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Artist-filmmaker Nirit Peled and director Sara Kolster have produced A Temporary Contact, a real time series of text messages and short videos delivered via WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, that allows users to join family members as they journey from New York city to upstate prisons and back.

Over 30-hours, beginning at 10pm the evening after you sign up, you’ll receive at first few texts and then consistent volley of 22 short videos. The main protagonist is Amanda, a 20-year-old from Brooklyn who is visiting her brother, but other women speak to the camera and relay their experiences. Most videos are 45 seconds long and shot from the aisle of the bus. Gas station and restroom breaks are a relief for all. Audio is overlaid the blurred land at 60mph. I include a few screencaps for the purposes of this commentary.

 

 

As we know, the majority of new prison construction in the past 30 years has occurred in rural America and in post-industrial towns. The “logic” was to replace the dead agriculture and manufacturing jobs with prison jobs. However, the small (and ever-decreasing) benefits that may have been brought to struggling, job-scarce populations are eclipsed by the hardships wrought upon prisoners and their distant friends and families. A Temporary Contact takes us on the weekend journey that family–mostly women and children–make; a journey essential for keeping family ties. Bear in mind that, for incarcerated persons, maintaining close relations with loved ones is the most important factor in helping them stay out the system after release.

New York state, as with other large states such as California, Texas and Illinois, is one of the worst offenders in siting prisons hundreds of miles from the communities from which prisoners are extracted. A Temporary Contact offers users a moment inside the collateral damage done by this particular extended and prohibitively expensive travel.

Some thoughts on the title: Temporary contact is fleeting, it’s real but not sustained. The title simultaneously recognises the intermittent opportunities that family have to make in-person visits (those with financial means and time, might make the journey as often as twice a month), but also points to our passing point of contact with a time-consuming (and likely foreign) travel-commitment which prisoners’ loved ones regularly and necessarily sign up for.

Despite the journey’s substantial 30-hour timeframe, it’s one that is largely self-contained and not seen … except for maybe the lines of people waiting for pick up at 34th street or Columbus Circle in NYC late on a Friday or Saturday evening. (For an in-depth photo essay on prison buses, please see Jacobia Dahm’s work; read the interview she and I did; and then read this follow-up conversation Dahm had with Candis Cumberbatch-Overton, who Dahm photographed as she visited her husband John.)

There are many revealing moments in A Temporary Contact and it’d be foolhardy to describe them; you should just sign up for the messages toy our own smartphone. The presence of time–and time seen–is part of the art’s structure! That said, I thought it instructive that immediately following their departure from the prisons, the women shared photos of their loved ones and talked about the costs to have the portraits made.

“The only thing we take out the visits,” says Amanda, “are the pictures.”

 

 

The women compare costs of a single Instax picture. In one prison it is $2 per photo. In another it is $4. They talk about physical changes, new facial hair, how they all appear in one another’s photos. They laugh and gripe about the quality of the murals in front of which they must stand for the portraits.

Visitors are allowed to have five pictures made on each visit. Despite the huge expense (relative to single prints in free society) the women tend to get five. Max out on memories. Optimise the presence of their loved one in the world. A photo is a thin slice of time, but it is a substantial presence in the free world of someone who is behind bars in a limbo-state of social death.

 

 

It seems that every photography conference these days is talking about getting beyond the frame, and using new technologies and digital platforms to tell stories. Peled and Kolster propose a model that delivers important, compelling content with direct efficiency. The bar for access is as low as it gets; who doesn’t have WhatsApp or Facebook on their phones at this point? The temporal quality of the project is key. The success of A Temporary Contact rests on the fact that, every one or two hours, users are prodded with gentle reminders of other’s devotion to time … time spent in love and support of prisoners.

I wholly recommend A Temporary Contact. I learnt new things, I think you will too.

A Temporary Contact was developed within the framework of the veryveryshort competition, a NFB and ARTE co-production in collaboration of IDFA Doclab. Very very short is a collection of 10 interactive projects for smartphones, exploring the theme of mobility through very, very short experiences – all under 60 seconds.

Credits
Creators: Nirit Peled & Sara Kolster
Camera: Aafke Beernink
Editor: Wietse de Swart
Additional editing: Paul Delput
Sound mix: Sander den Broeder
Color: Maurik de Ridder
Developer: Martijn Eerens
Scripting: Wireless Services
Music: Amit Gur & Itai Weissman
Cast: Amanda, Diamond, Gina, Latoya and Stephany
Research help: Ilja Willems, Five Mualimm-ak, Ray Simmons
Special thanks: Katie Turinski, Junior from Flambouyant Transportation Inc., Het Raam, Hortense Lauras

 

 

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texas

Still from video of a TDCJ officer firing a tear gas canister at a group of prisoners from just several metres. Source: ABC

If you’re in any doubt about either the power of images or the vindictiveness of prison authorities then consider this story.

Elderick Brass, a former Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) officer leaked a video in May 2015 that showed a Lychner State Jail guard firing a tear gas canister into the chest of a prisoner. The video appeared in an ABC report in August 2015.

Indicted by a grand jury in December, Brass is due to appear in court February for “misuse of official information.” The law states he could face between 2 and 10 years if found guilty.

WHY THE PUBLIC EXPOSURE?

TDCJ has already admitted the improper use of the tear gas gun, but it has not sanctioned the trigger happy guard, let alone terminate his employment. Not wanting to cause itself problems, I presume, the TDCJ is hoping the matter will be forgotten and the retraining of staff it says it has done since will prevent a repeat event. Usually, the authorities want stuff like this to go away as quietly and as quickly as possible; for it to get out and off the news. One wonders then what the prosecution of Brass does? It certainly brings the video back to public attention.

Assuming that the TDCJ are willing to tolerate the scrutiny afresh, one must conclude that they really want a prosecution for the purposes of intimidating whistle-blowers and putting staff back under the order of command. They’re bringing the boot down especially to quash internal leaks of misconduct and injustice. They’re accommodating the continued circulation of this video in order to preclude the future circulation of others.

Worth noting is that the video on ABC includes only the incident and the moments leading immediately up to it. There is a longer video depicting the before and after and giving more context to the altercation between prisoners that gave rise to this nervy cop’s point-blank violence. Get the full context of the video and the TDCJ response in the ABC August 2015 report.

NEW VISUAL PARADIGM

Between whistle-blowers, FOIA requests, court materials, leaked CCTV and contraband cellphone vids there is a wealth of visual material emerging from the Prison Industrial Complex that describes the system very differently to the descriptions of professional photographers.

Whether the video and images are amateur, operational or prisoner-made they tend to share a grain and a noise. Characterised by awkward angles, low resolution, ambient cacophony and muted tones, prisoners’ illegal vids resemble surveillance footage. Prisons and jails give rise to horrific conditions and in some ways all the images and videos in what I’m referring to as a new visual paradigm are horrifying too. Often, if a video comes to our attention it is due to the violence or injustice it includes.

Even within images and videos in which abuse is not explicit, our eyes are being trained on the aesthetics and, crucially, the psychological and existential threat of incarceration. I’m thinking this through as I write.

I’ve not put into words fully, yet, what the emergence of this distinctly new type of visual evidence means. I expect it’ll function in the courts and for journalism as it always has; to construct, confirm and dispute narrative. And so, I guess, I am more interested in what it means for us as citizens.

Are we aware that more and more of the visual representations of US prisons and jails are shifting toward raw, unpolished feeds captured by wall-mounted cameras, body cams and illicit phone-cameras?

As we are exposed to this new type of imagery do we process it with the narrative its given to us through news and Internet alongside ads and comment boards? Do we take empathetic leaps to imagine all experiences within the scenes of abuse played out on our screens? Do we appreciate that events in one prison, at any moment, may be repeating in hundreds of the other 6,000+ locked facilities in the U.S.?

Visuals are one of the key ways outside-citizens learn about prisons. They are a key tool with which authorities–and increasingly prisoners–tweak their narratives for public consumption. Being a engaged citizen means to approach this new paradigm armed with information, skepticism and visual literacy.

GRAVE ISSUE AND A GRAVE VIDEO APPEAL

Prisons are hostile, and potentially lethal, environments for transgender individuals. The acute need for understanding, medical care, and protection from predatory abuse is made visible for us through the remarkable efforts of Ashley diamond, a woman incarcerated in the mens’ Georgia State Prison.

Hearing her case and the evidence put forth by her advocates, The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), it is a wonder Ms. Diamond is still alive. She has suffered no fewer than seven serious sexual assaults in the three years of her term.

Georgia’s prison system is notoriously dysfunctional and brutal. The prison in which Ms. Diamond is incarcerated is Georgia State. It had more sexual assaults between 2009 and 2014 than all but one other state prison. Ms. Diamond’s access to safety is merely one of her request in the recent lawsuit. Mainly, Ms. Diamond asks that her medically diagnosed condition of Gender identity disorder (GID) or gender dysphoria is recognised by the Georgia Department of Corrections and that they provide her the hormones that she was taking for 17 years prior to imprisonment.

Ms. Diamond describes her incarceration to this point as nothing short of torture. Her gender identity is held in contempt by the authorities and her vulnerable situation is in no way accommodated. Bravo to her for forcing a lawsuit against the state in order to secure recognition, medical hormones treatments. This is a fight that will not only elevate the visibility of the severe issues facing LGBQT in prison but may secure human rights hitherto ignored or trampled.

Ms. Diamond and transgender prisoners like her are in a perilous position.

In reporting on the case and the subsequent Federal level support for it, The New York Times says, “Many face rejection by their families, harassment at school and discrimination in the workplace. Black transgender people have inordinately high rates of extreme poverty, homelessness, suicide attempts and imprisonment; nearly half those surveyed for the National Transgender Discrimination Survey had been imprisoned, compared with 16 percent of the study’s 6,450 participants. Transgender women in male prisons are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than is the general population, with 59 percent reporting sexual assaults, according to a frequently cited California study.”

When budgets for non-profit advocacy groups are so scarce and the resources and intractability of the state opposition is so large, media outreach and messaging has to be perfect. Bravo to SPLC for delivering a message in which Ms. Diamond is front and center. From a contraband cellphone, Diamond makes a direct plea to the public. The illicit nature of the act adds a sense of urgency to the appeal. It is as if all other avenues have been cut off and desperate times require desperate measures.

It’s a bold move and possibly not without its consequences. I would not be surprised if the GDOC was to retroactively punish Ms. Diamond for possession and use of a cellphone. Given the daily threat to which Ms. Diamond is subject, it hardly seems sanction for possessing a cellphone would be high on her list concerns. Whatever the extent of “risk” is involved in publishing this cellphone video it is another significant lens through which we can see this case, this story and this political action.

1

Video still from Ashley Diamond’s prison cell video.

ALLIES

It is also crucial that other prisoners are present in the video. It is empowering to see anonymous prisoners feature as allies and supporters. It balances the narrative of prisoners only being predators. Prisoner-led self-organisation is the most quickly silenced but the most effective of resistance against the state and prison industrial complex. I wonder if videos such as this could potentially add further to future struggles?

A FEW QUICK THOUGHTS ON PRISON VIDS

I’ve been promising myself for years to in some way put together an analysis of contraband cellphone photo and video footage. The only definitive thing I can say is that I’ve not seen the vast majority of it and never will.

99.99% of prisoner made recordings are shared between devices, between loved ones and never uploaded to the internet for public viewing. If they do make it to social media they are on the internet behind passworded social media accounts.

Often when prisoner made cellphone videos emerge it is to villianise the prisoner further. News stories peddle in public consternation — we abhor prisoners who might be seen to be thumbing their noses at authority. We also like to frame the stupid or “foolish criminal” and mock them when their video gets them caught. But the truth is, prisoners are very, very sensible with their videos and digital distributions. Why do you think we see so few prison videos?

Prisoners have an interest in protecting their assets — this applies to cellphones that are expensive to acquire and very, very useful. Prisoners have zero incentive for making it publicly known they have or had have had a cellphone. Most prisoners use cellphones to contact families as a cheaper alternative to a price-gouged market. And, let’s remember that phones — like any contraband — get into prisons through the hands of staff as much as they do because of family visitors or civilians.

If the cellphone becomes an issue for the prison administration then their complete lack of understanding of the complaint is exposed — it’d prove the point being made by Diamond and SPLC that the Georgia DOC has demoted human rights to the point of endangering lives.

SPLC’s strategic use of Diamond’s video testimony is deliberate, timely and well-advised. It accelerated and humanised the issue. I, for one, hope it might be a method repeated in the future to benefit the crucial legal battles of prisoners. If so, it could also change our appreciation of prisoner-led political actions.

TALKING HEAD

The kind folks at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College wanted to make a video to accompany Prison Obscura. So, we sat down with camera and I talked for an hour. It’s a blessed relief for you all that they managed to distill it down to 3 minutes. Much more bite-size than the essay.

Vimeo link. Also available on Youtube.

PRESS

Photo Exhibit Offers Look Into the Lives of Prisoners (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Prison Obscura: A Look Into the Cell of Self (Bi-College News)

Prison Obscura at Haverford’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery (The Art Blog)

Shedding Light on a Dim Situation in Prison Systems (The Temple News)

5 Intriguing Things: Thursday, 1/23 (The Atlantic)

‘Lives Lived Behind Bars are Too Often Invisible’ (In These Times)

Prison Obscura, Curated by Pete Brook (aCurator)

Exhibition: Prison Obscura (No Caption Needed)

Installation shots here and here.

 

His family claim he was 12 when he was taken into US custody. The pentagon claim he was 17. Whichever the case, the treatment remained the same.

Video from the Guardian.

GuantanmoYoungDetaineeVideo

I don’t want to get into the habit of posting on cases of police corruption, police brutality, or correctional officer misconduct.

I don’t want to do this for three reasons:

1. It distracts me, and you the reader, from digesting content directly related to photography and its praxis.
2. Many other regional, national and international newsrooms will cover these stories – as a matter of course – more thoroughly than I.
And 3. Despite their shared “peace officer” status, cops and screws are cut from a different cloth. It would be wrong of me to carelessly blur the activities of one disciplinary group with another. Police and correctional officers share minimal operational relation to one another.

So, I don’t wish to obfuscate the reader/viewer. However, the video below leaves no confusion in anyone’s mind.

The spokesperson in the video relayed the official words of an authority under investigation, but one feels even he could barely stomach the truth here. Where some videos are subject to interpretation – and consequently endless courtroom debate – there can be no doubt here. The officer lost his head and unleashed upon this young girl. He’s a thug, just like a guy fist fighting on the street is a thug.

As some of you may know, I have recently transplanted to Seattle. Occasionally, one witnesses acts of rote police procedure in place of common sense, but by and large, the cops on the streets here (as in my former home of San Francisco) are a friendly bunch on bikes and skates.

I am saddened such a horrendous beating should take place in my new hometown … which is why I have made an exception to my rule here.

Unfortunately, this brutal lashing occurred in the same month that Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske was selected by Obama to be America’s next Drug Czar. Seattleites have voiced varied opinions regarding this appointment, but secretly they are all really chuffed. It is a proud moment for Seattle residents, not least, because Kerlikowske – even as a police chief – shares some majority views of the citizenry. Kerlikowske adopted a common sense approach to urban policing by making marijuana infractions the lowest priority of his force in order to redirect resources to more serious matters … matters of violence. The Stranger, Seattle’s favourite free rag offers four wildly different but well-informed opinions on Kerlikowske’s appointment.

_______________________________________

Seattle lost an age-old institution recently. The Seattle Post Intelligencer, like the Rocky Mountain News and San Francisco Chronicle has had its day. I am not sad because I believe newspapers have unending rights or high position in urban comunities because I don’t – I am excited by new media and its different forms of creation and distribution. I am upset because it was the liberal leaning paper in this two paper town. That leaves the Seattle Times, which is very mediocre. If you are intent on getting good journalism in print pick up the San Jose Mercury Times. Crap city, great newspaper!

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