Last month in Bristol, IC Visual Lab and the Arnolfini hosted an evening with Pete Brook and Gemma-Rose Turnbull; two authors from the online platform Photography as a Social Practice (PaaSP). Working alongside a team of five other practitioners, the PaaSP collective seek to provide a space for a progressive dialogue on socially concerned photography. With compassionate observation, the artists dismantle traditional photographic frameworks concerning ethics, representation and power dynamics. They apply alternative methods to their documentation—such as sharing authorship with their subjects—to encourage representation that’s both fair and authentic. The photographer’s believe a sturdy ethical foundation to be crucial in stimulating social and political change; and rightly so.
Pete Brook is an independent writer and curator. His work nucleates around the prison industrial complex in the United States. By accumulating and publicising photo-based projects made by practitioners throughout America, Brook reflects upon the visibility, propaganda and politicisation of imprisonment. He founded the website Prison Photography in 2008 to combine his research and writing. Through this platform, he aims to stimulate a debate about the common image of prisons and the reasons for unjustifiably long sentences. What’s more—seeking to develop the emotional understanding of the masses towards the ostracized, Brook amplifies the social projects he finds by curating various exhibitions of their work.
Mass incarceration gripped the United States in 1980. Back then, there were 400,000 people imprisoned—men, women and children. Today, there are 2.3 million. That’s one in every a hundred American adults, which is six times the number of any other nation in terms of incarcerated citizens. “Race and class are so intertwined that it’s black and brown bodies that are being shifted into these warehouses”, says Brook. If the trends that have existed for the past 35 years and still exist today continue, an African American boy born in the US today has a one in three chance of spending time incarcerated. That might be a week, it could be a month, or perhaps a lifetime. In comparison; a latino male has a one in eleven chance, and a white male’s likelihood is one in seventeen.
“Let’s make no mistake about it”, says Brook, “Rehabilitation was abandoned decades ago.” The belief, seemingly, was that incapacitation would heal society by taking the bad people off the streets—a shallow solution for an issue that’s deep-rooted in class, society and power. And that isn’t how it’s worked out, of course. “Prison’s are not the solution”, Brook continues, “They only cause more problems.”
One of the most effective ways to educate and arouse consciousness is through imagery. The documentary tradition has made many claims about photography—that it’s ability to illuminate social ills and to record absolute truth is akin to no other medium. But how effective is the medium when it comes into contact with a closed institution? Especially an institution that aims to “cynically and strategically separate society”—making 2.3 million people on any given day invisible.
And yet photography and incarceration often go hand in hand. Cameras are used repressively—almost as weapons—to harness control within a prison environment. They ‘shoot’ mugshots, prison ID’s and booking photos. All movements of those on the inside are monitored by surveillance. If prisoners go to court, they may even be photographed on the perp walk for the press. Regulation laces each politically controlled image. Personality, narrative and creativity are not only discouraged, but stifled, and a prisoner’s ability to take photographs or to self-represent goes out the window along with their freedom.
Most of the socially concerned projects made around prisons are self-funded, and are often created by citizens that primarily are just curious. Identifying as photographers or artists is usually secondary. “You need that political fire in your belly to get over the hurdles”, Brook explains. Gaining access in general to a prison is tricky business, let alone unrestricted access. But when practitioners manage to permeate prison walls and offer some sort of acumen into life on the inside; “I want to see these projects amplified”, says Brook.
To be continued...
Stanley Jamel Bellamy, Growing Up Through Pictures
Davi Rosso, Picture Time