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I just published What’s a War-Torn African Nation Got To Do with Editing DNA?, a piece on Vantage about Wired Magazine’s choice of a Richard Mosse photograph Myths Of The Near Future (2012) for the cover of its August issue.

The photograph was made as part of Mosse’s series Infra about the ongoing civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the story is about the science behind– and the copyright battles over–Crispr-Cas9 a genetic engineering technique. The gulf between the original subject matter and the nature of the story raised some questions for me.

I must mention that, in light of 5.4 million deaths in DRC, the line “And the end of life as we know it” emblazoned in 48-font on the front cover, seems a little clumsy, but I’m too clueless about the magazine world for that to be my line of main inquiry. Someone else can muse over those loose words if they think there’s anything more in them than a disconnect between packaging and content typical of the marketplace.


Perhaps I am so discomfited because Mosse’s work makes so much more visual sense being bent ever-so-slightly for this futuristic narrative, than it does for its original intended political purpose?

Mosse pitched in on Twitter with the following three comments, they’re part of a longer back-and-forth with a couple of threads between Ed Brydon and I. Chase those threads if you can.

Read the full piece and see what you think.


I was invited by WIRED to write about Josh Begley‘s work Prison Map. The article is Aerial Photos Expose the American Prison System’s Staggering Scale:

There are some 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States. That’s more people than there are in all of New Mexico. And there are more jails and prisons than colleges and universities in this country. Still, it can be difficult to grasp the scale of incarceration in America, in part because so many of these facilities are tucked away far from view in rural areas.

Prison Map provides a sense of the enormity of it all by giving us a fascinating vantage point from which to view the architecture of incarceration. Begley’s created a vast visual compendium of the nation’s jails and prisons, comprising more than 5,300 aerial images that offer a compelling metaphor for the rapid expansion of the American prison system.

Prison Map is about visualizing carceral space,” says Begley. “We have terms like the ‘prison industrial complex’ but what does that actually look like? If you were to stitch together all these spaces of exception, how might they appear from above?”

Read more at WIRED.


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It was a double whammy this week. Everyone noticed the 6,000 page report into CIA torture. Many won’t know that today was the day that Justice Department attorneys presented the Obama administrations rationale for suppressing over 2,100 photos and videos of torture by American military personnel in Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Since 2009, the Obama administration has argued that releasing them would inflame anti-American sentiment abroad and place Americans at risk. Federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York is not so easily convinced and wants the government to explain, photograph by photograph, how each might pose a threat to national security. The fight to release these photos dates to 2004, when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

David Levi Strauss has tracked these developments from the very beginning. Several chapters in his new book is Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014) deal directly with the war over control of torture photos.


Strauss and I, for WIRED talked about state secrets, how the brain is wired, the political power of images and whether or not photos of Osama Bin Laden’s corpse actually exist.

WIRED: Why has the release of 2,000-plus remaining images and videos made by US military personnel in Abu Ghraib not been resolved?

Strauss: Because of the effectiveness of the images. They became the symbol of the change in US policy to include torture. Images are very powerful. That’s why the US government has become very afraid of the effects of these images worldwide.

The other amazing thing about the Abu Ghraib images was that they crossed the boundary between private and public. That is unusual. It changed things for photojournalism, for the military, certainly, and for the public at large. Prior to the release of the Abu Ghraib images, the military was handing out cameras to soldiers so that they could use photos to stay in touch with their families, and to be used operationally.

Read the full conversation: The War Over the US Government’s Unreleased Torture Pictures.

[All images for this Prison Photography post via Salon]









Christoph Gielen, a photographer known for his aerial views of American suburbs has chosen as his next subject super-maximum security prisons — the most controlled spaces in American prison industrial complex. Supermaxes are of particular interest as they are designed specifically for solitary confinement.

As I wrote for, today, America has an unusual thirst for putting people in total lockdown.

In consideration of “the severe mental pain or suffering” it can cause, Juan Mendez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, said that solitary confinement amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Mendez recommended that prisoners never be confined in solitary for more than 15 days.

However, in US prisons, stints in the hole can be longer. Much longer. The California Department of Corrections self-reports the average stay on an inmate in the Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit (SHU) is six-and-a-half-years. Many have been in the SHU for a decade or more. In Louisiana, Herman Wallace and  Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 have been in solitary for over 30 years.

I’ve also written previously about how images of solitary confinement – despite its widespread use – are difficult to come by.

“The opportunity to visually examine these restricted locations is significant, especially at a time when journalists access is increasingly curtailed,” says Gielen.

Gielen noticed concentric patterns of equivalent interest in the Supermax prisons of Arizona whiel working on his suburbs photo series Ciphers.

American Prison Perspectives is a simple and effective presentation of these design forms. Are gated communities and caged facilities are our preferred housing solutions for the late 20th and early 21st centuries?

With 1 in 100 adults behind bars, America incarcerates more people than any other modern society. Of the 2.3 million men, women and children locked up in the U.S., 80,000 prisoners are in solitary. That number includes hundreds of children.

The rapid adoption of solitary by prison authorities as a means to discipline and segregate has led Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to call it one of the “greatest social experiments of our time.” For some sociologists, the parallels that Gielen drew between housing and prisons go beyond visual similarity. Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab goes so far to ask, “Have prisons and jails become the mass housing of our time?”





The debate on solitary confinement is timely. To quote myself, again:

The Illinois campaign spurred Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to chair the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement last summer. Durbin showed up on Capitol Hill with an actual-size solitary-cell replica.

While for many, the discussion of prisons and segregation can revolve around human rights and legal justice, the issue is particularly relevant today for its economic implications. There was a successful grass-roots campaign to shutdown Illinois’ Tamms Correctional Facility, due largely to the fact that it costs more than $60,000 a year to house a prisoner in solitary confinement in Tamms, compared to an average of $22,000 for inmates in other Illinois prisons. The closure is currently stalled — held up in court following opposition from the AFSCME labor union with prison guards in its ranks.

“In America, particularly, the long view is hardly ever considered. Fiscal views are considered for on a yearly basis,” says Gielen. “Economically, the widespread use of solitary is unsustainable.”



American Prison Perspectives doesn’t end with the images. In 2014, Gielen plans launch a website devoted to the series and host a public online forums. Furthermore, Gielen foresees symposia across the U.S. with former prisoners, prison architects, legal experts, activists, correctional officer union-reps and prison administrators, along with firsthand accounts of solitary confinement and the perspectives of mental health experts on the effects of isolation.

American Prison Perspectives will illustrate how prison design and architecture reflect political discourse, economic priorities, cultural sentiments, and social insecurities, and how, in turn, these constructed environments also become statements about a society.

American Prison Perspectives is supported by Blue Earth Alliance, the Fund For Investigative Journalism and Creative Time Reports and others. You too can help spread the potential reach of the work with your own donation.

I wish Christoph the very best in this ambitious project.


Cartoon of prison photographers from the Illustrated London News, 1873 in The Mechanical Eye in Australia (OUP, Davies & Stanbury, 1985). Via (Source)

Cartoon of prison photographers from the Illustrated London News, 1873 in The Mechanical Eye in Australia (OUP, Davies & Stanbury, 1985).

Over on the high-class Threat Level blog, David Kravets has penned Mug-Shot Industry Will Dig Up Your Past, Charge You to Bury It Again a scary piece about America’s “mug shot industry racket”:

Exploiting Florida’s liberal public-records laws and Google’s search algorithms, a handful of entrepreneurs are making real money by publicly shaming people who’ve run afoul of Florida law., the biggest player, now hosts more than 4 million mugs. On the other side of the equation are firms like, and others that sometimes charge hundreds of dollars to get a mugshot removed. On the surface, the mug-shot sites and the reputation firms are mortal enemies. But behind the scenes, they have a symbiotic relationship that wrings cash out of the people exposed.

I’ve written before about rolling galleries of the recently arrested in place of stories on online “news” sites. It is a practice particularly prevalent across southern states. These galleries are the digital version of mugshot papers like Just Busted.

Unlike these galleries that feature the latest bookings, FloridaArrests has raked the archives. But I would still criticise both for an amount of coercion; they induct, at some level, users into the visual language of law enforcement. By the act of looking we are perversely interacting with portraits threaded with menace; they are, after all, the outcome of some type of confrontation. But the visibility of these images (and thus confrontations) far outweighs the impact these contained confrontations have on the everyday life of the majority.

Kravets’ article demonstrates that beyond the dubious exchange of digital imagery for news informational purposes fear, a business model has been found to monetise the shame that goes along with being booked and photoed.

“The business model seems to be to generate embarrassment and then remove the source of the embarrassment for a fee,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, and one of the nation’s leading open-records advocates.

Now you are manipulated as much as prey of the mugshot industry as much as you were as a consumer!

Have you made one mistake in the Sunshine State? If so, you’re probably up there among the other 4 million mugshots. That is until you fork out $400 to a specialist firm to process a $20 take-down request. The take-down is a “URL for an automated takedown script on [a] site” that is activated by PayPal payment. have provided the URL in advance for multiple companies.

Reads like a racket.

Ernest Morgan, an inmate since 1987, holds his prison-approved CD player. Photo: Jon Snyder/

My friend and colleague Matt Shechmeister at Wired’s Raw File just published Life on Lockdown: See-Through Gadgets, DIY Media, No Internet, an article and gallery on idiosyncratic prison technologies.

Matt went to San Quentin Prison with photographer Jon Snyder (@jonsnyder) to tour cells and music studios to report on the see-through typewriters, prison-sanctioned music selections and contracted companies all shaping the security-minded tech-culture at San Quentin.

Not an angle seen or read very often. Well worth checking out.

Over the next few weeks, posts at Prison Photography may thin out a little as I devote a chunk of energies to a new gig at Wired’s photography blog, Raw File. For the following reasons, this is an exciting new departure for me:

– I can call on the expertise of a knowledgeable and calm editor (when I pitch ideas, he says “home run” or “leave it alone”)
– I can piggyback on the back of some ridiculous stats (I guess that’s just Wired for you?!)
– Readers of Raw File have a many more reasons to stop there than they do here (ie, they’re not only tangentially interested in prison reform or in the past somehow stumbled upon my photography commentaries) … and they are harsh critics.

So far I’ve looked at:

– Laura Pannack’s recent work and success – Striking Teenage Portraits Boost Young Photog’s Career
– The alternatives to the Norsigian/Ansel Adams saga – Troves, Caches and Suitcases: Famous Lost Photographs Discovered
– and a Southern California Rapid Transit Employee of the Month Portrait Archive – Fabulous Bus Driver Photos Show Off Mustaches, Sunglasses


My tweeting activity shall also migrate from @brookpete to @rawfileblog. Please follow and spread the word on this newly-active-stretches-every-morning twitter account.

© Rene Burri/Magnum Photos. Brazil. Sao Paulo. 1960 / Back of print.

I spent last week on the phone to Mark Lubell, managing director of Magnum Photos; David Coleman, curator of photography at the Harry Ransom Center; and Eli Reed, photographer, Magnum member and UT professor.

The upshot was The Story Behind the Legendary Magnum Archive Sale, an article over on Wired’s Raw File blog.

There’s a couple of great quotes, my favourite is this from Coleman, “The boxes are marked with three-initial codes. I haven’t quite broken the codes that correspond to all the photographers. Robert Capa is CAR but then also BOB, which is funny. Bob.”

It was a story I really wanted to report on because I do think this is an astounding “incentivized” outcome for all involved. Read the article for details.

I do still wonder what will happen in 2015, though?


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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