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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.









unemployed youths

Joseph Rodriguez‘s work is essential. If I and others can promote his photography humanity then we’ve done some good.

Last week PDN ran a post about the value of the “Digital Curator“. It was a well threaded argument about things we already know: that if an online presence (blogger) does his/her thing for long enough and with a consistent (their own) voice they’ll begin to garner readers, respect and influence.

[WARNING: link blitz, but all justified]

Thankfully, we have (I believe) a healthy photography blogosphere in which plenty of photographers present their own STUFF; megaliths go vernacular; academics question and answer; fine art specialists point us in the direction of good practice & theory; insiders offer editorial, publishing, gallery, collector, buyer or industry viewpoints; universities promote; non-profits take new angles; curmudgeons grumble; old media gets hip; young guns splash out with collective and interview projects & some hover untouchably above.

In September, duckrabbit joined the fray. You may know already, but I am a fan of duck’s blog (by Ben Chesterton). I am not a fan because I agree with everything Ben has to say, but because he says it without frills and then will spend the time necessary to engage the consequent discussions. Such commitment is a priceless commodity.

duckrabbit deals primarily with photojournalism and multimedia and so Ben’s coverage doesn’t always dovetail with the preoccupations of other photographic genres – which is fine, we all have our favourite corners.

To get to the point. I am nodding furiously toward the coverage of Joseph Rodriguez on duckrabbit for three reasons:

1) Because Rodriguez (along with Leon Borensztein) made me realise how vital the relationship between photographer and subject is in creating images. Rodriguez is worth more time than duck or I could ever commit.
2) Because this is the latest in principled stances duckrabbit has taken, AND it happens to highlight the stories of formerly incarcerated.
3) Because I am committed to writing more about Rodriguez in the next month … and need to let you know.

duckrabbit’s first feature of his new series ‘Where It’s At’ (stuff that kicks a duck’s arse) is Rodriguez’s work on Re-entry after prison. Rodriguez worked with Walden House (I remember fondly the stained glass of the San Francisco WH, Buena Vista Park). As duckrabbit puts it, “Rodriguez records lives lived and he never measures the lives of those he shoots against a photographic award, magazine spread or advertising contract. His eye is never on the future, it is always in conversation with the now.”

Go to duck’s post and watch Rodriguez’s 7 minute multimedia piece on re-entry. California is where I cut my teeth in the prison policy and prisoners’ rights fields, so for me, it is especially resonant … and vital.

Also worth noting is Benjamin Jarosch, Rodriguez’s current assistant.

While we are on the topic of different realities in urban America, keep an eye out for this film at your local cinemaplex indie-theatre.

In the next few weeks I’ll be making comment and whirring the brain cogs over Rodriguez’s photographic endeavour Juvenile Justice . Stay tuned.


Rodriguez has won acclaim from all the important people that need to take notice, including Fifty Crows, which incidentally started up a blog recently. Everyone reading this should follow Fifty Crows because they support photographers who get in knee deep … and then some.



prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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