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On March 1st, I was a panelist for the BagNewsNotes Salon The Lens in the Mirror: How Surveillance is Pictured in the Media and Public Culture.

In coordination with the Open Society Watching You, Watching Me exhibition, this online panel wanted to reflect not only upon surveillance in our society but how it is pictured and if those depictions meet the realities of networked viewing that are at constant play behind our walls,, systems, nodes and screens.

I felt like an amateur in the room with other esteemed panelists lining up thus – Simone Browne, Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, UT Austin; Cara Finnegan (moderator) writer, photography historian, Associate Professor of Communication, University of Illinois; Rachel Hall, Associate Professor, Communication Studies at Louisiana State University; Marvin Heiferman, writer and curator; Hamid Khan, co-ordinator, Stop LAPD Spying Coalition; and Simon Menner, artist, and member of OSF surveillance exhibition.

Over two hours discussion, we discuss 10 images in turn. They flash up as we deconstruct their meanings, but it might be helpful to consult the gallery first, too.

Over the coming weeks, BagNews will be adding highlight clips for easier to digest morsels that get to the meat of our conversation.

“Surveillance technology permeates the social landscape,” says BagNews. “Tiny cameras monitor traffic, parking lots, cash registers and every corner of federal buildings. Through personal devices and social media, citizens also monitor one other.” In the highlight clip (above), moderator Cara Finnegan and panelists Simon Menner, Simone Browne, Hamid Khan, Rachel Hall and Pete Brook discuss generic imagery and the use of stock photography to represent this reality of daily life


The BagNewsSalon is an on-line, real-time discussion between photojournalists, visual academics and other visual or subject experts. Each salon examines a set of images relevant to the visual stories of the day often focusing on how the media and social media has framed the event. The photo edit is the key element and driver of each Salon discussion and great care is taken to create a group of photos that captures the depth and breadth of media representation.

It was either Beierle or Kei­jser (one of the Mrs. Deane halflings) who emailed and pointed out Simon Menner‘s photographic series Objects – 2010.

FAKE HEAD. Pillow, hat, paper, piece of Tetra Pak, hairs from a broom. @ Simon Menner

Typology is a trendy term that gets banded about easily these day but I have no better term for the straight photography of objects as these. Menner is the latest photographer in an ever-increasing line of prison tool and prison weapon typologists.

In 2005, Marc Steinmetz photographed the manufactured items of Santa Fu, Celle, Wolfenbuttel and Ludwigsburg prisons in Germany. (Featured on PP, July 2009)

Brett Yasko produced the independent book Shiv that features eleven prisoner-made weapons from the collection of Chris Kasabach and Vanessa Sica. The shivs were confiscated in the 1980s at Rahway – now known as East Jersey State Prison. Yasko’s photographs were presented in Design Observer’s feature Art of the Shiv.

Prior to 2008, Toño Vega Macotela was visiting Santa Martha Acatitla Prison, Mexico regularly and his photographs were showcased by Toxicocultura recently (via James).

Cooking Grill No.2 © Toño Vega Macotela

Pages of Brett Yasko's book 'Shiv'. © Brett Yasko

Multibladed Shiv. Image © Brett Yasko

Radio Receiver within Encyclopedia. © Marc Steinmetz, 2002

RADIO. Book, electronics (the title of the book translates “The Reputable Merchant”) © Simon Menner

The usual commentary for these types of typology is to admire the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the inmate. Notably, all four photographers have given “backstories” or contexts for the production and/or confiscation of the objects they’ve photographed. For example, Menner explains, “The objects presented here have all been seized in prison cells of the Berlin Tegel prison.” Menner also thanks the staff for allowing access. These extra details are essential if we are to avoid wonder and mere image-consumption.

These typological studies run the risk of serving politiicised positions; of becoming metaphors for human creativity or resistance.

(Worse still, the item and/or photograph is reduced to an objet d’Art.)


Menner himself is concerned with how images and stories may or may not attach themselves, “What fascinates me here is the very old question of how much of the final object is already “inscribed” in its parts, even before its creation. And by asking this question I also ask a basic question on the nature of images. How much of a story is visible in the images, even before the story itself is unveiled?”

So what do you first think or ask when viewing these images? For me, I want to learn about the institutions, penology and prevailing criminal justice culture in which these inmates functioned:

With regard Yasko’s work – Why were so many shivs made at Rahway? And what led to two collectors acquiring them? With regard Menner and Steinmetz, what uses were dummy pistols and mobile phones put to inside those German prisons?

Fine art representations of these objects mustn’t be the end product in their object biographies. Narratives in the “Social Life of Things” do not end but morph.

The photographs of Yasko, Steinmetz, Macoleta and Menner impose new readings and establish new jumping off points for inquiry.

Device to hide a mobile phone. © Simon Menner

DUMMY PISTOL from blackened cardboard; found on June 23, 1988, in an inmate’s cell in Stammheim prison, Germany, after a fellow prisoner tipped off the jailers. The dummy was hidden in an empty milk pack and was most probably intended to be used for taking hostages in an escape attempt. @ Marc Steinmetz


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