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There’s a long and verbatim interview with my friend Bob Gumpert at Sojournposse. Salina Christmas and Zarina Holmes ask the questions.

Bob describes the arc of his work from labor to detectives to street cops to the courts to the jails. It’s a trajectory he has described to me before and it’s a lot to get hold of; I’m happy I wasn’t transcribing!

However, I’d never heard Bob tell this particular tale:

The rule was: “Ladies, I take a photo [of you], you tell me your story. Next week, I give you four photos.” Literally, I give them four photos. “And I put the CD in your property.” So that’s the way it works.

The women took the photos and sent them to their boyfriends in [other] jails. The prison didn’t like this. Why? I don’t know. It’s not a problem when the men down [the jail] do it. But when the women did it, it was a problem. Do I understand why? Do I make an issue out of it? No! But what happens? I get banned from the jail. Because the women did it.

So then I went back and I said: can we try again? The jail said yes. So long as they understand the rules…

So I said fine. I went back. And I explained all this: “I give you photos. You can send them home. But you cannot send them to the jail.” All the women said, “No problem, we understand.” They sent them home with instructions to send them to the jail. From home. Why? Because they weren’t sending them to the jail.

So, what happened? I got banned again. So I get back in and I said to the women, “You cannot send anything, any of these photos, in any form, from any place to the other jail.” And a woman raises her hand and said, “Can I have Xeroxes made of photos, instead?” And I said, no, you cannot. And I stopped going in. Because it was – at some point – if I kept going in, a problem.

UPDATED: Bob soon after returned to the jail to work with female prisoners.

I have often described photographs in prisons as emotional currency. The tenacity and single mindedness of these female prisoners is, to me, quite amusing. They’re resolute in how they want to use photographs, and the variant ways they circumnavigate an unenforcable rule trumps any analysis they make of the rule itself.

They’re just trying to connect … but it caused problems for Bob!

Another thing to negotiate when making photographs in sites of incarceration.

Bob Gumpert’s website Take A Picture, Tell A Story

I was recently interviewed by Zarina Holmes at Sojournposse about my project here at Prison Photography. Zarina’s questions were refreshing as I have a tendency to get stuck in my own thinking and politics sometimes.

The interview itself is a little long (my fault) but results from an effort to fairly explain the nuance of images from sites of incarceration.

One of the things I continually grapple with is who benefits from prison photography projects? Is it the prisoners, the audience or the prison authorities? There is no definitive answer. In the interview, however, I did make this statement:

“People are tempted to believe that creating an image from within a prison – a rare/privileged viewpoint – is in and of itself a subversive act. In fact, what I often discover is that photography in prisons and other sites of incarceration is not challenging the organisational structure of the institution but rather working within its protocols. Thus, many prisons neutralise “the power of photography” or the camera’s ability to operate as a tool for social change.”

I have not articulated this thought so bluntly before. I think it applies to a lot of photographers working in restricted institutions or milieus.

Think about it – the most famous prison images of the 21st century are those of Abu Ghraib. Those images had a global reach and brought about change yet they were amateur shots leaked against the interests of the US military (the prison authority). Photographers are never going to just walk in the front gate unannounced. Nor are they going to be welcomed by prison administrations to document the pain and abuses within.

What does that make prison photographs then?


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