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EVERGREEN OPENING NIGHT, THURS 14TH JANUARY

Prison Obscura opened at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington last Thursday. It is on show until March 2nd.

Ryan Richardson, manager of the PhotoLab at the college, made these images. They were originally shared in this post by Evergreen.

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The Evergreen print shop did a stellar job with the decal for the front window of the Evergreen Gallery.

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(From left to back) Kristen S. Wilkins, Steve Davis, Mark Strandquist, Robert Gumpert and photos from the landmark classaction lawsuit Brown v Plata.

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One fo the opening reception attendees. Thanks to all those who came out.

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Robert Gumpert‘s Take A Picture, Tell A Story in the back of the gallery.

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Paul Rucker‘s Proliferation shown at a size we’ve never dared before with Prison Obscura. It was right next to the gallery entrance and visible through the windows to the world outside.

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Evergreen President George Bridges (above, right) is a sociologist by training and has written extensively about crime, control and race in America. As an undergrad he interviewed prisoners in Monroe Correctional Complex, just outside Seattle. Bridges felt the strong impact of Robert Gumpert‘s portraits and interviews, he told me.

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Gallery goers view the audio-slideshow of Gumpert’s interviews surrounded by 30 of his portraits from the San Francisco County jail system.

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Evergreen Gallery director Ann Friedman and I. Ann and her student staff were phenomenal in their design, PR, audio/visual set-up and all other things. I’d like to thank Ruby, Cambria, Carson, Kelvin and the handful of others whose names escape me but they know who they are. Huge thank you.

UPDATED PRISON OBSCURA WEBSITE

The Prison Obscura website, maintained by the commissioners of the show Haverford College has been updated with installation shots from all venues thus far.

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8 June 2012: Crescent City, CA. California State Prison: Pelican Bay Prison. Examples of kites (messages) written by prisoners. These were discovered before they were smuggled out.

Too often since writing this post, I have lamented the dearth of images of solitary confinement. We have suffered as a society from not seeing. A few years back a change began. Solitary confinement became an anchor issue to the prison reform and abolition movements. Thanks largely to activist and journalist inquiry we’ve seen more and more images of solitary confinement emerge. However, news outlets still relying on video animation to tell stories, which would indicate images remain scarce and at a premium.

Robert Gumpert has just updated his website with photographs of Pelican Bay State Prison. Some are from the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) that has been the center of years of controversy and the locus of 3 hunger strikes since the summer of 2011. Other photographs are from the general population areas of the supermaximum security facility.

Click the “i” icon at the top right of Gumpert’s gallery to see caption info, so that you can be sure which wing of this brutal facility is in each photograph.

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Despite seeing Gumpert regularly, I am still not aware of exactly how these images came about. I think Gumpert was on assignment but the publication didn’t, in the end, pull the trigger. Their loss is our gain. Gumpert provides 33 images. It’s a strange mix. I’d go as far to say stifled. Everything is eerily still under dank light. We encounter, at distance, a cuffed prisoner brought out for the camera. Gumpert’s captions indicate interviews took place, but there are no prisoners’ quotes. In a deprived environment it makes sense that Gumpert focuses on signs — they point toward the operations and attitudes more than a portrait of officer or prisoner does, I think.

The gallery opens with images from the SHU and then moves into the ‘Transition Housing Unit’ which is where prisoners who have signed up for the Step-Down Program are making their transition from assigned gang-status to return to the general population. Critics of the Step-Down Program say it is coercive and serves the prisons’ need more than the prisoners.

Note: It doesn’t matter how the prisoner identifies — if the prison authority has classed a prisoner as a gang member it is very difficult to shake the label. The Kafkaesque irreversibility of many CDCR assertions was what led to a growth in use of solitary in the California prisons.

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8 June 2012: Crescent City, CA. California State Prison: Pelican Bay Prison. A SHU cell occupied by two prisoners. Cell is about 8×10 with no windows. Bunks are concrete with mattress roles. When rolled up the bunk serves at a seat and table.. Cones on the wall are home made speakers using ear-phones for the TV or radio. Speakers are not allowed.

I’ve picked out three images from Gumpert’s 33 that I think are instructive in different ways. While we may be amazed by the teeny writing of a prisoner in his kites (top) we should also be aware that these were shown to Gumpert to re-enforce the point that prisoners in solitary are incorrigible. The suggestion is that these words are a threat and we should be fearful. But we cannot know if we cannot read them fully. How good is your eyesight? Click the image to see it larger.

As for the “speakers” made of earphones and cardboards cylinders! Can those really amplify sound in any meaning full way?

And finally, to the image below. I thought the quotation marks in the church banner (below) were yet another case of poor prison signage grammar, but reading the caption and learning that the chapel caters for 47 faiths, makes “LORD’S” entirely applicable. Not a single lord but the widest, most ill-defined, catch-all version of a lord (higher presence/Yahweh/Gaia/Sheba/fog-spirit/Allah/fill-in-the-blank) in a prison that is all but god-forsaken.

See the full gallery.

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8 June 2012: Crescent City, CA. California State Prison: Pelican Bay Prison. The religion room serving 47 different faiths and beliefs.

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After stints at Haverford College, PA; Scripps, CA; and Rutgers, NJ, my first solo-curated effort Prison Obscura is all grown up and headed to New York.

It’ll be showing at Parsons The New School of Design February 5th – April 17th:

Specifically, it’s at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, located at 2 West 13th Street, New York, NY 10011.

On Thursday, February 5th at 5:45 p.m, I’ll be doing a curator’s talk. The opening reception follows 6:30–8:30 p.m. It’d be great to see you there.

Here’s the Parsons blurb:

The works in Prison Obscura vary from aerial views of prison complexes to intimate portraits of incarcerated individuals. Artist Josh Begley and musician Paul Rucker use imaging technology to depict the sheer size of the prison industrial complex, which houses 2.3 million Americans in more than 6000 prisons, jails and detention facilities at a cost of $70 billion per year; Steve Davis led workshops for incarcerated juvenile in Washington State to reveal their daily lives; Kristen S. Wilkins collaborates with female prisoners on portraits with the aim to compete against the mugshots used for both news and entertainment in mainstream media; Robert Gumpert presents a nine-year project pairing portraits and audio recordings of prisoners from San Francisco jails; Mark Strandquist uses imagery to provide a window into the histories, realities and desires of some incarcerated Americans; and Alyse Emdur illuminates moments of self-representations with collected portraits of prisoners and their families taken in prison visiting rooms as well as her own photographs of murals in situ on visiting room walls, and a mural by members of the Restorative Justice and Mural Arts Programs at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, PA. Also, included are images presented as evidence during the landmark Brown v. Plata case, a class action lawsuit that which went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where it was ruled that every prisoner in the California State prison system was suffering cruel and unusual punishment due to overcrowded facilities and the failure by the state to provide adequate physical and mental healthcare.

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Parsons has scheduled a grip of programming while the show is on the walls:

Mid-day discussion with curator Pete Brook and Tim Raphael, Director, The Center for Migration and the Global City, Rutgers University-Newark.
Wednesday, February 4, 12:00–1:30 p.m.
Co-hosted with the Humanities Action Lab.

These Images Won’t Tell You What You Want: Collaborative Photography and Social Justice.
Friday, February 27, 6:00 p.m.
A talk by Mark Strandquist.

Windows from Prison
Saturday, February 28
A workshop led by Mark Strandquist. More information about participation will be available on the website.

Visualizing Carceral Space
Thursday, March 12, 6:00 p.m.
A talk by Josh Begley.

Please spread the word. Here’s a bunch of images for your use.

PARTNERS

At The New School, Prison Obscura connects to Humanities Action Lab (HAL) Global Dialogues on Incarceration, an interdisciplinary hub that brings together a range of university-wide, national, and global partnerships to foster public engagement on America’s prison system.

Prison Obscura is a traveling exhibition made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.

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Photographer, friend and fellow San Franciscoer Robert Gumpert will be exhibiting at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California from January 25th to March 15th.

On show will be photographs from two projects — Gumpert’s ongoing Take A Picture, Tell A Story, and images from “I Need Some Deodorant. My Skin Is Getting Restless” which were made between 1996 and 2002 at the Alameda County’s Psychiatric Emergency Services at John George, Oakland. In both bodies of work, Gumpert uses oral history (audio and text interviews) to add description, depth and context to the experiences of his subjects.

If you’re in the Bay Area, I strongly recommend a trip through the Caldecott Tunnel out to Moraga.I’ve long been an admirer of Gumpert’s work, specifically Take A Picture, Tell A Story which is part of my curated effort Prison Obscura.

Prior to the public reception on January 25th, will be an hour long panel discussion with Gumpert; architect/activist Raphael Sperry; and psychologist/authority on solitary confinement Terry Kupers.

Click on the flier below to see it larger and glean all the critical information.

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Tameika Smith, San Francisco, CA. SF CJ2. 9 July 2012.
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Deborah Lee Worledge, San Francisco, CA. CJ1 Men’s jail. 4 April 2008.

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Michael Johnson, San Bruno, CA. CJ5.

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Just a quick post to say …

It happened. Prison Obscura opened. With a fantastic turnout. Gallery was crammed for the curator’s talk and people said many nice things. I pulled my usual trick, clocking silly hours until the early hours most of last week during install. Matthew Seamus Callinan, the Associate Director of Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery and Campus Exhibitions at Haverford College did the same. I cannot thank Matthew enough for his support throughout the creation of the show. Legend. More thanks to so many people.

I haven’t any pictures of the opening because my head was spinning. There’s some on Facebook. I’m sure others have some too (send ‘em over!) but I wanted to do a quick post with some installation shots. Taken at different points during the week during install and may not reflect exactly the final layout. (Buckets and hardware not part of the show).

Prison Obscura is up until March 7th at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, just outside Philadelphia, PA. All you need to know about the exhibit is here.

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It is with giddy, air-punching pride and mammoth-sized gratitude for those that helped me along the way that I announce the imminent opening of Prison Obscura.

This exhibition is my first solo-curating gig and reflects my thinking right now about images of and from American prisons. Prison Obscura includes works, approaches and genres that — after 5-years of looking at prison photographs — I consider most informative, responsible, challenging and useful.

Prison Obscura is on show at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery from January 24 through March 7. The CantorFitz built a remarkable Prison Obscura website to accompany the exhibition, at which you can find a lengthy 5,000-word essay as to why I have shied away from traditional documentary work and focused instead on surveillance, code, vernacular snaps, prisoner-made photographs and rarely-seen evidentiary images.

I posit that certain images can more accurately speak to political realities in America’s prison industrial complex. I also celebrate photographs that were made through processes of collaboration with prisoners and with intention to socially engage the subjects and educate audiences. I want you to wonder why you — a tax-paying, prison-funding citizen — rarely gets the chance to see inside prisons, and I want us to think about what roles existing pictures serve for those who live and work within the system.

Scroll down to learn more about the Prison Obscura artists.

Clinical contact holding cage, Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU), C-Yard, Building 12, Mule Creek State Prison, California. August 1st, 2008

Photographer Unknown. Clinical contact holding cage, Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU), C-Yard, Building 12, Mule Creek State Prison, California. August 1st, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
Group holding cages, C-Yard, Building 13, Administrative Segregation Unit, Mule Creek State Prison, August 1st, 2008
Photographer Unknown. Group holding cages, C-Yard, Building 13, Administrative Segregation Unit, Mule Creek State Prison, August 1st, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
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Suicide watch cell, Building 6A, Facility D, Wasco State Prison, California (August 1st, 2008). This photograph document was submitted as evidence in the Brown vs. Plata class action lawsuit (Supreme Court of the United States, May 2011). Photo: Anonymous, courtesy of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP.
Reception Center Visiting : Clinician Office Space, North Kern State Prison, July, 2008
Photographer Unknown. Reception Center Visiting / Clinician Office Space, North Kern State Prison, July, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.

PRISON OBSCURA ARTISTS

Alyse Emdur’s collected letters and prison visiting room portraits as well as Robert Gumpert’s recorded audio stories from within the San Francisco jail system provide an opportunity to see, read, and listen to subjects in the contexts of their incarceration.

Juvenile and adult prisoners in different workshops led by Steve Davis, Mark Strandquist, and Kristen S. Wilkins perform for the camera, reflect on their past, describe their memories, and self-represent through photographs.

Prison Obscura will also feature work made in partnership with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Men from Graterford Prison who are affiliated with both its own Restorative Justice Program and Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice Group are collaborating to create a mural for the exhibition.

The exhibit moves between these intimate portrayals of life within the prison system to more expansive views of legal and spatial surveillance in works like Josh Begley’s manipulated Google Maps’ API code and Paul Rucker’s animated videos, which offer a “celestial” view of the growth of the prison system.

Prison Obscura builds the case that Americans must come face to face with these images to grasp the proliferation of the U.S. prison system and to connect with those it confines.

Scroll down for media, details and events.

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Mark Strandquist. Pocahontas State Park, Picture of the Dam. One Hundred and Thirty Days (top); text describing the scene written by a Virginia prisoner (bottom). From the series Some Other Places We’ve Missed.
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Josh Begley Facility 237. From the series Prison Map.
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50 of the 5,393 facilities imaged by Prison Map, a data art project which automatically “photographs” every locked facility in the U.S. by gleaning files from Google Maps with use of code modified from the Google API code by artist Josh Begley.
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Josh Begley Facility 492 From the series Prison Map.
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Photographer unknown. Incarcerated girls at Remann Hall, Tacoma, Washington, reenact restraint techniques in a pinhole camera workshop, 2002. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
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Photographer unknown: Untitled, Green Hill School, Chehalis, WA. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
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Photographer unknown: Steve Davis Untitled, Green Hill School, Chehalis, WA. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
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David Wells, Thumb Correctional Facility, Lapeer, Michigan. From the series ‘Prison Landscapes (2005-2011).’ Photo: Courtesy of Alyse Emdur.
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Alyse Emdur. Anonymous Backdrop Painted in Woodbourne Correctional Facility, New York. From the series ‘Prison Landcapes’ (2005- 2011)
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Robert Gumpert. Tameika Smith, 9 July 2012, San Francisco, CA. From the series ‘Take A Picture, Tell A Story.’
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Robert Gumpert. Michael Johnson, 15 August, 2009, San Francisco County Jail 5, San Bruno, CA. From the series ‘Take A Picture, Tell A Story.’

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Kristen S. Wilkins. Supplication #17 (diptych). “It might be hard to find, but it’s called Trapper Peak near the Bitterroot Valley.” From the series ‘Supplication.’

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Kristen S. Wilkins. Supplication #17 (diptych). “It might be hard to find, but it’s called Trapper Peak near the Bitterroot Valley.” From the series ‘Supplication.’

EVENTS

I’ll be giving a curator’s talk in the gallery on Friday, January 24, 2014, 4:30-5:30pm, followed by the opening reception 5:30–7:30pm.

Additionally, poet C.D. Wright will be on campus for a Tri-College Mellon Creative Residency in conjunction with the exhibit, and on January 31, at 12 noon in the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, Wright and I will host a dialogue about Prison Obscura.

DETAILS

Prison Obscura is presented by Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities with support from the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

Part of the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and located in Whitehead Campus Center, the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery is open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Wednesdays until 8 p.m.

Haverford College is located at 370 Lancaster Avenue, Haverford, PA, 19041.

SPREADING THE WORD

View and download press images here. For interviews or variant images contact me. Here’s a big postcard.

For more information, please contact myself or Matthew Callinan, associate director of the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery and campus exhibitions, at (610) 896-1287 or mcallina@haverford.edu

Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery on Facebook (including installation) and Twitter.
Haverford College on Twitter.
Hurford Center for the Arts on Twitter.

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Poster showing the statistics and aesthetic of ‘Proliferation’ an animated video of prison construction in the United States (1776-2010). Image: Courtesy of Paul Rucker.
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Graphic design for Prison Obscura by Ellen Gould.

Leonard Freed’s Police Work, Don McCullin’s Vietnam Inc., Cornell Capa’s The Concerned Photographer, books by August Sander, Robert Frank, Eugene Smith, Gilles Peress, Susan Meiselas and Jim Goldberg. So reads Robert Gumpert’s bookshelf.

Bob admires these photographers for their craft, storytelling and humanity. For want of a better word, they are his heroes; in some cases, they are his friends.

Of all photographers, Bob singles out McCullin as the shining example, “His work didn’t always look very optimistic, but he was an optimistic person.”

“I’m not sure McCullin was overtly political. He was just overtly and achingly human,” say Bob. “He took pictures you cannot turn away from … the humanity of them; they’re unflinching.”

Why do I bring this up? Well, during our interview Bob and I discussed at length the photography we admire and Bob talked about that which we should seek to see, digest and – dare I say it – emulate. Those discussions fell to the cutting room floor during editing, but they are worth mentioning here to offer context to the type of photographer Bob is.

I’ve known Bob a long time but until our latest chats I never realised how sacred he holds the role of the photographer to speak truth to power.

Bob began shooting U.S. labour movements. In 1974, he was in Harlan County for the miner’s strike. A long time before he photographed inmates of the San Francisco County Jails, he was photographing the homicide detectives and beat cops of the San Francisco Police Department. It’s about duty, work conditions, getting up in the morning, taking a pay packet home. “There’s nothing more heroic than working a shitty job, one that might ultimately kill you, to take care of your kids and send them off in a better position than you were,” says Bob.

Photography should never be a prop or illustration, photography should never get in the way of communicating humanity, photography should (despite it’s biases) always avoid objectifying its subject. Photography is about people.

Bob uses the example of Jacob Riis, a man known for his pioneering use of photographs to show America the squalid conditions of immigrant tenements. “Riis was a crusader, not in the George Bush sense, but in the sense he saw a need. He never considered himself a photographer.”

Riis used photography as a tool to address a need. After his campaigning he didn’t use photography in the same way. The issue was primary, “I liked that,” says Bob, “It was a direct action use of photography.”

‘TAKE A PICTURE, TELL A STORY’, IN THE SAN FRANCISCO COUNTY JAILS

The premise is simple. He takes a portrait, they tell him a story. It’s a trade.

View images and listen to audio from the project at Take A Picture, Tell A Story.

Robert Gumpert has made portraits and audio interviews of inmates in the San Francisco County Jail system for six years. He doesn’t describe himself as a journalist or an activist, he is just a human being with a curiosity in stories and a promise to be honest. The tales his subjects tell are as eye-opening as Bob is modest. The project is ongoing and the archive is one of otherwise forgotten stories.

LISTEN TO ROBERT GUMPERT AND I TALK ABOUT HIS EXPERIENCE PHOTOGRAPHING THE THE SAN FRANCISCO COUNTY JAIL SYSTEM

BIOGRAPHY

Robert Gumpert is a San Francisco-based freelance documentary photographer. He started his career in Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1974, documenting what turned out to be the last three months of the epic United Mineworker’s strike photos from which are part of the Coal Employment Project Records Appalachian Archives in East Tennessee State University.

In 1998 and 1999, Gumpert’s photographs of garment workers Faces Behind the Labels were shown as part of a traveling exhibit of garment workers mounted by Oakland’s Sweatshop Watch

Since the mid nineties, Gumpert has documented many sides of the criminal justice polygon – homicide detectives, courts and public defenders, SFPD, and the inmates and deputies of the SF County Jail system. The series is called Lost Promise: The Criminal Justice System.

Gumpert’s work from the San Francisco County Jails can be seen and heard at a dedicated website Take A Picture, Tell A Story.

Before turning his attentions to these regional issues, Gumpert traveled the world as a photojournalist. Gumpert’s photos have been used in outreach media by the University of California’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. He was formerly a photographer under contract with the California Department of Industrial Relations. He has exhibited his work at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. In 2011, his portraits from the San Francisco county jails were exhibited at Foto8 Gallery show Locked and Found in London.

His website is http://robertgumpert.com/

In his kitchen, Bob listens to the audio of an earlier PPOTR interview

There’s a long and verbatim interview with my friend Bob Gumpert at Sojournposse. Salina Christmas and Zarina Holmes ask the questions.

Bob describes the arc of his work from labor to detectives to street cops to the courts to the jails. It’s a trajectory he has described to me before and it’s a lot to get hold of; I’m happy I wasn’t transcribing!

However, I’d never heard Bob tell this particular tale:

The rule was: “Ladies, I take a photo [of you], you tell me your story. Next week, I give you four photos.” Literally, I give them four photos. “And I put the CD in your property.” So that’s the way it works.

The women took the photos and sent them to their boyfriends in [other] jails. The prison didn’t like this. Why? I don’t know. It’s not a problem when the men down [the jail] do it. But when the women did it, it was a problem. Do I understand why? Do I make an issue out of it? No! But what happens? I get banned from the jail. Because the women did it.

So then I went back and I said: can we try again? The jail said yes. So long as they understand the rules…

So I said fine. I went back. And I explained all this: “I give you photos. You can send them home. But you cannot send them to the jail.” All the women said, “No problem, we understand.” They sent them home with instructions to send them to the jail. From home. Why? Because they weren’t sending them to the jail.

So, what happened? I got banned again. So I get back in and I said to the women, “You cannot send anything, any of these photos, in any form, from any place to the other jail.” And a woman raises her hand and said, “Can I have Xeroxes made of photos, instead?” And I said, no, you cannot. And I stopped going in. Because it was – at some point – if I kept going in, a problem.

UPDATED: Bob soon after returned to the jail to work with female prisoners.

I have often described photographs in prisons as emotional currency. The tenacity and single mindedness of these female prisoners is, to me, quite amusing. They’re resolute in how they want to use photographs, and the variant ways they circumnavigate an unenforcable rule trumps any analysis they make of the rule itself.

They’re just trying to connect … but it caused problems for Bob!

Another thing to negotiate when making photographs in sites of incarceration.

Bob Gumpert’s website Take A Picture, Tell A Story

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

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