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© Philippe Bazin

Last month, Melinda Hawtin contacted me about her interest and graduate research into the representations of prisons in French contemporary photography.

My position in the world is a little more comfortable knowing that another human has the niche commitment to prison photography!

Hawtin’s geography-specific project is even more narrowly defined as mine. She humbly referred to her blog as “yet a vessel for my (mostly) unresearched musings but I am hoping that in time it will take on a more coherent form”. Martin’s posts are far more than her modesty suggests – they are important introductions to academics, works and points of analysis.

Hawtin introduced me to the work of Philippe Bazin, whose series Détenus is a straight photographic study of French prisoners. Hawtin is discomforted somewhat by Bazin’s sentimentalisation of prisoners, “it seems strange and rather naive that artists like Bazin are so keen to portray the humanity of inmates. I’m not suggesting that they demonise them instead but monochrome, close-up images of prisoners could be seen to be over-romanticising the prisoner”.

© Philippe Bazin

My take? Intimate shots do not automatically translate to sentimentalisation or captures of “true” humanity. It is always hazardous to prescribe the reaction of an audience to a photographic style. I would step back (possibly cowardly) and suggest that Bazin’s portraits are worthwhile simply because they differ in tone from the vast majority of other photographic studies of prisoners.

Hawtin and I swapped resources and names including the excellent Visa pour L’Image web documentary winner, Jean Gaumy and Lizzie Sadin, whose photography focuses on juveniles in prisons across the globe, including her own nation of France.

Investigations into the portrayal of French prisoners could not be more timely:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called French prisons “the shame of the nation”, and the European Union has demanded that France improve the detention conditions of its inmates to meet minimum European standards.

I’ll be sure to check in with Hawtin’s blog regularly.

Through the wall surveillance (TWS) is still a technology in it’s infancy, but strategic needs and gushing public awe will perfect this fledgling military toy. It will be driven down marketing channels and into our living rooms. Perhaps TWS, like GPS, will be assimilated into middle class families across America. However, before TWS assumes mass commodity status, I am sure it’s advantages, limitations and in-combat-uses will have been fully tested and exhausted by multiple state and federal enforcement agencies.

Product Information Library, Defense Research & Development Canada

Human SAR signatures. Image: Product Information Library, Defense Research & Development Canada

These images are from Defense Research & Development Canada. This model is from the laboratory – probably a scientist. He is not an inmate or prisoner. In 2006, the National Institute for Justice (the research and development agency for the Department of Justice) sought “applications for funding research and development of sensor or surveillance technologies, or novel applications of those technologies, to address specific needs in criminal justice.”

This request included three specific interests: 1) Concealed weapon detection systems; 2) TWS technologies; and 3) “other novel sensor or surveillance technologies, applications, or support functions for specific criminal justice applications.” I guess that third was to keep the DoJ feeling lucky.

Do these images represent a future representation of a prison inmate? Could Prison SERT Teams adopt more surveillance paraphernalia into its existing observational apparatus? Given the opportunity will future media beam TWS images of hostage or seize scenarios, relying on the abstracted “Pixelated Prisoner” to impress the “otherness” – the other worldliness – of America’s incarcerated masses?

California Department of Corrections, SERT Badge

California Department of Corrections, SERT Badge

Don’t get me wrong, TWS technologies will be used more widely by agencies other than correctional agencies. One presumes city police departments would want their SWAT teams armed with TWS in hostile neighbourhoods. TWS is of most value in unfamiliar built environments. The prison is ordered and known to the extent that TWS would be needed only in crises such as riots in which prison authorities lose control of buildings or complexes.

Noteworthy of this upturn of interest in – and development of – TWS technologies, is the rabid integration of military strategy into American policing and correctional systems. Should energy and money be spent on equipment that has very limited use? Or could those resources go toward the ‘Research and Development’ of rehabilitation?

Product Information Library, Defense Research & Development Canada

Human SAR signatures. Image: Product Information Library, Defense Research & Development Canada

I have found two developers of TWS. The first is the government’s Strategic Technology Office (STO) which is itself a branch of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The second is “your dependable ally” Camero, a private company that has developed the Xaver 400 and Xaver 800. Watch this ludicrous drama presenting the soldier-game applications of the Xaver – try not to be carried away by the macho snare drum and power chords.

My speculations about TWS use in correctional facilities may or may not prove out. I think the need for TWS is so limited in prison environments that it will not be widely adopted. That said, TWS imaging equipment could make future representations of prisoners. I cannot escape the ironic turn this possibility allows. To witness these images is to “see” through the walls – it is a technology that undermines the crude and necessary walls of prison. Appreciating such irony is to understand a power and philosophy that is only interested in making visible the invisible when it is strategically advantageous. Furthermore, this scenario should be interpreted as insidious as it is ironic. In societies of the Supermax, the prisoner is barely evident. The prisoner is not a memory even; possibly a concept. The prisoner is an abstraction, nay, an apparition – a weightless collection of pixels.


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