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Casey Orrs Comings & Goings is an inquiry into movements and migration. Comings & Goings is a photographic series in three parts. Families considers the prisoners and their loved ones at Her Majesty’s Prison Leeds, UK.

Caged Birds depict the imported pigeons and parrots and parakeets of West Yorkshire, while Migrant Women portrays the recent newcomers to Orr’s county.

Orr insists the three parts be considered together – they are a whole, cannot be separated, and toy with the idea of interconnectedness Orr has grappled with throughout her career.

Comings & Goings proposes that foreign and indigenous are not so far apart. As Orr puts it we all share “a desire to be free, an instinct to nest, to seed, to move and be alive”.

Orr’s work requires time and care to navigate – it is as delicate as it is pioneering. Prints from all three parts were displayed was on the outside walls of HMP Leeds. It was the first time the wall of a UK prison has been used as a gallery space.

I wanted to know a bit more and so emailed Casey.

Q & A

Why did you decide to incorporate H.M.P Leeds into your Comings and Goings project? Was it the subject or the challenge of working within a prison or a mixture of the two?

My photographic work makes connections to my community and to my experience of living here in Armley, Leeds. My interest in the prison came from other projects I’ve done here. I’m always looking for the connection between the things and people I photograph, the systems that operate and seem to run through everything.

The town of Armley is very much built from the systems of power that came through the Industrial Revolution; Armley Mills, once the largest mill in the world, is now the Leeds Industrial Museum; the Leeds Liverpool Canal is now used for leisure; and the incoming migrant communities are moving from their countries for very contemporary reasons, the jobs available to them (and everyone else in Leeds) having much more to do with information technology than agriculture or textiles.

Within all of this movement, stands HMP Leeds, known locally as Armley Jail. It sits on a hill, built  in 1847, so that workers in the surrounding mills could be reminded of what would happen if they stepped out of line. The prison (along with a massive, imposing Victorian church) is one of the few buildings around here still used for its original purpose.

The systems of power associated with the panopticon are still firmly in use in the prison. The prison walls, inside my community, seem to be impenetrable, and enclose a community of thousands of prisoners and workers. My interest was in the walls and how to find the connection into the prison, how to link the people inside with all of the flows of life going on outside.

I found that connection through families, through children. Hundreds of families visit their fathers, sons and brothers every week. The families and loved ones are a direct link with the communities outside. I wanted to exhibit the family portraits on the outside walls of the prison because the prison walls are such a architectural staple of this community they can become invisible, people can forget about them and the people behind them. The exhibition was shown on the interior walls as well so that the people inside were seeing the same thing, the same ideas were being shared; walls penetrated by ideas, and by art.

What negotiations did you go through to gain access? Who did you meet? How did it come about?

As a documentary photographer, very little of my time is actually taking pictures, mostly I am trying to gain access to people and places. Before contacting the prison direct I talked to many people in this community and finally went to the Jigsaw Project, the family support unit. From there I met many of the workers who support the families. They were sympathetic to my ideas and introduced me to the Head of Security. From there I met the Governor. All of this took many months. The work, finally shown on the walls as a public art installation as part of the West Leeds Arts Festival in 2009, went through many security checks.

How many times did you go to the visiting room to make the portraits?

I spent a few months in the visitors centre, talking to families, and asking who would like to be a part of the project. Obviously, I got to know them better than the prisoners who I met briefly during the sessions. I spent four days in total in the visiting room.

How did the prisoners and staff respond to your project?

Most people were really supportive of the idea. the thing about photography is that it has uses on many different levels. So this record of families I wanted to make could also be a part of their personal family archive. The fact that I’m able to give something back to people, something useful, like a family portrait, makes me feel better about the fact that I’m asking so much of people, to use their image for one of my ideas. Everyone involved received copies of whichever pictures they wanted from the sessions.

Has your work dealt with systems of detention in the past?

No, my work is about systems of power, photography being very much implicated in that, in the recording and filing of people. So the prison system is always implicated in that, as are all currents of capitalist power.

What’s next?

I’m just completing a book about Comings & Goings and another body of work following the traces of an age old ritual lingering in the English festivity of Bonfire Night.

BIO

Casey Orr (b.1968) is originally from Pennsylvania. She has lived in England for 14 years working as a freelance photographer and Senior Lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University.Clients include Diva Magazine, Channel 4, EMI Records, Universal Records and Sports Council England. Orr has exhibited at the University of The Arts, Philadelphia, Pa. and Jen Bekman Gallery in New York. She is the recipient of an Arts Council England grant.

Read more about Orr’s exhibition at HMP Leeds in Armley at the Guardian.

Qamar Jan,18, an Afghan refugee from Peshawar poses at the Ali Medical clinic in Islamabad, June 14, 2007. © Paula Bronstein

In my last post, I suggested the repetition of subject matter in photography is inevitable.

Equally, I’d like to stress that our constant exposure to (predominantly web-based) imagery may likely result in more frequent associations and recall (partial, total, overlapping) between photographers and their works.

Here, I’d like to argue that the gravity of some photography – or rather the gravity of the story it bears witness to – means that ultimately the name of the photographer is inconsequential.

MOTIF, MEME, PERSISTENT THEME

In my last post, I also challenged the notion of plagiarism and inserted the notion of ‘meme’. I was hasty. I used the term ‘meme‘ because meme evolution within host populations can occur without any awareness of said host population; I wanted to infer that repetition, mimicry, copying, mirroring mustn’t always be accorded a conscious origin. Conscious origin is precedent, is ownership, is lawsuit. And I want to live in a world where not everything is subject to ownership and contest.

That said, I want to back-track on the term ‘meme’. Meme is more appropriate for discussing larger shifts, whereas I am really discussing trends. Instead of ‘meme’ I’d prefer to use the term ‘persistent theme’.

FINE ART vs PHOTOJOURNALISM

In Burdeny’s work, the use of a persistent theme (including the minutiae of another artists’ motifs, style) just looks bad. Simply, Burdeny is a prat, but if you want to get uppity you’d argue he has debased artistic notions of respect, brevity and creative integrity.

In the light of Burdeny’s antics (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6), any number criticisms are understandable BUT would anyone level criticisms at photographers in journalism repeating the work of others if it that work pertained to a story that perhaps has not been told enough?

Memona Karachi. 20 years old. Over 30 operations. Attacked by a boy on her way to school. © Izabella Demavlys

ACID ATTACKS: A CRUDE CRIME OF MODERN TIMES

Shouldn’t ‘persistent themes’ in the photography of journalism be judged on different criteria?

Joerg’s post on Izabella Demavlys today recalled the work of Paula Bronstein, Q. Sakamaki, Diego Ibarra, Katherine Kiviat and Emilio Morenatti. (Stan was impassioned by Morenatti’s work recently)

An acid attack is a heinous crime, but made all the worse by lack of awareness, empathy or rehabilitative service. Of course, photography plays second-fiddle to medical intervention in the aftermath of acid attacks, but that is not to say it can’t play its part.

Or are these portraits exploitative? Personally, I don’t think they are. The recurring ‘exploitation’ argument doesn’t develop a discussion – it merely demands you accept or decline the notion of ever-unequal power relations between the operator and subject of a camera. It becomes a discussion about photography and not about the reason the photographer and subject shared a space in the first place.

Personally, again, I don’t think we understand enough about the motives or consequences of these types of brutal attack, and I think portraiture and caption have their role in informing interested parties.

Fortunately, the reports alongside these images describe accessible medical treatment for victims (one woman has had 30 surgeries). More than physical healing though, many of the women have a resolve and psychological determination beyond words. (Read Nick Kristof’s NYT article).

A victim of acid attack stays in the hospital of the Acid Survivors' Foundation. In 2002 Bangladesh introduced very tough laws to try to stop acid throwing, including the death penalty in the most serious cases. However, acid attack is still common in the country -- more than 260 cases in 2005, since "The law is just like a dead law," according to Salma Ali of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association. Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 12 2006. © Q. Sakamaki

© Diego Ibarra. Portrait of a woman attacked by acid. The consequences of the attacks are for life. Islamabad. Pakistan, May 2009

Saira Liaquat

Both Kiviat and Morenatti photographed Saira Liaquat in the space of a year (the captions for her age must be inaccurate) but opprobrium will never be dealt Kiviat or Morenatti for their repetition.

Saira bears witness to her injustice and both photojournalists help her advocate.

Saira’s name and her story matter, the photographers names really don’t.

Saira Liaquat, 22 yrs, burn victim and survivor, holding an old photograph of herself before she was burned with acid by her husband. Photographed at Saira's parents' home in Lahore, Pakistan on February 7, 2009. Saira is presently working as beautician at the Depilex beauty salon in Lahore, Pakistan. There are presently over 300 cases of burn victims registered in Pakistan. Most victims are between the ages of 14 - 25 years old. Motives vary, but are most frequently obsession, jealousy, suspected infidelity, husband wanting to re-marry, sexual non-cooperation. The face and genitalia are the areas most generally targeted, those guaranteeing complete disfiguration. © Katherine Kiviat/Redux

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.

Untitled, Juvenile Prison Alexin, Russia 2003

Untitled, Juvenile Prison Alexin, Russia 2003

Ingar Krauss traveled to places in the former Soviet Union, and made portraits of children the same ages, but living in state-run orphanages, juvenile prisons and camps. Many of these kids are not criminals but these “childhood institutions” are the only places society can find for them. (Jim Casper, LensCulture)

A couple of stand-out quotes from Krauss (also from LensCulture):

I recognized that I am especially interested in those children who already have a biography — orphans or criminal children. They have already a story to tell. They seem to be responsible in a way which is not childlike.

and

Looking at those pictures they seem always to ask: Why me? And in fact this is usually the first question they are asking when I am choosing from 200 orphans in an orphanage, this one or these two. And all I can answer them is that I recognized them, that I feel I know them. Not personally, of course, because I don’t know their stories the moment I decide who I would like to photograph, but in a fundamental way I think I know them.

Untitled, Juvenile Prison Rjazan, Russia 2003

Untitled, Juvenile Prison Rjazan, Russia 2003

Untitled, Juvenile Prison Alexin, Russia 2003

Untitled, Juvenile Prison Alexin, Russia 2003

Untitled, Juvenile Prison Rjazan, Russia 2003

Untitled, Juvenile Prison Rjazan, Russia 2003

Ingar Krauss has also trained his lens on seasonal workers and economic migrants in Europe. His work from different series is collected in the book Ingar Krauss: Portraits.

This is the first part of a two part interview. Part two was published on published Thursday, 23rd July, 2009.

– – – – –

Steve Davis. Green Hill, 2000

You already know the work of Steve Davis, you just don’t know it. Prison Photography‘s most popular post was that of pinhole photographs made by the young ladies of Remann Hall, Tacoma. Steve Davis conceived of and led the workshop.

Concurrent to workshops, Steve worked on his own project, Captured Youth (1997 – 2005) turning his lens on the juvenile offenders and institutions within Washington State. Steve’s introduction to the Captured Youth book reads, “What are officially referred to as “schools” are, in fact, youth correctional facilities – jails for juniors. It’s a world kept secret from the general public, but there are no secrets inside. Everyone is watched.”

Steve and I sat down to talk about the circumstances of the workshops and portraits, the involvement of – and benefit to – the teens, the atmosphere in the facilities and how the practice of photography manifests in sites of incarceration.

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Prison Photography: Steve, you photographed in four institutions in total?

Steve Davis: Yes, Maple Lane, Green Hill School, Oakridge and Remann Hall.

PP: How did you pick those?

SD: I fell into it years ago. It was fairly unintentional. I was doing PR photography for an [non-profit] organization called The Experimental Gallery that was trying to bring in art teachers on residencies into juvenile facilities. It came up they were interested in maybe having a photography workshop. I said it was something I was interested in.

And, nothing happened for a couple of years, but then I got a phone call and they asked if I’d like to teach the kids photography and double up as a photographer for their publications.

I thought about it and I asked if I could do something different. I wanted to slow the process down and bring in a large 8×10 camera. I just wanted to do portraits; focus on who the kids were without all the trappings, bars, etcetera that go along with images of young offenders.

So, I went in and worked with the kids [within a photographic workshop format] and then organized outside of that to take in the large camera.

Essentially, I was working under the umbrella of The Experimental Gallery, which had a grant, so I could only be there when they said I could be there. And when they were done and the grant was over, I had no more access.

Steve Davis, Remann Hall, 2002

Beginnings

SD: It started in 1997 at Maple Lane, then later the Green Hill School and Remann Hall. Each of those placements was under the direction of Susan Warner and The Experimental Gallery. Susan is now the Director of Education at Tacoma Museum of Glass. Between time, Susan had a job at the Children’s Museum in Seattle and they supported her doing this and she continued through them. And likewise, since she has worked at Tacoma Museum of Glass they have supported her as well. So the name has always been the same.

Lastly, at Oakridge – that was all my own work, with anyone’s sponsorship.

PP: You returned to Oakridge and the project in 2005. Why did you decide to return?

SD: Well, at the time the project didn’t seem resolved. I wanted to do something a little different. Oakridge is a transitional facility so they are not so much under lock and key, they are allowed to wear their own clothes and they have day jobs. That is where they reside just prior to release.

Soon after [Oakridge] I felt like I was getting to the point where I was taking the same picture.

PP: How did you respond to that?

SD: I tried contacting other facilities. I really wanted to get in to Clallam Bay, which is an adult institution but has a juvenile facility. It is really hidden from the public. But none of that panned out.

Overall, my interest with portraits has pretty much been about people who are controlled and lack all sorts of freedoms. I haven’t only focused on prison; I did a lot of work at an institution for the mentally disabled.

Steve Davis, Green Hill School, 2000

PP: What’s the attraction to these types of subjects?

SD: When I got into the work, I fell in with these mini societies with their own economies and their own rules and they’re all over the place. They are thoroughly hidden by intention from the public – who have no interest in examining it.  It doesn’t benefit the public to do that.

I found these places intriguing partly because once you are there in the middle of it, the people you come across, they’re linked together by reasons that are not of their own choice. It’s not the type of community where people have something in common so they create their own economies. They are like dogs in a pound. They might be friends, they might not, but they share common concerns.

I was interested in trying to zero in on these people as individuals with personalities and hopefully open up a lot of questions with the viewer. That s all I wanted to do. I wasn’t trying to reach conclusions or force anything down anybody’s throat. I am just trying to acknowledge that this is 20 miles from home.

All these [sites of incarceration] have names that sound like country clubs! You’d never know that Maple Lane was anything but a nice street or golf club. When you drive past, it is a beautiful place, but you won’t see a kid outside. It looks good from the road, but it is not a place you can walk around.

When I did workshops, they’d love it if I walked them over to the fence; they’d never been! Just little things like that were huge thrills to them.

PP: So the youth were always willing participants?

SD: The first residency at Maple Lane was the best organized. The kids were engaged – some were working with painting and music. The goal was to create a mixed media large exhibition that would go into the high schools of King County, and other areas that had a lot of at-risk youth.

So the kids [inmates] would present the information of their own lives. The message was for the exhibition was generally “You don’t want this”. The young prisoners understood that and got behind it.

Steve Davis, Maple Lane, 1997

Method

PP: Tell us about your portrait work. How much direction did you give the boys as sitters?

SD: Well, they knew the reason why I was there. And all they knew was that their portraits were to go into a catalog. In all, three catalogs were produced. They knew the photos would be published and shown. Other than that, the motivation from these kids to have their picture taken was overwhelming.

I did go in with a bit of theater. I had a large camera, I had lights and I had an assistant. So they were just begging to get their picture taken. It wasn’t hard at all. Direction was minimal. I’d ask them to turn their head or look into or away from the camera. Because I was shooting 8×10 on a limited budget, I’d take a limited numbers of pictures of each person, maybe 2 or 3, and then they were gone.

PP: The personalities of these kids comes through very strong. Are these images an accurate reflection of the individuals in the group?

SD: Yes, each photograph is one accurate reflection. Many of the sitters look very somber, but in fact they’d be laughing their heads off a lot of the time.

Some of the portraits I feel stronger about than others. There are some portraits I don’t have a particular connection with and there’s other I really love. Kids that really struck a chord with me, part of it was the experience of them sitting with me, knowing their character.

Steve Davis, Maple Lane, 1997

PP: Can you talk about a few of them?

SD: This guy. The nicest guy in the world. Total white racist. Had as many black friends as white, but he was basically raised to be a white racist. Once you got to know him you fell into that world, his world. He got along with everybody, but if you asked him he would’ve told you what his views were. I shot a lot of him, indoors and outdoors, more complicated environments.

PP: This portrait?

SD: I like that one. I don’t know if it’s the picture or the kid. But out of all the time I was there, he was the only one where the staff said, “He should not be here.” He was a Mexican who got busted for being a drugs mule from Mexico. Apparently, some rivals burnt his house down. He couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English. He was scared and totally out of his element. But over about three months he started playing the role of the tough guy and you saw this transition. He was becoming what he was assumed to be to begin with. Becoming a hard guy – it was sad.

Steve Davis, Green Hill, 2000

Steve Davis, Green Hill, 2000

PP: And this guy?

SD: This was in the psychiatric ward and they were all seriously medicated. This kid here was heavily medicated. He’s got blood on his teeth.

PP: Explain the blood.

SD: He told me he was in a fight the day before and he was walking around like this. Maybe he was continuing to bleed.

PP: Did he always have that look?

SD: Probably not. I didn’t really know this kid. But when I saw him I really wanted to photograph him. I was never demanding, but he was the only one I had to cajole. I said “If you want to make a dent, let me take your picture.” He said okay. That was just his gaze. I really thought his look was gripping. And there was a whole wing of them.

PP: Was it a common attitude among the juveniles, that they knew they were medicated and they knew they didn’t want to present themselves as such to the camera?

SD: He was the only one. I only took two pictures in the psychiatric ward.

Steve Davis, Maple Lane, 1997

PP: And this young man?

SD: He was the only other one I photographed on this wing and he was fine with it. A couple of years later when I was working at Green Hill, I was showing the staff my work and they recognized him and told me he’d got out and was later murdered on the street. He was involved in a knife fight.

PP: This one may stick with viewers but maybe for the wrong reasons? This is your only image where the sitter comes across as full of attitude, possibly angry?

SD: Yeah, he’s got a smirk. This picture never struck me as much as others, but many people have commented. I just never really connected with the portrait.

Steve Davis, Green Hill, 2000

SD: One thing I learnt from putting the work out is that people respond to these portraits for their own reasons. A lot of the reasons have nothing to do with prison justice. Some of them like pictures of handsome young boys; they like to see beautiful people, or vulnerable people, whatever. That started to blow my mind after a while.

But on the other hand, I don’t want to force people into thinking that these portraits should be considered in one particular context. Just, here they are. Portraits are really charged that way.

PP: My wife’s favourite is the kid blowing gum. What was that scenario?

SD: He was the nicest kids. He was overweight. He had a massive pack of bubble gum and it was in Oakridge, so he was on work release during the day. He seemed like a nice kid and so I asked “could you blow a bubble”. He did. I like that picture precisely because he looks as if he doesn’t belong.

Steve Davis, Oakridge, 2005

SD: But more than the portraits, the pinhole photographs from Remann Hall are my favorites.

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Please return on Thursday, 23rd July to read Part Two of this Interview.

Prison Chess Portrait #14. Oliver Fluck

Prison Chess Portrait #14. Oliver Fluck

Oliver Fluck’s series of Prisoner Chess Portraits is an interesting counterpoint to other prisoner portraiture. It is unfussy, neutral, quiet. Fluck is experimenting with the figure and I would like to see him in the future settle with a preferred vantage point in relation to his sitter. For example, I like the portraits of the Prison Chess Champ and of Christopher Serrone. Fluck is headed in the right direction.

Prison Chess Portrait #14 (above) is a very strong shot also taking advantage of particularly high contrast light conditions.

Is photographing stationary silent chess-playing sitters simple or difficult? On the one hand, the sitter is still for you, but on the other, it’s difficult to spark rapport with a man concentrating on the game.

Text with Image

An integral part of the project is Fluck’s drafted questionnaire which secured answers to standard questions from as many competitors as possible.

Inmate quotes such as, “Having been incarcerated since age 15 and never getting out, it is helpful and healthy to know that not all of society lacks interest or willingness to become productively involved” keep reality checked. As do sobering statistics such as 50+ years or 66-year prison-terms.

J. Zhu. Oliver Fluck

J. Zhu. Oliver Fluck

Christopher Serrone. Oliver Fluck

Christopher Serrone. Oliver Fluck

Competition Winner. Oliver Fluck

Prison Chess Champ. Oliver Fluck

Q&A with Oliver Fluck

How and why you came to this topic?
I enjoy playing chess, which is why I’m in touch with the local university chess club here in Princeton. The students got the opportunity to play against inmates of a maximum security prison, and when I heard about it, I proposed to photograph the event and volunteer as a driver for the students.

What are your hopes for the project as a whole?
Very frankly, from a photographer’s point of view, I would like to see it exhibited, and provoke some thought.

What is your message with the portraits?
I can talk about one thing that I am not trying to do: I’m not trying to propagate any kind of standpoint about how one should deal with criminals, and whether or not they should have the right to enjoy chess. I’m like most other viewers, I stumbled upon this project and got curious … Curious on an unprejudiced level from human to human. Start from there if you are looking for a message.

Anything else that you’d like to add and feel is important.
I would like to thank John Marshall for this experience, and David Wang for constructive feedback regarding the prisoner questionnaire.

Competitor with Unknown Name. Oliver Fluck

Competitor with Unknown Name. Oliver Fluck

Prison Chess Portrait #4. Oliver Fluck

Prison Chess Portrait #4. Oliver Fluck

Prison Chess Portrait # 21. Oliver Fluck

Prison Chess Portrait # 21. Oliver Fluck

Original Links to portraits 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.

Oliver Fluck’s Flickr

Watch this youtube clip of a local news report from the prison during the tournament.

contact_sheet0048

Last week, I threw up a quick post featuring Emiliano Granado’s website images of his photographs of the San Quentin Giants. Here, Granado shares previously unpublished contact sheet images, his experiences and lasting thoughts from working within one of America’s most notorious prisons.

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What compelled you to travel across the US to photograph the story at San Quentin?
This was actually a magazine assignment for Mass Appeal Magazine.  However, the TOTAL budget was $300, so it really turns out to be a personal project after the film, travel expenses, etc. So, the simple answer to the question is that I’m a photographer. I’m curious by nature. Part of the reason I’m a photographer is to study the world around me. I like to think of myself as a social scientist, except I don’t have any scientific method of measuring things, just a photograph as a document.

With that in mind, it would be crazy of me to NOT go to San Quentin! I’d never been in a correctional institution but I’ve always been fascinated by them.  If you look through my Tivo, you’ll see shows like COPS, Locked Up, Gangland, etc. I was also a Psychology major in college and remember being blown away by Zimbardo’s prison experiment and other studies. Basically, it was an opportunity to see in real life a lot of what I’d seen on TV or read in books. And as a bonus, I was allowed to photograph.

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What procedures did you need to go through in order to gain access?
I was amazed at the lack of procedure. The writer for the story had been in touch with the San Quentin public relations people, but that was it. There was plenty of other media there that day. It was opening day of the season, so I guess it made for a minor local news story.

I’m pretty sure SQ prides itself in being so open and showcasing what a different approach to “reform” looks like.

It is my opinion that San Quentin is one of the best-equipped prisons in California to deal with a variety of visitors. Did you find this the case?
Definitely.  Access was very easy. They barely searched my equipment!  Parking was easy. I was really surprised at how easy and smooth the process was. Not to mention there were many other visitors that day (an entire baseball team, more media, local residents playing tennis with inmates, etc).

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Did your preparation or process differ due to the unique location?
Definitely. I usually work with a photo assistant and that couldn’t be coordinated, so I was by myself. I packed as lightly as I could and prepared myself for a fast, chaotic shoot. Some shoots are slow and methodical, and others are pure chaos. I knew this would be the latter.

One thing I didn’t think about was my outfit. SQ inmates dress in denim, so visitors aren’t allowed to wear denim. Of course, I was wearing jeans. The officers gave me a pair of green pajama pants. I’m glad they are ready for that kind of situation.

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You are not a sports shooter per se. You took portraits of the players and spectators of inmate-spectators. How did you choose when to frame a shot and release the shutter?
Correct. I’m definitely not what most people would consider a sports photographer. I don’t own any of those huge, long lenses. However, I photograph lots of sporting events. I think of them as a microcosm of our society. There are lots of very interesting things happening at events like this.  Fanaticism, idolatry, community, etc.  Not to mention lots of alcohol and partying  – see my Nascar images!

Hitting the shutter isn’t entirely a conscious decision. That decision is informed by years of looking at successful and unsuccessful images.  It’s basically a gut instinct. There are times that I search for a particular image in my head, but mostly, it’s about having the camera ready and pointed in the right direction.  When something interesting happens you snap.

There are photographers that come to a shoot with the shots in their head already. They produce the images – set people up, set up lighting, etc.  Then there are photographers that are working with certain themes or ideas and they come to the location ready to find something that informs those ideas. I’m definitely the latter. There is a looseness and discovery process that I really enjoy when photographing like this. It’s like the scientist crunching numbers and coming to some new discovery.

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A lot of photo editors say the story makes the story, not the images. Finding the story is key. Do you think there are many more stories within sites of incarceration waiting to be told?
I’m not sure I agree with that. I always say that a photograph can be made anywhere. Even if there is no story, per se. I definitely agree that a powerful image along with a powerful story is better, but a photograph can be devoid of a story, but be powerful anyway.

Every person, every place, everything has a story.  So yes, there are millions of untold stories within sites of incarceration.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell some of them.

Having had your experience at San Quentin, what other photo essays would you like to see produced that would confirm or extend your impressions of America’s prisons?
Man, there are millions of photos waiting to be made! I’m currently trying to gain access to a local NYC prison to continue my work and discover a bit more about what “Prison” means. Personally, I’d love to see long-term projects about inmates. Something like portraits as new inmates are processed, images while incarcerated, and then see what their life is like after prison.  Their families, their victims, etc.  And of course, if any photo editor wants to assign something like that, I’d love to shoot it!

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Anything you’d like to add to help the reader as they view your San Quentin Baseball photographs?
Yes. When I walked in to the yard, I didn’t know what reaction I would get from the inmates. Everyone was super friendly and willing to be photographed. Everyone wanted to tell me their story. I’m not sure how different their reaction would have been to me if I didn’t have a camera, but I was pleasantly surprised.  At first, I felt like an outsider and fearful, but after an hour or so, I felt comfortable and welcome.  It was a weird experience to think the guy next to me could be a murderer (and there were, in fact, murderers on the baseball team), and not be afraid. There was this moral relativism thing going on in my head. These people were “bad,” yet they were just normal guys that had made very big mistakes. I left SQ thinking that pretty much any one of us could have ended up like them. Given a different set of circumstances or lack of access to social resources (e.g. education, money, parenting, etc) I could very easily see how my own life could have mirrored their life.

And finally, can you remember the opposition?
I don’t remember who they were playing, but I do remember that their pitcher had played in the Majors and even pitched in a World Series. I believe the article that finally ran in Death + Taxes magazine mentions the opposition.

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ALL IMAGES © 2009 EMILIANO GRANADO

Authors note: Huge thanks to Emiliano Granado for his thoughtful responses and honest reflections. It was a pleasure working with you E!

Housekeeping. At the end of my previous post on Emiliano’s work, I postured when San Quentin would get more sports teams for the integration of prisoners and civilians. Emiliano has answered that for me in this interview. He observed locals playing tennis and also states San Quentin also has a basketball team.

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With Emiliano‘s permission I have lifted these images straight from his website. We are working together on an interview for a second post on his work (scheduled for next week). It will include previously unpublished and untouched images from his contact sheets. Please stay tuned for that. Meanwhile enjoy my personal selection of six preferred prints.

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ALL IMAGES © 2009 EMILIANO GRANADO

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The San Quentin Giants are well known in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have met a couple of guys in the past who’ve played inside the walls during regular season – it is not unusual.

In an ideal world, the to and fro of public in and out of prison would be without restriction, threat or security protocol. This way, society could fear inmates less and inmates would not be institutionalised to the extent they are today.

I realise this is pie-in-the-sky thinking as the minority of seriously dangerous prisoners necessarily dictate the need for stringent controls. Still it doesn’t mean that increasingly trusted and regular contact between inmate and no-inmate populations cannot be our ideal to shoot for. Smaller and purposefully designed institutions would certainly be the first step in this sea change.

The scheduled games for the San Quentin Giants baseball team are the closest approximation to genuine & normalised interaction between inmate and non-inmate populations. When will San Quentin get a basketball team? Or any other teams for that matter?

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Check out these sources for further information on the San Quentin Giants. Press Enterprise – Long Article and Audio, Mother Jones article – Featuring Granado’s photography, California Connected – Video, Christian Science Monitor – Long article and video, NPR Feature – Audio.

And, if you are really engrossed you can always purchase Bad Boys of Summer, a recent documentary from Loren Mendell and Tiller Russell.

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