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KAREN, 69, in a homeless shelter four weeks after her release. East Village, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 35 years
Released: April 2017
“When I made parole plans, I thought I was going to have a good re-entry situation in the house I paroled to. I realized almost immediately that it wouldn’t work out, so I left, without anywhere else to go. Parole sent me to a homeless assessment shelter in the south Bronx. The quality of the bedding and the food was a lateral move from prison. But factoring in my freedom, there’s no question that it was an improvement. Now, I’m in a shelter run by the Women’s Prison Association. I feel safe and secure. The room is spare, with not much in it, but it’s mine. In this room, I find comfort, privacy, safety, and peace of mind.”

 

Working as a public defender, Sara Bennett has met a great many women who have faced struggle and hardship. Many serve, or have served, long sentences. Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women has increased by 800% in the U.S. There are nearly 100,000 women in state prisons and federal penitentiaries. A further 110,000 are in county jails, 80% of whom report having been the victim of sexual assault during their life time. Women who have been convicted of serious crimes have, more often than not, been the victims of serious abuse themselves. Irrespective of crime, I have consistently argued that mass incarceration does little to improve or heal. It does the opposite. It damages.

When facing conservative opposition, prison reformers often resort to arguments against the incarceration of non-violent people, women included. Reformers attempt to find sympathetic groups within the prison system for whom the public may be persuaded to support. This is all well and good, but it comes at a price; people convicted of violent crimes are left to rot, so to speak. For advocates such as Bennett, it is clear that long sentences achieve little and that the abuses of the prison industrial complex are wrought on all who it swallows. The Bedroom Project humanizes women who have recently re-entered society after serving long, multi-decade Life With Parole sentences.

Bennett has created a space for each of these women to reflect upon their post-release situation. They regale personal tales and they are photographed in their most personal spaces–their bedrooms. In some cases, a bedroom might be the only place some of these women can claim as their own.

Bennett is a former criminal defense attorney who most frequently represented battered women and the wrongly convicted. She uses photography to amplify her observations of the criminal justice system. Her first project, Life After Life in Prison documented the lives of four women as they returned to society after spending decades in prison. Bennett decries the “pointlessness of extremely long sentences and arbitrary parole denials”. The Bedroom Project is currently on show at the CUNY School of Law in Long Island City, New York until March 28th.

Keen to know more about Bennett’s process and motivations, I approached her with a few questions about The Bedroom Project. Scroll down for our Q&A in which we discuss the meaning of the work for both subjects and audiences.

 

EVELYN, 42, in an apartment she shares with a roommate five years after her release. Queens, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: 20 years
Released: April 2012
“Look where I am now. Five years ago, I came out from a little cell, started out in a halfway house, moved to an apartment, back to a transitional home, and now I’m in my own room in an apartment I share with a roommate. What can be better than this? This is happening.”

 

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Many of the women you photographed are living in a room in a community house, or an apartment building for returning citizens, or in a one bedroom apartment. So, they have a single room that is their own. While imprisoned, they may or may not have had a cellmate, and the degree to which they could personalise their cell would differ. No matter, they lived within walls for long periods. You’re photographing them also within walls. Tell us about why you focused on their bedrooms.

Sara Bennett (SB): It’s not the similarity to the prison cell that I’m trying to highlight, but the contrast. It’s true that most of the women now live in shared spaces, but still there’s a sense of intimacy, self, and pride. They all have items on display that would have been contraband in prison, including stuffed animals, wooden picture frames, patterned sheets, cellphones and computers. For decades, their cells were randomly inspected, they were locked in every evening, and they were forced to move at a moment’s notice. Now these bedrooms are their own.

 

TOWANDA, 45, in her own apartment five years after her release, with her daughter, Equanni. Bronx, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: almost 23 years
Released: October 2012
“I was in the shelter system for the first four years. It was about the same as prison. You’re confined, you can’t do anything, you don’t have your own thoughts, you’re always stressed out. It’s good to have my own apartment and pay my own bills. It’s peaceful and I feel safe.”

 

PP: What was the dynamic between you and the women.

SB: For many years, I was the pro bono clemency attorney for Judith Clark, who was serving a 75-year-to-life sentence for her role as a getaway driver in a famous New York Case—the Brinks robbery of 1981. All my subjects know her and my first photography project, Spirit on the Inside, is about the women who were incarcerated with her and her influence on their lives. (Spirit on the Inside book.)

The reaction to Spirit on the Inside—viewers were surprised that the formerly incarcerated women were just regular women—sparked my second project, Life After Life in Prison. I followed four women in various stages of re-entry, and I spent so much time with each of them that we really got to know each other. At the same time, I began work on The Bedroom Project, and the four women put me in touch with other potential subjects. So before I even walked in the door, my new portrait subjects were open to me. They’d seen my previous work; they knew some of my former subjects or clients; and they’d been told that I could be trusted.

I’ve ended up being a mentor or friend to almost all the women I’ve photographed.

PP: Why did you choose to include the women’s handwriting?

SB: My goal in all of my photography work is to show the humanity in people who are, or were, incarcerated. I believe that if judges, prosecutors and legislators could see lifers as real individuals, they would rethink the policies that lock them away forever. I want viewers to know what these women are thinking. Including their handwriting emphasizes that these are their words, these are their thoughts.

I asked all of them the same question: “When you see this photo I took of you, what does it make you think?” Their answers are varied and lead the viewer to all kinds of issues—from what it feels like to live in a cell, to educational and employment opportunities inside and outside prison, the difficulties in getting parole and being on parole, finding housing, and issues of remorse, regret, and forgiveness.

 

TRACY, 51, in her own apartment three-and-a-half years after her release. Jamaica, NY (2017)
Sentence: 22 years to life
Served: 24 years
Released: February 2014
“I imagined coming home, living in a one- or two-bedroom apartment, where one was a master and an extra room for guests. Here I have that. I call this room my “doll house,” my safe haven. I feel at peace. I’ve finally unpacked. I spend a lot of time in here. I take pride in everything. I put more into this room than into the kitchen. I know I need to eat, but my room is my nutrition.”

MIRIAM, 51, in transitional housing two months after her release. Corona, NY (2018)
Sentence: 20 years to life
Served: 30 years
Released: December 2017
“This room is my room. A place of my sanity unlike the one in prison. No one will bother me if I’m heard talking to myself. I can think clearly, I can breathe, I can live my way, dress my way, look at things my may. Move my furniture around my way. I love my room. It’s mine—all mine and no one can say anything about it.”

 

PP: What were the main victories for these women post release? What were their main challenges?

SB: Each woman’s circumstance is unique and so their challenges and victories are different. I’d say the biggest and most immediate challenge is finding housing. There are some re-entry programs that provide housing that is either temporary (up to six months) or semi-permanent, and many of the women were lucky enough to get into one of those programs. Some of the women ended up in homeless shelters and some have bounced around from place to place. I know two women who went home to live with family but both ended up moving to housing programs, in part because those programs offer a community that feels familiar and supportive.

Some of the women have completed educational degrees since coming home, some have found rewarding jobs and relationships, and unsurprisingly, the longer a woman has been home, the more stable she becomes.

But most have difficulty finding a job, let alone a decent job, and almost all of them have financial struggles. Many get benefits but that amount is paltry.

It’s mind boggling how quickly the women seem to adapt, how resilient they are, and how they take challenges in stride. Remember, my subjects spent anywhere from 15 to 35 years in prison. The outside world changed radically in that time. As Aisha, one of my subjects says, “It’s like putting a kindergartner in college”.

 

AISHA, 45, in a house she shares with 5 other women 14 months after her release. Flushing, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 25 years
Released: June 2016
“When I was released, I didn’t feel overwhelmed; I felt as though I was right where I was supposed to be. Later though, the feeling of being overwhelmed came as I found myself on the business side of life: food shopping, rent, bills, metrocards, etc. That was all new to me because I lived at home with my mom until I was arrested. My children were one and three years old when I left them and I felt as if they were one and three the whole time I was away. I feel that way about myself now. I was arrested when I was 19 and being in this big, unfamiliar, advanced world makes me feel like a 19-year-old trapped in a 45 year old body. I am both happy and grateful to be out here, but it’s like putting a kindergartener in college.”

VALERIE, 62 in an apartment she shares with a roommate. Bronx, NY (2018).
Sentence: 19 years to life.
Served: 17 years (granted clemency by Governor Andrew Cuomo).
Released: January 2017
“I got my freedom. That’s true! But it’s not the same as being free free. I like to travel. I used to go to VA, to PA, and the casinos and the boardwalk in Atlantic City. I love the beach. But I can’t go anywhere without my PO’s permission. If I want to go to a play or a concert, I need my PO’s permission. Until I get off parole, my life is messed up. I can’t do what I want.”

 

PP: Release from prison is not easy thing. Many of the women were given “numbers-to-life” sentences. Some got out on their parole date, others years after their first parole eligibility. What has been the situation in NY state for releasing persons who’ve served long sentences? Has parole and release become more common recently?

SB: When I first became an attorney in 1986, there was a presumption of parole. If, for example, a person had a sentence of 15 years to life, then she’d likely be released after serving her 15 years, provided that she hadn’t been in serious trouble in the few years prior. But when Governor Pataki took office in 1995, that presumption changed. And no matter how people spent their time in prison—working in trades, earning college degrees, setting up programs, having excellent disciplinary records, living in honor housing—they were repeatedly denied parole based on the one factor that will never change: the nature of the crime they committed.

I like to think that the parole system in New York State is starting to change. In the last six months, the number of parole grants has steadily increased, in part because Governor Andrew Cuomo has had the opportunity to appoint new parole commissioners and in part because of a culture shift that recognizes that, we, as a society, lock people up for far too long. Still, we have a long way to go.

 

CAROL, 69, in a communal residence four years after her release. Long Island City, NY (2017)
Sentence: 25 years to life
Served: 35 years
Released: March 2013
“When I was inside, I dreamed of getting out, getting a job, travelling a little bit. But by the time I got out, my health was bad. Basically, that changed all plans. I wish I could do more, but I’m at peace. I have my grandson, Cecil. He’s precious.”

 

PP:  What have been the audiences’ responses to the work?

SB: The photos are currently facing out onto a busy street in Queens, NY and I’ve eavesdropped as passersby have studied the portraits and talked to each other. I’ve never heard anyone say, “you do the crime, you do the time.” Rather, passersby seem sympathetic, drawn in, and incredulous at the amount of time that the women have spent in prison. I’ve also moderated more than a dozen panel conversations with my subjects, and the audiences have been very responsive to the women. No matter what the women’s pasts might have been, today they are hard-working, loving, resilient, optimistic people, and the audience seems to understand that they have earned second chances.

PP: Do prisons work?

SB: That’s such a loaded question that I’m not sure how to answer it. Suffice it to say that in this country we incarcerate way too many people for way too long under conditions that are dehumanizing and obscene. In other countries, imprisonment itself is the punishment, but the conditions themselves are not punitive and abysmal.

PP: In extension of your photos and the women’s own testimonies, what would you like to impress upon members of the public about improvements in the criminal justice system?

SB: For a long time, most of the conversation around changing the criminal justice system has focused on non-violent felony offenders. President Obama talked a lot about non-violent felony offenders and low-level drug offenders. I’m concerned about people with really lengthy, or life sentences, those who are either repeatedly denied parole or don’t even have that possibility. That’s why my only criteria for The Bedroom Project was that the subjects had a life sentence. (A life sentence doesn’t really mean life in prison unless it’s life without parole. A sentence of say, 25 years to life, means that after 25 years a person becomes eligible for parole.) I wanted to really drive home the point: people with life sentences are ordinary (in the best sense of the word) human beings. They deserve second chances.

 

MARY, 51, with her niece, Trish, in her own apartment 19 years after her release. Brooklyn, NY (2017)
Sentence: 15 years to life
Served: 15 years
Released: May 1998
“I’ve been home 19 years, but re-entry is a lifetime process. In many ways prison is with you forever. Still, the impact is a lot less than it used to be. For years, everything I did, everything I thought about, reflected back to prison. It was about 15 years out—I did 15 years in—that I stopped connecting to that girl I was in prison. Maybe you have to do the same amount of time outside as you did inside until you feel FREE from it.

”LINDA, 70, in her own apartment 14 years after her release. Albany, NY (2017)
Sentence: 17 years to life
Served: 14 years. Granted clemency by Governor George Pataki
Released: February 2003
“I love my apartment. The building is clean. I feel safe and at peace. I been here 10 years. I been out of prison 14 years. It’s so hard when you get out. I just stayed strong. With a friend’s help I got a job as a housekeeper in a hospital. I stayed there for 9-1/2 years. Then I retired. As of now I have to try very hard to stay on my budget finance wise. I have a good family & friends in my life. I thank the life I have now. And I thank God everyday that I am alive and safe. Thank you God.”

 

PP: What effects (positive and/or negative) do prisons and reentry have on women? What are their needs that often get overlooked?

SB: One of the saddest things to me about prison is that it can be the first time a woman has found safety in her life. Most women in prison have been victims of gender-based violence. I’ll never forget a client telling me that she got her first good night’s sleep when she went to prison, no longer subject to abuse by her boyfriend. So, in that sense, prison initially brought some peace as well as a sense of community and self awareness to some of the women I know. Of course, that came at the extremely high cost of the loss of freedom.

In general, women have fewer outside contacts than men and lose touch with their families much quicker than men do. So they are very isolated from the outside world and come home to a world that has moved on without them. They find a society that puts up a series of hurdles: they are required to attend state-mandated programs, barred from inexpensive public housing and banned from voting. In addition, they face travel limitations and curfews that make visiting family and working more difficult. When they eventually become eligible to be released from parole, they are often denied without explanation.

I hope the stories of these women remind us of the countless people still in prison who, like them, deserve that same chance to build a life on the outside.

PP: Thanks, Sara.

SB: Thank you.

 

 

 

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© Glenna Gordon

The quiet violence of an arranged marriage – a bride is taken by her female relatives to her husband’s home on the outskirts of Kano on April 13, 2013.

Unfortunately, the majority of news stories coming out of Northern Nigeria in recent years have been about the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram (whose name translates as “western education is forbidden”) but of course there’s much more complexity and tolerance within the society than Boko Haram’s perverse and hardline view of earthly existence. Centered in the city of Kano, there’s a small but significant contingent of hijab wearing ladies writing subversive romance novels.

These women, their lives, aspirations and works are the focus of a new–and somewhat unorthodox–photobook by Glenna Gordon who met dozens of authors. They write in Hausa, a Chadic language spoken by 50 million people, but their work rarely gets beyond the regions borders. Some translations of the novels appear in English for the first time in Gordon’s book. It is called Diagram of the Heart, published by Red Hook Editions and hits the shelves on February 11th.

I reviewed the book for Time Lightbox in a piece titled Anatomy of a Photobook: Diagram of the Heart, by Glenna Gordon.

“What if a photo of a woman writing a book was as important as a photo of a man fighting a war?” asks Gordon. “What would our foreign policy objectives be? How would we understand and conceptualize places and people we haven’t personally encountered? It often seems to me that fear is one of the driving forces behind the way America interacts with the rest of the world, especially the Muslim world. What if we filled those blank spaces onto which we project stereotypes with visualizations of the specific textures, colors and nuances of a life that is lived on terms different than our own?”

Read the piece in full: Anatomy of a Photobook: Diagram of the Heart, by Glenna Gordon

© Glenna Gordon

Khadija Gudaji works on her novel while laying in bed at her home in Kano, Northern Nigeria on September 29, 2013.
© Glenna Gordon
Books are tied up and packaged at the local market in Kano, Northern Nigeria on October 4, 2013. While Northern Nigeria is best known for Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group whose name means ‘Western Education is sinful,’ there’s a small but significant contingent of hijab wearing ladies writing subversive romance novels.
© Glenna Gordon
Rabi Tale, a popular novelist, in the courtyard of her office at the Ministry of Information on October 3 in Kano, Northern Nigeria. She is one of the few novelists who has a “day job” in an office. Many men allow their wives to write because they can do so without leaving the house.
© Glenna Gordon
A woman reads a Hausa romance novel using the flashlight on her cell phone on a train crossing Nigeria on August 21, 2015.
© Glenna Gordon
The wedding Fatiah, or party, of Maryan Nazifi, in Dawakin Tofa, another small town outside of Kano on November 8, 2014. Most of the time, men and women live very separate lives in Northern Nigeria and marriages are the main point of interaction.
© Glenna Gordon
Ahmed Adama, age 35, had wanted to marry Jamaila Lawan, 22, for more than a year when he heard about the mass wedding program organized by the Hisbah, the Islamic morality police in Northern Nigeria, who also censor the novels. They pose for a portrait at their home in Kano, Northern Nigeria, on October 7, 2013.
© Glenna Gordon
A woman poses for a portrait at the Office of Enlightenment at the Hisbah, the Islamic morality police, on August 17, 2015.
© Glenna Gordon
Firdausy El-yakub reads a romance novel in her bedroom in Kano, Northern Nigeria on March 21, 2013. Her university has been on strike for weeks, so she spends most of her days reading and dreams of one day becoming a novelist too. Her father allows her to go to the market and buy new books often.
© Glenna Gordon
An officer of the Hisbah, the Islamic morality police, adjudicates a family dispute in Kano, Northern Nigeria, on August 17, 2015.
© Glenna Gordon
The diagram of a heart drawn on the outside of a school in Kano, Northern Nigeria on February 26, 2014.
© Glenna Gordon
Farida Ado, 27, is a romance novelist living in conflicted and rapidly Islamicizing Northern Nigeria. She’s one of a small but significant contingent of women in Northern Nigeria writing books called Littattafan soyayya, Hausa for “love literature.” She poses for a portrait at her home in Kano on April 15, 2013.

 

Vikki Law
Clockwise from top L: Sierra Watts in her only visit with her son, Oak Lee, before he was adopted; Minna Long’s son Noah; Michelle Barton with her daughter, Semaj, in February 2014, hours after birth; the mattress in the Wichita County Jail cell where Nicole Guerrero gave birth, June 12, 2012; Noah’s twin brother, Joseph. Excerpts from a 2015 letter from a pregnant prisoner in Oklahoma.

Yesterday, I flagged a couple of photo projects about women in prison and women visiting prison. Women bear the brunt of the brutal punitive prison system. While the nation prison population has increased almost five fold over the past 40 years, the number of women locked up has increased nearly eightfold. 800%

Particularly vulnerable in prisons are the same groups in free society — the elderly, those in need of mental health care, those with medical conditions that need constant monitoring, juveniles, those living under the poverty line and, of course, pregnant women.

That prisons could routinely damage the prospects and endanger the lives of pregnant women and babies is beyond belief. But that is what Vikki Law, who spent six-months reporting on incarcerated pregnant women, found.

For U.S. Prisons and Jails Are Threatening the Lives of Pregnant Women and Babies, Law interviewed a dozen women who had been imprisoned while pregnant. She also drew on prison and jail records obtained via public information requests.

In These Times, which published the piece, calculates that approximately 9,430 pregnant women enter prisons and jails in the U.S. every year. They are still shackled  during labor, delivery and recovery. Pregnant women are withheld adequate food, they are denied medical care and, as we know in most states, their infants are taken away within 48-hours.

In one reported case, a prisoner was allegedly left to give birth in a holding cell without medical help. The baby was stillborn.

Law found that:

· many pregnant women received no medical care or experienced long waits
· most were constantly hungry
· others were restrained during labor, delivery or postpartum recovery, even in states that ban the practice
· the majority of those who gave birth in custody had their infants taken away within 48 hours

All of these shocking details indicate that the United States is in violation of the United Nation’s Bangkok Rules, which require the humane treatment of women prisoners.

Read U.S. Prisons and Jails Are Threatening the Lives of Pregnant Women and Babies

“Women actively participated in every significant photographic movement and school of the twentieth century. […] As a young historian I discovered that a little digging in any period yielded important women who had been exhibited and published locally, nationally, and internationally. Women’s representation and the acknowledgment of their contributions declined or disappeared only when later historians evaluated a movement. The more general the compendium, the less likely women were to be well represented.”

Anne Tucker’s foreword for Reframings: New American Feminist Photographies

Kate Wilhelm of Peripheral Vision has put together a thoughtful post about the exposure, visibility and success of female photographers in the industry. Wilhelm’s main contention is the standards that exist in photography are male standards, a set-up particular to photography and not seen, as such, in other visual arts. I think she might be on to something.

I think photography (particularly fine art) is aggressively contested and often antiseptic, emotionally detached photos win over. I am not saying women have the market on emotion, but I do think female photographers might be attracted to subjects other than the cold observations that tend to dominate.

We seem to welcome softness, expression and emotive content in painting, but we either balk or yawn at the “sentimental” use of bokeh, lens flare, and golden hour dreamscapery in photography. I guess I worry that photography can be a cynical practice (?)

Photography has become synonymous with detachment and I think men are more comfortable celebrating detachment … Je suis désolé … I argue that solitary aesthetics, pursued by men in photography, have influenced the judging standards across the entire discipline.

Wilhelm provides these stats, which are her own observations, counts but a good start for discussion.

500 Photographers has only covered 17 women out of the 94 photographers it’s so far covered. That’s 18 percent.

Image Makers Image Takers has interviews with 20 photographers. Five of them are women. (Incidentally, it was edited by a woman.) That’s 25 percent.

The photograph as contemporary art, by Charlotte Cotton, discusses 219 photographers, give or take a few. 91 of them are women. That’s 42 percent.

Related to crime and tangentially to prisons, Colin Pantall has been examining the cult, mythologies and obfuscations at the point where visual media and female criminals cross. He does so over four posts.

Pantall summarises: In Media and Crime, Yvonne Jewkes identifies seven standard narratives to describe women who commit serious crimes:
• Sexuality and sexual deviance
• (Absence of) physical attractiveness
• Bad wives
• Bad mothers
• Mythical monsters
• Mad cows
• Evil manipulators

Pantall challenges:

He takes on the common consumption of Myra Hindley’s mugshot:

“The world brought bored indifference to her mentor, the sadistic, fascistic Ian Brady. He was just another bad bloke.”

“It is a police photograph taken in maximum light in a dungeon. That stark, sinister expression could also be one of fright, ­ the antithesis of the transgressive transcendence conceived by Brady.”

Pantall compares: the national disgust at a smirking bully with the forgiveness of the victims parents.

Finally, Pantall confesses he has no idea if Amanda Knox is guilty or not.

In his ‘Trial by Photography’ post he points out that she’s already been judged for not behaving – or looking – innocent in front of the cameras.

He closes, astutely noting, “A virtual reconstruction of the murder of Meredith Kercher was shown in court, with the screen fading to red at the end. Which puts everything about the trial into question.”

Now we know what the six jurors and two judges think. Did the visual aides used by the prosecution disproportionally affect Knox’s guilty verdict?

“Curiosity was the initial spur. Surprise, shock and bewilderment soon took over. Rage propelled me along to the end.”

Jane Evelyn Atwood on photographing in women’s prisons.

This is the third and final installment in my series Women Behind Bars. The second part looked ta the writing of Vikki Law and the first looked at the journalism of Silja Talvi. It was Silja who recommended Jane Evelyn Atwood’s work.

atwoodcages

When discussing the work of a prison photographer, it is preferable to do so within the specifics of the region or nation they document. Prison Photography‘s key inquiry is how the photographer came to be in the restricted environment of a prison and these details differs from place to place. Such inquiry is complicated by Jane Evelyn Atwood‘s work because she visited over 40 prisons in twelve countries over a period of one decade. In some cases I know the location of a particular image and in others I don’t. I suggest you compensate for this by buying the book Too Much Time for yourself.

Above is a women’s penal colony in Perm, Russia. It holds over 1,000 women – the majority of who work forced hard labour. Here we see women who are in solitary confinement experiencing their yard privileges – half an hour in outside cages. Most women in the prison are there for assault, theft or lack of papers.

Below is a scene from a Czechoslovakian prison. The scars are not the result of genuine suicide attempts but of regular self-mutilation – a problem more common among female prison populations than male populations.

selfmutilation

Another reason to pick up Atwood’s book would be that there isn’t much stuff out there on the web – and that which is is low resolution or small-size. You can see a small selection from Atwood’s Prison series at her website; small images at PoYI; and a really good selection of tear-sheets at Contact Press Images.

By far the best stuff on the web concerning Too Much Time is an Amnesty International site devoted to the project. It includes a powerful preface in which Atwood lays out her raison d’etre. Next Atwood provides a “world view” comparing the prison systems of France, Russia and the US (each a five minute audio). Then comes three specific photo-essays with audio (Motherhood, Vanessa’s Baby, The Shock Unit). Finally, Atwood provides six stories behind six photographs. The stories are many and the facts more astounding than the emotions.

While Atwood’s pictures present the many individual circumstances of the prisoners, Atwood has identified a common denominator; “Of the eighteen women I met in [my] first prison, all but one seemed to be incarcerated because of a man. They were doing time for something he had done, or for something they would never have done on their own.”

Atwood qualifies this, “One woman told me her husband forced to set the alarm to have sex with him three times a night. She endured it for years and finally killed the man that kept her hostage. Another woman’s husband was shot by her daughter after he had stabbed her in the arm as a “souvenir”, poured hot coffee on his wife’s head for not mixing his sugar, and urinated all over the living room after one of the children refused to come out the bathroom. The woman was serving time for “refusing to come to her husband’s aid.”

atwoodshackles

What is most impressive about Atwood’s work is that it predates photojournalism’s wider interest in prisons by a couple of decades. She had at first tried to gain entry into a French prison in the early eighties. Her failure is unsurprising given Jean Gaumy of Magnum was the very first photojournalist inside a French prison in 1976.

It is a scandal that the discussion over shackling women during labor and gynecological examination continues today. Atwood captured the brutality of it decades ago.

atwoodbasket

Atwood’s work veers consciously between two reality of the women’s situation – the environment and the body.

Many of her photos share a compositional austerity. The hard angles of institutions run according to ‘masculine mathematics’ (dictating sentencing and experience) are repeated. Atwood punctuates this stern reality with flourishes of femininity … and touch.

atwoodshower

Some may think Atwood has over-reached herself with a global inquiry and I’d be sympathetic to the point if anyone else had come close to her commitment. Even considering each prison system in isolation, Atwood’s work can hold its own. Her work in Perm, Russia is particularly powerful as it orbits closely around the issue of uniform, identity and the complications it brought to bear directly on her documentary.

At the Amnesty site, Atwood brings up many interesting points of comparison. She identifies the US system as the most sterile with a legal mandate to treat female prisoners in the same manner as male prisoners. But she also says that if there is grievance or complaint to be settled, US prisoners have recourse to do so. Such allowances are not made in France.

On the other hand, children are excluded from all but a couple of US prisons. The security threat is cited as the reason: a child inside a prison is a constant vulnerable life and constant hostage target. The claim seems a little bogus when penal systems of other countries are brought into consideration.

atwoodkiss

Atwood was interviewed by Salon about the project. She has also worked on landmine victims and talked to Paris Voice about that. Here, she talks about Canon about her work in Haiti.

Jane Evelyne Atwood

Jane Evelyn Atwood

Biography: Jane Evelyn Atwood was born in New York. She has lived in Paris since 1971. In 1976, with her first camera, Atwood began taking pictures of a group of street prostitutes in Paris. It was partly on the strength of these photographs that Atwood received the first W. Eugene Smith Award, in 1980, for another story she had just started work on: blind children. Prior to this, she had never published a photo.

In the ensuing years, Atwood has pursued a number of carefully chosen projects – among them an 18-month reportage of a Foreign Legion regiment, following the soldiers to Beirut and Chad; a four-and-a-half-month story on the first person with AIDS in France to allow himself to be photographed for publication (Atwood stayed with him until his death); and a four-year study of landmine victims that took her to Cambodia, Angola, Kosovo, Mozambique and Afghanistan.

Atwood is the author of six books. In addition, her work has been including the ‘A Day In The Life’ series. She has been exhibited worldwide in solo and group exhibitions. She has worked for LIFE Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Stern, Géo, Paris Match, The Independent, The Telegraph, Libération, VSD, Marie-Claire and Elle. Atwood has worked on assignment for government ministries and international humanitarian organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, Handicap International and Action Against Hunger.

She has been awarded the Paris Match Grand Prix du Photojournalisme (1990), Hasselblad Foundation Grant (1994), Ernst Haas Award (1994), Leica’s Oskar Barnack Award (1997) and an Alfred Eisenstaedt Award (1998). In 2005, Atwood received the Charles Flint Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters from Bard College, joining a company of previous laureates including Edward Saïd, Isaac Bashevis Singer and E.L. Doctorow.

“There is beauty and there is truth and most truth in this present world is ugly.”

Momena Jalil

“In the central jail of the capital Dhaka, it is unbearable to live there. It is impossible to document it, cameras are not allowed inside.”

Momena Jalil

Denied Freedom

The prisoners sit on the floor of the common cell; this special newly opened women prison has much space. But in the central jail in the capital Dhaka this same amount of space is packed with women and their children.

I received an email yesterday from Diederik Meijer, editor of The Black Snapper, an online magazine that presents each day the work of a new photographer. The works are selected by guest curators and grouped under a weekly (geographical) theme.

The magazine live since August 1st 2009  works with guest curators such as Abbas of Magnum Photos, Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts in Japan, International Photo Festival Bangladesh, Centro de la Imagen in Peru and The New York Times Magazine. In the Netherlands, guest curators include nrc.next, Vrij Nederland magazine and Canvas International Art.

I was happy Meijer contacted me.

This week, The Black Snapper is focusing on photographers from Bangladesh. Following Andrew Biraj, they’ve featured Momena Jalil a photographer whose work I’ve pointed out before. Prison Photography and The Black Snapper share admiration for the Bangladesh photographic community and its numerous talents putting work out internationally.

Momena Jalil’s project is obscured however; her photographs are only half the story of sorry conditions in Bangladesh’s prisons.

These are the images she was allowed to take … and this is a newly operating jail. She was not granted access to the older sites of incarceration. The scenario is quite bizarre. Jalil speculates that, in 2007, this prison was hastily finished so as to house two prominent female political leaders. Not all the buildings, such as the male or juvenile blocks, in the compound were completed or in use at the time of Jalil’s visit. The prison was opened amidst a choreographed national media campaign.

Jalil refers to the women in their prison provided white shari with blue stripes as “angels without wings”. Jalil suggests that the crimes accused and evidence gathered are neither properly articulated or adequately qualified. Who are we to judge these women when the system that cages them exposes itself to grave question?

Take the time to read Jalil‘s involved and emotive response to the womens prison and be sure to follow the high standard of work presented by The Black Snapper.

Denied Freedom

The eyes of Salma tell more than we can read or understand, perhaps there is complaint, plea, anguish, misplaced trust or betrayal? It is fact a she hides her lips but she kept her eyes open. It is sad we are illiterate to the language of eyes.

Photo & Captions: Momena Jalil

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Fabio Cuttica‘s 2006 photo essay in Nerve from the Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd) Prison, Bogota was brought to my attention via industry-insider Rachel Hulin’s A Photography Blog. She describes a well-rude awakening.

I woke up in the middle of night after dreams of Sarah Palin, and realized that in my subconscious I had placed her into a photo essay I ran years ago as a photo editor at Nerve. She was a beauty queen in the Prisoner Pageant in Bogota, and she was glorious.

If you can get past this description from Hulin’s subconscious, I encourage you to think about the merits of this particular pageant. Despite the obvious interest from media (who are unlikely to refuse such a unique/titillating story) the benefit here seems to be predominantly for the women of the institution.

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The pageant in is honour of the Virgin Mercedes, the patron saint of prisoners. Ada Calhoun – in the intro for the Nerve photo essay – hams up the language to sensationalise the event, but I don’t think there is a need. Cuttica’s photographs are brimming with the fun, the nerves, ecstasy and community of the event.

It is obviously novel day. It would seem to me that the opportunity to celebrate femininity and to express notions of beauty normally obscured by the institution would be a welcome relief for many female prisoners; I hope its a hell of a lot of fun.

But, this is a curious contradiction to how I usually feel about beauty pageants. I generally consider beauty contests as shallow, if not ridiculous. They make a whole lot of noise over very trivial matters. To my mind, a beauty contestant on stage is as pathetic as a dog in a sweater; cringe-worthy, vulnerable and compromised.

I suppose an answer lies in who has the power and the organising authority. I may be wrong, but I presume the women of Buen Pastor prison have a huge investment in the pageant – supporting their friends, stage preparations, making costumes and accommodating guests to the prison on their day.

This is, of course, in contrast to the usual female beauty contestant who is likely genderised by her community, normalised into swimsuit & high heels at an early age and conditioned to not question the strange gaze of a town’s older (men) folk.

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Fabio Cuttica resides in Bogota, Colombia. His work is distributed by Contrasto & Redux agencies. He has worked across Latin America, recently winning acknowledgment from the College Photographer of the Year for his work documenting the La Maria & their struggle for land rights in the Cauca Region of Colombia. In 2008, Cuttica was honorably mentioned at the National Press Photographer Association’s Best of Photojournalism Awards for his extended essay about gang violence in Barrio Petare, Caracas, Venezuala. He has also worked on assignment for GEO about the Basque Region of Spain and covered the traditional family life and weaving in Valledupar, Colombia.

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