As part of our regular programme of talks and workshops, we are very excited to invite to our next talk: PHOTOGRAPHY AS SOCIAL PRACTICE by Gemma-Rose Turnbull and Pete Brook. In order to give you a little hint of some of the topics that will be discussed during this event, here it’s a short Q&A between, ICVL collaborator Francesca Cronan and Pete Brook.
Enjoy and don’t forget to get your tickets before they run out.
PHOTOGRAPHY AS A SOCIAL PRACTICE / Thursday 18th May 2017, 19:00 / £6/4 CONCESSIONS. Free to ICVL Members /
Dark Studio, 2nd floor, ARNOLFINI
I was born and raised in England. Prisons were never on my radar and I cannot say for certain they ever would be had I not lived and studied in the United States from 2001 onward. Prisons in the U.S. are a human rights abuse. They are a symptom of a broken society that exploits the poor and prospers through massive social inequality. I’ve repeated these stats so often I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but they are the context for all my work; they are what made me angry 13 years ago and continue to fuel my interrogations into broken system … so here you go:
The U.S. locks up people at six-times the rate of any other industrialized nation. There are 2.3 million men, women and children behind bars. Since mass incarceration firmed its grip in the early eighties, the U.S. has more than quadrupled it’s prison population. The female prison population has increased eightfold since 1980. 1 in 100 American adults are behind bars. If trends continue, one in every three black males born this day will spend time in prison. In many states, prisons are the surrogate mental health hospitals. The very young and the very old are subject to imprisonment like never before. The United States of America spends $75 billion per year on corrections alone (not including policing, courts, and other infrastructures of the criminal justice system).
”Prisons don’t make us safer. They destroy communities, punish the poor and waste the lives of millions.”
The United States is a nation of extremes. I’ve always been attracted and drawn to it in the same moment. Some aspects of America are thrilling but others are harrowing. Life in the United States can be so precarious. When I learnt about prisons and I saw how their proliferation was based on divided classes, racism, craven politics, empty rhetoric, legal overreach, shite media and negative emotions of fear and revenge, they became my issue. I’m a bit of a contrarian anyway, but to view the United States through the prism of its Prison Industrial Complex is to see it with more clarity. The tensions and misunderstandings and unforgiving starts to make sense. They are borne of social ills and only perpetuate them. I want to look at prisons and frame them as the problem because, for sure, they are no solution.
2. Can you discuss the significance of photography as your chosen medium—how does it help to bridge the gap between prison life and society?
Photography and all it’s associated forms (video, advertising, Snapchat, scraped data, algorithms, facial recognition, surveillance, ID, thermal imaging, medical imaging, Hollywood, cable news, Instagram, community art, propaganda, film, so on and so on) is the medium of the contemporary era. I’d learnt about photography through an Art History degree and it was series of dry observations about technological advances through the 19th and 20th centuries. It wasn’t until I realised that images were being made faster and faster, that they were subject to sprawling (digital) systems on which huge concentrations of power and capital rest. Images are entering our lives more fluidly, more perniciously, more steadily everyday. So just from a general standpoint, photography is fascinating to me—how it is manufactured, controlled, distributed, monetised and politicised.
Now, prisons aren’t totally separate from society and prison systems are subject to some of the same dynamic social changes I touch on above. But prisons are total institutions with an hierarchy of authority and control. Prisons deal with images very differently to other sectors of society. Images in the prison environment are most frequently surveillance or mugshot put to the purposes of control. On the outside, however, we think of images as easy snaps, art, personal mementos, throw away picture-messages. The tension between those perceived official uses and innocent associations are interesting in themselves and not hard definitions but to not labour the point lets say that images work differently and perhaps, in prisons more differently than elsewhere. Now that’s interesting because we think of photographs as serving public interest as speaking up for human rights and for delivering important global news; for being places we cannot be. I think prisons are a human rights abuse, but what have photographs said about that abuse? How does photography and its associated claims stand up when it comes up against a visually, strategically and cynically closed system?
I just figured prisons can illuminate a lot about photography and of course photos can reveal a lot about prisons.
3. As a writer and curator, who do you collaborate with to take the images?
I began as a researcher and I blogged what I found. Nothing too scandalous, just new stuff available through the Internet. Having a weird niche helped my writing gain traction I guess. After a while, I was a writer. And because of the writing, I had opportunities to curate shows. So I’ve looked at all types of images about prisons — archival, news, video-games, Hollywood, fine art, documentary, legal images, amateur, anonymous, activist and non-photo prison image-making too. Over time, I’ve come to respect image-making projects that engage a number of prisoners and creates images that are in some way useful to them; images that they desire, need or imagine. So, to answer your question, I collaborate with artists who work to make images. I champion artists who work intimately with prisoners or their loved ones.
I could say that all of my research has been one long collaborative project. Many of the image-makers I’ve interviewed, and whose work I’ve given context and exhibition, had not been asked about their work since its creation and original publication. Prisons are not a sexy topic and I found a lot of great work had been lost to time. A lot of photographers have since become friends and allies in the cause to speak out about the broken criminal justice system.
I don’t make images. I have delivered workshops in prisons about the representation of prisons and prisoners, in which I ask for feedback on prison photographs. That’s some small offer of collaboration.
I wish to co-author a history of prison photography with currently incarcerated people. That’ll come to being later this year I hope, pending funding. I want to give prisoners the final say on what we think is fair and accurate representation of prisoners. It can’t be just my voice or my opinion. That’s a priority and it’ll be a culmination of many threads of my work.
4. You exhibit the work both digitally (on the Prison Photography blog) and physically (the touring exhibition Prison Obscura). Do you find these differ in the way they’re received?
They differ totally. If I can get people in the room, which I can for curator talks, panels and programming I can convince people more quickly that mass incarceration in US is one helluva a problem and we’re all complicit in some ways. Writing lacks the immediacy of me pacing around waving my arms, but it does require a more precise argument. There’s a lot of factors going on regards prisons and those need to be unpacked responsibly, efficiently, and legibly. It also needs to be engaging to read. So it’s a lot of work to shape a piece (I think I used to be better at it?!?!) but once the work is done, you know that the piece remains forever online. That’s a lot longer than an hour lecture in a gallery space.Prisons are a tricky issue and damned depressing. I try to present the material in an engaging way; I don’t want to bum people out or shame them, instead I want to make them realise this is a man made issue and we’re not powerless against it. To the contrary, it was precisely silence and invisibility that led to the growth of the problem in the first place. I hope I have a formula for engaging people and I say this because really I’m trying—be it online or on gallery walls—to steal peoples attention, to grip them for the time I have them. So I can really be in control of the text and the spoken word. The images are a bit different. On the blog they cascade in one long scroll which is hardly dynamic. In the gallery I like to use appropriate formats—small prints for prison visiting room portraits, projections for surveillance imagery, computer print outs of official and evidentiary images, frames for work for which the image-maker has attended care, work prints for images from photo workshops. Images in Prison Obscura were never for sale; they never could be. It never occurred to me. They are way markers toward uncovering rights abuses. In that way, I guess I use the gallery in the same way I do the website; to push information.
5. Between fellow PaaSP member Gemma Rose-Turnbull and yourself, what can we expect to hear about in the talk next week?
Gemma used to be a news photographer and came to be focused on collaborative practices that disrupt the linear, documentary method. I have come to place a premium on the collaborative projects that engage prisoners and necessarily have to employ invention to do so. From different starting points, Gemma and I have come to value the same questions of power, participatory processes and, I guess, the love, vulnerability and open possibilities of social engagement.
”We’re going to do an experiment. We’re each going to pick a handful of exemplary projects (a Top-5 each) and put them on a timeline. We’re not certain but we expect that the most robust and pioneering projects in the free world will proceed those completed behind prison walls, but there is some overlap.”
There are practitioners who we both have on our To-5 lists.
It’s a celebration of others’ creativity. It’s an earnest applause. It’s a conversation starter.