Creator Q&A: Pete Brook and Prison Photography

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Nearly four years in the making, Pete Brook's Prison Photography is a nuanced analysis of American visual culture as it relates to prisons, prison culture, and overarching issues of social justice. Drawing from the work of celebrated photographers like Jenn Ackerman and Taro Yamasaki (among many others), Pete has built a superbly curated archive of imagery from prisons across the country — and, in doing so, instigated an essential dialogue about the current state of American prisons with an eye toward the future of social justice. Intrigued by the principles behind the project, I dropped Pete a line to find out more. His answers, along with a special selection of the photographs he has come across so far, are below.

Did you see a particular photograph, have a particular conversation, or meet a particular person that inspired your trip?

There was not one photographer, but the cumulative swell of the power of their work. Together their photographies assume a view that is counter to mass media misrepresentations. I want to investigate that.
I used to think I was a loner worrying about prisons and their representation, but I’ve been buoyed by positive feedback for my writing. It made sense to test this support and press the community into a more immediate involvement. The trip, which includes interviews, writing, editing, lectures and driving will be a lot of work for me but it’ll be a lot of involvement for the community too.

What are your favorite images from some of the photographers you plan to interview? Why the images are particularly striking to you?

There’s so many to choose from, but for the purposes of this interview and the need to keep it brief I’ll name a quick five:

'Female Blood', 1995. © Jamel Shabazz.
'Female Blood', 1995. © Jamel Shabazz.

Jamel Shabazz has been celebrated for his street photography and portraits of New York and New Yorkers in the 1980s. I want to talk to him about everything else really, the stuff that isn’t known. But more than that, his day job was as a correctional officer. He worked at Rikers Island for 20 years. It’d be interesting to hear his perspective; he’ll no doubt correct misconceptions that exist may about him, about his photography and about prison populations generally. It’s very rare to meet a renowned photographer who also worked within a prison system.

'Jenar Jury' © Deborah Luster.
'Jenar Jury' © Deborah Luster.

Deborah Luster spent five years making portraits and imitation tintypes of prisoners in the Louisiana prison system. She did so in the cotton fields, at Halloween and Mardi Gras pageants, at the renowned Angola Prison Rodeo. Her subjects improvised with costume and created very personal self-depictions. The photography itself is beautiful and gives audiences a new way into the lives of prisoners. Deborah estimates she gave away 25,000 prints of her images to her inmate-subjects. Not surprisingly, they were prized objects.

'Comstock, NY State Prison', 2009 © Stephen Tourlentes.
'Comstock, NY State Prison', 2009 © Stephen Tourlentes.

Stephen Tourlentes’ work is intelligent, efficient and realigns the discussion. His work is about geographic territories and social control before it is about the day-to-day hardships of prison life. A lot of prison photography focuses on the emotive nature of prisons, but Tourlentes’ work is broader in scope – it’s about the strategic nature of prisons.

From the series "Inside Jackson Prison", 1981 © Taro Yamasaki.
From the series "Inside Jackson Prison", 1981 © Taro Yamasaki.
Taro Yamasaki won a Pulitzer for his coverage of South Michigan State Penitentiary in 1981. I interviewed him over the phone nearly three years ago, but neither of us were happy with the outcome. Now we’re going to spend time in his studio, looking over prints and really get to the heart of the work. Taro was a press photographer but his work is really pioneering. He spent six days at the prison and photographed things that had simply not been seen before. The early eighties is a critical moment when tensions were high, populations growing and regime change was coming for many prisons across the country.
'Ramsey Prison Cell Block, Texas Prison, 1968' © Danny Lyon.
'Ramsey Prison Cell Block, Texas Prison, 1968' © Danny Lyon.

Danny Lyon was a journalist that got inside of the subcultures he documented. He was already well known for his series The Bikeriders for which he rode with the Hells Angels among others. His project "Conversations With the Dead," photographs of Texas Death Row, was not a commercial success, but overtime has become to be regarded as one of the most important projects in American documentary. It’s not that Lyon saw things before everyone else, it’s just that he was there; he put himself in it and gave posterity every reason to shine favourably upon his work.

What was your entry point into the Prison Photography on the Road project?

It’s not a project out of the blue; it’s a natural extension of the writing at my website Prison Photography. I needed to get out from behind a desk, go into the world, engage people on the topic of prisons, and try to tap new audiences — for my own sanity and because some photographers will only meet in person … an old fashioned idea!

Not everyone wants to read about prisons, but lots of people can be brought into a conversation by way of an image. I want to make this discussion about photography compelling and relevant to the realities of prison in America today. I’m not naïve, I don’t think photography is all-powerful, but images are everywhere in society and deserve attention, especially when imagery is dealing with a large constituency of American citizens (there’s 2.3 million men, women and children incarcerated in the U.S. today).

My entry point into the topic of prisons, generally, was my work as a graduate student. In 2004, I was evaluating the narrative at the San Quentin Prison Museum (SQPM), CA. I had to know if the narrative related to the contemporary prison politics of California. It didn’t; the narrative ended in 1971. The narrative at the SQPM was a rigid, top-down, prescribed biography of the prison for those most heavily invested — mainly the retired Warden who established the museum, who was, of course, a product of the California Department of Corrections. This is counter to today’s best practices for museums that should ask the audience questions and be reflexive spaces for learning.

Our realities are shaped by the stories we hear and see. 

We don’t like to talk about the fact that for decades we’ve backed politicians bloated with tough-on-crime rhetoric. The war on drugs is a war on poor people. Cable TV is full of sensational images of crime and criminals, fear and violence, but it doesn’t show us the progressive steps, the potential for transformation — either through new work skills, education, treatment programs — that exist in all individuals.  I’m interested in how images are manufactured, distributed and consumed. America has a rich tradition in photography, particularly documentary, but I can’t help think that many of the diverse stories and experiences of prisoners, correctional officers and families have not been told. Or, if they have, they’ve not got wide distribution.
So, I want to delve deep into the visual culture of prisons but go further and back it up with context given by expert individuals in prison arts, prison education, law and labor advocacy that I meet on the way.

In your opinion, why are photographers working in prisons so effectively able to shape our collective dialogue on issues of social justice?

I don’t always think they are. Sometimes, photographers working inside sites of incarceration just end up repeating and extending the protocols of prisons. This is unfortunate but not always avoidable. I think the best photography done in prisons results from a photographer’s prolonged engagement with the subject; it builds trust, it improves accuracy, it allows for a dialogue to develop and it usually brings the subject in as a collaborator. Photography can be used to connect people and used as a rehabilitative tool. Logistically, it’s hard to get into prisons and jails with a camera, if you do, why not lead a workshop?

What drew you to, specifically, the connection between visual culture and issues of activism/social justice?

We live in a visual world. Every image is political. Sometimes we should not be thinking about the images we see, but instead thinking about the images we do NOT see. 

I’ve long contended that prisons in America are invisible, which is not a surprise as their purpose is highly contested and they are controversial. There are high stakes at play when a camera enters a prison or jail.
To me, prisons in America fail their wards and fail the public. It makes sense they get hidden. Unfortunately, there still remains little political advantage to calls for reforming sentencing and prisons.

In society, so much imagery is created in the interest of commerce and consumerism, we need to accept that the vast majority of imagery is trying to sell us something. I’m not saying consumerist imagery is inherently bad, but I am asking that people are more critical and distinguish the motives behind images. Images are a battlefield. To take an extreme example, W.J.T. Mitchell has said, “Terrorism is a war of images, and it can only be ended by a counter attack at the level of images.” With that logic we should be making and promoting images that forward social justice aims.

You're releasing your materials for free/general use under a CC license — can you tell me more about this decision and why you made it?

It just makes sense. Information and stories are worth most when they are shared among those who stand to benefit most. My costs are covered by the kind donations of supporters. It would seem wrong to bleed money (over years or decades) out of material gathered only because of the generosity of others. It wouldn’t fit with the spirit of the trip. If we’re to stand any chance reversing 30 years of failed policy, longer sentencing, expensive prosecutions of non-violent offenders, the criminalization of addiction, the war on drugs and prison profiteering then it’ll be a collective effort.

What is your expected audience for this project? Who do you envision as your ideal "reader" and what do you hope they will take away from it?

My regular readers are excited to see how I handle the pressure, responsibility, and fun of face-to-face interviews; the research that involves and the different way one has to handle information in audio interviews.
I am hoping prison and sentencing reform communities in particular benefit from use of the audio and the expert views contained within.

The discussions with the photographers will be of great interest to the photo community … and that interest extends beyond America.

There’s a subset of writers and readers in the photoblogosphere who are engaged in the politics of images, history and visual cultures, and media. I think the project appeals to them.

How has the experience of using Kickstarter been so far?

Difficult to make any firm conclusions … there’s still three weeks of fundraising left. The public platform is fantastic: I received funding from people wide and far. I have no idea how they found the project — the magical power of the internets I suppose! Everyone seems very grateful for the effort put into the video. It took a while to put it together but it’s well worth it in terms of explaining the project to folk perhaps not familiar with my work in the past.

The back end of the Kickstarter website is very easy to use and edit. Surprising to me, this was the first time many people in my circles have heard of Kickstarter and crowdfunding generally. I first heard about crowdfunding four years ago with the establishment of Spot.Us. To me it’s a common sense means to raise money in a connected age but I realize it is still catching on with the general public.

    1. Scott Parsons on

      KK what do you think we can do to solve these problems ?? where is it working better??

    2. George Monical on

      I will fund this if you goto the prison in Pontiac il. I grew up there and could find a place for you to stay as well.

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      Namaku Keren on

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      Doa Ibu Tersayang on

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