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Three years ago, I spoke with photographer and filmmaker Karen Ruckman about her work as a photography teacher in Lorton Correctional Facility, an infamous prison in Virginia used to house men from Washington D.C. until it was shuttered in 2001. At that time, Ruckman was in the midst of producing a documentary film about the photo program. Well, now the film is complete. It has toured in the past few months, but can travel further and into the future.

From the working title InsideOut, the film is now being distributed as In Lorton’s Darkroom. Early reception has been extremely positive with screenings in Washington DC and Chicago at the Injustice For All Film Festival. Now the hard work is done, Ruckman and her team is keen to get the documentary seen. Are you a supporter? Would you like to do a screening? Get in touch with Ruckman and discuss possibilities.

This photo project was extremely rare and as far as I know the last program of its kind in an adult mens prison in the United States. The film depicts what we have missed in the past couple of decades. Despite this, the film radiates hope and shows us the bright spots on the yard. It fires the imagination.

Follow on In Lorton’s Darkroom through its website and its Twitter, Tumblr , Instagram and Facebook channels.



obama el reno prison

We’ve seen Obama in a cell block before (no not those photoshop hack jobs by wingnut-conspiracy-theorists) but photos of Obama and the First Family, in 2013, touring Robben Island, the prison in which Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were held during South Africa’s regime of Apartheid. (BTW, Robben Island was, apparently, “a paradise by comparison” to modern U.S. prisons.)

One expects to see empty cells in photos of visitors–presidents included–to defunct prisons such as Robben Island. But one might not expect to see a quiet, vacant cellblock inside a functioning, policed, inhabited, tax-funded prison. I did not. Yet, that is what we have. The government at work is not in evidence here.

But then again, this is the first time a sitting president has visited a prison, so there is no precedent. POTUS’ handlers made their own rules at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. To get an idea how lonely and echoey an experience it was, consider these two images made by White House Chief photographer Pete Souza. Both [one & two] were posted to Twitter.


© Pete Souza / White House

None of the other images from Obama’s visit that I’ve seen have the vantage point of the second story mezzanine. Was Souza was the only one with the privilege of this overview? That Souza patrolled the gantry, looking down upon bodies milling below, was not happenstance. It made for more riveting pictures.

Michael Shaw over at BagNewsNotes approves of Souza’s up-above-angle arguing that it puts Obama “both in the belly of the beast, and also squarely facing the larger institutional problem.”


© Pete Souza / White House

Souza’s images are in contrast to the rest of the press pack who took shots, from a fixed position, at the end of the cellblock, with a long lens, during Obama’s brief walkabout.

During his 5-minute outline White House philosophy/policy to the press (transcript here), a couple of photographers (Saul Loeb and Doug Mills), got down on their haunches and shot images from knee-level looking upward toward POTUS (see below). These images elevate Obama, resizing him, and recasting him back into his more usual role as a leader in control; as a person in a position to rectify decades of failed policy and to reverse mass incarceration.
obama el reno prison

© Getty Images

Shaw also notes that these images of a controlled Obama might reflect a significant enough change in policy that this is a teachable moment — that this is Obama instructing the nation he leads. This is Obama as educator and reasoned orator it is argued. I can’t quite get to that conclusion, for I’m still wrapped up on the fact that Obama and his prison-guard-tour-guide Ronald Warlick are dressed in virtually identical garb!

obama el reno prison
President Barack Obama, alongside Ronald Warlick (L), a correctional officer, tours a cell block at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015. © Getty

The matching uniforms might be an unfortunate visual turn for POTUS. But then again, if the shoe fits. Obama remains a law and order man. Sure, the White House is capitalising on widespread public and bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, but the president remains walking a fine line. He calls for the absolute necessary application of common sense but he does so in a way that doesn’t alarm opponents who are ready to pounce.

For example, Obama emphasised his support of correctional staff, “I want to give a special shout-out to our prison guards. They’ve got a really tough job, and most of them are doing it in exemplary fashion.” No president can alienate law enforcement so Obama’s words are no surprise. But given how vocal and momentum-winning the Black Lives Matter movement is, and given that many communities subject to over-zealous and murderous policing make no distinction between street cops and prison guards, it gets pretty uncomfortable.

On the other hand, much of America is still unversed in the racist and classist underpinnings of the prison industrial complex and will need time to take in Obama’s message. Why do you think he is hanging his every speech on the “5% of the world’s pop; 25% of the prison pop” stat? It’s a simple, shocking stat. It points the finger, but at all of us and none of us; it is a stat that calls out the problem without calling out those who created it. Sure, in front of a Philly NAACP crowd, Obama can get into more specifics and mention slavery but that won’t be the middle-ground message that the  White House will adopt between now and January 2017.

obama el reno prison
President Obama speaks to reporters during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. Obama is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. Obama is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. © Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Obama may have just pardoned 46 people who were serving long sentences for drug related offences but that was a safe symbolic gesture that indicated the White House’s awareness of the issue without pissing too many people off. But really, what is 46 as a percentage of 2.3 million?

Furthermore, Obama’s persistent argument is that locking up drug users and low levels dealers for decades is foolish. A news report I saw today said there might be 2,500 people serving 20 years or more for non-violent drug offenses. Again, what percentage is 2,500 of 2.3 million?

We should recognise Obama for getting to the starting line but he still has a marathon to run.

obama el reno prison
President Obama toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma on Thursday and met with six inmates. © Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Images

Another thing that bothers me about the “safe” rhetoric about emancipating non-violent, low level drug offenders, is that it immediately divides America’s massive prison population — it assumes there are those who deserve some help in the face of an admittedly failed, brutalising system and it leaves the rest for no help within the failed, brutalising system.

Reformers are playing with definitions, shifting policitcal lines and seeing what lands. We’ll soon rest upon a point where those one side of the line receive some relief, but the great number of prisoners the other side of it get none. We are, arguably, doing nothing to disassemble the system and to redirect public funds toward more sweeping programs promoting social equality (yes, that’s schools, social entrepreneurship programs, prenatal healthcare, food programs).

Just because a person is convicted of a violent crime doesn’t mean they are a violent person. And just because someone has been violent once doesn’t mean they’ll be violent again. A wife who murders her husband after decades of abuse is an easy to understand example of this.

Making policy based upon legal definitions drawn up under a system that has violated citizens for decades is wrongheaded. Making arguments for violent offenders, too, is probably a step too far for most Americans to stomach but here again we find a measure by which “free” people and those subject to prisons and jails see the criminal justice issue so massively differently, still.

“I know Obama can’t fix everything, but I really hope his sole focus isn’t just on helping drug offenders,” said Nathan Mikulak, a former federal prisoner convicted of a gun offense and tagged in the federal system as an Armed Career Criminal (ACC) a system parts of which the SCOTUS just ruled unconstitutional.

obama el reno prison
President Obama toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma on Thursday. © Doug Mills/The New York Times

The more I look at these images the odder they become. They mimic the press photos we’ve seen of shareholders and politicians touring schools or hospitals or factories or prisons (!) before they go online. Look at that shiny floor! Look at that fresh paint! Look at how the locks work!

These images might become iconic for the wrong reasons. This historic visit was reduced to a rapid press photo op. It’s the ultimate sanitised facility tour in the well-known genre that is the “Politician Prison Tour.”

I’ve been in a prison a week after politicians tour and heard the prisoners describe how the place was cleaned up beforehand. Obama’s tour of one of the “outstanding institutions” in the system — albeit cleaned out — is an unusual case of the Politician Prison Tour genre because it was played out for the cameras and because the whole nation was watching.

In giving politicians the benefit of the doubt, I could argue that they simply have not known what has gone on in the nation’s prisons and can be forgiven for doing virtually nothing for so long. Tours have not helped to inform them. Let’s hope that’s not the case here with our president.

obama el reno prison
US President Barack Obama, Charles Samuels, right, Bureau of Prisons Director, and Ronald Warlick, left, a correctional officer, looks at a prison cell as he tours the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, July 16, 2015, in El Reno, Oklahoma. © AFP/Getty Images

I presume Obama’s handlers didn’t make a photograph of him looking inside an empty cell because it’d undermine the “bravery” of the gesture to visit a prison … conveniently vacated of its prisoners.

The secret service knew it would be impossible to secure a cellblock full of convicts. Ironically, a prison provides levels of control over citizens that the secret service can only dream of as compared to manning presidential appearances in public! In a prison every single person undergoes the scrutiny, searches and discipline of a space designed for monitoring! And yet, the danger for the leader of the free world to wander amid a functioning cellblock with prisoners was surely too great.

Imagine, the PR nightmare should, on the slimmest of slim possibilities, a prison riot break out around the president and his entourage? Now you understand why we have these images.

obama el reno prison
President Barack Obama looks inside a cell alongside correctional officerRonald Warlick (front) and Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels

Obama did meet with six prisoners and VICE + HBO made some video of the meeting for a forthcoming documentary. When it is published, that footage might assuage this continued, discomfiting knowledge. That’s the knowledge that neither Obama or we have seen prison yet. We saw a photo op in a building in a prison compound.


For the upcoming Cruel and Unusual exhibition, Hester Keijser and I opted for a newsprint catalogue. We did this for several reasons.

Firstly, the message behind the exhibition is one that calls for political thought and hopefully political change. Shifts in attitudes come about through public education; it made sense to distribute information as far and wide as was possible. Not everyone can afford a photobook/catalogue, but 4,000 free copies of a newspaper nullifies the issue. Some might call the newspaper medium democratic, but I just call the solution common sense.

Secondly, we had a lot of photographers to feature. 32 pages of a tabloid-sized newspaper is a sizable amount of column inches with which to fairly deal with the many issues in the photographers’ works.

And third, Hester and I wanted to bring attention to the fact that [photo]bloggers continue to shape, react to, and distort new media economies. As we say in our curatorial statement:

Cruel and Unusual looks at the utility of freelance online publishing. As bloggers with academic backgrounds, we happily invest time and intellectual capital in our research and writing. Our blogs and those of colleagues have become resources – almost contemporary libraries – that others utilize and perhaps even capitalise upon. For a host of reasons, printed journalism is in decline. Simultaneously, bloggers refine their messages unhindered. Related, but not necessarily causal, we want to acknowledge these two trends and the disruption at hand.”

We aren’t particularly worried about not knowing what the future holds, because for now we are propelled by opportunities to create things in the present.


Most people are probably aware of Alec Soth’s Last Days of W. President Bush was a constant source of partisan news stories, and Op-Ed’s on Bush were divided and divisive. Given that Bush was a leader who orbited world events without necessarily controlling them and given that he was a Commander-in-Chief whose war cabinet tried to warp media to its own message, Soth’s use of a newspaper is ironic and appropriate. Jeff Ladd noted that Soth’s subjects look worn out and exhausted as if reflecting the American psyche after eight years of Bush. A newspaper will soon yellow and show aging – perhaps Soth hoped his newspaper would be short lived like the memory of Bush and the reparations required following his presidency?

Recently, Harry Hardie at HERE has collaborated on two newsprint photo publications.

CAIRO DIVIDED (32 pages) sequences the photos of Jason Larkin with an authoritative essay (in both English and Arabic) by Jack Shenker about suburbanization around Egypt’s capital. Since January 25th of 2011, Egypt has not been out the news, and yet this project is not about revolution. It is however about poverty, wealth and class stratification and as such provides a good context for the revolution in Egypt. Excellent design with eye-opening photographs. Highly recommended. More info here.

Guy Martin’s The Missing is borne of a collaboration between Panos Pictures, HERE and Martin’s alma mater The University of Falmouth. Each of its 48 pages has a large image of a missing poster photographed by Guy Martin. The posters “adorned the walls of the courthouse and justice rooms on Benghazi’s seafront.” Martin estimates that in Libya, 30,000 men are missing after the 8 month conflict. As such, the quasi-legal vernacular documents he re-photographed in-situ were the making of “communal place of memory and mourning.” The newspaper acts as a bulletin existing somewhere between the makeshift and the permanent; between memory and knowing; and – as with those pictured – in ambiguous flux with time. More info here.

Shifting gears, Portrait Salon 11 is not about political events. It is, however, a political stand against institutional exclusion. In the tradition of the 1863 French Salon des Refuses, the London-based Portrait Salon is a curated showcase of photographs that were submitted but not selected for the prestigious Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. The use of a newspaper is a mischievous challenge to the immobility of a gallery exhibition that chose 60 works from 6,000 submissions; the newspaper can move cheaply and in large quantities beyond gallery walls. Furthermore, the accompanying Portrait Salon exhibition projected portraits in order to include more photography and not be limited by physical space. The exhibition and newspaper were organised by Miranda Gavin, Wayne Ford and others. For purchase.

I’ve highlighted these projects and in each case tried to justify why the choice of newsprint was appropriate and theoretically consistent. I believe that the Cruel and Unusual newspaper is those things too.


A non-printable, non-downloadable, non-alterable screen-preview version is available online.

Starting February 18, the newspaper is also available for free in the Noorderlicht Photogallery and for sale in the webshop.

The exhibition is split into two sections: 1, a traditional presentation of 11 photographers, and 2, a heady mayhemic wall of work-prints, background material contact sheets from Prison Photography on the Road (PPOTR).

Similarly, the newspaper is divided into two sections. A 20 page PPOTR pullout is enveloped in 12 pages of descriptions of the photographers in the main part of the exhibition.

Below are the opening page and the back page of the PPOTR pullout. The portrait on the opening page was made by Tim Matsui who documented my workshop at Sing Sing Prison.

The back page is a list of 32 of our favourite international photography blogs with QR codes linking to their websites. This was our cheeky riff on the classifieds section of newspapers!

And below are two pairings of PDF pages and Hester’s photographs of the actual printed object. The paper is really beautiful … so Hester tells me; I’ve not held one yet! I would like to thank the designer Pierre Derks who worked with Hester and I. He has expertise, patience and put in some hard graft.


It’s with excited anticipation and a good amount of nerves that I announce the launch of my Kickstarter project Prison Photography on the Road: Stories Behind the Photos.

I propose a 12-week road-trip across America meeting many of the leading photographers who, in the past 40 years, have documented the rise of the U.S. prison industrial complex. I’ll also be speaking with some of the leading practitioners in prison arts, prison education and advocacy.

Interviewees include:

This is a journalism project, the product of which is the approximately 40 interviews I will conduct. They’ll be made available, via Creative Commons license, to any and all in the photo and prison reform communities. In addition, my writings will be free to distribute with attribution to interested parties.

Fundraising begins today and continues for the next 36 days.

Please visit my Kickstarter page to read more about Why, Where, What and How.


This Kickstarter is a little different to others as I have secured many generous and talented photographers as collaborators who’ve put forth prints to help me raise money. Huge thanks to all of them.

In that there’s only one item for each of the incentive levels above $200, the thing operates like a “buy now”-priced auction.

The incentives at $10, $20, $50, $75 and $125 are self-explanatory.

On my Kickstarter page, the prints available between $200 and $1,000 have full descriptions. Those same descriptions and the currently available images are below.

Every supporter who buys a print more than $200 in value also gets a postcard, mixtape and self-published photobook Prison Photography in the Era of Mass Incarceration (56 pages).

ALL who donate – at any level – become official supporters and have their names listed on my website and in the acknowledgements of the self-published book.

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Photographer: Jamel Shabazz
Title: ‘Female Blood’
Year: 1995
Print: 8″x10″ Resin Coated B&W print.

Print PLUS a postcard, mixtape (CD) and a self-published book – $600 BUY NOW


Photographer: Frank McMains
Title: Untitled #1, from ‘Angola Boxing’ series
Year: 2010
Size: 8″x12″
Print: B/W digital print on archival paper
Signed, uneditioned.

Print PLUS a postcard and a mixtape – $100. BUY NOW.

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Photographer: Steve Davis
Title: Untitled #1, from ‘Captured Youth’ series
Year: 2005
Size: 8″x10″
Print: Color, heavyweight archival paper
Signed, special edition of 4.

Print PLUS a postcard, a mixtape and a self-published book – going for $300. BUY NOW.

Photographer: Steve Davis
Title: Untitled #2, from ‘Captured Youth’ series
Year: 2005
Size: 8″x10″
Print: Color, heavyweight archival paper
Signed, special edition of 4.

Print PLUS a postcard, a mixtape and a self-published book – going for $300. BUY NOW.

Photographer: Steve Davis
Title: Untitled #3, from ‘Captured Youth’ series
Year: 2005
Size: 8″x10″
Print: Color, heavyweight archival paper
Signed, special edition of 4.

Print PLUS a postcard, a mixtape and a self-published book – going for $300. BUY NOW.

Photographer: Steve Davis
Title: Untitled #4, from ‘Captured Youth’ series
Year: 2005
Size: 8″x10″
Print: Color, heavyweight archival paper
Signed, special edition of 4.

Print PLUS a postcard, a mixtape and a self-published book – going for $300. BUY NOW.

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Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Mississippi operated by Mississippi Security Services, formerly the Biloxi City Jail, Currently run by Director Warden. A fire in 1982 killed 27 inmates. There is currently a lawsuit against them which forced them to reduce their population. They must now maintain an 8:1 inmate to staff ratio. © Richard Ross

Photographer: Richard Ross
Title: ’12-year old at Harrison County’
Year: 2009
Size: 9″x12″
Print: Color, Epson digital print on enhanced matt

Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $1,000. BUY HERE

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Photographer: Bruce Jackson
Title: ‘Dominoes. Death Row, Texas’
Year: 1979
Size: 12.5″x17″ on 13″x19″ paper
Print: B&W, Ilford Gallerie Gold Fibre Silk Paper.
Edition: #3 of an edition of 20
From Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian, “In this Timeless Time”: Living and Dying on Death Row in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2011)

Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $800. BUY HERE

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Gang members of the Mara 18 help another with his wounds in the El Hoyon prison in Escuintla Guatemala Tuesday August 23, 2005. El Hoyon was the scene of a prison riot the week before in which members of a rival gang, the Mara Salvatrucha, killed 23 members of the Mara 18 using firearms, knives, and handgrenades. © Victor Blue.

Photographer: Victor Blue
Title: ‘Closing a Wound, Mara 18’
Year: 2005
Size: 11″x14″
Print: Color, archival print
Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $200. BUY HERE

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Mary Bloomer, a prison security guard, watches from the levee as prisoners form Field Line 15 from Wolf Dormitory at Camp C at Angola, Louisiana’s maximum security prison. Angola is a massive top-security prison, occupying flat delta land equal to the size of Manhattan.  Prisoners walk or ride in buses to and from their jobs every day. © Lori Waselchuk

Photographer: Lori Waselchuk
Title: ‘Prison Guard Watches from the Levee, Angola Prison’
Year: 2007
Size: 12″ X 24″
Print: B&W, archival pigment print
Edition: #2 of an edition of 15
Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $400. BUY HERE

Lloyd Bone, a prisoner at Louisiana’s State Penitentiary, rides atop a horse driven hearse carrying the body of fellow prisoner George Alexander, who died at the age of 56.  The hearse was hand built by prison carpenters. The elaborate funerals for inmates buried in the prison’s cemetery is an example of how hospice volunteers (with the support of Warden Burl Cain) have created a tone of reverence for the dying and the dead at Angola Prison. © Lori Waselchuk

Photographer: Lori Waselchuk
Title: ‘Lloyd Bone Drives the Funeral Hearse’
Year: 2007
Size: 7″ x 14″
Print: B&W, archival pigment print
Edition: #7 of an edition of 25
Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape. SOLD

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Wards offer each other comfort and support before entering the Sweat Lodge. No blood has ever been spilt in the Sweat Lodge area, and gang rivalries and personal disputes are often resolved during this time. Since 1991 Native American Spiritual Leader Jimi Castillo has conducted this ceremony each Thursday at the Herman G. Stark Youth Correctional  Facility in Chino, CA, east of LA. The ceremony is open to all wards, irrespective of race. © Jan Sturmann

Photographer: Jan Sturmann
Title: ‘Juvenile Prison Sweat Lodge’
Year: 2005
Size: 8″x10″
Print: Color, archival inkjet print
Not editioned

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Photographer: Ara Oshagan
Title: ‘Liz, 21 years old, Chowchilla State Prison, CA, 2003’
Year: 2003
Size: 30″x8″
Print: Color and B&W, archival pigment ink print (Giclee)
Edition #2 of 10
Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $400. BUY HERE

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Photographer: Stephen Tourlentes
Title: Comstock, NY State Prison
Year: 2009
Print: 11″x14″ B&W, Archival Pigment Print
Aritist’s Proof, Signed

Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $500 – BUY NOW

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Photographer: Sye Williams
Title: ‘The Four’
Year: 2001
Size: 11″x14″
Print: Color
1st edition 2/25
Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $900. BUY HERE

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Photographer: Adam Amengual
Title: ‘Adrien Caceres’ from the “Homies” series
Year: 2011
Size: 11″x14″
Print: Color, archival inkjet print
Edition #2 of 10
Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $750. BUY HERE

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Julia Lish, a correctional officer, comforts an inmate during one his psychotic episodes. “Its going to be OK,” she repeats as he cries and yells to the voices in his head. © Jenn Ackermann

Photographer: Jenn Ackerman
Title: ‘A Hand to Hold’ (2008) from the series, Trapped.
Print: 11×14. B&W, archival matte.
Edition: #2 of an edition of 25.

Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $600. BUY HERE

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The sun breaks through the bars of the Nursing and Hospice Care Unit at the Kentucky State Reformatory, as part of the series ‘Served Out.’ © Tim Gruber

Photographer: Tim Gruber
Title: ‘Sunset Behind Bars’
Year: 2008
Print: 14×11″ B&W, archival pigment print on matte paper.
Edition: #1 of an edition of 25.

Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $500. BUY HERE


Any photo from Max Whittaker‘s archive, signed and printed at 11″x17″.

Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $200. BUY HERE

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Photographer: Adam Shemper
Title: ‘In the Wheat Fields, Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, Louisiana’
Year: 2000
Print: 9″x9″. B&W on archival paper
Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape = $325. BUY HERE

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Photographer: Jon Lowenstein.
Title: Undocumented Mexican Immigrants – Tent City.
Year: 2009.
Print: 11″x 14″ coloor print, on Hannemuehle archival paper.

Print, PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape. = $1,000 – BUY HERE

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Photographer: Incarcerated student of Mikhael Subotzky
Title: Maplank in the Workshop, Pollsmoor Prison, 2005
Year: 2005
Print: Silver gelatin print on fiber paper, B&W 35x50cm (frame approx 50x65cm)
Edition: # 1/9
Unsigned, framed.

Print, PLUS postcard, mixtape and self=published book = $1,000 – BUY HERE


Please forward the link to this page and my Kickstarter page to anybody whom you think may be interested in the project and potentially donating. Cheers!


Here’s a YouTube version of my Kickstarter pitch for those of you who can’t embed from any other video sites (don’t worry the WordPress video upgrade is on its way)

As I have mentioned here, NON-SUFFICIENT FUNDS, an exhibition of prison art by my students is ongoing in Seattle.

Prior to the show, the gallery asked that I try to make some portraits of the artists. I am not a photographer, so I was fortunate enough to secure the expertise of friend and Seattle Times photojournalist Erika Schultz.

The wall on which the portraits and their accompanying bios hung have been incredibly popular among the audience. Erika’s portraits are phenomenally unexpected. In this instance, text and image combine and challenge the damaging stereotypes of prisoners that usually hamper prison reform.

The non-existent genre of “prison photography” just expanded by one project.


Not surprisingly, Erika’s portraiture has gripped the attention of the students too. For a US prisoner, sitting for a professional portrait is very, very, very rare. Photographs play a crucial part in the unorthodox family relationships that persist despite prison walls. The students are aware of this and incredibly eager for prints, which I will provide.

You should see more of this project on Erika’s blog.

I was recently interviewed by Zarina Holmes at Sojournposse about my project here at Prison Photography. Zarina’s questions were refreshing as I have a tendency to get stuck in my own thinking and politics sometimes.

The interview itself is a little long (my fault) but results from an effort to fairly explain the nuance of images from sites of incarceration.

One of the things I continually grapple with is who benefits from prison photography projects? Is it the prisoners, the audience or the prison authorities? There is no definitive answer. In the interview, however, I did make this statement:

“People are tempted to believe that creating an image from within a prison – a rare/privileged viewpoint – is in and of itself a subversive act. In fact, what I often discover is that photography in prisons and other sites of incarceration is not challenging the organisational structure of the institution but rather working within its protocols. Thus, many prisons neutralise “the power of photography” or the camera’s ability to operate as a tool for social change.”

I have not articulated this thought so bluntly before. I think it applies to a lot of photographers working in restricted institutions or milieus.

Think about it – the most famous prison images of the 21st century are those of Abu Ghraib. Those images had a global reach and brought about change yet they were amateur shots leaked against the interests of the US military (the prison authority). Photographers are never going to just walk in the front gate unannounced. Nor are they going to be welcomed by prison administrations to document the pain and abuses within.

What does that make prison photographs then?

For all sorts of reasons, my life is a whirlwind right now.

With regard Prison Photography and what it all means, might mean, things are tabled for renegotiation. Rejigging.

The renegotiation is in thinking of more creative ways to share new content, but also leverage old content to make it available to interested parties.

A complete redesign of Prison Photography is on the cards; old interviews and criticism would resurface again. But overhaul is not scheduled within the next year. In the meantime, there exist novel means to share the archive of information on Prison Photography.

This week, I made the trip to Coventry University to guest lecture for the Picturing the Body (#PICBOD) course. Course leader Jonathan Worth is a lesson in enthusiasm. With the backing by Jonathan Shaw and the assistance of Matt Johnston along with a host of others within and beyond the photo deptartment’s walls, Jonathan Worth is creating something wholesome, giving and pioneering.

Worth and his collaborators are building a model for free, online photography curricular in criticism and practice for both BA and MA students; students in Coventry and across the globe.

My presentation ‘Tattoos, scars and tears, Robert Gumpert’s work in San Francisco jails’ (which you can listen to here) focused on Robert Gumpert‘s ever developing project ‘Take A Picture, Tell A Story‘. As an introduction and to provide context to Robert’s work, I summarised the work of photography within sites of incarceration throughout the history of the medium.

Following the lecture, Jonathan Worth suggested the introduction alone could constitute a lecture. I would venture farther and say it could warrant a full course in itself.

I’m writing a few syllabi presently and – in the spirit of #PICBOD – I realised I should be sharing my notes.

So, here they are … on a cachable page for perpetuity.


Before the golden age of photojournalism, the photographing of prisoners was used for purposes of identification, order and discipline. The two part mugshot (front view and profile view) was standardised by Alphonse Bertillion. Police departments adopting the system had in-house technicians and photographers but they are anonymous in history.

Remarkable archives by anonymous police photographers exist the world over, but two noteworthy collections are in New Orleans and Sydney.

American prisons fell on to the radar of professional and committed photojournalists in the sixties and seventies, more and more. Three Magnum photographers (Eve Arnold, Bruno Barbey, Danny Lyon) went to Texas. Arnold returned to the subject again and again. The Lone Star state had a punitive prison culture with reform commonly taking the form of hard labor on the chain gang; images echoed those of slavery in the South.

The “exotic” prison (Late 70s, 80s, USA):

Morrie Camhi’s photographs of California prisoners remain some of the most authentic portraits made within US prisons. Douglas Hall Kent, spent years and published at least two books on prison tattoos. Garry Winogrand stopped by Huntsville for the prison rodeo. The much lesser known Ethan Hoffman produced a book titled Concrete Mama about Walla Walla Penitentiary in Washington State. The brutality and tenderness of interactions between prisoners as depicted by Hoffman are surprisingly frank.

Pioneers in prison documentary photography/photojournalism (1980s and 90s in USA):

Cornell Capa (Attica, NY, USA); Taro Yamasaki (Michigan), Ken Light (Texas), James Nachtwey (Texas and other Southern states), Bruce Jackson (Arkansas), Alan Pogue (Texas).

Contemporary to the Americans (above) was the anomalous Jean Gaumy. In 1976, Gaumy was the first photographer allowed access to a French Prison.

Contemporary prison photography (1990s, 2000s):

Lori Waselchuk (Angola, Louisiana), Ara Oshagan (California juveniles), Victor Blue (California), Andrew Lichtenstein (multiple states).

Collaborative/rehabilitative projects (2000s):

Casey Orr (Leeds, England), Mohamed Bourouissa (Paris, France); Deborah Luster (Louisiana, USA), Klavdij Sluban (France and Eastern Europe), Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa), Steve Davis (Washington State, USA); Robert Gumpert (San Francisco, USA); Leah Tepper Byrne (USA)

Eastern European and Former USSR (Late 90s, 2000s):

Much of the photography from the former Soviet bloc is characterised by the grey abandonment of it all. Into the new millenium, younger photographers took less documentary approach with more nuanced fine art engagement with the inmates of Russia and its satellites. Examine the work of Christian Als (Latvia), Carl de Keyzer (Siberia), Yana Payusova (Russia), Sasha Maslov (Ukraine); Delmi Alvarez (Latvia) and Jane Evelyn Atwood.

Western Europe:

Generally, a more tactical use of technique and viewing from photographers such as Nico Bick (Netherlands), Juergen Chill (Germany), Matthieu Pernot (France and Spain), David Moore (London, UK) Danilo Murru (Sicily and Sardinia); Lizzie Sadin (Multiple countries); and Melania Comoretto (Italy).

Guantanamo (2002 – ):

Many photographers have addressed Guantanamo including Paolo Pellegrin, Brennan Linsley, Tim Dirven, Chris Maluszynski, Bruce Gilden, Louie Palu and Christopher Sims. Above all others, Edmund Clark has made the best contribution with emotive images from former detainees’ homes, letters of the detainees and an extremely engaging essay from Dr. Julian Stallabrass.

Political memory (20th and 21st centuries):

Donovan Wylie (Northern Ireland), Paula Luttringer (Argentina), Dana Mueller (US POW camps), Phillip Lohoefener  (East Berlin Stasi prisons) and Anna Schteynschleyger (Former USSR).

Archives of Atrocities:

Willhelm Brasse, known as the Photographer of Auschwitz during WWII; the photographers of Tuol Sleng in Cambodia during the Kymer Rouge regime (1975-1979); Victor Basterra, Naval Mechanics School (ESMA), Buenos Aires, Argentina during the Dirty War (1976-1983)


Chris Jordan‘s large digital composites that stack 2.3million prison uniforms upon six floor-to-ceiling cnavases approach the depressing scale of US incarceration. Featured in ‘Invisivle’ a summary of his first ten years or so probing military and state secrets, Trevor Paglen “stalked” previously clandestine extrajudicial prisons used in the global war on terror. Broomberg and Chanarin, on a tour of Afghanistan rolled-out sheets of photographic paper on days of historical importance, in one case a jail-break.

Africa (21st Century):

Without exception the photographs of African prisons focus n the deplorable conditions, the mistreatment of children and usually both. Julie Remy (Guinea), Fernando Moleres (Sierra Leone), Lynsey Addario (Uganda & Sierra Leone), Nathalie Mohadjer (Burundi), Joao Silva (Malawi).


Given the breadth of photogs’ motives and the different uses of these images it is foolhardy to think of prison photography as a genre. I have taken to calling it a ‘non-existent’ genre.

The website Prison Photography is an inquiry, primarily into the uses and abuses, creation, consumption and distriubtion of images within highly politicised institutions. The photograph is only the beginning.

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 …


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.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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