Incarcerated: from Guantánamo to Cape Town to San Quentin, what do we see when we look behind bars?

February 5, 2010 at 1:33 am 6 comments


When we vilify people, there are negative repercussions. Making terrorists look like “terrorists” does not help us understand their motives or perspective. It does not help us find peace. It fuels war.

We are fueling our own wars, not just with money or weapons or soldiers, but with images that do not promote understanding or compassion.

A week or two ago, NPR’s On the Media did a story about a series of images that the International Committee of the Red Cross made of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay detention camp. The ICRC made pictures of the prisoners to send to their families, and allowed each prisoner to choose which particular image would be sent. Naturally, the images the prisoners collaborated in making are very different from the images we’ve seen of them in the news.

What shocked me is that the reporters (Bob Garfield of On the Media, and Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, who broke the story) seem mystified at the power these images have. How can reporters be so unaware of how images work?

And I also wonder, in terms of mapping tangible social change made by images, would Guantánamo be closed now if more people had seen images like these? Is it open specifically because we haven’t seen these images before?

Images can have a hugely negative, divisive impact. They are powerful. And understanding that power, and controlling it, is extremely important. Photographs can create positive social change, but they can also create extremely negative actions, perceptions and social structures. Think of the most famous propaganda film of World War II, Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of Will.

Photographs can not represent “the truth” because both photographs, and the truth, are moving targets, built from human perception that is diverse and ever changing. Photographs change depending on the equipment you use, the context in which they are shown, the way they are made, the way they are printed, the mood of the person who sees them. They are unfixed. So why do we cling to the idea that they are either “true” or “untrue,” journalism or art, real or fake, posed or unposed?

Prison photographs are a great way to explore this issue, because they force us to confront some of our most basic assumptions about other people.

Take the artist Mikhael Subotzky. He grew up in Cape Town, and has made astonishingly beautiful and provocative images of prisons, prisoners and ex-prisoners in South Africa. The people he photographs are both assailants and victims. They have murdered, pillaged and raped, but they have also been subjugated, humiliated, discriminated against, overlooked, and physically harmed by individuals, institutions and social systems.

Human conflict, whether it’s one nation against another or one man against another, is complex. And Subotzky’s images acknowledge and explore that complexity. They embrace it.

Because Subotzky’s images ackowledge the complexity of these prisoners’ lives, he does not vilify them. He gives them dignity. He asks provocative questions about human society, rather than pointing a finger at an individual.

It is no different to look at the prisoners of Guantanamo and see fathers, brothers, friends and lovers in them. No person is simply a villain. As much as we love that idea.

Human beings like simplicity. We want to understand ourselves and our surroundings. We want control. All of our biggest and best fantasies are simplistic—good vs. evil. Think of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and now Avatar. (I hate Avatar.) All those villains are Pure Evil. Easy to hate. And they never have families.

But the “villains” in South Africa’s prisons, and in Subotzky’s photographs, do have families. They do have relationships. They are part of communities. And their lives are complicated and real. When we look through his eyes, we don’t see villains at all. We see incarcerated men.

Similarly, Peter Merts does a wonderful job of documenting prisoners in a prison-based arts program at San Quentin State Prison in California. His images do not have the sweeping intensity of Subotzky’s, but his aim is different to begin with. Rather than documenting the way a society treats its prisoners, Merts is documenting the way a small nonprofit program functions. His scope is modest, but he also treats his subjects with dignity and tenderness.

His approach also sounds very similar to Subotzky’s. I had the pleasure of meeting him last week at the PhotoPhilanthropy Activist Awards celebration, and the way he described going to visit the Prison Arts Project sounded very much like the long term nature of Subotzky’s projects.

And that is a component of social change photography that I think many people underestimate. It takes time, and the relationships you build while working with people are as important as the images you make. I read a simply stunning piece by Charles Schultz for Vewd magazine, and he expressed this idea so well. Talking about Subotzky, he wrote:

There is no way of getting around skin colors in a society where segregation remains a predominant aspect of everything from city planning to daily social interaction. In such a racially charged, environment I would think it takes a tremendous amount of courage and compassion for an affluent white male to step outside of his social strata and willfully engage and make genuine connections with imprisoned black men. And to do so over and over again displays a level of commitment and integrity that underlies all great social change.

In this way his work is more powerful in its moments of creation, when real human interactions are eroding racial stereotypes, than in its exhibition. And if the work succeeds, it is not because Subotzky can use a camera like no one else, it is because his photographs embody his efforts to confront social injustice on a personal level.

The fact that Schultz recognizes that, and articulates it so well, lifts me up. That process of integrating image-making with relationships, with community building, with breaking down the barriers we have built between ourselves as people—that process feels so right to me. And I think that we need to be looking at “our enemies,” whomever they may be, in a way that maintains their humanity.

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Entry filed under: artists to look at, ethical questions in photography, Social Change Photography. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Devouring the propaganda: plunging into the White House flickr feed Image as oppressor

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Social Strata Blogs | Tech News  |  February 5, 2010 at 8:39 am

    […] Incarcerated: from Guantánamo to Cape Town to San Quentin, what do …In such a racially charged, environment I would think it takes a tremendous amount of courage and compassion for an affluent white male to step outside of his social strata and willfully engage and make genuine connections with … Read more […]

    Reply
  • 2. Stephen Sidlo  |  February 9, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Really good post Eliza. It made me think about a quote from the epic film Con Air. “A society can be judged, by observing it’s prisoners” – Dostoevsky. I always refer to it in my mind time and again. The image you put up of the smiling terrorist really made me step back, and I have realized how many stories and ‘bad guy’ imagery we are displayed.

    I wonder how many of these men want to be portrayed as normal people. I am sure the FBI and really true Americans and Brits would scoff at that statement but as you say they are still human with families.

    A wonderful book I think you all should read that covers some of the topics in this cool article is ‘What Terrorists Want – Understanding the terrorist threat, Louise Richardson.

    Reply
  • 3. photophilanthropy  |  February 9, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    For anyone out there looking to volunteer as a photographer with organizations that work on justice issues around the world, check out International Bridges to Justice: http://ibj.org/documentary-journalists

    Reply
  • 4. petebrook  |  February 16, 2010 at 2:21 am

    Eliza. Thanks for the post and thank you for contacting me.

    I’d like to talk about two issues that you point to here. First, the general absence of prison imagery in contemporary media and secondly the urge to judge the subjects of the imagery that does crop up.

    I doubt highly that Guantanamo would’ve been closed if more photographs had come out of there. While there is no question visuals out of Gitmo were controlled stringently, the MoD had proven itself impermeable to even the most reasonable requests by human rights advocates and legal watchdogs.

    The point you make about smiling detainees instantly changing ones perception could be applied to all prison populations. Phillippe Bazin, Luigi Gariglio and Dread Scott have each used straight portraiture to cause audiences think about the individual character of prisoners:

    http://prisonphotography.wordpress.com/2009/12/06/melinda-hawtins-research-french-prison-photography/

    http://www.luigigariglio.com/

    http://prisonphotography.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/dread-scott-on-a-racist-system/

    I recommend books by Douglas Hall Kent, Morrie Camhi, Bruce Jackson, Jane Evelyn Atwood and Ken Light. I recommend work by Karl de Keyzer, Joseph Rodriguez, Steve Liss and Andrew Lichtenstein for imagery of prisons beyond the press shots of tiered-cells and orange jump-suits.

    More than any of these though I recommend photography of self-representation. I have speculated on it before:

    http://prisonphotography.wordpress.com/2009/04/13/photography-school-rehabilitating-prisoners-through-self-representation/

    and it has been done by Deborah Luster in Louisiana:

    http://www.twinpalms.com/?p=out_of_print&bookID=62

    and by the inmates of Medellin prison, Bogota, Colombia:

    http://prisonphotography.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/inmate-self-documentation-and-overturning-the-exotic-fetish/

    All of these photographic interventions are inspiring but barely make it into the mindshare of media consumers. I believe the unforgiven monster who deserves no thought is the predominant version of “the prisoner” in the minds of most Americans and many others in the Western world.

    Of course, the invisibility of prisons is a collective tactic. We are molly-coddled by zealous enforcement agencies to whom we’ve outsourced management of transgressors. We have no interest in dealing with the difficult issues surrounding mistakes, mental health, inequalities and human frailty … this is where the “lock ’em up” mentality comes from.

    Prisons and prisoners are not scary places because they are threatening and violent, they are scary places because they are wasteful, boring, soul-sapping warehouses. This is the document we never see. America’s prisons are a human-rights abuse.

    Photography will play its part, but it’ll take a monumental cultural shift to change prison policy in the West. It’d be interesting to see if a long-term project similar to Michael Subotzky’s could ever be completed in an American prison.

    Best, Pete

    Reply
    • 5. photophilanthropy  |  February 16, 2010 at 6:09 am

      Pete,

      Thanks so much for adding your voice to this post. Your comments are great–I couldn’t agree more with what you say about the lack of media attention to prisoners in general, and with your portrayal of prisons as “wasteful, boring, soul-sapping warehouses.” I wonder what it will take to get the States to begin this cultural shift that you are talking about in order to rethink the prison system.

      I too wonder about whether an American photographer in the American prison system could create something similar to Subotzky’s work. Peter Merts was able to visit repeatedly through his collaboration with the William James Association., so perhaps by using a nonprofit-collaboration, an artist or documentarian could gain access that otherwise might not be possible.

      I’m excited to dig into your links. Thanks again!
      eliza

      Reply
  • […] Last week, Eliza Gregory at PhotoPhilanthropy got knee-deep in speculations about prison photography. […]

    Reply

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"In this way his work is more powerful in its moments of creation, when real human interactions are eroding racial stereotypes, than in its exhibition. And if the work succeeds, it is not because Subotzky can use a camera like no one else, it is because his photographs embody his efforts to confront social injustice on a personal level." --Charles Schultz on Mikhael Subotzky

PhotoPhilanthropy’s blog is written by Eliza Gregory

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