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Be Their Megaphone

At 5 o’clock on Friday evening, advocates for juvenile justice system reform are marching on the General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia. You can join them.

The Justice Parade for Incarcerated Youth will present, to the powers that be, the work produced by incarcerated youth this summer, as part of the Performing Statistics project. In the parade, a broad coalition of artists, legal and policy experts, community activists, faith leaders and returning citizens will champion the work. It’ll bring art onto the streets and ask the public to imagine a society without prisons for children.

Take drums, banners, trumpets, instruments, foghorns and your loudest songs and chants.

Carry art and banners made by incarcerated youth. Be their presence on the streets.

Take your own signs that answer the question, “How can we create a world where no youth are locked up?”

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WHEN

Friday, October 2 at 5 p.m. Speakers at 5:30 p.m. Walking begins at 5:45 p.m.

WHERE

General Assembly Building 915 E. Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219.

Parade goes from the General Assembly Building to the ATLAS gallery at the ART 180 art center for teens and youth. ATLAS is currently showing the Performing Statistics exhibition featuring creative work by incarcerated youth that talks about their experiences being incarcerated and alternatives to the system.

Be Their Megaphone

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CONTACT

Mark Strandquist
 — 703-798-6379

Trey Hartt — 
703-946-5217

performingstatistics@gmail.com

Performing Statistics is a Richmond-based art and advocacy project that connects incarcerated teens, artists, and Virginia’s top legal experts. The project is part of Legal Aid Justice Center’s RISE For Youth campaign.

Be Their Megaphone

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“I spent so much time counting down the days to my court date when I would sit in this very holding cell for about 7 hours. If court is at 9, they bring you down to the holding cell at 5AM and don’t bring you back up until after 2PM count. On one hand it was nice to have all that time to think, on the other the anxiety was a full-time job,” says ihatechoosingausername.

Yesterday ihatechoosingausername posted some snaps from jail alongside stock pics and some funnies too. It is niftily titled So I  Just Came Home From Jail.

In 13 images (make sure to click to see the full gallery after the 10th image) and a few words she describes her entry and exit from Henrico County Jail in Virginia. her past addiction and wish to stay clean, her new felony record, the struggles to find work, her imminent homelessness and her frank cluelessness on what is next.

It went viral. Over 340,000 views at the time of writing.

In an update, ihatechoosingausername said:

Wow, Imgur, the support I’ve received after making this post has been absolutely amazing! Thank you so much for the kind words. Also, through this post I got to talk to one of the people who fed me while I was homeless in the park last winter and let him know just how much good he’s doing in the world by giving sammiches to the homeless.

This is not an obvious feel good story but there’s a realness about ihatechoosingausername’s words that leave us hoping it will become one. Time will tell. I wish ihatechoosingausername the best of luck.

No trolls in sight. To you Internets, well done for not being a dick.

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Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement

2014 is the 50th anniversary of the passage of The Civil Rights Act, the landmark legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Danny Lyon was the first staff photographer — between 1962 and 1964 — for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lyon would go on to make some of the most important bodies of work about the American condition (The Bikeriders; Conversations With The Dead) and as such his very early work as a very young man is often overlooked.

The Etherton Gallery’s exhibition ‘Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement’ opened on Saturday and shows 50 silver gelatin prints from Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery, Alabama; Albany, Georgia; and Danville, Virginia. We see images of student protests and mobilization against racism,  lunch counter sit-ins, student beatings, tear gassings, the jailing of Martin Luther King Jr., and the unscheduled visit of a young Bob Dylan to SNCC headquarters in Greenwood, Mississippi. Lyon, was harassed, beaten and jailed during his two years as a staff photographer.

SOME THOUGHTS ON AZ

Where better to look back on an era in which society treated people with different coloured skin than in modern day Arizona? The passing of SB1070 in 2010 was a legislative bill that essentially permitted veiled racism and racial profiling. In activism, folks are always on the look out for new allies and for audiences who really need to hear the message. A message of anti-racism message and some historical perspective is vital for residents of Arizona currently. I’m not saying that people of Arizona are inherently racist; I am saying the services and institutions that claim to serve them have procedures that result in racist acts.

There are some fine activists in Arizona (they’ve necessarily and wonderfully organised) and this is particularly true of Tucson and some clever geographer-activist-academics. May Lyon’s photographs play their part in making Arizonans and us angry. Lyon would want nothing more than his show to leave us rageful at our society of inequality.

DETAILS

Etherton Gallery, 135 S. 6th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701 Tel: 520.624.7370. Email: info@ethertongallery.com.

Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement’ runs through March 15, 2014.

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All photos: Danny Lyon © Dektol.wordpress.com. Courtesy of the Etherton Gallery

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If you’re strolling around the centre of Charlottesville these next few days and peep a red newspaper box, reach inside and grab yourself a copy of the free paper within.

Accompanying his exhibition of Some Other Places We’ve Missed at The Bridge: Progressive Arts Initiative in Charlottesville, artist Mark Strandquist has created eight pages of photos, activist resources and a call to engage.

I have a vested interest in promoting this newspaper. For it, I wrote an editorial about the history of — and imperative of — photographers and artists working in American prisons. It is reproduced in full below.

Even if I wasn’t personally involved, I’d still be singing the praises of Mark’s work – I’ve posted about Some Other Places We’ve Missed before and I am including the work in a prison photography show next year. When Mark and I chatted about the exhibition of Some Other Places We’ve Missed, we got all giddy about the fact that his show is outside of the official LOOK3 program, and yet he is able to grab some mindshare among the throng of photobodies in Charlottesville this week.

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© Mark Strandquist. A photograph made of a scene described by an incarcerated male.

ART AND SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT

For the longest time, photojournalism and documentary work has pursued common good, reliable information, hidden stories and social change. At least, that’s the ideal. With guests such as Susan Meiselas and Martha Rosler, and with Koudelka’s exhibit, the LOOK3 schedule looks serious and seriously good.

Mark and I are huge fans of this year’s LOOK3 line up, but LOOK3 remains a big festival where the cucumber martinis flow like wine and big name photographers will hold court in Charlottesville town center. Festivals are about learning, meeting and sometimes brown-nosing … and, for that, we love them. Everyone leaves photography festivals feeling connected and re-energised and that’s how it should be. But, there’s more.

Some Other Places We’ve Missed asks us to think about image-making in slightly different ways. Not everyone can produce a 20 foot tall Nat Geo vinyl banner, but everyone can have the type of  intimate conversations on which Some Other Places We’ve Missed is based. Of course, I am biased because Mark is having conversations with American prisoners and I think there’s rehabilitative value in that.

I’ll stop prattling on now and just say if your interest is piqued then you should attend the panel talk More than A Witness – Photography as Social Engagement on June 15, 2pm – 3:30pm. Speakers are David Levi Strauss, Chair of Critical Studies at the School of Visual Arts, Edgar Endress of Floating Lab Collective, Yukiko Yamagata of the Open Society Foundation, and Matthew Slaats, Executive Director of the Bridge. They’ll discuss how art facilitates dialogue and can be used to reach out to new subjects and engage broader audiences. Find out more on Facebook here.

Mark has programmed a busy schedule of events at The Bridge including a poetry reading and discussion between gallery-goers and prisoners via a direct feed from a local jail. Full details on The Bridge website.

[Scroll down for my newspaper editorial.]

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Installation shot of Some Other Places We’ve Missed, opening night at The Bridge, Charlottesville, VA.

EDITORIAL: DRAWING ON MEMORY, WORKSHOP GETS PRISONERS AND PUBLICS THINKING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY, STORY AND HIDDEN SPACE

In the 1970s, a purple barge floated up and down the Hudson River in New York state. Once moored, photographers emerged to teach workshops to communities traditionally outside of art circles; hospital patients, rural high-schoolers and — perhaps most remarkably — prisoners. The buoyant vessel with living and gallery spaces was operated by the Floating Foundation of Photography (FFP).

Not all New York State prisons are on the Hudson and so after initial offerings at Sing Sing, FFP ventured inland, eventually delivering photographic arts education in eight prisons. The majority of workshops were facilitated by founder Maggie Sherwood, her son Steve Schoen and a handful of close associates. But, the FFP enjoyed close ties with the New York arts scene and as such invited leading photographers in recent memory to deliver day-long workshops in the prisons – W. Eugene Smith, Arthur Tress, Mary Ellen Mark, Les Krims, Judy Dater, Lisette Model and Lee Witkin to name a few. The FFP mounted exhibitions of “outsider photography” on the anchored barge in Manhattan and in Central Park.

As one browses the images and stories within Some Other Places We’ve Missed, perhaps it is worth bearing in mind the history of arts education — and specifically the role of photography — in the rehabilitation of those locked up within our prisons and jails. The Floating Foundation represents a particular high point in this history; the access into prisons that it negotiated, the pedagogy it employed, and the optimism it eschewed stand out as extraordinary. These days, opportunities for arts education (with strong photographic components) in the prison industrial complex are rare. As such, projects such as Mark Strandquist’s deserve attention.

In the 1980s, mass incarceration began. In the past 35 years, the number of Americans locked up has more than quadrupled. The war on drugs, indeterminate and longer sentencing, broader definitions of criminal behaviour, the decimation of many safety-nets for society’s most vulnerable, and the politics of rhetoric and fear all contributed to the tumorous growth of America’s prisons. Even in states that entered a prison building boom, facilities were soon overcrowded. As costs soared, pressures mounted and efficiencies took priority, both the ability to provide — and belief in — the efficacy of education and arts to help in the rehabilitation of prisoners waned.

States previously provided high school and college education to prisoners as item lines on their budgets. These were scratched from budgets early, and when the Clinton administration revoked prisoners’ right to federally funded Pell Grants in 1994, the message was clear: prisons exist to incapacitate, not to rehabilitate. The majority of college level education provided in state prisons these days is administered by either earnest non-profits, University departments with social justice mandates, and sometimes the two in partnership. Prisons remain legally obliged to enroll prisoners without high-school diplomas into GED programs, but the success of students already alienated by public schooling often hampers success. To speak generally, it is the limited scope of — and limited opportunities for — education in prison that scupper advancement. To wright this ship, a huge shift in political will, informational (media) exchange and tax-payer attitude is required.

Prisoners are lining up to be part of this collective shift of consciousness. “Lucky” prisoners may live in state facilities close to a big city which can draw on volunteers to run programs previously provided by the state. Others find opportunities designed for successful reentry toward the end of their terms. But still, the majority of American prisoners have little to no voice and are for all intents and purposes invisible. Existing creative outlets include law libraries (although not in private prisons), pen-pal programs, and vocational work (prison factories remain because of the immediate profits they create), but these are programs that should exist for all and form merely first rung of the ladders to self-improvement and broadening of the mind.

Some Other Places We’ve Missed brings to us the voices, regrets, dreams and imagination of just a small number of men incarcerated in Richmond County Jail. Mark Strandquist provides us a bridge into their worlds. One needn’t share the political position of an artist to recognize the imperatives of a work or an action; intellectual curiosity and community engagement can saturate the entire political spectrum. Strandquist’s work is sadly exceptional, but it needn’t be. Perhaps, his tenacity is exceptional, but I believe it is within reach of us all. Whenever possible we should be thinking of ways that we can engage with our nation’s prison population. It is a population that has been strategically manipulated to the point of invisibility.

Cameras are a security tool for prison administrations, but in the hands of others are a security hazard. The ability to see, frame and witness life behind bars inherently involves power. In mugshots, in surveillance and in tightly-controlled visiting room digital portraits, prison authorities have a near monopoly on such power. Only rare and serendipitous moments (usually a sympathetic superintendent) give rise to an artist being permitted to use a camera in prison space — Robert Gumpert, Kristen Wilkins, Jenn Ackerman and Jeff Barnet-Winsby are a few examples.

Strandquist navigated this potential barrier by conducting a photography workshop without any introduction of cameras into the classroom. His simple question, “If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?” acted as proxy to any release of the shutter. He asked students to think photographically. While the images are made by Strandquist beyond the prison walls, the essential discussions about memory, self-reflection, the power of photography and the comfort of the image all inform the project.

Through Strandquist’s photographs, we the public, are given an opportunity to connect with the incarcerated; their imagined windows become, momentarily, our window into their lives. But the 1/125th of a second needed to make a photograph is a perverse fraction of the months and years many spend imprisoned. Are the photographs enough? On their own, probably not. But the collaborative and educational core to the project is considerable. As audience, we should employ the same amount of imagination as Strandquist’s students and consider similar ways we can engage with incarcerated persons. There is every reason to think Strandquist’s methodology can be replicated in prisons and jails across the nation. With 2.3 million men, women and children behind bars Some Other Places We’ve Missed should also be a prompt for us to meditate on the millions of sights and experiences in American prisons that we never witness.

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“The neighborhood was middle class, nice, where everyone knew everyone. One great lady taking care of us all – grandmother; Big Momma for short. The house set on fire when one cousin playing with matches. Had to move into government owned property. Family split up. Never as close as before. Miss the love. Home base.”

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BIOGRAPHY

Mark Strandquist is a multi-media artist and curator based in Richmond, VA, who creates work that incorporates viewers as direct participants, features histories that are typically distorted or ignored, and blurs the boundary between artistic practice and social engagement. His work has been featured in various film festivals and independent galleries as well as a current exhibit at the Art Museum of Americas in Washington, DC. He is currently working on a BFA at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has a Tumblr.

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In 1986, Philip Jones Griffith went to a Virginia prison, made the above image and wrote the following caption:

“The American justice system directs attention away from corporate crime. A deluge of trivia about murder and mayhem is provided, sending the message that everyone is wallowing in original sin and that deliverance can only come from a strong police force. The economically deprived, mostly blacks, who turn to crime are incarcerated in ever-increasing numbers.”

This caption could have been written yesterday, especially given the recent news about Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling worming his way to a reduced sentence and the persistence of “Debtor’s Prisons” across Ohio and other states.

What Jones Griffith didn’t witness in 1986 was the profiteering arm of the corrections industry that was about to emerge. The private prison system is bigger business than ever. VICE  tells us who’s getting rich.

Zachary Allen moved to Portland more recently than I, which is recent indeed. I knew of his work and I was aware he had studied with Ian Van Coller in Bozeman, Montana, and that Zachary had also assisted Ian in South Africa in 2010. When I found out he was here in PDX I didn’t hesitate to contact him and grab a coffee.

In some ways, Zachary’s work is difficult to feature because much of his work is in-process; he stresses that Roseland (my personal favourite of his portfolios) is a twenty year project! Roseland is about land-use and residential planning in Virginia.

Still, I asked Zachary to pull together some images and pen a quote to introduce himself to the Portland photo scene.

Zachary:

“Over the last couple of years I’ve been making photographs documenting my trips into the landscape. I’ve been attempting to stay away from a strict theme based project, which seems like the only acceptable form of photography these days. I kinda ended up with a bunch of mini projects at the end of three years. These mini projects explore several themes, such as nests, town relocations, and the intersection of nature and human influence, but the main thread has been the idea of being a “photographer” in the field. I’m interested in how we as photographers approach the landscape and interact with it. The photos from In The Field explore both my personal outings into the landscape and trips I have accompanied other photographers on. I think there is something really interesting when several people go out into the field just to have a look.”

Zachary Allen is a photographer, printmaker, and educator currently based in Portland, OR. He can be contacted on zachary@zacharysallen.com. Follow his work: Twitter,  Book Experiments, and Broken Spine, a Tumblr exploring artists’ books.

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Eye on PDX is a continuing, weekly series that features images and brief statements by photographers currently living in Portland, OR.

Michael S. WIlliamson for the Washington Post was inside Deerfield Correctional Center earlier this month and photographed the aging and sick prison population.

From The Washington Post:

Deerfield, Virginia’s only geriatric prison, is where the state’s inmates are sent to grow old. They’re transferred to this facility in Capron, near the North Carolina border, when they’re too weak to stand or feed themselves, when they don’t have much time left.

Since the General Assembly abolished parole for the newly convicted in 1995, the number of elderly inmates in custody has soared. In 1990, there were 900 inmates over the age of 50. Now there are more than 5,000. Deerfield Correctional, which once housed 400 inmates, has become a 1,000-bed facility with a long waiting list.

“We’re left trying to be both a nursing home and a prison,” said warden Keith Davis

SOURCE: Virginia Department of Corrections, The Washington Post – Sept. 8, 2010

Since the General Assembly abolished parole in 1995, Virginia has been forced to care for more and more elderly prisoners. In 2008, 12 percent of Virginia’s prison population was age 50 or older, up from less than 5 percent in 1990.

People ask how photojournalists and documentary makers get access to prisons, so I ask the photographers I meet. For every photographer, circumstances and events are unique.

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The Society of Professional Journalists details media prison access policy, contacts, visitation rules, forms and permitted equipment state-by-state. There is no home page for the data, so I’ll link you to the Virginia Dept. of Corrections guidelines.

Prisoners in Virgina will be needing more visits to fill their time as their right to receive books via charities has just been withdrawn. The feeble reasoning by the Virginia DoC:

Because Quest [the Books Behind Bars program organiser] sent books directly to offenders and utilized volunteers to send these books, there was nothing in place to stop someone from attempting to introduce contraband to an offender by secreting it in a book.

This is plainly an excuse. It is also an embarrassment. If a prison system cannot provide efficient (and secure) passage of educational materials to its wards, then is it a system we should have any respect for or trust in?

These broken systems should be in our view.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

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