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Rendition. Photographer Unknown

Last week, Eliza Gregory at PhotoPhilanthropy got knee-deep in speculations about prison photography.

Eliza was spurred by NPR’s On the Media which “did a story about a series of images that the International Committee of the Red Cross made of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. The ICRC made pictures of the prisoners to send to their families, and allowed each prisoner to choose which particular image would be sent. Naturally, the images the prisoners collaborated in making are very different from the images we’ve seen of them in the news.”

Eliza contacted me and asked me to leave some comments.

I rounded off my comments with a question I think is very important: Could an American photographer complete a project with the access, familiarity and story-telling-verve as Mikhael Subotzky did in South Africa for his project Die Vier Hoeke?

Not wanting to funnel my diatribe down just one web avenue, I copy my comments here …

Eliza,

I’d like to talk about two issues that you point to in your post. First, the general absence of prison imagery in contemporary media and secondly the urge to judge the subjects of the imagery that does crop up.

I doubt highly that Guantanamo would’ve been closed if more photographs had come out of there. While there is no question visuals out of Gitmo were controlled stringently, the MoD had proven itself impermeable to even the most reasonable requests by human rights advocates and legal watchdogs.

The point you make about smiling detainees instantly changing ones perception could be applied to all prison populations. Phillippe Bazin, Luigi Gariglio and Dread Scott have each used straight portraiture to cause audiences think about the individual character of prisoners.

I recommend books by Douglas Hall Kent, Morrie Camhi, Bruce Jackson, Jane Evelyn Atwood and Ken Light. I recommend work by Carl de Keyzer, Joseph Rodriguez, Steve Liss and Andrew Lichtenstein for imagery of prisons beyond the press shots of tiered-cells and orange jump-suits.

More than any of these though I recommend photography of self-representation. I have speculated on it before, and it has been done by Deborah Luster in Louisiana, and by the inmates of Medellin prison, Bogota, Colombia.

All of these photographic interventions are inspiring but barely make it into the mindshare of media consumers. I believe the unforgiven monster who deserves no thought is the predominant version of “the prisoner” in the minds of most Americans and many others in the Western world.

Of course, the invisibility of prisons is a collective tactic. We are molly-coddled by zealous enforcement agencies to whom we’ve outsourced management of transgressors. We have no interest in dealing with the difficult issues surrounding mistakes, mental health, inequalities and human frailty … this is where the “lock ’em up” mentality comes from.

Prisons and prisoners are not scary places because they are threatening and violent, they are scary places because they are wasteful, boring, soul-sapping warehouses. This is the document we never see. America’s prisons are a human-rights abuse.

Photography will play its part, but it’ll take a monumental cultural and media shift to change sentencing and prison policies in the West.

In the meantime, It’d be interesting to see if a long-term project similar to Mikhael Subotzky’s could ever be completed in an American prison?

© Mikhael Subotzky, from the 'Die Vier Hoeke' series.

Bilingual Signs © Andreina, IDRA/Albuquerque Public School District, Critical Exposure Photography Project

Images Unseen, Images Unknown written by a guest blogger on Prison Photography last week was well received by readers, provoking more questions and some intriguing possibilities.

Change.org offered a synopsis of the article. Change.org focused on the concluding points of Images Unseen, Images Unknown which described the culture of shame shrouding California prisons created by the control of images and manipulated invisibility.

Too many prisoners are hidden from view to serve out their time. Many prisoners refuse visits from family because they don’t want loved ones to see them in institutions that deny them individuality, work to subdue the general population, hide prisoners from society, and keep them docile.

So, the issue of self-representation and empowerment arises. Specific to my interest would be the possibilities of empowerment through photography.

Recently, Stan Banos asked me, “Are you aware of any photography programs in prison for prisoners.”

My answer, in short, is no. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it just means for all my searching I have unearthed nothing.

Art therapy has been explored among prison populations and recently San Quentin piloted it’s first ever ‘Film School’. The project did many things at once, teaching inmates the technical skills of documentary film making, building team work and trust; and it allowed inmates to communicate narratives of their choosing from prison life.

Inmates documented the work of the prison nurses distributing medications; filmed the prison kitchens; recorded the “wasted talent” of artists, musicians and writers within San Quentin; and studied American Islamic faith in prison.

With that in mind, we can say empowerment through the arts has been well explored and apparently successful in a number of penal institutions. However, it would seem photography in prisons has not been used as a tool for self-representation and rehabilitation … yet.

Turn Away © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

Turn Away © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

The model for this type of program exists. Dozens of important non-profits use photography as a means for at-risk-youth to tell their stories. Organisations such as Youth in Focus, Seattle; AS220 Youth Photography Program, Providence, RI: Focus on Youth, Portland; New Urban Arts, Providence; Critical Exposure, Washington DC; First Exposures by SF Camerawork in San Francisco; The In-Sight Photography Project, Vermont; Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE), Nova Scotia; Inner City Light, Chicago; My Story, Portland, OR; Picture Me at the MoCP, Chicago; and Eye on the Third Ward, Houston; The Bridge, Charlottesville, VA; and Emily Schiffer’s My Viewpoint Photo Initiative are exemplars of empowerment through photography.

The Red Hook Photo Project New York offers photography opportunities specifically to a community blighted by crime. The photo project is run by the Red Hook Community Justice Center which operates many programs to improve the lives of teens within the geographically and socially isolated Red Hook Neighbourhood.

Only slight tweaks would be necessary to these types of programs for them to be effective as rehabilitative tools among prison populations. The central driving philosophy is to offer individuals a method of self-representation they’ve never been afforded previously.

A Backwards Eye © Gwendolyn Reed, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

A Backwards Eye © Gwendolyn Reed, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

It seems the main factor, aside of funding, for rehabilitative programs establishing themselves in prisons, is the philosophy of individual wardens. San Quentin Film School was pitched repeatedly across 47 states until Warden Robert Ayers decided to launch it at San Quentin. Likewise Burl Cain, at Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) has become well known for maintaining a varied roster of programs to keep inmates occupied. They include the renowned (and ethically questionable) Rodeo, an American Football league and a hospice program in which inmates volunteer to carry out the palliative care tasks.

On this evidence, it would make sense that criminal justice reformers and those interested in increasing the visibility of prisons should actively seek out wardens currently supporting novel, or even pilot, projects. Wardens currently accommodate programs in education, the arts, dog-training, first aid, video and much more. Photography could be added to that list.

There is a lot of mainstream media programs featuring American prisons – Lockdown, Americas Hardest Prisons, Inside American Jail – but of course these are all made for cable distribution and ultimately profit; their common denominator is a heightened sensationalism.

© Wayman, Inner City Light Student Photography Project

© Wayman, Inner City Light Student Photography Project

Documentary projects upholding rehabilitation and education as their core purpose are a distinctively different type of exposure. There would be no need for regional or national television channels to provide financial backing as an end (marketable) product would not be the motivation. That said, if the narratives of such documentary projects could be shown to enhance the image of an institution the prison authority might be open to trying them. The prison warden has the decision making power, so if under a wardens leadership a prison is given (positive) exposure it makes sense that the warden would be interested.

All successful rehabilitative arts programs presumably share a cooperative approach from the outset. Wardens and authorities are not to be feared or misunderstood, but can be convinced, cajoled and open to novel suggestions and programs.

Matt Kelley has suggested that the criminal justice reform community take note of wardens who are open to more transparency within their institution. Could coordinated media access drive a movement against the “invisibility” of prisons in America today?

The ideal program I envisage, would have only a small operating budget allowing pre-screened inmates to learn the practical skills of photography and apply them for the purposes of self representation.

If San Quentin can mount a film school I am sure any prison in the future can develop a Photography School? What do you think?

I Reach © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

I Reach © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

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