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© 2009 Jerome Brunet Photography. All rights reserved.

© 2009 Jerome Brunet Photography. All rights reserved.

Jérôme Brunet‘s photo essay Riding Shotgun with Texas Sheriff’s is a ferocious document of police activity and procedure in America’s ‘love-to-hate’ lone star state. I am in deep admiration of this project for it connects the dots and marries everything in a police officer’s routine from violent confrontation to mundane paperwork.

Brunet spent six months with Texas Sheriffs and the stark quality of his work demonstrates that.

Brunet’s work inevitably features sites of incarceration, but I contend viewers are more shocked Brunet’s depictions of inhumanity on the highways (and front yards) than they are of inhumanity within the confines of state institutions.

Prison Photography Blog embraces complexity and unanswerable questions and Brunet poses many. Prisons and jails are not isolated from society but a point of destination and departure throughout the cyclical mechanisms of state authority. It is right to feature a project that merges the chaotic unknowns (crime scenes) and prevailing controls (sites of incarceration) of police activity.

Brunet explains:

When asked why I’m interested in law enforcement, I’m compelled to reply, “We all should be.” The fact that we know so incredibly little about our ‘boys in blue’ all though we see them on our street corners and of course in more dramatized versions on television and in Hollywood, I’ve always been interested in the symbolic aspect of the modern day police officer; the man with the badge, gun and authority to dramatically change a persons life forever. Societies apparent answer to all life’s little and not so little problems. However bleak and insignificant a situation may seem, officers are constantly dealing with lost children, family quarrels, various assemblies of homeless and confronting each day, the violence and corruption humanity inflicts on each other everyday.

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© 2009 Jerome Brunet Photography. All rights reserved.

Much of the Sheriff’s department’s work is devoted to tackling drug-smuggling and again Brunet comments with incredible even-handedness

Roads linking Mexico to the U.S., such as the I-10, are sensitive arteries of a flourishing contraband. Even though another deputy in a deep sigh, admitted to me catching only ten percent of the actual traffic, a task force made up of U.S. Customs, D.E.A., Texas and New Mexico police have seized over 30 kilos of heroin, 2 tons of cocaine and 75 tons of marijuana. Even though these quantities sound enormous, actually landing on a large bust was a different story, only luck and perseverance enabled me to land on what was to be one of US’s largest single drug bust in US’s history. As a nervous Mexican driver arrives at the U.S. border and a routine check is made on his car, officers reveal neatly packed away in the trunk, 23.3 pounds of black tar heroin, estimated at 24 million dollars. This package is later revealed to the local press in Hollywoodesque fashion. I watch in amazement and think of the outcome of this Mexican peasant paid 1000 dollars to transport this load into the land of the free.

As an editorial decision, I have not included Brunet’s images of the station or officers’ meetings, but they are as vital as the images from within the jail. The images inform one another.

Here are two desperate images from the station and I’d like to know the exact context. I shall not speculate, only present.

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© 2009 Jerome Brunet Photography. All rights reserved.

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© 2009 Jerome Brunet Photography. All rights reserved.

Brunet offers insights into El Paso County Jail:

Texas, the second largest state in the U.S. also boasts the highest rate of incarceration (700 for 100 000). In an ultramodern county jail of El Paso, Texas, I witnessed different aspects of “the inside world”. Body searches, finger printing and delousing before the anonymous inmate dons the regulation blue overalls inscribed E.P.C.D.F. (El Paso County Detention Facility). On the top floor is the outdoor gym, from which you can admire the end of the Rocky Mountains and the beginning of the Sierra Madre into Mexico. Caged like lions, 40 federal prisoners await transport to a large prison. I am placed alone with one guard in this cage. Surprisingly enough, like a ghost, I hover through the crowd unnoticed, my heart beating for what felt like an eternity. Prisoners can only be exposed to the natural light of the gymnasium a sparsely granted privilege of only three hours a week.

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© 2009 Jerome Brunet Photography. All rights reserved.

The photo essay even covers tactical training exercises.

An afternoon spent with the elite S.R.T. (Sheriff Reaction Team) proved to provide more excitement. This team made up of tough looking officers is specially trained to counter an unlikely riot in the prison. I was presented a billboard full of makeshift weapons made by previous inmates, everything from hand sharpened spikes, to knives made out of tooth brush handles with razor blades attached to their ends. All used for assassination purpose by gang members thriving too in the “inside world”.

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© 2009 Jerome Brunet Photography. All rights reserved.

Brunet has admiration for officers “just like you and me”, whose work is unpredictable and occasionally very dangerous.

We will find in the police officers, goodness, honesty, corruption and brutality. In many cases we are the police, and like it or not we are responsible of their actions as much as our own. The more we know about them, the more we observe and tie ourselves to them, and the more this society will feel secure. This realistic testimony succeeds in making us share a few privileged moments into the life of these Texas and New Mexico cops as well as revealing the true backdrop of American culture.

Unlike other reportages of state authority, Brunet is keen to impress the absence of racial inequalities of power.

The majority of the men and women I interacted with were primarily Hispanic. Because of their ancestry they were able to bring forth a much appreciated warmth and understanding that I and, I’m sure, the rest of the townspeople, who were also Hispanic, enjoyed and accepted openly.

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Jérôme Brunet is a freelance photojournalist Jérôme Brunet was born in southern France and raised in London, Ontario (Canada). After obtaining his O.S.S.D. majoring in visual arts, he started his post secondary education in Paris, France, at the E.F.E.T. School of Photography, graduating in 1997. Jérôme Brunet has been published internationally through such diverse publications as Rolling Stone Magazine, Forbes and The New York Times. His client list includes The Discovery Channel, Fender Musical Instruments, Nikon Imaging Inc. and is currently featured on the official websites of musicians Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and James Brown. Jérôme Brunet is currently working and residing in the Bay Area of San Francisco and is represented internationally by the Zuma Press agency.

Jérôme Brunet also takes portait pictures of musicians here and here.

Special Emergency Response Teams (SERTs) are commonplace. Less so perhaps are the “sports team” group shots seen here at the end of a good days work out.

I.M.T.T. 2004

Training Exercise, Team Portrait. Photo Credit: I.M.T.T. 2004

Personal politics dictates how one feels about these constructed scenarios. To me they just seem unfortunate sad – not because of what they are, but because of what they represent. However, we must accept that tactical training within prisons is conducted with the same professional intent as that of any police authority or force of shock and awe. With caution, I’d say these trainings are a reality of prison management, but insist that they should not be considered an inevitability.

Once you get past the unnerving brevity of the group portrait, it is the second unposed image (below) that arrests the attention. It differs from other official images from within prison walls because of its ambiguity. As an isolated image, it is not clear whether the confrontation shown is genuine or not. Without the referenced source, could this be read as an actual suppression of inmate violence? How many eyes would be keen or informed enough to tell if the prisoner and guard uniforms were those of controlled dress rehearsal?

I.M.T.T. 2004

Training Exercise. Photo Credit: I.M.T.T. 2004

From building arguments of fact concerning the Abu Ghraib photographs, Errol Morris talks about the inherent traps for viewers of images, “You look at a photograph and you think you know all you need to know. That here you have a veridical piece of reality to look at. And, you need look no further. It, of in itself, is enough. You look as these infamous photographs that came out of Abu Ghraib. You look at the photographs of Gilligan, the prisoner on the box with leads, and of Gus, the prisoner on the leash, and you think you know what these are images of. ‘This is despicable, blah, blah, blah’ … You need look no further … and I believe noone looked any further, [they] presumed to know what the images were about and wrote articles accordingly.”

Morris adds to his general point, “We try to figure out the world by looking at things, and nothing we ever create is complete but you try to figure out what our relationship is to reality – to the real world.”

I.M.T.T. 2004

Training Exercise. Photo Credit: I.M.T.T. 2004

In a world of visual bombardment where deliberate disturbances between reality and fantasy are now commonplace have we lost interest in the strength of imagery and its testimonies? Images are mistakenly and willfully misrepresented and misinterpreted. In many ways, this is a fine game – a novel game. But does the game keep people on their toes or does it lead to apathy and disinterest? As Morris asks “What is true and what is false?” Without the proud group portrait to provide context would viewers have cared to question the seeming brutality of the second photograph?

Or am I missing the mark here? Is a lack of visual curiosity and/or sophistication really the problem here? Or, is the real problem the viewers normalisation to images of violence? Do the two issues compound one another? I would argue that many folk are too familiar with images (often involving wire, concrete walls and the ephemera of incarceration) to presume that the attacks meted out are a) unjustified or b) outside of the legal allowances of a prison authority. The issue of ‘Reality’ almost becomes redundant.

Perhaps, even, this worrisome trend of anesthetised reaction to human suffering can even be stretched through the interwoven spectacle of modern society and placed at the door of second rate video games. Prison Tycoon 4: Supermax, as featured recently on BLDGBLOG challenges the gamer to draw the most profit from prison administration; “Grow your facility to SuperMax capabilities, housing the most dangerous and diabolical criminals on earth – all for the bottom line.”

IGN.com

Prison Tycoon 4: Supermax. Screenshot. Source: IGN.com

I have never liked role playing video games that incorporate violence. But I am not an opponent pointing to them as the cause of delinquency among societies youth. I just don’t like them. Prison Tycoon is less gratuitous than Grand Theft Auto and the like. But I don’t know if this is any comfort. To manipulate a virtual prison population with “friendly interaction and fighting between inmates dependent upon mood and gang affiliation” and to rely on “guards [who] will subdue aggressive prisoners, medical staff to treat injuries, chaplains administer to prisoner’s spiritual needs and therapists talk to prisoners to lift their spirits” seems a bit too sinister and calculated for an evening of gaming.

And the ability to use “96 detailed prisoner model variations created to allow for a wide and varied prison population” and use a “unique ‘builder within a builder’ system to open your buildings and place their interior content wherever you like” in addition to the “over 100 different rooms and objects to place within the prison buildings, each one allowing prisoners to interact with them on various levels and each one having different effects on the prisoner’s mood.” seems like a gamer’s invitation to unleash virtual gang violence akin to those most unfortunate of prisoner abuses in real life.

Really, why does this game exist? I suppose it is just completing the loop – the gamer, as a God of Pixels, can create criminals in his other games and then manipulate them in this one.

For more information about High Risk Prisoner Transportation, Corrections Crisis Response, Cell Extraction, Escape Apprehension Training, Suicide Bomber Mitigation Tactics, Tactical Weapon and Explosive Training, Athermal Weapon Sight Usage and Finnish Sniper Training please visit the International Mobile Training Team Website. If all that seems like too much reading then just go to the IMTT promotional video and watch grown men in costume run around with guns to a butt-rock soundtrack.

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