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‘OPERATION JURASSIC’ BY PABLO AND ROXANA ALLISON

Brother and sister Pablo and Roxana Allison were separated for five-and-a-half months from late 2012 through spring of 2013. Pablo was locked up in London for criminal damage after being prosecuted for graffiti writing on trains. Pablo was one of several defendants sentenced as a result of Operation Jurassic, one the UK’s largest cases brought against artists using train carriages as their canvas. Since, the siblings have worked on putting together a visual record of the time and their emotions. The resulting book Operation Jurassic, published by Pavement Studios, just hit the stands. I wrote an introductory essay which I am pleased to republish here.

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A WARM THREAD

This book is a thread. A warm thread spun by two siblings during one’s incarceration. These images, conceived during months of separation and crafted during more months of house arrest, emerge from the worry and dislocation imprisonment brings. Born of necessity, these images are what Pablo and Roxana Allison did, dreamt up and fabricated; emotional twine that kept them sane and connected both.

As one in a cohort of graf-writers targeted by Operation Jurassic and done on charges of conspiracy and criminal damage, Pablo saw his conviction coming. It was likely he’d get a custodial sentence. Prior to the trial, he and Roxana decided that images could graft the space between them. He’d draw and describe scenes inside prison while she’d document her isolation at home. They’d plan photo-shoots for when he got out to capture what he couldn’t while inside. For painting trains, Pablo was locked up in November 2012. Roxana, while not entirely sympathetic toward his graffiti at that time, was horrified that he’d get sent down for his art. Together they resolved to come through it with a visual record. He served 5-and-a-half months in Wormwood Scrubs and HMP Brixton followed by one year, at home, under curfew with an electronic monitor strapped to his ankle.

 

 

This book is woven through with detachment. Doleful figures cut lonesome shapes—veiled, obscured, there but barely there. Sometimes only a shadow. Interior details and still-lives serve as descriptors of halted lives. Scratched through with twilight, bisected by lines and tree limbs, these photographs edge toward a shared emotional territory, but they’re only placeholders of time lost. In that way, they double as evidence of Pablo and Roxana’s defiance. From a position of near zero control, they intended to shape an outcome. These images establish their testimony in spite of, and in challenge to, the court proceedings, prosecution arguments and criminal narratives of British Transport Police (BTP) and the presiding judge. A warm, human thread of struggle spun from the dehumanising reaches of prison and house arrest.

 

 

Initiated in 2003, Operation Jurassic was one the largest prosecution cases ever brought against graffiti artists in the United Kingdom. Pablo and nine others were arrested in 2010. Pablo was one of five who consequently, in November 2012, faced trial for criminal acts perpetrated between 2005 and 2009. At the outset, the prosecution detailed upward of $10 million in damaged infrastructure but at trial only made a case for $1 million worth.

Potential punishments for graffiti-related crime in the UK is high. The BTP “Graffiti Squad” went after eight members of the DPM crew with Operation Shuttle, and in 2008 secured jail sentences of 12 to 24 months for all. In terms of the cost of the operation (£1 million to the taxpayer) and convictions (imprisonment), Shuttle set precedents of which Pablo and his cohorts later bore the brunt. All for putting some paint on some surfaces.

Led by Detective Constable Colin Saysell, the BTP Graffiti Squad went to war on graf-writers. During his 30-years as a copper, Saysell has helped convict 300 artists. Including Pablo. But his exacting approach is out of step with the British public who laud mainstreamed graffiti artists such as Banksy and Ben Eine. (Famously, in 2010, David Cameron gave Barack Obama a Ben Eine piece as a diplomatic gift.) Compared with law enforcement agencies abroad that don’t imprison graffiti artists, Saysell is an extremist.

Furthermore, compared to public education and youth outreach, Saysell’s hardline stance is bizarrely contradictory; murals and tags are used as an art-medium with which to engage city-kids’ creativity. A charity once took a double-decker bus into Wormwood Scrubs where members of the DPM crew painted it! Roxana wasn’t the only one staggered by Pablo’s imprisonment. Guards and prisoners alike couldn’t believe that, for making art, he was banged up alongside men who had murdered and maimed.

 

 

“Have you met any killers yet?” asks Antonio Olmos, photographer and mentor, in a letter to Pablo. “Anyone interesting like a member of Al Qaida or a dress designer? I imagine a lot of creative people are in prison…” On the inside, Pablo’s monochromatic, A4-sized sketches and notes are a far cry from his hulking, clacking train-car surfaces on the outside, where he would stalk yards for days in preparation for a night of painting.

Once inside, Pablo experienced a shift in his creativity. He felt his mind slow and the down-tempo pace worked because apart from writing and drawing he had little else to do. Time was spent on mailed offerings to friends and family. It’s almost too obvious to state that letters are lifelines for prisoners, but this book is built on the insistence of connections maintained, feelings felt and testimony spoken.

 

 

In this book, time and space are deliberately confused. Pablo is behind bars and then half-submerged in the Pacific Ocean. A prison sits in mid-winter and then, pages later, peeks from behind the full foliage of mid-summer. Some images reconstruct the confines of cell. Another the view from the back of a “sweat-box” custody van—a photograph that could never be made. Pictures of held hands and tired glances might be from before sentencing, or from the visiting room, or made during post-release house arrest. We have entered a chronological fog that mirrors the emotional fog endured by Pablo, Roxana and their family.

 

 

Photos of actual prison cells exist too, but how can that be? Pablo did have a camera in Wormwood Scrubs but not during his time as prisoner. In 2005, at the request of a local council member, a teacher from Hackney Community College asked Pablo and fellow students to visit the famous prison and make images for Prison Me, No Way!, a deterrent program designed to show young people crime’s causes and penalties. (Ironically, the British Transport Police is a partner of Prison Me, No Way!) Pablo kept those images, but never imagined he’d revisit the canteen, cells and tiers as an inmate. In these pages, site and sights (spaces and time) loop back on one another; exile has its own haunting feedback.

 

 

The pages of Operation Jurassic seem drained of blood. Understandably so. Roxana and Pablo’s lives were gutted to a great degree. Photographs flatten the world. Two dimensions tend to fail the fullness of life. Frustrated acceptance and silent screams run through these images. In some ways it is remarkable that Pablo and Roxana even wanted to return to their anemic limbo, let alone depict it.

These photos, legal documents, letters, emails, drawings and diary extracts bottle the soup of inconvenient memories that Pablo and Roxana cannot leave behind, nor that they want extinguished. From raw emotion and these memories, they grew. Despite the grey spectre of institutional control and despite the slowed pulse of the carceral clock, this book is Pablo and Roxana back in control. It is a warm thread. It is a gift too. Imagination and pictures, letters and sketches were what they had. Now, it is what we have.

 

 

Operation Jurassic

Pack includes:

100 page A5 Hardcover Book
36 page Staple-bound Zine
A3 Double-sided folded Poster

1st Edition of 100 copies. All books hand finished.

Buy here.

Follow Pablo on Instagram and Roxana on Instagram. Take a peek at Pavement Studios‘ website and peep them on Tumblr and Instah too.

 

 

 

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UPDATED: SEPT 4TH 2012. 9AM BST

A week after this blog post went to press, the Prison Reform Trust reported that 77 of the 131 prisons in England and Wales held more inmates than stated capacity.

London’s HMP Wandsworth, which is one of the the three prisons in Elphick’s photographs, is the seventh most overcrowded prison in the UK with 1,191 men being held in a facility only designed for 730 men. Wandsworth operates at 163% capacity.

In total, UK prisons hold 7,300 persons more than they were designed for.

– – – – – –

Hugh Elphick is a young British photographer who, in early 2011, took a cool and curious look at London prisons for his undergraduate photography BFA. The series is Inside.

“I wanted to produce images which intrigued more than shocked,” says Elphick. “I discovered how much prisons actually blend into their surroundings and used this blurring the boundaries, with some of the angles I shot.”

In the series of six photos, Elphick shows us the red-brick exteriors of three prisons – Pentonville, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs. Elphick was working close to Wormwood Scrubs and began to wonder about human rights, the acceptability of the prison system, and if prisons work.

“In England, it is not a commonly known fact [that the UK has the second highest rate of incarceration after the U.S. among industrialised nations] and that it is not something that most people worry about,” says Elphick. “It could be argued that there is more concern that prison sentences are not long enough or that there are moral disparities in sentencing. However, this is not to say that there are not a large proportion of people who see the wider picture.”

Elphick’s focus specifically is about the age of these *famous* Victorian prisons. The Victorian era is steeped in imagery of inequality, squalor and hardship for the working classes. For Elphick, there are points of comparison between the class-stratified 19th century and the inequalities of the modern era and especially today in a time of austerity and cuts in services.

“Victorian architecture offers an allegoric association with harsh systems and possibly with periods such as the late 70 early 80’s economic downturn. Such institutional auras, I believe, explore some of the dilemmas and imbalances of our society,” says Elphick. “These prisons show how little progression there has been in the prison system due to confused government policies.”

Much like the approach of German photographer Christiane Feser, Elphick’s interest is in how these large, alien institutions interact visually with nearby residential communities. Unlike in the U.S., the economic fortunes of the nearby communities in the UK are not tied directly to or dependent upon the operation of a prison. These UK prisons are part of the urban puzzle but quite opposite to the prison-towns of central Wyoming or eastern Washington, which come to rely on jobs as traditional agriculture and industry wane. There is not the same attrition and competition in the job market in central London. Prisons in the UK are not perceived of as big business, partly because by comparison to the bloated U.S. prison system, it isn’t.

In fact, Elphick argues that prisons have almost become mundane in UK cities. He writes in his artist statement:

“The fragmentary nature of London’s development, and its destruction in WW2, have meant a breadth of architectural forms have spread into areas surrounding the prisons. The prisons no longer stand as the monolithic symbols of suffering they once did, and have melted into the architecture of our city. They are taken for granted, dismissed”

This is a peculiar paradox to deal with in images; subjects hidden in plain sight.

“I set out to make a graphic and symmetrical set of images and fortunately there were features which allowed me to do this and at the same time inject some curiosity such as the splash of paint, bench or repaired hole,” says Elphick. “The walls are rigid and literal boundaries which can be translated metaphorically and ironically in many ways to question the justice system and inequalities in society.”

– – – –

Inside was exhibited in the three-person show Behind Bars at One & A Half Gallery, London in September, 2011.

Bettina von Kameke‘s series Wormwood Scrubs is a reflective look at the communal life of prisoners inside one of Britain’s most notorious prisons.

Wormwood Scrubs (Her Majesty’s Prison) is well known in Britain through both popular culture and sporadic news stories about the latest infamous prisoner. It is a institution everyone has heard, some would claim to know about, but in fact only a few truly know. Those few would be the staff and prisoners.

Von Kameke says:

“I was surprised at how respectful the interaction between staff and prisoners was. Of course I was aware that there is drug-dealing inside and it is a hard prison. I could feel the intensity and harshness of the energy… I reflected it in the sadness, heaviness, anger and frustration through the expressions on their faces. But the objective is to show the humanity in the system.”

I am impressed by von Kameke’s awareness (and depiction) of communal living.

“I question and explore the interior and exterior conditions, means and forces, which make a communal life sustainable. My photographs disclose the aesthetics of an enclosed community, which I carefully observe through the viewfinder of the camera.” (Source)

Prison jobs and recreational time are what make incarceration sustainable, and by that I mean as free from waste and repetition as possible.

Prisoners never make direct eye contact with von Kameke’s lens; she shoots as if she is not there. This, I suspect, has a lot to do with the amount of time she spent in Wormwood Scrubs; she spent over six months on the prison wings.*

She and the prisoners probably did have relationships, but they are not the subject of von Kameke’s photography; attentions are elsewhere … apparently.

Between von Kameke and her subjects is acceptance and restraint, almost to the point of collaboration. It cannot be overstated how difficult this is to achieve in a prison environment when everyone potentially has something to pursue and gain through interactions.

One final thing to note is the overlap in atmosphere between Wormwood Scrubs and von Kameke’s earlier series Tyburn Tree, which depicts the Benedictine Nuns of the Tyburn Tree Convent, London. Communal living within total institutions can be both enforced and voluntary.

Wormwood Scrubs is on show at Great Western Studios, 65 Alfred Road, London W2 5EU until March 11th.

More images at the Guardian.

* I always contend that the best prison photography projects result from a long term engagement with the subject. Von Kameke’s Wormwood Scrubs bears out this thesis oncemore.

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