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“I would like to receive a photo of the new world trade centre buildings, in whatever stage of rebuilding they’re in. A nice view from a nearby building would be nice. Could the photographer take the photograph from a nearby rooftop?” Terrence’s request answered by Anthony Tafuro for Photo Requests From Solitary.

Author’s note: A little under two years ago, I was quite rattled by a new contribution to the ongoing Photo Requests From Solitary project. At the time, I thrashed out some ideas with colleague Gemma-Rose Turnbull, wrote a pointed response, and then let the essay vanish. I return to it here.

Photo Requests From Solitary (PRFS) is a collaborative project that uses art to illuminate the issue of long-term confinement in U.S. prisons. I’m a fan, but I felt that the 2015 collaboration between PRFS and Vice Magazine missed the mark. Since 2015, PRFS has fallen under the stewardship of Jeanine Oleson who has worked on its expansion in New York and California, partly during an artist residency at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. In May 2017, a new round of images made in response to requests from men and women in New York’s state prisons was exhibited at the Legislative Office Building in Albany, NY.

As far as I can tell, the 2015 Vice partnership and article and gallery (the focus of this essay) was the first, last and only time PRFS assigned the creation of images directly through a media outlet. I feel my arguments apply as well now as two years ago (not a lot of new PRFS material has been released). I wanted to tidy up my original essay and tweak it to reflect the moment now in mid-2017. I think the key inquiries below will always be critical to the assessment of the relevance and impact of Photo Requests From Solitary.

— Pete Brook, 10th July, 2017


DOES THE IMAGE MEET THE BRIEF?

Photo Requests From Solitary is one of the most imaginative, expansive and effective political art initiatives of recent decades. Launched in 2009, Photo Requests From Solitary (PRFS) was one project of many pursued by the grassroots activists Tamms Year Ten (TYT) in the campaign for the closure of the notorious Tamms Correctional Facility, Illinois; a facility purpose-built to house prisoners in extreme isolation.

The core concept of PRFS is disarmingly simple. TYT sent forms to men in solitary in Tamms. The form explained that they would make an image—real or imagined—for the prisoner to have in his cell. A prisoner could, in writing, describe an image, offer specific instructions, and return the form. TYT would then coordinate with outside artists to make each image and send a copy to the prisoner.

Founded in 2008, TYT employed multiple tactics to mobilize diverse constituents in the fight to abolish solitary confinement. I’ve followed TYT and PRFS since late 2011 when I met some of the organizing activists in Chicago. One of the impressive things about PRFS was that it was able to move adeptly between artistic and political spaces and it convincingly occupied both; its message and art moved to where it’d have most effect. As far as I know, PRFS collaboration with Vice Magazine’s “Prison Issue” (October 2015) was the first time images were made by a publication’s staffers and freelancers for the project.

When I heard about the partnership, I was curious, a little skeptical (I’ll admit) but mostly I was excited to see PRFS’s latest iteration.

Although PRFS was only one of TYT’s initiatives, it cannot be overstated how important PRFS was to the success of the group’s work. PRFS served both the needs of the men languishing in solitary confinement AND the needs of a public kept largely in the dark about the brutal conditions at Tamms Supermax. It provided an essential, constant and intriguing visual hook to TYT’s efforts; it kept the fight in the limelight. PRFS galvanized activists, forged solidarity with prisoners and kept the issue at the forefront of the public conscience. This three-birds-with-one-stone efficiency is the effectiveness to which socially engaged art projects aspire.

TYT worked closely with then-Governor Pat Quinn who, in 2012, proposed closing the facility. Tamms was shuttered in January 2013. (It needs to be noted that people in Illinois remain in solitary confinement in other wings of other facilities, but no longer is a facility designed solely for extreme sensory deprivation in operation in the Land Of Lincoln.)

That success did not spell obsolesce for PRFS, nor it’s radical methodology. People remained in solitary confinement in states across the U.S. In 2013, Tamms Year Ten partnered with Solitary Watch, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Parsons The New School, and the artist Jeanine Oleson to expand the project into New York and California. In September of 2013, with support from the Magnum Foundation and the Open Society Documentary Photography Project, Photo Requests From Solitary went on public view at Photoville in New York City.

Also in 2013, one of the founding artists of TYT, Laurie Jo Reynolds was awarded the Creative Time Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change, and in 2014 Reynolds received an A Blade of Grass Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art. A new genre—Legislative Art—was defined so as to describe the artworks of TYT and those of the same ilk. Legislative Art involves unglamorous admin, spreadsheets and letter-writing as much as it does poetry, poster-making and marching. Legislative Art strategically and creatively engages with government systems, with the intent to secure concrete political change. For those who had always wondered if art could change society, TYT seemed to provide an answer. Ask the 200 men moved out of extreme isolation. Art had changed their worlds.

All this is to say, TYT and PRFS are worth constant applause. They are also worth constant attention. We should analyze closely what PRFS puts out because due to the collaborative and decentralized nature of the project, contributions and results will vary considerably. Crucial to the ongoing success of PRFS is care surrounding its core principles. All this to say, it is right to judge when and how contributing artists meet the prisoners’ requests.

In a closed call, Vice photo editor Elizabeth Renstrom invited photographers who work regularly for Vice to contribute — including Jason Altaan, Edward Cushenberry, Fryd Frydendahl, Michael Marcelle, Keisha Scarville, Molly Soda, Anthony Tafuro, Ole Tillmann, and Vice photo-editor-at-large Matt Leifheit.

“I hired a blend of new and old contributors that I felt would best carry out their assigned letters for the inmates. I did this to make sure specific requests were sure to be completed,” says Renstrom, who was largely responsible for all the photography in the 2015 Vice Prison Issue.

I think some contributors succeeded. I think some failed. I think a couple failed spectacularly. For the simple reason that they did not meet the specifics of the requests, Jason Altaan and Fryd Frydendahl failed.

Frydendahl was asked, by Sonny, to provide an image of “a woman with a smile that shines as bright as the sun. Not a model type but an ordinary woman who, perhaps, enjoys every moment of her life. Who is not biased or judgmental towards anyone but full of love and compassion for everyone and everything.”

“A face-shot of a woman with a smile that shines as bright as the sun. Not a model type but an ordinary woman who, perhaps, enjoys every moment of her life. Who is not biased or judgmental towards anyone but full of love and compassion for everyone & everything.” Sonny’s request answered by Fryd Frydendahl for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

Judge for yourselves, but I don’t think the girl flashes a smile, nor does it “shine as bright as the sun”. The only warmth to be found in this image is that inferred by the yellow haze of the filter. I wonder what Sonny thinks?

Altaan’s case is less cut and dry. In a literal sense, he did photograph “a female in black leather pants w/ the same material stitches but a different color like hot pink all which can define her figures [sic] w/ a setting of orange and blue in the sky posted up next to a Benz (powered blue) in a park. Black female with hazel eyes.” But it’s clear that Altaan was unable to divest of his trademark 80s, glamor sneer and style.

“I would like a female in black leather pants w/ the same material stitches but a different color like hot pink all which can define her figures w/ a setting of orange and blue in the sky posted up next to a Benz (powder blue) in a park. Black female w/ hazel eyes.” Dan’s request answered by Jason Altaan, for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

Even temporarily, Altann could not put down his soft-focus cynicism. As with his other portraiture, Altaan has managed to match his disdain for fashion-shoot-charade with his clear infatuation with the playfulness of said charade. The skill of Altaan’s work lies in paying homage to the palette and poses of yesteryear’s beauty while simultaneously mocking the consumption, then and now, of versions of beauty. I think Altaan’s work is smart. That he is able to mock the industry as he climbs its rungs deserves applause but I just don’t think his signature look was what Dan had in mind.

“Our hope is that some of the [magazine] issue’s visuals, generated by and for inmates, offer a better understanding of the vagaries of the confined,” writes Renstrom introducing the Vice feature. All well and good, but only if we can conclude that the contributor’s image tallies with the prisoner’s intent. It’s possible that the Prison Issue’s visuals might derail understanding too. Assessing the level of understanding among audience is a difficult task but we can look closely at the images and ask if they appear to serve the prisoner or if they appear to serve the photographer.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not interested in the cheap-and-easy dismissals of Vice we see so often. This article is not of that nature. Vice draws plenty of ire for its tone but, as I have said before, Vice looks to be shedding the snark of its fledgling years.

Regarding the Prison Issue generally: I am a fan. I was grateful to see Zora Murff’s Corrections featured because the growing use of electronic monitoring is a relatively ignored issue in criminal justice debates. I was equally pleased to see Renstrom’s interview with Mark Strandquist about his numerous projects that nurture more sympathetic views of people involved in the prison system. Indeed, Renstrom told me she actively tried to get away from images made by outsiders to the issue. She succeeded for the most part.

On the success of individual images: I admit, it’s difficult to argue with any degree of certainty that the creative output of an artist does or doesn’t meet the visual imagination of a prisoner. Especially, when the medium between them is a hundred-or-so words, a few hundred miles, and all sorts of demographic distinctions. In the cases of Altaan and Frydendahl, however, I think I can structure an argument because their images appear to be closer to their existing artistic signatures than they are to the words of Dan and Sonny.

Friend and colleague Gemma-Rose Turnbull agrees. A specialist in socially engaged methodologies, Turnbull is currently writing a PhD on co-authorship models in documentary photographic practice.

“What I think has happened here is that the artists have not always connected to the fact that the prisoner is the primary audience,” says Turnbull.

She’s right. Photo Requests From Solitary is about process as much as it is about product. PRFS prioritizes prisoners’ visual escape and the process toward realizing their escape means ego, rules and wider expectations must be actively set aside. Easy to say; not always easy to do. Artists pride themselves on individual act and independent vision. Yet, for PRFS, artists operate, effectively, as functionaries. Artists serve the prisoners and serve the politics of the project. What we have to understand is that PRFS is a communication project, not a photography project.

“Images, here,” says Turnbull, “are supposed to help prisoners transcend solitary. Help them feel like they are being heard.”

PRFS is necessarily complex in structure because it attempts to connect people who have been forcefully disconnected by institutions and discriminations. In the absence of common shared media, PRFS builds images out of, and around, the issue of solitary confinement from which we discern our social responsibility and agency. PRFS uses imagery—as a seemingly innocuous thing—so that we might rally around it. Knowing the power of images, though, we realize that this project has been anything but innocuous. It changed political course in Illinois. Described in these terms, PRFS is owned by us all. The longer PRFS exists and the wider it reaches the more shared its possession. In these terms, the insistent artist signatures of Altaan and Frydendahl are out of place.

Of course, sometimes, the artist can just miss the point entirely. Terrence asked for a photo of the new buildings replacing the World Trade Center, shot from a nearby rooftop. Instead, Anthony Tafuro made a picture of the 9/11 Memorial Pool (top image).

In the plus column, Keisha Scarville and Edward Cushenberry met their requests well, I thought.

An African American family at a Thanksgiving/Christmas Dinner, background of kids graduation, sweet sixteens, grandchildren being born, family reunion, birthdays, funerals, church attendance, aspects of a family tree. Grandparents, mother, father and sons and daughters, cousins, wives and husbands. To show/express the unity and growth of family when times are good and bad. I MISS MY FAMILY, BEING THERE FOR THEM. Keith’s request answered by Keisha Scarville, for Photo Requests From Solitary.

“Can the photograph be of my daughter ‘Daddy’s Angel’? Her name is ________ 3 years old.” Christopher’s request answered by Edward Cushenberry for Photo Requests From Solitary.

 

I’m not singling out Altaan and Frydendahl so we can all just wag our fingers. I’d like this critique to be instructive. As PRFS moves onward to California, New York and potentially other states, it will not be under the guidance of one hand. Each participant is responsible for understanding the premium placed on service that is core to PRFS. Tamms Year Ten fought against a single facility, but CA and NY have dozens of secure housing units between them. PRFS must maintain prisoners as its primary audience. Those outside prison walls are the secondary audience. Don’t forget that.

“The pictures offer a new way to think about people in isolation,” writes Renstrom. She is correct.

“We don’t see,” Renstrom continues, “what prisoners see, but what they envision. Taken together, these requests provide an archive of the hopes, interests, and memories of people in the hole.”

Think of that for a moment. It is a huge responsibility for a loose cadre of artists to collectively paint the imaginations of hundreds of prisoners. The VICE feature was picked up by The Daily Mail (a right-leaning UK newspaper with a massive online footprint) and featured by an Illinois NPR affiliate. We can presume that each time PRFS puts out new images, they’ll circulate … and they’ll speak, to some degree, for prisoners. It’s an uncomfortable responsibility for a loose cadre of artists to collectively speak for hundreds of prisoners. Uncomfortable because no set of images can stand in for the experiences and thoughts of millions of Americans passing through locked facilities each year. Uncomfortable because we know images are slippery and we know the stakes are high for incarcerated individuals, their families and for anti-prison movements. Uncomfortable because inherent to the method of PRFS is the surrender of decision-making power to the artist and, frankly, we don’t want the artists to fuck up. We like artists and we like the resistance.

To be fair to the Vice contributors, their first introduction to PRFS probably differed to most before them. Renstrom emailed Vice contributors 2 or 3 weeks before the Prison Issue went to print. That email may have been the first time they had heard of the project? By comparison, in Illinois, there was a longer familiarity with the project; word-of-mouth and IRL interactions brought most contributors to the table. Some of those that conceived of the PRFS project made images too. Furthermore, publication of their images was implicit in Vice’s ask, so this may have appeared, and felt, like a standard assignment from a national publication. Altaan, Frydendahl and co. can be forgiven for not realizing that Vice readership is the secondary audience.

Despite my call to criticism here, I don’t want to discourage future collaborations between publications and the PRFS coalition of Parsons, Solitary Watch and TYT. As much as ever before, we need both PRFS’s empowering engagement across prison walls and we need alternative visual reference points for our understanding of the prison industrial complex.

“It’s really important to highlight and promote art activism so people aren’t constantly seeing the same type of photography surrounding prisoners,” says Renstrom. Hear, hear. It is precisely because I’m a huge fan of the open dialogue, the beautiful complications, the equity, and the shared responsibility that are central to PRFS’s methodology that I pay the project such close attention. PRFS cannot become a schtick. It cannot become cultural fodder. PRFS must remain rooted to its co-authorship intent. The photographers have to know they’re making work for the prisoner first, the rest of us second.

“The litmus test must be: Does the image meet the brief?” challenges Turnbull.

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Hopefully not so simple as to forget.

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James Burn VICE La Paz Co Jail

Screengrab from the VICE webpage livestreaming James Burns’ 30 days in La Paz County Jail, Parker, AZ. Captured 02.01.2017

VICE reporter James Burns is spending 30 days in solitary confinement in La Paz County Jail in Parker, Arizona. You can watch any time. He’s into his third week. Why? Good question. Burns has many a good answer. He explains:

Unlike most of the rest of the planet, America embraces this practice at almost every level of the system—local jails, state and federal prisons, mental health facilities, you name it. By most estimates, solitary ensnares 65,000 to 100,000 people at any given time in the United States. Just this past month, a study from Yale Law School carried out in coordination with the heads of state prisons across America suggested nearly 6,000 of them have been in solitary for three years or longer. And like most layers of the American criminal justice system, solitary disproportionately impacts people of color.

It’d be one thing if this practice of confining people in cramped, isolated cells worked—if all the loneliness and human misery had a point. But report after report (and study after study) suggests solitary brutalizes the incarcerated and in some cases may even make them more likely to hurt others when they get out.

I’ve just watched 15-minutes. My immediate response was one of anxiety. Usually when I view a screen it’s with interest in a narrative (documentary film), or for clear information (news broadcast), or for the development of script and fictional character (TV), or the footage is reflexive of itself as a medium (video art), or it’s a quick, cheap laugh (cat GIFs). In other words, there’s always something happening, or about to happen. Or there’s mystery, tension or story arc; something’s coming up and something will change. The livestream puts me on edge because there’s no obvious movement in it, for it. We see everything in Burns’ world and at his disposal and it’s almost nothing. The footage not only holds no change, it inhabits the near-complete absence of any potential for change.

If the cell was to erupt in action, it’d likely be in a moment of Burns’ crisis or breakdown. Watching, I find myself simultaneously tormented by the lack of action but also fearful of anything extreme (because it’ll be very negative) actually happening. If Burns can last the 30 days and the “program” runs its full course I hope Burns can quietly survive.

I wasn’t convinced about the 30-day livestream as a form when VICE launched it on the 14th December, but having spent an hour with it I am greatly intrigued. (As I type have the feed playing in another browser tab, and the audio of Burns pacing his cell passing an orange from one hand to the other)

This isn’t active reporting but it is a full 30-day long report. It isn’t time-based art, but it is without doubt performative and requires investment by, and presence from, the audience. The slow-pace and anti-narrative are very effecting.

We cannot ignore the full cooperation of the jail administration though.  Lieutenant Curt Bagby explains La Paz Sheriff departments motives:

“Having cameras in our facility showing any part of the process is an easy thing for us to agree to because we take great care to follow the rules set forth for us by the Arizona guidelines on dealing with our incarcerated population. We are happy to show the general public the way we operate as we have nothing to hide. We understand VICE wanted to highlight the practice of solitary confinement, and we are willing to show how it is done here.”

I and many other activists could list countless prisons and jails in which a month-long live web-feed of a cell would not be considered or carried out. Merely the noise from a disturbance on the tier would be enough to put of most administrations. I don’t know the configuration of other cells and corridors in the pod or the block Burns is in, but I have heard noises from beyond his cell suggesting that a large disturbance would be clearly audible. I take Bagby at his word and I speculate he derives confidence from a belief or measurement that La Paz County Jail is less volatile than other facilities.

After years of conjecture about prison and jail administrators’ attitudes toward cameras, I’m interested to read Bagby’s statement on cameras relationship to transparency and management. It also is a clear indicator that no external factor will dictate the outcome of this experiment. Only mental stress upon Burns will end the confinement prematurely. We wait either for nothing or for total disaster. By occupying this box (at considerable risk to himself) Burns embodies the fact that confining others to solitary results either in absolutely nothing or in the complete destruction of the spirit.

ElainaiseMervil

Elainaise Mervil. Source: The Tallahassee Project via VICE

I was recently speaking with an advocate who visited women’s prisons in California to learn about their circumstances and build cases for release. She said to me, “There needs to be more media in prisons. The women with whom I have conversations totally complicate peoples’ ideas about who a criminal is.”

Unquestionably, photographic media plays a role in telling stories. Some photographs better than others. If storytelling is about connection and about empathy, then what better photographs than the family snap or the amateur portrait?

This week, the unavoidable ordinariness of prisoners’ portraits was in evidence on VICE.

Jamie Lee Curtis Taete did us the service of republishing images from the book The Tallahassee Project: One Hundred Prisoners Of The War On Drugs, by John Beresford, M.D.

“The majority of the women shown in the book were charged with ‘conspiracy’ based on the statements of informants who spoke to authorities in exchange for reduced sentences,” says Curtis Taete.

From a woman whose old phone, still in her name, was used by a drug dealer to a women who drove drugs across state lines. Yes, there may have been a poor decision or lack of inquiry involved but there was also coercion (usually by a male friend or family member) and the result is a long, long mandatory-minimum sentence. Such is the War On Drugs which has been largely responsible for an eightfold increase in the female prison population in the U.S.

It’s likely many women implicated in drugs investigations are mere runners and may not even possess the information needed to bargain with the authorities. The result is destroyed families and ruined lives. 16 years, 24 years and even life for a failure to cooperate with authorities. How do these numbers even make sense? They don’t. They are shameful.

Below, I include a particularly insightful contribution to The Tallahassee Project book [my underlining] by Elainaise Mervil (pictured above).

Inmate ID Number: 20982-018

Sentenced to 20 years for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine base and cocaine hydrochloride
.

Estimated release date: 08-07-2014

I am a Haitian lady who has left 4 minor children behind to do this mandatory sentence. I have no criminal history. I am a first-time non-violent offender. It seems the government is tearing families apart and the children are the ones that are really made to suffer for this “War on Drugs.” P.O.W.

I fell into the wrong crowd in Orlando, Florida. I have never had any problems with the law and only am now learning to read and write the English language. I am a native of the beautiful country of Haiti. I love America, but I believe that the judicial system needs some change and review.

Conspiracy is such an all-encompassing category that if no other charge may be brought forth, one is charged with conspiracy and subjected to the 10-year mandatory minimums which increase rapidly in direct proportion to hearsay evidence whether true or not true. It appears that a person who is found in possession of narcotics will receive less time than a person who was not found in possession of anything, since conspiracy seems like the only viable charge.

Conspiracy was originally designed to target “king pins” who are usually sheltered by runners, etc. But what has happened instead is that the king pins are the ones who receive the most favorable deals since they have the most to provide to the government for substantial assistance motions as they possess many many contacts. The “little man” who does not know as much suffers since his assistance is not as valuable; hence, falling victim to the harsh treatment under the law by being required to serve a decade-plus in prison.

I applaud this use of photography. Let’s see more activists and journalists in prisons gathering such image and word to amplify the voices of those callously thrown away by our society.

Go to VICE to read more criminally injust stories and to see pictures of women who look like your neighbours, your sisters and your mothers.

© Quico Garcia

In September, Ariel Rubin’s VICE article The Children of Kampiringisa was accompanied by Quico Garcia’s pictures, mostly portraits of the child prisoners.

The article describes a fetid facility, where child “offenders” (sometimes they’ve been dropped off by parents for poor behaviour) share cells with Kampala’s homeless children. The overcrowded facility breaks international law. Instead of rehabilitation, children endure malnutrition and diseases such as Malaria that – due to lack of medicines – they must “wait out.”

Upon entry into the rehabilitation prison, children are cooped in the “black house”—a barred room where they sleep on the floor, scramble for space and may to procure a filthy blanket. After 25 days they are moved to a dormitory with their own bed.

Garcia’s images for the piece do not show any of the squalid conditions. To the contrary his portraits are intimate and devoid of the trauma Rubin describes. One presumes, the Kampiringisa authorities would not allow photographs of the most desperate spaces and inmates.

VICE’s editorial decision to pair Rubin’s succinct and stark description of Kampiringisa with Garcia’s portraits leads to a dissonance between text and image and potentially misleads the reader/viewer.

Read the article here and view more of Quico Garcia‘s work from Kampiringisa here.

I was going to write a little something about That interview with Antoine d’Agata in Vice, but Darren’s got it covered:

“What is most troubling about D’Agata’s work is not specifically its content, but the rather trite assumption that life as a drug-addicted prostitute (in some conveniently distant place) contains more “truth” than that of, say, a suburban housewife or a plumber […] It remains a tiresome (if quite familiar) misapprehension that extremes of living can bring us closer to the most fundamental aspects of what it is to be human – as though there were no other kinds of truth.”

“The “reality” that he frames as an existential crisis is in fact an economic one, so his rhetoric is more like a transparent pretext for the way he has chosen to aestheticise what he photographs – a denial of his implied privilege. [d’Agata’s work] is beautiful and often daring, just not in the ways that he would have us believe.”

Well said Darren.

Put another way, and I heard this a few years back, “Oh d’Agata, he’s the Magnum photog who fucks and sucks his way around the world, yeah?”

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