Images from the inside

Prison Obscura and the potential of prison photography.

By Liz Pelly

“The prison-industrial complex has materialized and mushroomed because we have all learned how to forget about prisons; we push them into the background even if they’re in our own neighborhoods–unless, of course, we want one because we labor under the illusion that it will solve our economic problems. We are afraid to face the realities of the of the prison industry even if we have relatives and friends in prison. In communities of color almost everybody knows someone who has been or still is in prison. But we have not learned how to talk about the centrality of prison in our lives. We do not integrate discussions about this institution into our daily conversations.”

–Angela Davis, “The Prison Industrial Complex” speech at Colorado College, May 1997

"Facility 492" from Josh Begley's series, Prison Map. Image above: Screengrab from Prison Map of tiled satellite images of U.S. prisons.
"Facility 237" from Josh Begley's series, Prison Map.

Everyday discussions of prisons are difficult. Where to begin? In the hyper-mediated present, can we start to think about the realities of prisons simply by looking at images of them? Prison Obscura, a traveling prison photography show currently on display at The New School’s Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, believes that to be true — sort of.

Photography is a complicated medium, and to a certain extent, it is responsible for some of the most deep-rooted societal stereotypes about prisons. Try running a quick Google image search on the word “prison”. What do you see? Anonymous hands clutching metal bars; the silhouette of a man with his head in his hands; handcuffs, barbed wire. In many ways, photography objectifies prisoners, strips them of their humanity. It drives skewed mainstream media narratives where prisoners are voiceless.

Prison Obscura is squarely focused on undoing these clichés that have shaped our visualizations of incarceration. The photographers included subvert mainstream images of prison by imagining new approaches to prison photography, ones where the camera becomes less an instrument for projecting an artist’s vision, and more a tool for engagement with those behind bars, giving prisoners a means of self-representation.

“You can tell a lot about a society by the prisons they operate,” says curator Pete Brook, a writer and activist who has been running the blog Prison Photography since 2008. “Prison photography is useful, but we have to distinguish between types of images and what the conditions of their manufacture were. And also the mechanisms of their distribution. There are all sorts of motives at play when an image ends up in front of your eyeballs. The mainstream images that we see don’t really describe or attest to the political realities of the prison industrial complex …  Images of people sat pathetically in a cell send us in the wrong direction.”

Amongst the show’s spectrum of activist goals, it aims to educate the public on the realities of the prison industrial complex in the age of mass incarceration–which holds more than 2.4 million Americans in over 6,000 prisons, jails and detention facilities at a cost of $70 billion per year–and incarcerates people of color and poor people at alarmingly disproportionate rates.

Photography is a particularly fascinating lens through which to view prisons because it is so inherently intertwined with the media and advertising, capitalist cultural machines inextricably linked to reasons why so many people are locked in prisons to begin with. “Photography has a role in perpetuating stereotypes, which is why I feel it is even more important that I’m trying to find good projects,” says Brook. “Sympathetic projects. Projects founded on an engagement with the issue rather than just lazy prejudices.”

Prison photography is useful, but we have to distinguish between types of images and what the conditions of their manufacture were. And also the mechanisms of their distribution. There are all sorts of motives at play when an image ends up in front of your eyeballs.

From Alyse Emdur's series 'Prison Landscapes'. Background image above is of group holding cages at Mule Creek State Prison, from Brown vs. Plata case evidence.
Woman in Montana prison, from Kristen S. Wilkins' series 'Supplication'.
From Kristen S. Wilkins' series 'Supplication'.

Prison Obscura includes prisoner-shot photography gathered through workshops, projects where prisoners are thought of as collaborators rather than subjects, and unedited audio interviews where prisoners have chances to tell their stories.  These tactics provide a progressive step away from straightforward journalistic and documentary style photography, which has long dominated the realm of prison photography and almost always requires some sort of approval from authorities or invitation from the prison — but photography that works so closely with prisons could ultimately just be an extension of the prison system’s power.

One particularly compelling inclusion is a collection of portraits of prisoners and their families taken in visiting rooms, collected by Alyse Emdur and presented side-by-side her own photographs exploring the sorts of murals frequently found in prison visiting rooms. The back drops are eerily festive: palm trees, sunsets, waterfalls, the New York City skyline. She previously gathered these photos for a book, Prison Landscapes, by writing letters to over 300 prisoners found on pen-pal websites.

Kristen S. Wilkens’ project Supplication contributes intimate portraits of female prisoners surrounded by objects that project their interests and their pasts, providing context on their lives, juxtaposed with landscapes reflective of their desires. One woman is photographed hugging her knees and wearing running sneakers, beside a photo of a race; “I’m the fastest runner in the prison,” the caption reads. “I would like to see the Finish Line.” The project directly aims to offer a more honest portrait of these women than a typical mugshot would. “Mugshots are meant to document a transgressor, but act to criminalize individuals and strip them of their identity and sympathy,” Wilkins says in the introduction to her photos hanging at the gallery. Her goal is to restore some empowerment in these women’s lives; she treats them like collaborators in her project, speaking at length to each prisoner about “historical portraiture, self-representation, power and control,” the introduction continues.

Wilkins’ photos in particular serve to highlight the rising rates of female incarceration in recent years. The number of women in prisons have increased by over 700% in the era of mass incarceration; from 1977 to 2004, the number of incarcerated American women rose from 11,000 to 111,000, a direct result of the War on Drugs. Today there are over 200,000 women in prison in the US.

Another rising figure in recent decades is the number of youth incarcerated in the United States. An entire section of Prison Obscura focuses on photographs made by incarcerated youth in Washington State, through a series of workshops organized at youth detention centers by photographer Steve Davis between 1997 and 2005. The majority of these were captured at two young men’s centers, and the photos depict their day-to-day life: their bedrooms, desks, in classes, sitting around playing cards; some are responses to prompts like “vulnerability”.  Others were captured at a young women’s detention center. For legal reasons the young women could not have their faces shown in photographs, so instead they used pinhole photography; the images they chose to capture are more abstract, like one of a girl looking distressed curled up on the floor, another of girls sulking in their beds looking bored.

Mugshots are meant to document a transgressor, but act to criminalize individuals and strip them of their identity and sympathy.

Incarcerated girls at Remann Hall, in Tacoma, Washington, reenacting restraint techniques in a pinhole camera workshop, 2002. Photo by anonymous, courtesy of Steve Davis.
From a workshop at a youth men's detention center in Green Hill School, Chehalis, WA. Photo by anonymous, courtesy of Steve Davis.
Prisoner Tameika Smith in San Francisco, CA, photographed for Robert Gumpert's 'Take A Photo Tell A Story' series. 9 July 2012.

Workshops are useful tools in helping prisoners to access the mechanisms of photography from the inside, but it’s rare that they are able to happen in the United States.They are more common abroad: Prison Photography has covered workshops conducted by Patrick Lopreno in Switzerland and Ioana Cârlig in Romania, to name a couple. “These types of photo workshops used to exist in American prisons in the seventies before mass incarceration took hold,” Brook said in a 2013 interview.

Robert Gumpert’s Take A Picture Tell A Story project has been going on for nine years, dedicated to storytelling in a way that provides tools for prisoners to tell their own stories through words and images. Gumpert visits San Francisco prisons regularly, trading prisoners a series of portraits in exchange for an audio interview. The interview provides no prompt, and when he puts the audio on display, it is unedited. At Prison Obscura, his portraits take up an entire wall; the names of each prisoner are indicated. In the corner, a selection of the audio interviews are on loop paired with projections of their corresponding portrait. The interviews range from heart-wrenching stories of longing for family and stability, to straightforward explanations of the charges that landed individuals in prison. There is a lot of talk of drug use. More than any other piece in the show, Gumpert’s project illustrates how much more useful it would be for state and federal funds to be funneled into rehab efforts, to help people recover from their drug addictions, rather than spent keeping people locked up for drug-related crimes.

The photos of Prison Obscura also comes in the form of public records: images presented as evidence during the landmark Brown vs. Plata case, a class action lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court, eventually ruling that “every prisoner in the California state prison system was suffering cruel and unusual punishment due to overcrowded facilities and the failure by the state to provide adequate physical and mental healthcare,” explains the exhibition guide.

The haunting size of the prison industrial complex is visualized most literally and urgently in the show by data artist and web developer Josh Begley’s Prison Map project, in which Begley used a Google script to automatically capture aerial views of 5,000 prisons, and literally show what the geography of incarceration looks like. The resultant media project sits at an interesting intersection between Begley’s graduate studies in Interactive Telecommunications and his other interests; he is also a research editor at The Intercept and the creator of Dronestream. Also presented in Prison Obscura is the work of experimental composer Paul Rucker, whose animated video Proliferation shows prison construction in the United States from 1776 through 2010, as seen from a celestial point of view, using different colored beams of light to represent different eras. Both projects work with data gathered from the reform group Prison Policy Initiative.

You can tell a lot about a society by the prisons they operate.

Image of a dam, made in response to a description provided by a prisoner in Richmond County Jail, Virginia, in one of Mark Strandquist's workshops.
Woodbourne Correctional Facility, New York. Photo by Alyse Emdur from the series 'Prison Landscapes'.

“Looking through the window I can see this long hallway. My sister and I running halfway down the hallway and sliding the remaining of the way in our socks … This hallway was a safe haven for us. The hallway is filled with much laughter and fun. No worries. I miss this place.”

–Anonymous prisoner in Richmond, Viriginia 2013

These words are scrawled across a sheet of white copy paper. The place described is one that this prisoner would wish to look out upon every day if it were possible, a response to the prompt, “If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?” This question is one repeatedly asked by Mark Strandquist, a Virginia-based cultural organizer and prison reform activist, when he holds creative writing workshops at prisons around the country. In each location, Strandquist works alongside local photographers, students and activists, to produce and exhibit the requested images. The photos are made into small prints and mailed to each prisoner. The project is called Some Other Places We Have Missed; it aims to provide a window into the lives and desires of individual incarcerated Americans.

“Personally, I think that prisons more than probably any place in society are where so many of the issues that I’m interested in and angered at are so entrenched,” Strandquist says. “Racism, classism, sexism, food equity, alienation, all of these issues are so pronounced there. Photography is a powerful yet inherently limited medium in its attempts to document something as complex as mass incarceration. While it always has its limitations, I think it’s an essential and really powerful tool to try to engage and challenge that structure … I’m interested in how photography could be used in a way that could create a humanistic interplay between these really complex issues. But to do it in a way where individuals impacted by these issues had a lot more agency and the ability to represent their own histories and experiences.”

A selection of the photos and notes that Strandquist has gathered  – including the request above and its corresponding photo – are included in Prison Obscura. They are tiny photos, but the stories behind them are huge. And the ways in which individuals on the outside of prisons work together in order to make the images fosters dialogue, Standquist says, making temporary “classrooms” of sorts in public places. The project is an example of the ways that photography can be used create true dialogue between people on the outside and inside of prisons. “I think I’m most interested in photography as a performance, in a sense,” he says. “The design, creation, and dissemination of an image has all of these different stages where you can be bringing people together. To try to understand and engage with these issues.” Strandquist will hold on of these workshops at The New School in conjunction with Prison Obscura on February 28. The workshop will bring together former prisoners, artists, activists, jail librarians, lawyers, and others from across the city to create photographs requested by incarcerated men, women, and teens in the NYC area; it’s free and open to anyone.

The small, underwhelming physical nature of the photos is intentional. “These issues are so complex,” he says. “No image can try to come close to explaining them.  Instead of trying to do that, with these images I wanted to do the opposite and invert that privileged eye. The images mean an intense amount to the person who requested them but as a viewer, if you want to gain knowledge about why they are important, instead of going to me, the photographer, for the story, you go to the individual’s caption, their letter, for the meaning poured into that image.”

Ultimately, the project is about re-imagining what prison photography looks like: “It’s about creating a new kind of prison photography, in that there are no jails, or prisons, or hands on bars, or cop cars, or execution chambers, or any of that. It is really about creating a humanistic entry point to an insanely complex issue. But to do it in a way that is a vehicle for bringing together a multitude of people with diverse experiences, expertise and ideas about alternatives to incarceration.”

It’s about creating a new kind of prison photography, in that there are no jails, or prisons, or hands on bars, or cop cars, or execution chambers, or any of that. It is really about creating a humanistic entry point to an insanely complex issue.

Reception center visiting / clinician office space at North Kern State Prison, from Brown vs. Plata case evidence. July 2008. Photographer unknown. Above background photo from Kristen S. Wilken's 'Supplication' series.
Mental Health Outpatient Housing Unit at Mule Creek State Prison, from Brown vs. Plata case evidence. August 2008. Photographer unknown.
Clinical contact holding cage at Mule Creek State Prison, from Brown vs. Plata case evidence. August 2008. Photographer unknown.

Brook initially met all of said artists and activists through his blog, essentially a multi-media project combining art news, photo essays and interviews. Before launching it, Brook spent years working as a photography researcher. “But I was just bookmarking prison projects,” he recalls. He wanted to bring together his art history background with his interest in prison reform — he’s also taught in prisons, volunteered with Books To Prisoners, and served as board member of University Beyond Bars  — to act as an ally to photographer and activists, and to add something new to the reform discussion. “People wrote off the project very early on, because they were like, ‘well this guy is going to have maybe a dozen blog posts and then run out of material,'” he says. “But it’s exactly the opposite. It just keeps coming.”

His project is the sort of very niche, very connected thing that could only exist thanks to the Internet. Since the launch, Brook — also a photography blogger for — has become a prison photography expert of sorts. In the fall of 2011, he took his blog on the road with a 12-week Kickstarter-funded road trip, interviewing prison photographers along the way. In 2012, he curated the prison photography show Cruel and Unusual at the gallery Noorderlicht in the Netherlands.

“Photography is the contemporary medium,” he explains. “It attaches to advertising, and video, and technology and facial recognition and surveillance … I’m writing about photography but really I’m writing about prisons. And I’m writing about prisons but I’m really talking about the world we’re living in right now. It’s about media, it’s about visual culture. It’s about the messages that we’re fed. It’s about insensible politics. It’s about community, what we say, what we’re willing to do. It’s about race. It’s about inequality, it’s about education and opportunity.”

Photography, like other art forms, has a long history of being intertwined with prison experiences on both the inside and the outside. As Brook explains it, prison photography pre-1960s was focused on “the mug shot, the jail cell, the incorrigible convict. It was very noir, black and white. And kind of an aesthetic awareness tied to cinema and news photography.” In the 60s, photojournalists covering  the civil rights and anti-war movements were entwined into the world of prison photography, as the connections between the criminal justice system and the legacy of slavery became more clear. “Prisoners were not politicized really until the 60s,” Brook says. “And then the amount of photography that was done in American prisons actually declined in the era of mass incarceration because superintendents and administrations wanted to tighten control. In the 1980s, prison administrations became very protective.”

On his blog, Brook also writes about photographers who engage in more straightforward modes of documentary photography; there is a long blogroll linking to dozens and dozens of photographers who have created images of prisons for decades.  Brook clearly is not completely dismissing how these projects can be useful in visualizing prison life – but Prison Obscura seems to want to push back, think critically and widen the conversation.

Brook hopes to eventually de-radicalize conversations surrounding prison struggles. “I want to make it not radical to be talking about prisons. I’m trying to prove that prisons are so central to the American psyche that everyone should be talking about them. Everyone should know about them. We pay for them. Only ten percent of prisons are private. 90 percent of them are paid for by taxes.”

“You don’t even have to be an abolitionist or that far left politically or an anarchist to step back and look at the prison industrial complex and see it for what it is,” he adds. “Which is not making us safer, and not helping prisoners.”

Prison Obscura, originally commissioned by Haverford College and having traveled to several other campuses since, is ultimately not a perfect look into the lives of prisoners, because there are no perfect looks into the lives of prisoners. There are extensive forces at play within the prison industrial complex working to make sure that a perfect view into the realities of prisons does not exist. But what Prison Obscura does accomplish is important in the way it makes small tears into the walls that exist between the inside and the outside;  the way it encourages us to visualize prisons as an urgently relevant part of all our lives.

“We live in a visual age,” Brook says. “We’re constantly bombarded with information and more and more of it is visual. There’s a reason for that. Images work in a different way. Our brains compute images differently to other sensory input. But most of the time, the images we’re being fed are trying to sell us some shit. I don’t think we can give up on images. Rather I think we have to be actively engaged, we have to be conscientious consumers. We have to think of ourselves as having a choice about what we look at and what questions we ask. And so I hope that’s something people pick up on and apply to all things – but really I hope in a small way, it shakes people out of long-held views of prisoners and prisons. And gently puts them down in a place where they feel equipped and comfortable enough to talk about these issues.”


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