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Uganda, May 2010, from the series “Law and Order.” Chief Justice Benjamin J. Odoki is his office in Kampala. Like other judges, he has a huge backlog. Judges are appointed by the President on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission, with the approval of Parliament.

PREAMBLE

When our Skype call connected, Jan Banning was rubbing his brow. He was trying desperately to chase down statistics with which to give his three years of photographs, across four continents, context.

banningBanning has, since 2012, worked on a project called Law and Order looking at the institutions–prisons included–that result from different philosophies and systems of justice. Banning recently successfully crowdfunded a book which includes photographs from four nations: France, Uganda, Colombia and the United States.

Banning spends a lot of time traveling, but more time in his studio synthesizing all his images and their meaning. While he labors, he listens to everything from Frank Zappa to The Kinks to African beats.

Jan lit a cigarette, apologized for the disregard for his health, but said the stress of hunting stats required some nicotine to take the edge off. I wanted to know how he viewed different prisons from around the world, how they compared, and what it was like to make photographs within closed facilities.

And so we began …

Kirinya Main Prison, Uganda, 2013. Uganda’s second maximum security prison, in Jinja, was built for 336 prisoners. It now holds 922 prisoners. Here, a primary level biology class is taught by a prisoner sentenced to death, known because of his uniform is white in color.

Q & A

What’s up Jan? How’s the work? The book?

I try to make work that contributes to the public debate. The book will include statistics about the long term development, trends and crime rates for the four countries I photographed, but also for other relevant countries. ‘Relevant’ in two senses: for one, Holland should be involved. Secondly, Germany, UK, Canada are relevant because they are industrialized too.

We can make fair comparisons?

To a degree. And make contrasts. Also, possibly Norway because of its extremely liberal prison policies. And possibly Japan because of its really low murder rates.

An American audience will find this book interesting — to really see, in line graphs, how much higher the levels of incarceration are in the U.S. compared to a lot of Western European countries and how that relates to recidivism rates. Finding reliable sources on murder rates, incarceration rates, recidivism rates and remand rates is the big problem. But they’re essential.

Have you tried Prison Policy Initiative? Or the Vera Institute?

I have. I’ve been looking mostly in Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United Nations and the World Health Organization. These websites are incredibly confusing. You can find one year but not another. For example, U.S. murder rates starting in 1900, but the sources are so ridiculously confusing I cannot judge whether they are reliable or not and I do not want to include sources that are not verified.

Premier president Mme Dominique Lottin heads the business of the court at the Palais de Justice, Douai, Nord/Pas de Calais.

Holding Cell #1, Dekalb County Jail, Atlanta. Built in 1995, with around 3,000 prisoners it is the biggest jail in Georgia.

Two court writers of the court, Cartagena. Colombia, Sept. 2011, from the series “Law and Order”. Gina Marcola Perez and Mahira Julio Amigo finish the paperwork and processes that still go forward under law #600 even though the law has been abolished. Courts in Colombia have a huge backlog.

How did you decide on the four countries–Colombia, France, Uganda and the U.S.?

I started with Uganda as because I had good connections. A friend of mine was working in the Dutch Embassy in Kampala. It was kind of an experiment to see if I could visualize this whole thing—a visual comparative analysis of law and order—in a let’s say, different or interesting way. After Uganda, I concluded that it would be tough but interesting.

Uganda, May 2010, from the series “Law and Order”. Kakira Police Station, Jinja Town. Police Constable #11431, Ndalira John, 54. He earns 205,000 shillings (54 Euro/US$72) a month.

The chapel at Putnam County Jail in Eatonton, Georgia, doubling as sick bay.

I had some private courses in criminal justice from a professor here in my home town Utrecht. He said I should contact the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg which is the top European institution on criminal justice. The director there advised me. I wanted to a geographical distribution so it’s four different continents. I wanted to include the two major lines of justice so the civil system in which France played a big role. And secondly, the common law system, a more Anglo-Saxon system. Of course I could have gone to the UK where it originated but it made more sense to pick the U.S.

A more extreme application of that type of law?

In a way. Certainly I wanted a State that still employed the death penalty. I ended up in Georgia basically because I had the best contacts there.

Ah, I thought it would be more targeted than that because Georgia leads the way in many of the wrong statistics—disproportionate numbers of minorities, high levels of female incarceration, poor folks locked up too.

Those things played a role, but so did the practical side.

First, I actually tried Texas because it kills the largest number of people but I just couldn’t get access. Then I saw that Georgia holds a larger percentage of people under control of the whole judicial system than anywhere else on earth. Approximately 1 in 13 adults is either in prison or in jail or in parole or on bail in Georgia.

Colombia is in Latin America. It’s a big country and it had high murder rates for a long period. Uganda seemed interesting because of its colonial heritage of common law whereas Colombia is from the Spanish sphere of influence.

Then, there are the religious-based justice systems such as Sharia. But after talking to several specialists, I learnt that real Sharia in the criminal justice system is only practiced in Saudi Arabia and Iran and they are not exactly easy to access.

The communist system is not easily accessible either and I didn’t want to fall into a kind of PR trap by trying China, so unfortunately that had to be left out.

Canning greens at a canning factory at which the workers are prisoners of the State of Georgia. Of the 1500 prisoners at the medium security Rogers State Prison near Reidsville, 350 work. Some unpaid. The products of the Georgia Correctional Industries manufacture plants, food production and processing factories are sold to government agencies. This plant producing one million cans of vegetables per year.

Disciplinary cell in the Grand Quartier of the Maison d’arrêt de Bois-d’Arcy, in France, was opened in 1980. Designed with a capacity of 500 prisoners, it now houses 770.

Luzira Women’s Prison in Kampala, Uganda, 2013. 370 women and 30 children (of convicted mothers) are locked up here.

Can you go name all the different prisons you visited?

Oh my goodness, that’s a long list! In Uganda I went to ten prisons including the big ones of Luzira, Jinja and Luzira Women’s Prison. Four in France after struggling to get access for two years. Five in the U.S. of which three will be included in the book. I’ve still to make a return visit to Colombia to photograph more but it’s as many, if not more, than in other countries.

Part of reception area of Luzira Upper Prison, Kampala, Uganda, 2013. Here, uniforms are adjusted for new prisoners. Luzira Upper Prison is Uganda’s biggest maximum security prison. Built to accommodate 600, the prison held in March 2013) 3114 prisoners.

Clearly you have a broad interest in systems and institutions of justice. How did you arrive at prisons, specifically?

My project Bureaucratics looked at one of the three pillars of the state: the executive. Law and Order looks at the judicial, the second pillar of the trias politica.

And the third pillar?

The legislative.

How do different societies handle crime? Police are involved. Courts involved. But I am fascinated by prisons. I studied of history so I’ve always gravitated toward a more structural analysis. As a photographer, I’ve been really interested in the news or in short term of events and developments.

San Diego Women’s Prison (Carcel de Mujeres de San Diego), the city of Cartagena, Colombia, Sept. 2011. From the series “Law and Order”. Rosa Martinez Meza (left, age 20) is serving ten years on aggravated criminal conspiracy charges. She studied Marketing and sales. Eliana Sofia Gonzalez (right, age 23), is still under investigation, accused of attempted extortion. She studied business administration and is self-employed. They share their room with ten other women.

Uganda Chief Magistrate’s Court, Buganda Rd, 2013.

You’re taking the longer view. An overview. So what are prisons supposed to do?

They can function an instruments of revenge for society, to punish. But as instruments of correction and as instruments to bring down crime rates, I don’t think they work.

French prisons are no hotels but they had the most humane atmosphere. U.S. prisons, in Georgia, were horrible. Of course prisons in Uganda are primitive and there’s a lot of bad things that can be said about them—corruption and bad personnel. But prisons in Uganda still gave me a much more humane impression than those in the U.S. Even in the maximum security prisons in Uganda, I was allowed to roam around freely. I had some nice relaxed chats with prisoners, even the most heavily sentenced prisoners would be patting somebody on the shoulders.

The maximum security prison in Jackson, GA had a horrible atmosphere and I think that is noticeable in the photographs. For example, if you look at the photographs from Uganda, it’s earth colors, it just looks nicer, now of course that can be deceitful, but in this case I don’t think it is. In the U.S., it is all steel and concrete, like an ice cold industry. You walk around with a couple of old marines who are heavily armed and wear bullet proof vests. Prisoners had to turn around and face the walls as I passed them in the corridor and that brings me to the conclusion that the U.S. was really extreme.

Court, Quartier Maison Central, Centre Penitentiaire de Lille-Annoeullin, France, 2013.

Colombia, Sept. 2011, from the series “Law and Order”. “Establecimiento Carcelario de Reclusion Especial” in Sabana Larga is a special facility with only 100 prisoners, 18 guards and 5 administrators. Over half of the prisoners at the small medium-security prison are officials who have been convicted or are under investigation i.e. governors, mayors, police officers, judges. Leonel Silvera Padilla (20) is under investigation for theft.

Latin American prisons have a reputation for being overcrowded and in squalor.

At first they allowed me into relatively mild prisons in 2011. Recently, however, I went to some disgusting facilities in Colombia. At times it felt like I was making propaganda for the prison authority. It’s a long story I cover here.

Do you think as an Dutch photographer, an outsider, you are able to tell reveal something new about U.S. prisons to the American public?

I made a photograph of a guy who is bathing in a jail. Obviously I would never use that photograph in a news context for which one photograph is being used to illustrate the Georgia prisons or jails. However, as part of a series it finds it’s place.

Meeting of committee of the

Meeting of committee of the “lifers” — men with a life sentence, at Georgia State Prison which is a medium security prison near Reidsville with 1500 prisoners.

I think my photographs give two different messages at the same time. There’s a photograph of a group of lifers that are being trained to advise other prisoners. Management matters are playing a big role there (the prison is probably trying to keep the lifers occupied there so they are not coming up with ways to make life hard for the guards).

And use them to bring other prisoners around to a more compliant set of behaviors.

True. So, something is being done for people, but it is in the surroundings which look like an old factory. I’m trying to come up with a nuanced picture and to paint a confusing picture and I hope that that will somehow contribute or stimulate people to ask questions Confusion is my main purpose.

In some ways, it’s more important to me that this plays a role in the public in the U.S. than in Europe because we have less tendency to be tough on crime and to lock everybody up than the U.S.

Putnam County Jail in Eatonton, Georgia.

The U.S. needs more introspection, relatively?!

Absolutely. Homeless people are absolutely unable to get housing because of their criminal past. From a European perspective it was astounding to hear that this information on them would be out on the internet so they couldn’t get a house because it was registered, they often couldn’t get a job because the employee would go on the internet. Now this is a weird situation. Let me put myself in the position of an employer and one of these women comes out and has a job interview with me and I am going to go on the internet and I am going to see what I find about them. I have found very few people who are somehow shocked by it. When I tell people in Europe or in Holland or in Germany, people are absolutely flabbergasted.

And this informed your side project of portraits of women at Pulaski Women’s Prison?

Law and Order has a distant approach, but soon I wanted another aspect. This is confusion for me as well as the viewer. Anywhere in the world, people are trying to make clear distinctions between criminals and us—to define them as different and as bad people but I don’t think they are, actually. I could have been in prison myself many years ago. I wasn’t so I am “a decent citizen”!

I wanted to bring these two groups closer together so that’s why I photographed the female prisoners the way I would photograph my family members or the Dutch Prime Minister.

But yet more confusion. I had to get permission to photograph them and yet all their portraits are on the Department of Corrections website!

But this work is not in your forthcoming book?

No, it was a parallel project. It’s formally different. The Law and Order book is not about portraits; it stresses on the consequences and environments of different systems.

I was only allowed to ask very few questions. I was not allowed to ask, why they were in prison or for what they were sentenced. But all that information was on the website of the Georgia Department of Corrections. So all the text that you find in my portfolio was found on the internet.

There’s a couple of other artists I know who’ve taken umbrage at the public exchange of mugshots for entertainment, Jane Lindsay and Kristen S. Wilkins. But you’re the first male to adopt such empathy. You’re also non-American.

Apparently for U.S. citizens it’s quite normal to trade in the personal details of felons.

What the people in Holland think of America and Americans?

The U.S. seems to have an image problem. I happen to I often find myself in the strange situation, to some extent, defending the U.S. or bringing up nuances in conversations with friends. For Dutch people who have not spent much or any time in the U.S., it is hard to see these nuances or to have a sympathetic view of Americans.

Etablissement Pénitentiaire — Maison d’Arrêt / Douai, Cell 10, Batiment B. Jean Michel, France, 2013.

What’s the situation like in Holland in terms of criminal justice and crime statistics and prisons?

Our prisons are underpopulated. We’ve started renting them out to Belgium and Norway because they are getting empty. A nice development. I think Holland would, in American terms, be called “soft on crime” and I think we’re doing pretty good.

The murder rates have been going down here since the 90s here and in a lot of other countries. As far as I know, crime rates are going down as well. The reasons still allude researchers. But we can definitely say that the bigger the social difference between the richest and poorest, the higher the crime rate. That is an interesting point to put to an American audience, don’t you think?

I do. Thanks, Jan.

Thank you.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Jan Banning is a photographer based in Utrecht, Netherlands. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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I had a quick chat with Sébastien van Malleghem about why he is crowdfunding a photobook following his three years photographing prisons in Belgium.

It’s over at Vantage: Making Photos Inside To Bring The Stories Out

In short, this:

“The book is, for me, the closure of the story. Photographs must end on paper. That’s how the medium exists — in print. On paper, with full context, you can touch the pictures, understand the whole story. Things fade away on the Internet. Clicked, Like, then something else. Good photos in a book stick to your head. The largest part of my photo story will be exclusive to the book.”

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LET’S AGREE TO AGREE

There’s nothing new here that advocates for prison reform don’t already know, but it’s worth a listen just to hear Obama declare that Omar was his favourite character in The Wire.

The conversation starts off pretty left of progressive with Simon asserting that “What the drugs didn’t destroy, the war on them did.” It’s a line he uses often but it’s a good one, and an accurate summary.

Obama makes pains a few minutes in to stress sympathy for police forces. To be expected from a leader who is taking the effort to first and foremost express sympathy for people who may have antagonist views toward an arrogant and broken record of policy as regards crime and punishment in American cities.

The political turn turns us toward the children. If we can’t all rally around a love of the children then what have we? The depiction of struggling Baltimore schools in The Wire was particularly hard for Obama, he says.

These 12 minutes weren’t a total waste of time. Simon got to register his dismay at the failings of government to help poor and addicted people. Obama got to express optimism for the more sensible debates we’re having about crime and transgression and where that might take us. He was very excited about bipartisan buy in, without any criticism that’s its come decades later than it should. Oh, that’s right people’s lives impacted by tough-on-crime-rhetoric were political footballs for the past 40 years.

The most sensible and realistic thing in the conversation is the closing remark of Obama when he says if we keep being honest about putting our policing, policy and sentencing failures right, we may see an improvement in about 20 years.

This was good PR for everyone involved. I doubt Obama would have sat down with Simon for this same conversation in 2009, but now it’s safer to be sensible — government budgets have told us so.

It’s not really significant what Obama and Simon said when they sat down together. Of most significance is the fact they sat down together, for the cameras, at all.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

Lorenzo Triburgo is creating some of the most enagaging photography coming out of Portland. He is best known for his series Transportraits, portraits of post-transition transgendered individuals, pictured in front of backdrops (that Triburgo himself painted). This is a little strange given that Triburgo doesn’t really like the portrait genre, nor has he any formal painting training. But in the execution of an idea, Triburgo will go the extra mile.

Transportraits is on show at Newspace Center for Photography, Portland from June 6 to August 15. All images included here are from Transportraits.

Currently, Triburgo is working on a body of work about correctional officers in Oregon, but I didn’t really want to wait until its completion before we sat down and chatted — there’s too much to talk about! Here we talk about identities, gender, teaching, selfies, jails, rural police budgets, how to make portraits respectfully, and Bob Ross.

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.

Scroll down for the Q&A. Enjoy!

© Lorenzo Triburgo

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Transportraits is an old project now, but it was the first body of your work I came across. It was well received. In it, I noticed exciting novel facets. Can you tell us about it?

Lorenzo Triburgo (LT): It is a few years old now and it did get seen relatively widely, but for me, the best thing to come out of letters and messages from trans-guys all over the country — and some internationally too — just say thanks. I did not expect that. I’ve done the thing that I wanted to do; I put positive representations out there.

PP: You showed me one of those correspondences, and I’d like to share it with the readers.

LT: Mostly, the guys are happy to share their lives and thoughts.

PP: Here it is:

I’m generally a person of few words. I certainly am not one to write letters. However, I felt that in this case, I needed to express appreciation to you, Mr. Triburgo.

I have identified as transgender for as long as I have known that such a word existed. For years, I lived in fear of myself and of losing my family to my particular “problem”.  I have a husband who has always supported me and my gender identity and encouraged me to take the steps towards transitioning but it wasn’t until seeing your portfolio (via HuffPost) that I actually was inspired to do so.

The men you photographed were so themselves and so proud looking that I realized that I could no longer hide in the shadows of my own self-loathing and let myself be crippled by what my intolerant family thought. I saw the future in those photos and it gave me the strength to take the necessary steps to begin my journey.

So, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your portraits and your vision. They were the final push I needed to live my life.

PP: “I saw the future in those photos…” Wow!

LT: Gives me chills. Just really, really happy about that.

PP: Transportraits is finished now?

LT: Yes. Well, actually, I just had a man who is 65 and just transitioned. He asked, “Are you still shooting because I really want to be a part of this?” I wasn’t / am not really still shooting but heck, why not?

PP: He’s 65! You had to. 

LT: Exactly. He’s in Washington State and doesn’t have a community of trans guys really to hang out with. He met some people online who were in Washington but not really close. We all got together and had a luncheon at his house and these guys came from 4 hours away just to hang out. Looking at my photos, there’s such a ragtag criss-cross of people — a Seattleite who transitioned in the 1970s, so and he was 70-years-old; guys in their mid-40s from rural Washington, and Dane (pictured below) who has just now transitioned at 65.

Dane and his husband have been married 40 years. His husband is in his eighties and he said, “Dane will do what he wants and that’s cool with me. My friends told me, ‘Oh man, everyone’s gonna think you’re gay,’ and I thought, well, so be it.” It is incredible! So and I did shoot those guys and I am going to add them into the project.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

Dane and husband.

PP: Did you have your backdrops with you?! 

LT: Yes. I took them up.

PP: You painted all those backdrops? 

LT: I used Bob Ross’s instruction book. Just sheets of plywood. I accidentally got better at painting as Transportraits project went on.

PP: Why the backdrops?

LT: I started the project doing my own transition. Right before that time, I had a phase in which I thought I would never photograph people again.

But Transportraits was about gender identity and masculinity. I knew I didn’t want to create a documentary type project or a really a personal narrative, I wanted it to be more about my ideas on gender and the ideas I was wrestling with during my own transition.

I considered fabricated nature as the backdrop, basically to suggest nature as a construct. I experimented with projections and scans and collage but concluded painting made the most sense. And if it was about masculinity, then I figured using an American icon such as Bob Ross would help keep it about American masculinity.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

PP: You’ve recently started teaching at Oregon State University. Your courses are about gender. Can you give us a primer on gender representation in photography? 

LT: Photography has had this misconception attached to it throughout its history of presenting a truth, and I think that can be used to both uphold normative ideas of gender. It can also be played with to undermine those ideas. Photography is like a mirror so — in terms of identity based work — I feel like its the perfect medium because it’s a way of representing oneself and the way we construct identities.

PP: Which practitioners’ work inspires you? 

LT: In the late 90s, when I was at college, Claude Cahun was just resurfacing in curricula. All of a sudden, learning about Cahun had such a huge impact on my work and my life. Surrealist photographers in the 1920s were thinking about identity and multiple selves and using photography to look at — and deconstruct — the self as one unit, and one unified self. Excitement ever since. Man Ray too, of course. One of my favorite books is Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. It’s accompaniment to Jennifer Blessing’s exhibition about gender performance in photography from its invention through until the 90s.

PP: And since the 1990s?

LT: Well, identity-based work really went out of vogue.

PP: Why?

LT: I don’t think people really wanted to talk about it. But I think identity as a photography subject is really important.

PP: Oh.

LT: Let’s talk about politics in art. I think of the 90s as a time of resurgence for women in music, in the visual arts, and identity-based politics, right? We were coming off of — and still are — creating work around peer culture in the AIDS crisis. And there was Riot Grrrl, a third wave feminist presence and I think there was a backlash against that.

As identity-based work became commercially less viable it didn’t have the focus it would need in the art world. What do you think?

PP: In both Britain and in America, under Clinton and the Democrats, Blair and New Labour (before Blair went into an illegal war with Bush), the 1990s were a time of peace, a time of economic growth, a time of optimism in many ways. Now we’re all cynics and in reality or perception, under the kosh of wider state controls. Our governments didn’t listen when we refused post 9/11 policies that have torn the world apart.

We are looking inward trying to figure out our place. A lot of identity politics are self made, about the self, but specifically about the anxieties of self. There were no iPhones in the 1990s. We’re in the age of directed advertising. Everything is slick — even, the same — including our own individual forms of production

LT: But this play might lead us to new discoveries? Perhaps identity politics are just getting amplified, again? To me, it’s really interesting now! It’s out-of-control, you know!? The selfie is here.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

LT: The selfie is just so interesting. Photography has imbedded itself in this immediate way in how we present ourselves.

PP: Selfies have been dismissed, by many, as the narcissism of the generation of millennials. They’re not just that; there’s more but I don’t yet know what selfies ‘do.’

I have to presume that there’s nothing inherently bad or damaging about being able to represent the self more readily. But, I am not seeing people use selfies in a way that has the same impact as artists’ self-portraits of the past did. Think of Nan Goldin’s portrait of her black eye after domestic abuse.

People are using the selfie to promote; a selfies is akin to brand identify. We’re like infants just working out what we are doing. I want to see something more “real.”

LT: It could go another way where it just gets less and less real. People might put up more and more facade, but if it goes that way then we’ll there’s a potential for us to lose that “reality” and that gravity.

Still, with the selfie, we are revisiting the very immediate past … immediately. How are we relating to ourselves differently? Who are we when we are in a state of constant reflection of our selves? As that speeds up, it will be interesting as the self and the reflection of the self happen simultaneously.

PP: And what that mean for portrait photographers. What does a portrait provide a population in which everyone has a camera in their pocket? Can you imagine doing a portrait series in like 2020?

LT: In my studio practice, my subjects are there, knowingly, as representations of my ideas.

PP: So, in some ways, you’re portraits maintain a distance?

LT: It would be different if I went to these people’s houses and was photographing them there.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

PP: What photographic works dealing with gender and identity has impressed you? 

LT: Cass Bird for the way she’s interested in various genders; Lyle Ashton Harris was a great influence on me when I was younger — I love the staged elements of it, and that he was fabulous and aggressive at the same time.

Nikki S. Lee for her during the 90s for which she dressed as various identities and immersed herself in different subcultures. Perhaps a bit problematic work but fascinating all the same. Carrie Mae Weems, of course. Adrain Chesser, for the way he shares such intimate moments.

As I’m American and I’m of this [younger] generation, I can’t get away from Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston — their work is part of the patriarchy, right but I can’t help it. I am super influenced by their use of color and humor they employed and underlies their social commentary.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

LT: Eight years ago, before I did Transportraits I wanted to do something working with prison system. I drafted letters. The warden at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) was interested, but I was talking about doing a portraits of the prisoners and their family, but he told me there is actually something of a photo program at OSP that is prisoner-run. It wouldn’t really help to replicate that project. I thought about my proposal some more. While I’m waiting to get prison access and a project brief, I created Transportraits.

PP: A very successful project.

LT: It took over! But now Transportraits is complete, it’s time to re-address this prison issue.

PP: How are you doing that?

LT: Again I put out some letters and a couple of facilities [jails] responded — in Clackamas County and Josephine County.

PP: Both in Oregon.

LT: I’ve coordinated some meeting and toured the facilities. In Josephine County in particular, I had some eye-opening conversations about their funding crisis and the additional stress that is put on their staff and the officers consequently.

My partner works in industrial psychology and conversations she and I had were about current psychological research on law enforcement  officers, particularly correctional officers, and the stress and the PTSD they suffer. I realized that these serious workplace health concerns often go overlooked by society.

PP: In photography certainly.

LT: At the same time that I was thinking about that I was also thinking about privacy issues for prisoners.

PP: They relate?

LT: Absolutely, inasmuch they dictate who and what I am comfortable photographing. Within photography there are issues with privacy … and with power relationships between photographer and subject. Who controls what is seen? Who makes that call? Who’s point of view is being shown?

I felt like photographing prisoners would become problematic. My thinking was solidified during my first tour of a jail — seeing the complete lack of privacy for a prisoner was astounding. Twice every hour, an officer goes down the tier and looks in everyone’s windows to check upon them. To see them being watched in that direct way had an impact on me.

PP: You couldn’t be another person staring down, separated?

LT: It was a danger.

PP: And so instead?

LT: The stresses on officers, and how those stresses are overlooked, hasn’t really been discussed in popular press or art/photography projects. In-depth. In a way that deals specifically with the officers.

PP: I can only think of two or three photographers who have imaged staff sympathetically. Fiona Tan’s Correction is probably the best example, but even that wasn’t solely officers.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

PP: How do you introduce yourself and the work? Are correctional officers open to it?

LT: I talk about the negative stereotypes of officers that are portrayed in popular media. Likewise, the assumption among many that police forces are corrupt. I suggest that my project is potentially something to boost morale. They agree. They’re enthusiastic particularly in Josephine County where they’ve had their budget go to the ballot and be rejected. The taxpayers in Josephine County don’t want to fund the Sheriff’s deputies in or out of the jail.

PP: It’s been national news

LT: People know they’re not going to get arrested for petty crime because there’s not enough staff at the jail to even process you. The Sheriff is interested in bringing that to light.

There’s another part to it. These officers have the most contact with the prisoners, right? My presumption is that the better they feel about their work and their position — the more they feel valued and respected — in the same ways anyone else would, then positive benefits develop. Consequently, we’d see more respectful interactions between deputies and prisoners in their custody.

It’s still early stages, this is “industrial organizational psychology-light” because I haven’t done near enough research.

PP: How does this fit in with your personal feelings about criminal justice and incarceration in America? 

LT: I am challenging myself to approach this and to be open. What is a correctional officer? What makes them? Why are they here in our society to begin with? What are the ways in which these they’re contributing? What are the ways in which maybe they are not? Are there ways in which they try to help prisoner? I’m not interested in taking sides or forcibly portraying correctional officers as either victims or heroes.

PP: You want to get beyond the badge and uniform it sounds like?

LT: It’s about looking at the system as a whole. Officers are part of a system. Right now, I don’t personally know the answer to those questions and so I must ask. I’ll be using audio as part of the project. Officers and their attitudes are an integral piece of the criminal justice puzzle; they’re the people who, at the end of the day, are locking the doors.

Essentially, how do correctional officers uphold the system and in what ways does the system screw them over?

PP: I’ve always said jails and prisons are toxic spaces and they negatively effect everyone in them, staff included. An honest investigation of jails’ and prisons’ labour-force is long overdue. Best of luck and keep us posted. Thanks, Lorenzo.

LT: Thank you, Pete.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

BIOGRAPHY

Lorenzo Triburgo’s photographs have been exhibited internationally. He holds Bachelor of Arts from New York University in Photography and Gender Studies and a Master of Fine Arts in Photography and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts in New York. He has work in the permanent collection at the Portland Art Museum. He is recipient of Aaron Siskind Grant and most recently a project grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council to complete his forthcoming project working with correctional officers.

Gas Chamber With Two Chairs, Missouri State Penitentiary, #5 (2012)

Gas Chamber With Two Chairs, Missouri State Penitentiary, #5 (2012)

Fine art photographer Lee Saloutos makes images of abandoned structures. One of his projects looks at mid-century mining structures, another project is photographs made in abandoned prisons. In terms of his aesthetic approach the two are related. Generally, I am not interested in photographs of defunct prisons, but in Saloutos’ artist statement there is an an acknowledged discord between the look of prisons (beautiful decay) and the history of prisons (brutality).

“These prisons often have a long and frightening history. The design and function of these places of confinement and punishment can be jarring, utilitarian, and brutal,” says Saloutos in his artist statement.

Saloutos has photographed in Wyoming, New Mexico, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Alcatraz. He’s got his sights on a prison in Tennessee.

His statement continues, “It is easy to see and feel the anger, resignation, detachment, and reaching for meaning that many of the prisoners must have felt while confined. But the light inside can be open and subtle and inviting. When empty the interiors are full of eerie and beautiful light and quiet. The contrast between these two elements is fascinating and difficult. It is possible to feel deeply unsettled and serene at almost the same moment. My goal is to convey this contrast and perhaps attract and repel the viewer at the same time.”

That’s a big ask for images alone.

I thought perhaps Saloutos and I could wrestle with this tension between punishment of the past and the punishment of today. I always want to scrutinize images to see how they can inform us in urgent conversations about current conditions, laws and power in prisons.

Scroll down for our conversation.

Cells, Housing Unit 1, Missouri State Penitentiary, #4 (AA Mural) (2012)

Cells, Housing Unit 1, Missouri State Penitentiary, #4 (AA Mural) (2012)

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Your images, stand alone, are objects of beauty. They’re fine art prints. You aesthetisize decay but judging by your statement you are aware of the dangers of over simplifying things. Robert Adams said that if a photographs needs a caption it has failed. I don’t agree. Images are manufactured and distributed because of power and interests. Context is very important. Captions are part of that.

Lee Saloutos (LS): I disagree with Adams as well. Words build on images and the image gives words deeper meaning. Let me work on an initial explanation for the images.

First, as context, the mines project. It is all about the very large mills and associated structures that can be found in remote locations in the Great Basin. There are many abandoned mines in Nevada, but they are disappearing for many reasons, including natural decay, private reclamation, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reclamation, and bootleg scrappers who show up at a remote site with whatever equipment they feel they need, tear down the structures, and haul them off for scrap.

The mines project is mostly about the consumption and abandonment of the West, a topic that others have explored as well. My visual interest in both mines and prisons is the same — the light in these spaces can be sublime. The silence, the scale and the sense of aloneness of the interiors is remarkable. These spaces are often not seen.

The prisons project is more complex. It has taken a long while for me to begin to figure out my attraction. I enjoy the process of finding, exploring and accessing the old prisons. I’m attracted by their contradictions — their frightening, complex histories as compared to their current silence and beauty. Many times I have sat in a quiet common space in a prison, just watching the light move across the room. And then I’m jolted out of this by the sudden realization that I am in a prison.

No one wanted to be here. It was not beautiful or serene when it was in operation. It was probably a horrific place full of physical and psychological violence. I want viewers to see and to feel this contradiction.

PP: Is there a political edge in your work?

LS: I don’t have a political agenda that I am trying to advance. But are the pictures political? I think they are, but it is subtle. I want the viewer to be drawn in by the light and color and then have the same realization I do.

PP: Would you say that your images work better as art than they do an entry point to political debate?

LS: They work better as fine art documentary than they do as an entry point for political debate, although I know from experience showing them that they do both. I definitely don’t want to be making “ruin porn”, although I don’t know exactly how to define the term and I dislike the it for reasons I can’t really grab onto.

Sun Room, Wyoming Frontier Prison (2007)

Sun Room, Wyoming Frontier Prison (2007)

Psychiatric Ward, Penitentiary New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM, #3 (2009)

Psychiatric Ward, Penitentiary New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM, #3 (2009)

PP: Over what time span have you shot in prisons?

LS: Since 2005.

PP: Which prisons have you visited?

LS: The first one I shot was the Wyoming Frontier Prison in Rawlins. Later, the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe; the old Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City; Mansfield Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio; West Virginia Penitentiary, Moundsville, West Virginia; and Alcatraz. I am working on Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, and I am working on plans to shoot inside Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee.

There are many others I am considering or working on. I usually want to be in these places for 2-3 days, so scheduling that kind of time can be difficult. I was in the Penitentiary of New Mexico for 5-6 hours for 5 straight days.

PP: Any surprises?

LS: A gas chamber in Missouri with two seats. Rooms piled to the ceiling with abandoned psychological records. Axe marks on the concrete floor of the New Mexico Penitentiary.

PP: I wonder if those axe marks were from the 1980 riot?

LS: Yes, they are, and they are very visible. There are also torch marks on the floor in one place where an prisoner or guard (I don’t remember) was killed with a cutting torch. Horrific. New Mexico Penitentiary was really raw. The state still owned it but was basically doing nothing but keeping the rain out and the chain link fence locked.

Alcatraz was a disappointment; I knew it would be, but I went anyway. The National Park Service (NPS) has completely tamed the site. I’ve been to many places that have been turned into tourist attractions, and they are a complete turnoff to me. I want to be worried about lead based paint dust and asbestos and terrible stairs and tons of pigeon shit.

Isolation Block, Mansfield State Reformatory, Mansfield, OH, #11 (2011)

Isolation Block, Mansfield State Reformatory, Mansfield, OH, #11 (2011)

PP: How do you find the abandoned prisons?

LS: Google can work. Search “abandoned prison” and “closed prison.” But, you eventually run into the same sites over and over. I look at states’ Department of Corrections websites, and see if I can tell what is operating and what is not. This is time consuming but yields interesting results.

I go to state film commission websites, and talk to their people on the phone. Quite often unused prisons and jails are available to rent as locations.

I also look at other photographer’s work, at other photography websites, urban exploration websites. Once I make contact with a site I’ll ask them what else they know about.

Cells, Housing Unit 3, Missouri State Penitentiary, #8 (2012)

Cells, Housing Unit 3, Missouri State Penitentiary, #8 (2012)

PP: How do you get access?

LS: Cities and states like to hide prisons, literally and figuratively. They don’t advertise them when open, and they don’t talk about them when closed. In today’s world, there can be exceptions –  the prison industrial complex is a big source of jobs in rural communities, and sometimes closed prisons become tourist attractions.  They often seem to be both a source of pride and at the same time almost embarrassing to a host community.  It can be strange.

Getting permission to enter and photograph is another matter. Sometimes there is a caretaker. Sometimes part of the facility is open for tours. Sometimes you simply have to find the right person in the city or state that can give you permission. I hear “No” a lot! One of the more interesting places that has turned me down is Brushy Mountain, Tennessee. They have said no, but I will keep at it. Things change, policies change, people come and go.

PP: Why does Brushy Mountain interest you?

LS: It’s another “inaccessible” location. No public tours. Because it is “inaccessible” that means it is in whatever shut down condition the state left it in — it has not been sanitized in any way for even limited public consumption.

Gas Chamber, Wyoming Frontier Prison, #2 (2007)

Gas Chamber, Wyoming Frontier Prison, #2 (2007)

PP: You photograph old death penalty chambers. What do you say about those?

LS: I am not trying to say anything explicitly about the death penalty. I’ll show you the places where we have managed and executed the condemned, but I don’t feel I have to explicitly form an argument against the process. My personal belief is that the death penalty is both immoral and impractical.

PP: Why immoral and impractical?

LS: Because of the “false positive” problem. Unless there is some way of executing only those that are guilty of heinous crimes there will be executions of the innocent. This is intolerable. To me the execution of one single innocent man or woman invalidates the entire process. You can’t get them back. If you wrongly convict someone and send them away for life you can at least free them and attempt to make amends somehow.

I don’t think any prosecutor could honestly ever say, “I guarantee that we have never wrongly convicted someone.” They’d have to be either dishonest or ignorant. All processes have a statistical nature to them. Errors occur. In the criminal justice system there are dozens or hundreds of people involved in every case. Not all of them have pure motives. Some of them have very impure motives.

The problem with arguing against the death penalty with statistics and the false positive argument is always anecdotes on the other side. “Charles Manson deserves to die.” That will resonate with far more people than “One in a 100 executions of some ‘nobody’ in Texas is in error.”

Americans are not fluent with statistics and they are fed a steady diet of horrific crime by television featuring very scary criminals.

It’s immoral simply because I believe the state should not be taking lives, no matter. Life imprisonment.

It’s impractical because almost everywhere (except Texas, it seems) carrying out the death penalty is a drawn out, expensive, and degrading (for all) process. But I don’t like making this argument because it implies that if things were sped up the death penalty would be a better idea. It wouldn’t, and it isn’t.

Death Row Cell Block, Penitentiary New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM, #2 (2009)

Death Row Cell Block, Penitentiary New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM, #2 (2009)

PP: Do you think your audiences and buyers know about the disaster that is mass incarceration in the U.S.? Does it effect peoples response to your photography?

LS: I don’t think so, although that may be changing. I don’t think many people know the statistics of incarceration, and even if they do most will think “they deserve it.” We’ve been propagandized by the free enterprise and anti-government zealots to believe that privatizing anything is an unconditional good. Few realize that creating a profit motive for having bodies behind bars creates a special interest that is going to want a continuous and even increasing supply of “raw material”.

The stock of any company rises because the market anticipates growth. The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) can grow by taking over more and more of the prison system, but then when it has taken over the entire system, the only way to get growth is to make more and more things illegal so you can have more people incarcerated. Creating a profit incentive in the prison world is morally wrong. If the state wants to make something illegal, the state should deal with the entire problem and not bid out prison contracts.

Hiding all of these prisons in out-of-the-way rural places is a good strategy for the PIC. They can bring jobs to depressed rural areas but more importantly they allow the agencies that are imprisoning all these people to hide them away from the rest of the citizenry.

The level of knowledge people have about the PIC is a good question. I guess that knowledge is limited. Crime is bad; privatization is good. So the PIC must be really good!  This is an oversimplification, but there is some truth to it.

TB Ward, Mansfield State Reformatory, Mansfield, OH, #4 (2011)

TB Ward, Mansfield State Reformatory, Mansfield, OH, #4 (2011)

PP: Do you think anyone would hang one of your prints next to a print of a modern prison’s interior occupied by men or women?

LS: I have not given it consideration. This body of work is pretty “inaccessible” as they say in the art world, meaning that people might enjoy being confronted with it in a gallery or museum, but they probably won’t take it home and put it in their living room or bedroom.

Maybe there are a few people that would hang the two types of images together. If those people exist I would love to talk to them!

Modern prisons have an entirely different aesthetic to them – they are designed with two goals in mind only, highest possible security and lowest possible cost. So you get stark, minimalist buildings that could be high schools, or shopping malls, or office space, but with razor wire and guard towers and no windows.

PP: Thanks, Lee.

LS: Thank you, Pete.

Mattresses in Cell Block, Penitentiary New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM, #5 (2009)

Mattresses in Cell Block, Penitentiary New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM, #5 (2009)

1

It’s rare one gets such a fine art look at incarceration. Lieven Nollet‘s images of Belgian prisons are contemplative set ups. The majority of his 50+ strong portfolio focuses on the fabric, wall textures, light and shadow of prison. Here I’ve selected three of his portraits, which I think hold attention the longest.

The same disquiet and still of Nollet’s interior studies continues in his shots of people. This isn’t quite Roger Ballen or David Lynch territory but Nollet’s photographs edge toward dark-chamber otherworldliness.

2

Generally, anonymity reigns too, so I’m being a contrarian by selecting Nollet’s portraits. Crafted to seem outside of our reality and certainly outside of time, Nollet’s photography doesn’t give us a social justice narrative to latch on to, but they may provide an emotional response that has us decrying shady, forgotten corners of prisons. Some of Nollet’s frames resemble hospital and morgue interiors and I’m certainly left with a feeling that these spots off the map are reserved for quarantine and/or civil death.

For the sake of positioning the work, I’d say it has elements of Jean Gaumy‘s tight European jail photographs, the spiritual element of Danilo Murru‘s photographs of Sicilian prisons and, to a degree, the cool observances of Donovan Wylie.

One of the few humanising components of the work is the presence of birds. A few years back, I was speaking with a prisoner in Washington State who spoke of a sparrow that had lived in the rafters of his old cell block for months. The sparrow had not gone unnoticed by any prisoner and all were concerned for its wellbeing. At once anthropomorphised, the sparrow was seen as another victim of lockdown. The bird brought a slice of life to the cell tier, but no prisoner didn’t wish for its eventual escape.

When we see animals behind bars these days, it is usually down to a dog-training program news story. Such stories are gold for a local paper, but the dogs and the photographers are groomed for a neatly packaged tale. Before the economics of the prison industrial complex took a grip, many prisons operated their own farms and many with pasture, cows and milking parlors. Prisoners in Louisiana’s Angola Prison still today breed horses for the New Orleans Police Department. In dank and crumbling prisons, complaints about rodents are common; mice and rats about the ankles are a reminder of the hole prisoners are in, whereas birds becomes a symbols of, and connection to, the great beyond.

With phrases such as jailbird and “the caged bird sings,” avifauna metaphors may seem cliche to us on the outside, but I understand why a lot of prisoners’ creative writing turns to freedom as embodied by flight and birds. And I understand why they nurture them.

3

All images: Lieven Nollet. See more at De Zwarte Panter

 

The dining room. © Mariam Amurvelashvili 

Mariam Amurvelashvili, a Georgian photographer has been documenting lives inside Georgia’s prisons since 2004.

She has not, however, the author of images of beatings and rape that surfaced in the past month, sparked protests among horrified citizens, forced the resignation of Georgia’s senior prison official, and rocked Mikheil Saakashvili’s government.

DOCUMENTARY vs. EXPOSE

I’ve argued in the past that the photo and video footage that changes a system is rarely that made by a documentarian. It is the expose, the surveillance tape, the illicit and leaked images that reveal to wider society the worst acts of closed institutions. Amurvelashvili’s work is interesting, concerned, but it doesn’t have a pointed edge.

This is by no way a criticism; it’s just worth considering how we think about images. I made a similar plea a couple of weeks ago when I asked how we should compare Michal Chelbin’s portraiture with mobile phone camera shots taken by Russian juvenile prisoners.

ABUSE REPLACES ABUSE

Amurvelashvili’s basic position is a simple one – that the deprivation of liberty by imprisonment is the greatest measure by which one man can punish another. I agree with her. Furthermore, the prison should not degrade the prisoner nor violate human rights with poor conditions, inadequate food or abuse of any kind. In 2004, Amurvelashvili reports, a Tbilisi prison held over ten times the prisoners than its design capacity allowed.

When Amurvelashvili began photographing Georgian prisons I expect she thought she was photographing the end of an era. The new prisons of a newly democratic Georgia could cleanse itself of it’s communist past and notorious prison archipelago. Unfortunately, the new super jails have engendered a more-exacted breed of violence.

Journalist Gavin Slade argues the roots to the abuse scandal are the associated policies of zero tolerance and mass incarceration pursued recently in Georgia which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world – 531 prisoners per every 100,000 people.

Problems, summarised here, have long been rife throughout Georgia’s prison system. Beginning in late 2010, reports emerged of physical abuse. Ksani prison was under scrutiny by the Georgian Public Defender’s Office in 2011 for poor treatment of inmates.

Newer facilities such as Ksani prison, says Amurvelashvili, were designed to be sanitary, have adequate healthcare, libraries and family visitation. And yet, last month’s torture scandal within Ksani proves that care for prisoners extends far past concerns about conditions and to the philosophy of leadership and the break-down of discipline among the staff. Ksani was a hell hole.

Listen to this interview with a prisoner who was beaten and electrocuted in Ksani Prison.

Ksani prison. © Mariam Amurvelashvili

If an authority cannot control nor redirect its prison population into productive activities, the prison is likely too large. It is probably overcrowded, too. State authorities need to understand that better conditions in prisons reduces crime. Reduce populations and pursue alternatives to incarceration. And find leaders with moral fibre.

AMURVELASHVILI ELSEWHERE

Bigger images here, and featured portfolios on Georgian Photographers website here.

Conscientious likes Amurvelashvili’s Dukhobors a portrayal of a Christian sect in Georgia/Russia. Fotovisura has a gallery of her photos of animal sacrifice and behind bars.

The Global Post has just launched ENCARCELACION an investigative series about the correctional systems of Latin America that “have gone horribly wrong.”

We’ve seen the headlines of jailbreaks in Mexico, riots in Venezuelan prisons, and fires in Honduran jails, but often these stories seems a world away. The politics underpinning the strife in Latin American prisons is not my area of expertise but the importance of the stories is undeniable. It is interesting that the Global Post has used photography as an anchor to the front page.

After digging down into ENCARCELACION‘s trove of info, you may want to follow links to Prison Photography‘s irregular coverage of various aspects of life in Latin American prisons:

Gary KnightJoao PinaJackie Dewe MatthewsValerio BispuriPedro LoboVance Jacobs and Columbian prisonerstourist photography in Bolivian prisonsprison tattoos (some from Central America)Kate Orlinksky’s portraits of Mexican female prisoners Fabio Cuttica at a Columbian prison beauty pageantPatricia Aridjis in Mexico – even Cornell Capa was in Latin American prisons at one time.

– – – – –

Thanks to Theo Stroomer for the heads up.

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