What Would It Take To Actually See What Life Is Like in Prison?

What Would It Take To Actually See What Life Is Like in Prison?

What Would It Take To Actually See What Life Is Like in Prison?

An issue and exhibit from the photography foundation Aperture breaks down old tropes of prison life.


On the backside of a three-hole eight-and-a-half-by-eleven ruled notebook page are scrawled the words: “I don’t do relationships. I don’t care to remember my childhood. I don’t have pleasant memories. I do not care about anything.”

The sheet of paper appears in the photograph My Past Charge (2013) by Zora Murff, and the words are from an unidentified youth in Iowa’s Linn County Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services. All the unnamed children photographed by Murff (a former employee of the Iowa criminal-justice system) as part of the series Corrections (2013–15) have their faces turned away, or, per state regulation, are blurred or blocked. In another photograph from the series, Jerome at 15, a black teenage boy stands in sandals and socks on a running track. He is muscular, youthful, and his posture, from his body-twist to duck-footed stance, seems to portray typical teenage laid-back pride. But he is turning his head away from the camera, and we can’t actually see his face. At first you think you know this photograph—a high-school kid on a clear day on an open track—but there is something hidden here: The state’s “protection” of his identity masks a brutal reality. On his ankle—it takes a beat to notice—is locked an electronic monitoring bracelet. Seeing Murff’s photographs in succession, you might wonder if this child was the author of those thoughts: I don’t do relationships. I don’t care to remember my childhood…

This boy, “Jerome,” like nearly 7 million other men, women, and children in the United States, is under some form of “correctional supervision”—either imprisoned or on parole. This nation-within-a-nation that makes up our vast mass-incarceration complex, of which “Jerome” is one small part, is now the subject of the exhibition “Prison Nation,” organized by the Aperture Foundation, and is accompanied by a special issue of the foundation’s Aperture magazine and a series of interdisciplinary forums at the foundation’s Manhattan exhibition space. The sum of these efforts is a powerful documentation of both life in prison—in all of its treacherous guises—and the way society sees life in prison. Importantly, the exhibition and issue include not only professional photographers but also people who are incarcerated themselves or who work in correctional institutions. The lectures, featuring artists, writers, and photographers, continue until March 27 at the Aperture Foundation gallery space in New York.

“The camera is a tool used by the state”—think mugshots, most-wanted posters, prison ID cards—“but it can also be a tool to show the complexity of human life and the brutality of the system of incarceration,” Nicole R. Fleetwood, who organized the  special issue, told me recently. An associate professor at Rutgers University, Fleetwood contributes a moving essay about her own relationship to her incarcerated cousin, Allen, as seen through the lens of prison-studio portraits taken by incarcerated photographers. The backdrops in the photographs—clouds painted on a blue sky, a Valentine’s heart perched on a Greek column, a stone bridge over a shimmering stream—were all painted by incarcerated people.

The photographs mimic the mawkishness of late-20th-century studio photography, but you can’t help looking at them—at these trompe l’œil backdrops and forced smiles—without wondering if the scenes the men might rather summon are more quotidian: living rooms, kitchens, or sidewalks where they don’t need to flex or pose. In an episode of the podcast Ear Hustle, whose co-creator Nigel Poor also contributed photography to the exhibit, inmates talk about the life they envision after release. One man, Phillip, describes his idea of freedom “in its most simplest and most beautiful forms” as sitting on a couch with his wife and kids watching the movie The NeverEnding Story, just back from eating ice cream. “That’s something that a lot of us behind bars fantasize about: getting out and leading a normal life,” co-host Earlonne Woods adds.

Fleetwood references similar longing captured by photographer James VanDerZee in his early-20th-century portraits of black Harlem, which, in a parallel to today’s inmates’ hope for freedom, documented “aspirations for upward mobility, equality, and inclusion.” VanDerZee’s photographs, Fleetwood writes—again cross-referencing today’s incarcerated population—“have a sense of futurity, hopefulness, and often a subtle or explicit claim of the nation.”

You don’t aspire towards something you already have, or claim something you hold with confidence. The implicit longing towards simple freedoms—an open sky, an unscheduled morning—freedoms that are denied to millions of people, is also poignantly captured by Jack Lueders-Booth, another of the issue’s photographers.

Lueders-Booth’s series Women Prisoners presents women (held in the Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Framingham prison during the late ’70s and mid-’80s) as they want to be seen. The Marshall Project’s Christie Thompson, writing in the issue on Lueders-Booth’s photographs, notes that they “have almost none of the visual shortcuts that we associate with prison. There are no barbed-wire fences, rusting metal bars, or khaki uniforms.… Instead, we see the women on their own terms.” In one of the most striking of the series, a black woman in high-heeled sandals, wearing a shimmering blue V-neck blouse, matching blue pants, and a thin bracelet on her wrist, stares sidelong and steamily at the camera. She has on blue eyeshadow, holds a blush brush against her cheek, and is holding a pink mirror. Creating such a personalized, non-carceral corner doesn’t only mask (however momentarily) the fact that she is in prison, but rather puts in sharp relief the striving for individuality in a system that strips individuals of that very thing. “When we think of the word mass incarceration we think of the word mass,” Fleetwood told The New York Times. “But every person has a story.” You can see the effort—the grace and detail—the unnamed woman has taken to be seen as if she were not behind bars. And yet, in a way, those bars cast their hatched shadow even more starkly when juxtaposed with such human beauty and purpose.

Aperture’s issue gives humanity to those in prison, but it also reveals the inhumanity we humans are capable of. There is a consistent tension in the collection of photographs: viewers are asked to see inmates as they want to be seen, and, at the same time, we are reminded how the state wants us to see them: through bars, locked in cells, devoid of agency, filled with a mythic charge of danger and criminality.

Stephen Tourlente’s serial photographic study, Of Length and Measures: Prison and the American Landscape (1996–ongoing) captures how prisons have reshaped not only the nation’s psyche but also its very geography. Tourlentes seeks to create “an American atlas of its prisons,” he explained. He chooses to shoot at night because these facilities can be overlooked during the day—out of sight, out of political mind—whereas in the surrounding darkness, as prison yards remain electrified at all hours, they exude a damning glow. Tourlentes told me how he struggled to find a way to photograph groups of people, to show the social imprint and environmental footprint of these prisons. Seeing Tourlentes’s work, it is tempting to say that the American landscape is haunted by these prisons. But that is wishful thinking. Prisons may haunt a future America—for now, they are a living terror, the basement from which issues the occasional scream as so many of us live in tranquil denial or convenient forgetfulness. Tourlentes’s crystalline, chiaroscuro photographs resemble Ansel Adams’s graveyard in Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico—capturing the places of exile or death that dot our landscape.

Ear Hustle co-host Nigel Poor’s contribution to the exhibition and issue comes from a curated series of anonymous photographs documenting life in California’s infamous San Quentin prison. In a similar vein to the rest of “Prison Nation,” Poor’s work, as visual documentarian and podcaster, seeks to rehumanize those society dehumanizes. “There is a commonality between inside and outside, and there is a disparity between inside and outside,” Poor explained in the exhibit’s opening plenary. Her collections of San Quentin photographs lay bare the daily violence of prison life—an inmate’s busted-up eye, a decoy doll made for an escape attempt—whereas her podcast, produced with co-host Earlonne Woods and sound designer Antwan Williams (both of whom are serving sentences inside San Quentin) shows how normal and relatable prisoners are. “Prison ain’t really like that,” Williams says, referencing popular representations of prison life such as those found in Orange Is the New Black. “Nah, man, we’re just living life.” “Like everybody else,” Woods chimes in. The lesson from Ear Hustle, besides offering us a riveting portrait of Woods and other inmates, is that humanity is abundant wherever humans are found, no matter what conditions other humans impose upon them.

We think of photography today—in the Instagram/swipe-to-judgement era—as a way to capture sparkling moments, to boast of an accomplishment or a meal, and use it to impose a sort of typecasting—class, political, or aesthetic persuasion—onto ourselves. In doing so, we may be perpetuating one of photography’s earliest functions: The mug shot—originally in dour tintypes and ambrotypes—invented in the 1880s by anthropologist and chief of France’s Judicial Identification Service, Alphonse Bertillon, was the state’s means to affect that typecasting. In an essay on the paradigmatic prison image, Shawn Michelle Smith writes that Bertillon first established the diptych tradition (head-on and profile) and also developed the system, Bertillonage, in which photographers measured and recorded the incarcerated person’s biometrics. “Bertillonage is the epitome of an instrumentalized way of seeing, measuring, and recording the body,” Smith writes. This legacy of invasive, objectifying scrutiny of those we lock up has persisted, and Prison Nation seeks to subvert that tradition, scrutinizing our visual relationship to those incarcerated by displaying society’s carceral culture itself in a sort of rogue’s gallery.

The most viscerally impactful series in the issue is “Angola Passion Play,” in which Deborah Luster photographs men at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and women from the nearby St. Gabriel penitentiary preparing for their theatrical performance of The Life of Jesus Christ. These black-and-white portraits display their subjects in elaborate prison-made costumes and regalia: blood-drizzled Jesus (Bobby Wallace) with a crown of thorns and an INRI board strapped around his neck, a Roman horse soldier (James Blackburn) with a makeshift legionary helmet and a fringed tunic. The costumes reveal both the inventiveness of the inmates and their severely limited resources: Another Roman soldier (Jamal Johnson) uses what look like decades-old, duct-taped football shoulder pads. But it is the gazes, the faces of the subjects that speak loudest. Luster uses portraiture to effectively light a fuse, plug her ears, and duck out of the way of her subjects’ gazes.

Angola prison is built on a collection of former slave plantations in a state with the “highest incarceration rate of any place in the world,” as Zachary Lazar writes in an introduction to Luster’s photographs. There are over 6,000 inmates locked in Angola, which is the country’s largest maximum security prison, and many of these inmates work in cotton and sugarcane fields, making as little as four cents an hour. The inmates—the majority of whom are black—are overseen by guards—the majority of whom are white—armed and sometimes on horseback. As these and other inmates across the country argue, the set-up does not merely resemble slavery, it is slavery—a reality you can see reflected in the inmates’ eyes. Jamal Johnson, in Luster’s photo of him as a Roman Soldier, stares out from under a brow so furrowed it has an expression of its own. The ludic spirit of his costume and wooden sword are offset by his piercing gaze, the depthless backdrop. There is no way to Bertillonage that look.

Since photography’s early years, as a note from the editors explains, the medium “has been used to create and [reinforce] typologies of criminality”—and no doubt this reductionism continues to this day in a culture that, all too often, conflates criminality with blackness, brownness, difference, or poverty. As Ear Hustle, Murff, Leuders-Booth, Tourlentes, Fleetwood, and the project’s other contributors, including Lucas Foglia, Sable Elyse Smith, Joseph Rodriguez, and Emily Kinni, show, part of breaking the reductive and racist narrative around prisons is to truthfully tell it.

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