor and social mainstream, leading to high rates of recidivism—although the public ministries do not even care to record the exact figures,” says Ashoka.

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Until Medrano’s efforts, reform efforts were largely absent. Focuses first on building individual relationships, belonging and interdependence, Medrano hopes to break the cycle. It’s hard for us to believe but many women in prison have not been exposed to, shared in, or shown how to believe in themselves.

Medrano is going further than just offering classes; she is tying all education into self-improvement and cultivating buy-in from all constituents. Only with the support of the authorities is she implementing cultural change.

“Success for the effort requires a complex series of negotiations with multiple ministries whose support will be required,” says Ashoka. “Negotiations have already begun with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labor, where YoNoFui is holding workshops. By developing broad constituencies among multiple ministries, Medrano is beginning to overcome bureaucratic intransigence, while also shifting the program’s dependence on the penitentiary system, which is part of the Justice Ministry, to other ministries with less of a “law-and-order” stigma attached.”

YoNoFui is working in two of the five federal prisons in Argentina, both in Buenos Aires, with some 600 women prisoners each. Medrano plans to scale up and move into other facilities.

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Financial support comes a number of governmental departments astutely identified by Medrano — subsidies for micro-enterprises through the Social Development Ministry; job training grants through the Ministry of Labor; seed capital from the Ministry of Industry. YoNoFui connects women with housing and jobs subsidies.

What they begin in the prison they continue outside. YoNoFui also works with agencies for Social Issues, Prisons, Migrants and Gender Issues, with the Secretariat for Children, Youth and Families — both of which have responsibilities related to the young people whose mothers are incarcerated.

Former prisoners return to the jails to work as teachers, and they are new positive role models to the women inside. Relationships are key. Skills ALONGSIDE psychological and emotional health. Arts and trades continue outside of the penal institutions — carpentry, bookbinding, textile design, textile machinery, weaving, graphic design, silkscreen, photography, poetry and journalism.

The organization is young but Medrano wants a permanent, staffed, full-time “School for Work” inside the prison. In the way, YoNoFui considers young people too in helping them re-establishing their bonds of family, re-adapt to society, YoNoFui can be though of as akin to The Harlem Childrens Zone. Targeting both the practical and the attitudinal is key, that is to build key skills but also to shift the mindset of an entire downtrodden group.

[ SEE MORE OF THE IMAGES HERE ]

Inspiring stuff. Now, aren’t you glad you took a closer look? I am.

This week, Metafilter – among others – threw a stats-bomb at my wordpress account. The lure? Uncredited, amateur, pinhole photographs. No name … no logo.

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The photography was by Girls in the Remann Hall Juvenile Detention Center, Tacoma, WA during a 2002 Steve Davis arts workshop.

These pictures really struck a chord. I am left to wonder what sort of interpretations are being made by viewers?

One thing I know is that a big CV, a big camera and fancy digijournalist turns may not be enough to secure soul-grabbing images. In fact, I’d argue it probably isn’t possible to compete with those nameless girls of Remann Hall.

Remann Hall girls 2002.  Image created with pinhole camera in a Steve Davis workshop

Remann Hall girls 2002. Image created as part of a Steve Davis workshop. Pinhole camera.

Please contact Steve Davis for inquiries about image use and reproduction.

Girls' Pinhole Photography Project

These images are the result of a collaboration between photographer Steve Davis and the girls of Remann Hall Juvenile Detention Center, Tacoma, Washington State in the US.

Davis was forced to think of the camera as a tool for different ends, essentially rehabilitative ends. For legal reasons and the protection of minors, Davis and his female students were not allowed to photograph each others faces. It became an exercise in performance as much as photography.

We see portraits of the girls with plaster masks, heads in their hands. The girls limbs outstretched made use of evasive gesture. The long exposures of pinhole photography resulted in conveniently blurred results.

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Girls' Pinhole Photography Project

PINHOLE PHOTOGRAPHY vs ROTE DOCUMENTARY MOTIFS

Photography in sites of incarceration often depicts amorphous, vanishing forms within stark cubes; it is usually black & white, and often from peep-hole or serving-hatch vantage points. When this vocabulary is used and repeated by photojournalists, visual fatigue follows fast.

Heterogeneous architecture doesn’t help the documentary photographer. Limited and repetitious visual cues make it tough to work in prisons. Images, shot through doors, by visitors only on cell-wings by special permission, are dislocating and sad indictments of systems that fail the majority of wards in their custody. 

I celebrate all photography shining a light on the inequities of prison life. Having said that, very occasionallyonly very occasionally, do I wish a “prison photographer” had expanded, waited or edited a prison photography project a little longer … but I do wish it.

Photojournalism & documentary photography have taken a battering from within and been asked some serious reflective questions. I don’t want to accuse photographers of complacency. To the contrary, my complaints are aimed at prison systems that so rarely allow the camera and photographer to engage with daily life of the institution.

Girls' Pinhole Photography Project

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Therefore, I stake two positions on the issue of motif/cliché. First, repeated clichés have developed in the practice of photography in prisons. Second, prison populations have had little or nothing to do with the creation, continuation or reading of these clichés.

As a general criticism, I would say photographers in prisons struggle to achieve original work. But, prisoner-photographers – whose experience differs vastly from pro-photographers, custodians and visitors – cannot be held to that same criticism.

WHEN THE PRISONER CONTROLS THE CAMERA

These images by the girls at Remann Hall are distinguished from the majority of prison documentary photography, because the inmate is holding the camera. When an inmate repeats a motif it is not a cliché.

These are images of all they’ve got; concrete floors, small recreation boxes, steel bars, plastic mattresses and chrome furniture … all the while lit brightly by fluorescent bulbs and slat windows. These aren’t images taken for art-careerism, journalism or state identification. These are documents of a rarefied moment when, for a while – in the lives of these girls – procedures of the County and State took back seat.

When a member from within a community represents the community, the representation is above certain criteria of criticism.  A prison pinhole photography workshop has very different intentions than any media outlet. Cliche is not a problem here; it is a catalyst.

The simulation and reclamation of visual cliche (in this case the obfuscated hunched detainee) is doubly interesting. Why the frequent use of the foetal position? Why did the girls choose this vulnerable pose to represent themselves? Was it on advice? Was it mimicry? Was it part of a role they view for themselves? Why don’t they stand? Emotionally, what do they own?

As in evidence in some images, one hopes that some of these girls are friends. This selection of shots share a single predominant common denominator; the psychological brutality of cinder block spaces of confinement. Companionship seems like a small mercy in those types of space.

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These photographs should knock you off your chair. I am in doleful astonishment. In the absence of faces, how powerful and essential are hands?

For now, consider how visual and institutional regimes square up.

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Girls' Pinhole Photography Project

Since the original publication of these images, they have been viewed tens of thousands of times. More than any other photographer – famous or not – these images by anonymous teenage girls have been by far the most popular ever featured on Prison Photography. That appetite shows that when prisons and struggle and creativity are presented in a meaningful way, images can be used as a segue into wider discussion of the underlying issues.

The Remann Hall project was done as a part of the education department program at the Museum of Glass in partnership with Pierce County Juvenile Court. This comment sums up the importance but also the fiscal fragility of these arts based initiatives:

The Remann Hall project was an incredible project, which culminated in an outdoor installation at the museum and many of the participants coming to volunteer and participate in education programs at the museum after they were released. It was one of the many incredible programs I was lucky enough to be part of there. A book of poetry, artwork (and I think some of the photos in that link) was produced as well. The whole program was a great model for how arts organizations can do meaningful outreach in their communities. Unfortunately, the program was cut one year before the planned completion, due to budget concerns.”

[My bolding]

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