You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Prison’ tag.

davinci

There are many stories of prisoners’ resourcefulness and creative spirit. There’s lots of tales of redemption through art, or something akin to it. The grandly titled Prison Da Vinci is one of the better produced tellings of this type of story arc.

Filmmaker Zach Sebastian relies heavily on the subject Chris Wilson’s words and phrasing. The viewer is quickly told why a British guy was locked up in San Quentin so that we’re accelerated to the important details of how and why he made paintings made of candy.

I was surprised–but happily relieved–that Wilson was able to exist in San Quentin outside of the gang culture. He encounters philosophy for the first time and met a lot of good people, he says. And he made art.

(The Prison Da Vinci film recalls to mind the work of Donny Johnson, a man convicted of second degree murder who paints postcards with colours leached from M&Ms in his Pelican Bay State Prison solitary confinement cell for the past decade-or-more. In 2006, Johnson had a show in Mexico.)

Whilst Wilson–the artist–prevails, his existences is not far from hell. What’s missing from Prison Da Vinci is a fuller picture of the depravity Wilson experienced inside the California prison system … but that’s too big for a 4-minute short and would take us off the topic of art. We know from his book Horse Latitudes that Wilson had a torrid time of it.

Horse Latitudes first landed on my radar last year when Aaron Guy (and here) sent me a copy (Thanks, Aaron!)

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Spread from Horse Latitudes (Sorika) by Chris Wilson.

Here’s the lowdown on Horse Latitudes on Self Publish Be Happy.

What’s fascinating to me about the book is that it uses descriptions of “photographs” to anchor several scenes. Wilson describes regularly things he witnessed to put us in the picture–both when he was out on the streets living life as a junkie and later when he’s inside the nick. For example:

PHOTOGRAPH

Time Unknown

Foreground, a young man shirtless, tattooed, faces a mirror with his teeth bared, metal wires are entwined through his teeth to clamp his jaws together, in his right hand, which is raised to his mouth, he holds a red-handled pair of wire-cutters.

It’s dark, foreboding and inescapbaly bleak. Wilson has been called ‘The Nietzsche of Narcotics‘.

I was left to wonder how Wilson has even survived. Horse Latitudes is a short, violent and unapologetic read. Get it if you can.

The book differs massively in tone from Prison Da Vinci and that’s okay. Wilson has established himself as a successful artist and is not cagey about his tortured past. We know people change and we know identity isn’t fixed. We know people are more than their worst behaviours. Prison Da Vinci does its bit to celebrate Wilson’s post-prison and drug-free life. It’s one story of his storied life. Wilson got beyond incarceration’s grip. Art played its part. But painting with Skittles wasn’t even the half of it.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

In modernizing institutions, new laws to permit intimate partner visits for prisoners were established. Cosmin Bumbuţ visited every penitentiary in Romania and photographed the boudoirs.

We’re obsessed with sex as much as we’re shy to talk about it open and honestly. We’re fascinated by prisons, particularly fictionalized accounts of prisons (Oz, Animal Factory, Shawshank, Orange Is The New Black, The Green Mile, the list goes on-and-on) but often our fascination doesn’t extend far enough to talk openly about what our prisons actually are and how they’re a symptom of a divided, racist, unforgiving social order. We’ve still a lot to unpack around prisons. Around sex too, we’re picky about what and where we unpack. I say this to acknowledge the fact that this is an article about sex, and prisons, and sex in prisons and those are fiery catalysts to the imagination. Be honest, you’re here because of the headline and you’re wondering whether to read these 1,300 words or just scroll through the pictures.

Fortunately, for us, these pictures, made by Romanian photographer Cosmin Bumbuţ (who is also one half of Teleleu.eu), sate our outsider curiosity without dragging us into a debased voyeuristic quagmire.

The series, titled Camera Intima, is expertly shot with phenomenal manipulation of space and lenses to secure these angles. Despite some of these rooms being converted basement store-rooms, the photos are well-lit and flooding with joyous color and pattern. Perhaps you enter this photo essay — and these rooms — expecting cheap gags, but you exit with a rounded and informed perspective on a type of room designed to meet 21st century policy, to ensure dignity and to bolster family relationships.

“In 2007, Romania joined the European Union,” explains Bumbuţ. “The whole prison system went through major revamp and the biggest reform was to introduce the right to private visits.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Simply put, the price for entry into Europe’s *modern* club was to allow previously-forgotten and despised convicts to get it on with their loved ones. Married prisoners and those in long term relationships have the right to one 2-hour private visit, every three months.

“Plus, if a prisoner gets married in detention he or she can spend 48 hours with the spouse in the special room and is allowed visits once a month in the first year of marriage,” explains Bumbuţ.

It’s obvious to say that these conjugal visit rooms are for sex. But it’s worth noting they are intended only for sex. In the United States, by comparison, conjugal visit trailers and designated rooms are set aside for the whole family. In these Romanian rooms, the only visitors are intimate partners but in the United States the purpose of family visits is broadened beyond just sex. Prisoners spend time with their children, siblings and parents; trailer visits are meant to strengthen family bonds throughout the entire clan. As such, US trailers have kitchens, dining and common areas.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

In Bumbuţ’s photos we see mostly, just the beds. For all their undeniably functional design for the carnal, these rooms are rather underwhelming. At its root, this photo essay could be of cheap motel rooms; they share the same essential elements — TV, mini-fridge, the occasional soft furnishing, nasty carpet and a sign or two reminding occupants of rules. The picture that these are prison rooms is Bumbuţ’s image of the cover page of the ‘Intimate Room’ handbook.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Between 2013 and 2014, Bumbuţ photographed the “private rooms” in all 40 Romanian penitentiaries. “I think I can boast of being the only civilian who entered all the Romanian prisons,” he says.

It wasn’t a project that came out of the blue. Back in 2009, he facilitated a photo workshop for women prisoners in Târgșor Penitentiary (more about that here). Soon after that he embarked on a multiyear project documenting life in the notorious Aiud Penitentiary. He witnessed a creaking and unsanitary lock-up trying to clean up and drag itself into the 21st century.

“In 2005, Aiud looked like a prison from the Communist era. Rooms were dirty and the walls unpainted, the cells were very small and crowded,” says Bumbuţ. “In 2008, it was renovated and the cells were expanded, the prisoners didn’t wear uniforms and were referred to as ‘Persons deprived of liberty’! Romanian prisons started to look like the ones from the American movies, with white walls and new metal shiny doors.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Even though prisoners are still handcuffed, Bumbut has, since 2008, been prohibited from photographing cuffed prisoners. Now it’s about image as much as it is about policy. When Bumbuţ first made his request to the National Prison Administration to photograph the conjugal visit rooms, he received quick approval and thanks for his dedication and help to the prison administration programs. Bumbuţ became well practiced at working in prisons. He reduced his equipment to a camera, a lens, a spare SD card and a spare battery to get through security checks as quick as was possible (often not quick at all).

The photographer’s good-standing all changed upon the release of his book Bumbata, an anthology of his best photographs from four years of shooting in Aiud Penitentiary. (Bumbuţ and I had an extended conversation about Bumbata in 2013).

The book was considered to gritty and perhaps, even, too sympathetic to the prisoners. Either way, it was seen as a damaging depiction. From there-on out, Bumbuţ was light on his feet and diplomatic. His access was never withdrawn.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

The pregnant pause within these rooms is what gives Camera Intima strength as an body of work. We look at the photographs and they ignite our imaginations about what goes on inside. When the door is open — and we and the photographer peer in — there’s nothing to see. What goes on behind closed doors will never be photographed. This tension is characteristic of good photographic series that insert themselves into the relationships of public/private space and personal/institutional power.

“Prisoners are allowed officially to have sex inside an institution, but they have to follow all the bureaucratic steps,” explains Bumbuţ, “to write a request, to wait for the approval, to obey the rules.”

Guards and the administration hold the promise of access to the rooms as a carrot to motivate prisoners toward good behavior.

“Only prisoners who behave in prison are allowed to have private visits,” says Bumbuţ. “Prisoners are more obedient when they have access to the intimate rooms.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Similarly, in the U.S., conjugal visits are seen as a very effective way to maintain prisoners’ complicity, even docility. Not all U.S. prisoners enjoy regular time with their family or intimate partners. All conjugal visits are banned within the Federal system and while states are left to rule on their own prison policies, only four — California, Connecticut, New York and Washington — currently allow trailer visits. In 2014, both Mississippi and New Mexico summarily ended their conjugal visit programs.

Sometimes these decisions will be couched in language about security but more often than not the decision rests upon public opinion (outrage), the moral judgements of the administration in power and probably the bottom line. It’s cheaper to keep men and women locked in boxes than it is to provide programming.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Back in Romania, it doesn’t matter what system or prison you’re in, your right to have conjugal visits is protected by law. And Bumbuţ was in many prisons when these visits took place. For a while he toyed with the idea of making portraits of prisoners and visitors.

“I even shot a couple before and after their private visit,” says Bumbuţ. “But when I looked at the portrait, I realised that it became too much about the couple and not about the intimate room.”

Bumbuţ wanted to spark our curiosity. He wanted to focus on the space and all the emotions, release, frustrations, love and contained freedom they embody.

Even though these rooms allow two humans to come together, they’re not places about individuals or individuality. They’re function spaces for the continuance of criminal justice policy. We know that given the choice, no-one would want to opt for these converted cells, cramped quarters or side-thought accommodations for their sexy time. No, Bumbuţ’s photographs are all about the denial of comfort and personal circumstance. These are compromise spaces. They’re about making do as much as they are about making out and they reveal carceral logic itself.

“So I decided to shoot the empty rooms.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

If you’re still with my these 1,300 words later, I’m glad you stayed the course and I hope I’ve convinced you that these images are more than visual one-liners. That, in fact, by photographing in every Romanian prison — 40 in total — Bumbuţ has created a unique, complete and priceless sociological survey. These four walls are the fulcrum between Romanian rule-of-law and the European Union compact; they’re the pivot of negotiation between prison and prisoner; and, of course, they’re containers for sexual expression between prisoners and loved ones. Ultimately, the rooms are the physical manifestation of contradiction.

“These are spaces for intimacy,” concludes Bumbuţ. “But, at the same time, the prison itself denies almost all desperately needed intimacy.”


In recent years, Cosmin Bumbuț and journalist Elena Stancu have traveled through Romania in an RV telling stories about today Romania, marginal communities and extraordinary people. They are Teleleu.eu. Follow Bumbuț and Stancu at the Teleleu.eu website and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

HAPPY THANKSGIVING! 

On the eve of Thanksgiving, it is good to remember our shared humanity. It’s also good to acknowledge our shared crimes and remember the blood spilt on the American continent. Yes, it’s imperative to celebrate common values and spiritual connection, but never at the expense of false narrative. Thanksgiving is an ideological construct to lessen the burden of a genocide perpetrated by first European and, later, White American settlers.

Yes, we need to commune and yes, we need to pause, often, and to be grateful for all we have, but let’s not wholly embrace a mythos that paints settlement of America by violent outsiders as one big picnic.

I just republished, on Medium, my 2009 Prison Photography interview with Ilka Hartmann, who photographed the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz in 1970/71.

Because our relationship to the past is our relationship to one another

Read: Photographing the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz: An Interview with Ilka Hartmann

See: Ilka Matmann’s photographs of the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

All images: © Ilka Hartmann

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Sean O’Hagan writes:

Lyon was a pioneer of what might be called immersive photojournalism, steeping himself in his subject matter in the manner of pioneering 60s writers of the New Journalism school such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson. He builds the visual narrative around extended personal accounts by selected inmates, the often intimate descriptions of life inside illuminating his already powerful images. “The text of the book, compiled from prison records and convict writings, presents the lives of a few of these men,” he writes in his introduction. “They are the heroes of this book. I knew each of them as well as a free man can.”

[…] On every level, then, Danny Lyon’s approach flies in the face of detached documentary reporting, but it is this that also makes his work so viscerally forceful.

Read the full piece: Conversations With the Dead: Book review – 60s prison life in the US

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THIS ART MEGA-GRANT IS A SIGN OF THE TIMES

There’s a host of indicators that prison reform is firmly established near the top of the national agenda. In politics, journalism, art and culture the urgent voices and battles that constitute the discussion and solution-finding around mass incarceration are getting an airing they’ve not enjoyed during the past four decades of unfettered prison growth.

The battles brought by anti-prison activists and families (alongside the soul-searching among the rest of us) may define this moment. There’s a long, long way to go to reverse 40 years of failed policy, but it can only be done … incrementally, faithfully and with a long-view.

The Artist As Activist Fellowship program recently announced by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (RFF) could be part of a continued movement toward justice and toward national healing. Specifically, the RRF wants to support projects that “address racial justice through the lens of mass incarceration.”

There are more-and-more funding opportunities for artists looking at prisons, abolition and racial discrimination. I don’t have time to flag them all, but for this one I had to take pause. The size of this grant is quite remarkable. There’s been a couple of $15K and $25K offerings recently, but the RRF just upped the ante.

DEADLINE

You have until December 7th to argue your case for 100,000 USD in support.

RFF’S STATEMENT

Of the 2.2 million people currently in American prisons or jails, 1 million are African American. This rate of incarceration is a 500% increase over the past 30 years, and if current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. Nationwide, African Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons.

This constitutes an epidemic. Particularly so given mass incarceration’s intersection with wealth inequality and economic justice, voting rights, immigration rights, access to affordable housing, and inequitable educational policies. It is exhausting to unravel the complexity of this issue, let alone to design ways to dismantle the social and economic structures that produced mass incarceration as a phenomenon. Yet that is the task before all of us, one that requires an army of creative thinkers.

THE FELLOWSHIP

The 2016 Artist as Activist Fellowship provides the opportunity for creative professionals who are committed to making meaningful progress towards ending mass incarceration to seek a robust set of resources to advance their work. RRF believes that, at their best, art and artists are disruptive. The very nature of being a compelling artist is to generate new thinking and inspire new ways of being, whether through fostering empathy or by proposing radical alternatives to our current systems. If a new world is possible, it is the minds of artists, designers, culture bearers, and other creative professionals who will call it forth.

ABOUT RRF

The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation fosters the legacy of the artist’s life, work, and philosophy that art can change the world. The foundation supports initiatives at the intersection of arts and issues that embody the fearlessness, innovation, and multidisciplinary approach that Robert Rauschenberg exemplified in both his art and philanthropic endeavors.

MO’ INFO

Facebook
Twitter
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press@rauschenbergfoundation.org

212 228 5283

Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
381 Lafayette Street
New York
NY 10003-7022

IMAGE

Robert Rauschenberg, Poster for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), 1965 (detail). Silkscreen print with varnish overlay, 35 7/8 x 23 7/8 inches.

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American photographer Willow Paule has spent half her time, in recent years, in Indonesia. She recounts in PsychoCulturalCinema how she slowly learnt about the past incarcerations of her two friends. Their conversations together led to more questions. Paule writes:

Through my research and conversations with these former prisoners in Indonesia, I discovered that they had faced rampant corruption, extortion, and violence in prison. I found that people were often convicted without solid evidence, that they sometimes possessed only small amounts of narcotics or marijuana but were given long drug distribution sentences, while large time dealers got off with lighter sentences. The person with the fattest wallet got the best treatment.

I learned that mentally ill people often became police targets, and periodically drugs were planted on them in order for police to meet arrest quotas. Once they were locked up, they didn’t necessarily receive adequate care, and they sometimes created turmoil in the cramped cells they shared with the general population. Many people told me disheartening stories about human rights abuses in Indonesian prisons.

My focus is the U.S. prison system, but as I say, dryly and reductively, on my bio page, “problems exist in other countries too.” Paule knows this all too well. She recorded the art that her two friends created as a matter of survival and also their difficult reentry into society. There, as here, jobs are difficult to come by for former prisoners and the stigma of prison lingers long.

The extent to my knowledge on the Indonesian prison system spans the length of Paule’s article. The system sounds dire.

“Prison sentence lengths were decided depending on bribe amounts and prisoners had to pay for a cell or face daily beatings and electrocution in solitary confinement,” writes Paule.

Connecting Paule’s years-old inquiry to today, in the U.S., is Paule’s desire to repeat the methodology and record the stories of returning citizens in America.

There’s no shortage of people in this country with whom Paule could meaningfully connect and weave their history and story over a long period as she did in Indonesia. It takes more than just images though; I encourage Paule and all young photographers to use audio, family archives, collaborative processes and — as Paule did here — a focus on non-photo 2D artworks. Most of all, I encourage young photographers to empower not only individuals impacted by incarceration through the telling of their stories but also to empower small local communities by exhibiting and programming the work with those most closely implicated in the issue.

Simply put, a show at the local community centre is as important as one in the brand name gallery downtown. The former deals in hearts and minds, the latter in sales.

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Christopher Onstott is a freelance photojournalist, photo editor, and videographer working out of his native Portland, Oregon. Before he turned to image-making, he bounced around in various jobs — most of the sales. He was once high-interest loan officer, pizza delivery boy and used-car salesman. At the age of 24, he took a leap of faith and signed up for a college photo program.

I may have left Portland, but I still have friends there and interviews in the can, so here is Christopher and I talking about PDX, rural Oregon, disaster kits, the grounding effect of portraiture, setting up a business, and specifically setting up a business with your love.

In summer of last year, Christopher went inside Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) as part of the Oregon Project Dayshoot+30. Our discussion begins there. The two images (above and directly below) are from inside OSP. Other images included are from Christopher’s portfolio.

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about your decision to shoot in Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).

CO: It was with Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 which was the 30 year anniversary of a day of photographing Oregon by 90 photographers back in 1983. I own the original book One Average Day and the images that stood out to me were the penitentiary photos. In between the usual ‘day in the life’ shots, vineyards, cattle and farmer photos were photographs of a guy in his cell smoking cigarettes.

PP: What was the intrigue?

CO: Prisoners are the under-represented group in Oregon. If you think of Oregonians, you don’t think of prisoners. But they’re residents here.

PP: There’s 14 or 15 thousand people in Oregon’s state prisons these days. Thousands more in county jails.

CO: The Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 was a good reason to get access to OSP which I wouldn’t usually get access to.

I contacted the public liaison office, told them about the project, sent them to the site, sent them a couple of photos of the book that I’d taken on my phone. “Here’s what they did 30 years ago, can I come and shoot?” essentially. They did a security background check and we set up a time. I had only an hour window to shoot. The rest of the day I photographed around Salem.

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CO: When I got to the prison, the gentleman I’d been emailing with was not the man I met. The man I’d been in communication with was off work sick. So, immediately there was this disconnect between what I’d asked for and what was being presented to me.

It wasn’t a good experience.

PP: How so?

CO: I wanted to photograph the residents of OSP with a documentary approach, in the vein of the original project. But, my escort’s perception was I wanted take an updated version of the photo from 30-years-ago!

He asked, “So, you want to take this picture?” as he pointed at a print-off of a camera-phone picture of a image in a book! He walked me to a cell, there were two prisoners. He told me I could only photograph one and he gave me 3 minutes. [Laughs]

PP: You had your own art director!

CO: “The image your holding is an example,” I said. “But let’s look at the whole penitentiary.” He said we were not cleared for that, because all the prisoners were about to move for count. There was no flexibility. My escort was accountable to his boss and he didn’t know what had been said before.

PP: What did the subject think about you photographing?

CO: He was totally okay with it. He thought it was cool. I got the impression he knew he was going to be photographed. He was on LWOP (Life Without Parole). Pretty docile.

PP: You think he’s seen the photograph?

CO: I don’t know. I emailed the prison a copy of the photograph in a thank you email.

PP: when you were in OSP, did you cover your tattoos up?

CO: I wore short sleeves. I don’t really think of myself as being tattooed.

PP: Believe me, the prisoners and staff noticed! Do you think there was more to be seen at OSP?

CO: Definitely, just walking in we passed so many people. There was activity and work details everywhere. I was eyeing pictures everywhere but I couldn’t take them. It’s an entire town in there, right? A cultural complex. There’s a million photographs to be made. But I was only to capture a very slim sliver of life.

Still it’s important that there’s at least a representation of prisoners as residents of Oregon 30 years from now.

Tire Swing, Alberta Steet, hipsters, portland, summer,

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PP: Shifting gears. You grew up in Oregon.

CO: Grew up in Portland, spent a year in Texas, went to college in Washington State, spent a year in Texas, worked for 4 years at the Spectrum and Daily News in St George, Utah. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The weather sucks five months out of the year.

PP: There’s lots of buzz about Portland, right now.

CO: Oregon really is two different states of mind.

You’ve got the Willamette Valley and the city of Portland and then you’ve got the rest of the state. The one area that doesn’t get attention is Southeastern Oregon. Not a lot of roads, no freeways, hardly a population density. Very rural.

PP: How do you characterize the Portland photo scene?

CO: I think it’s really supportive. We’ve got ASMP Oregon and Newspace. Photographers will move work back and forth and offer one another help. But, on the otherhand, there’s a lot of photographers, so it can be competitive at the same time.

PP: Journalism, editorial?

CO: Magazines. There’s a lot of international attention on the city so we’ve people coming here asking for images. Those stories tend to lean the way of food, style travel; not hardcore news stories. There’s no tornadoes or hurricanes here!

PP: Maybe an earthquake?

CO: I’ve got my 72-hr disaster kit and spare film ready [laughs].

PP: Have you always been a photographer?

CO: No. I’ve been pizza delivery driver. Worked in my dad’s automotive shop. I was a used car sales man for four years. I’ve been a high interest loan officer. I was a bartender for two years. When my father passed away in 2001, I inherited his camera and I was left with “What do I do now?”

My father always told me to be a salesman. But I couldn’t stomach earning a living by getting one over on people. I’d never been to college, so after he died. I decided to go back to college. I was a freshman at 24-years-old! I did Photojournalism at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington.

I took a picture of a girl’s basketball game and they ran it big in the paper and that was me hooked. [laughs]

PP: What’s easier to sell? Photographs or used cars?

CO: They’re both really hard!

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PP: How do you feel about photography. Is it as bad as it’s often made out? Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty thinker.

CO: I think the glass is awesome. The fact you can wake in the morning, pick up a camera and go make a living. I don’t care if your shooting fashion or street photography or using your iPhone, you just have to make pictures. We’re a society that is devouring images.

PP: But a photographer still has to package and shape stories. Can’t just churn them out!?

CO: You still gotta be good. My degree was in visual rhetoric; saying something with an image. Manage that and you’ve accomplished something as a photographer. If you’re a one trick pony, then you’re not gonna last.

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PP: I recently met Randy Olson and Melissa Farlow recently.

CO: Randy was my mentor at Missouri Photo Workshop last year.

PP: They’re a couple. There’s a few photo couples out there.

CO: Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber.

PP: Two great photographers. Yourself and Leah Nash are a couple. Is there any element of professional competition between you two?

CO: The secret to being in a relationship with another photographer is to be open to criticism and not to take it personally. If you want to grow, take honest feedback from someone who knows you really well and how you operate.

Leah and I edit one another’s work and we don’t take it personally. There’s no relationship argument to be had over photographs.

We’ve agreed not be chasing the same jobs. We’ve formed a separate company, NashCO (Leah Nash & C. Onstott) outside of our own work stylistically that’s focused on corporate and commercial work.

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PP: What you working on now?

CO: Street photography. I’m carrying my camera everyday capturing people in moments.

I’ve been working on a personal project of portraits for 5-years now. Using my Hasselblad. It’s slower. Because when I was at the newspaper I was running around photographing people but not really meeting them, you know? I was encountering into people who … I wouldn’t say were marginalized … but they were people who wouldn’t normally be paid attention to by the news. I wanted to slow down.

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CO: In news you’re photographing people in the highest points of achievement in their life, or at the lowest points of their life. The big award, the win at the big race, or the battle with cancer. Most of the time, we’re overlooking the median, the mean of existence.

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CO: I want to give those everyday people and experiences some attention. In Nevada, New York, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California. Any time I travel, I try to make portraits.

Pick out the person who is trying not to be photographed and ask their name and their story. Often they reply, “Why me?” and my response is “Because you’re interesting.”

I’ve been the only photographer at some of the newspapers I’ve worked at. I was shooting car accidents, house fires and high school sports. My way to decompress from that is to take pictures that I wasn’t taking on the job.

PP: Instagram?

CO: Used to Instagram a lot. When I got my [digital] Leica I stopped posting on Instagram so much. I try to follow people who are making good pictures because I want to be inspired. I don’t want to see pictures of peoples kids.

PP: Where do you shoot?

CO: I’ve been shooting a lot around my neighborhood, the Alberta neighborhood, because it is a gentrified ghetto. There’s a lot of collision. Walk up Alberta or Killingsworth Streets and there’s a photograph every 10 metres. But here’s the hub of Portland’s gentrification.

PP: What else keeps your eye busy?

CO: Portland Squared. It’s a project that Leah started a couple of years ago. 50 photographers. one square mile divided up into fifty squares and you spend the day shooting a square and ASMP event. Last year, they did a bigger square. 2 x 2 miles and 70 photographers. for 24 hours.

PP: Whose work do you admire here in town?

Thom Boyd, Natalie Behring.

Jason Langer’s work blows my mind. Chris Hornbecker who did the Timbers billboards.

Beth Nakamura’s stuff is awesome; she’s just a kick-ass daily newspaper photographer. Her blog is great too.

PP: Anything else to add?

CO: Don’t move to Portland! There’s too many photographers here! [Laughs]

PP: Ha! Thanks, Christopher.

CO: Thank you, Pete.

people-023

SOCIALS

Keep up with Christopher Onstott through his website, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Follow NashCO on Facebook, Vimeo and web and blog.

EYE ON PDX

Eye On PDX is an ongoing series of profiles of photographers based in Portland, Oregon. See past Eye On PDX profiles here and here.

clarke_giles_el_salvador_vice_prison-pit

Giles Clarke is a photographer with the bit between his teeth. Last summer, he wandered into a story about squalid cages being used by El Salvadorian police to hold men accused of gang-related crimes. The pictures — published in the August 2013 issue of VICE — caused some outrage, a lot of gawking and general throwing of hands in the air.

(Click on an image to see it larger.)

It was an unplanned chain of events that led Clarke to the stinking cages. It began on a Saturday night in February of last year when Clarke’s fixer, a local breakdancer who works with youth to divert them from crime, took him to the police station in Quezaltepeque, a town 15 outside of San Salvador.

”I told the police I wanted to ride along and went straight out into Barrio-18 territory,” says Clarke “Bare in mind these gangs are armed to the teeth and control huge swathes of the towns. Armed police units are joined by the military.”

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

At the time of Clarke’s visit, there was a fragile peace truce between Barrio 18 (18th Street Gang) and MS-13  in place. Mostly, the night was eerily quiet but it was later punctuated by violence.

“We responded to a shoot-out at a traffic junction. The shooter had fled and not hit anyone but units swarmed the area. I was told to lie down behind one cop till all clear given. It turned out drunk driver had got in the face of a friend and the friend had popped off a few shots to shut him up. Then we spent another couple of hours searching, pulling kids and gangers over.”

The next day, Clarke returned to the station. A new female officer responsible for caring for victims of domestic abuse asked her captain, “Have you shown him the cages, yet?” The captain of 17 years – who was a bit more enlightened than his rank and file (and also a surfer and guitar enthusiast) — liked to talk about his work and saw value in showing a foreign journalist the cages.

“The captain was very aware of what he was doing [by letting me photograph the cages]. He has a big heart for the issues he is facing,” says Clarke. “The El Salvador legal system is a disaster — with the explosion of gang violence in the last 15 years, the lack of new prisons along with the huge rise in US deportation rates — the justice system can’t handle it so these cages are springing up everywhere. 35 men in each one.”

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

There were three cages at Quezaltepeque police station — one for Barrio 18, one for MS-13 and one for “common criminals.”

“I took the photo (top) that ended up being the VICE cover shot within 10 seconds of seeing it. I knew it was important. That visual hit me first, then came the smell,” says Clarke. “They shit in the back of the cages. It’s fucking disgusting. Stinking hot. It must have been 95 degrees in there.”

The police officers didn’t want Clarke there and were getting nervous, so he worked quickly and started gleaning as much information as he could from the prisoners.

“One kid (below) had been there 17 months. He was there the longest. Waiting for sluggish El Salvador system. Some of the prisoners have not been charged,” says Clarke.

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

Another prisoner, in the common criminals cage, was a army veteran with one leg who’d been locked up for protesting the loss of his veterans’ benefits. Most locals don’t know about the cages (CLarke’s fixer didn’t) but some must as the police do not feed the prisoners. Families and friends must bring in food for them. The prisoners spend their time shredding clothes and hand-weaving hammocks to maximize used space and make sleeping on top of one another a fraction less harrowing.

“Every Thursday, they are shackled, brought out the cages, searched, and sprayed down. The police find drugs. They get in there. You can assume guards are paid off.”

Clarke learnt that most of the gang members had been deported from Los Angeles. Many had fled civil wars, or their families had, and they’d lived in East Los Angeles, Long Beach or other parts of L.A.

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

© Giles Clarke

El Salvadorian gangs are an American product. After serving time in California prisons. many gang members were deported back to El Salvador along with their social tensions, survival modes and high violence. There’s no doubting that Barrio 18 and MS-13 have committed heinous crimes. So far down the rabbit hole, only truces, the reduction of poverty and societal buy-in provides a way out for many of these men. The situation is confounding.

“They all read the bible, just like reading the newspaper,” says Clarke. “I was very surprised. That mixture of high crime and fervent religion is confusing.”

© Giles Clarke

The issues are complex and transborder. Clarke shows us the worst of El Salvador but before we condemn the authorities abroad and dismiss this as someone else’s problem, it might be worth bearing in mind that America has its own cages.

FORTHCOMING GILES CLARKE SERIES ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY

Having lived in the U.S. since the mid-nineties, British-born Clarke has always been aware of the abuse in, and uncontrolled expansion of, American prisons but this story in El Salvador ignited an interest in cages at home. Since this story, Clarke has been photographing in prisons here and abroad.

This is the first of a series of posts featuring Clarke’s work. Prison Photography will bring publishing original images and b-roll from Clarke’s other prison stories, always alongside his biting commentary.

GILES CLARKE

Giles Clarke is a social documentary photographer based in New York City. He is a featured photographer represented by Reportage by Getty and aWHITELABELproduct. A wandering photojournalist and frequent contributor to VICE, his travels in 2014 have taken him from Guatemala to the Netherlands; from Chiapas to Columbia; and from old frontlines in Sarajevo to new frontlines in Ukraine. 

All images: Giles Clarke/Getty images

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