WINGS is a collaborative multimedia book that skilfully and uniquely weaves together text, illustration and comic art. It is based on true stories from real prisoners that we had the privilege to work with at one of London's oldest and largest prisons. To coincide with Kickstarter's exciting Make100 initiative, 100 backers can pledge to receive not only a copy of the book and set of signed prints, they will also receive a unique piece of Original Artwork by Wallis Eates, who has been described as 'one of the most vital voices in UK autobiographical comics'. We also have a range of other rewards to suit all budgets.
Sounds good, what's the backstory to all this?
In 2017 we (that is, artist Wallis Eates and writer Victoria Anderson) were given privileged access to Wandsworth prison. The remit was simple enough; we were there to work with prisoners; helping them tell their story through the medium of digital filmmaking.
The men astonished us with their creativity, their humour, their honesty. For many of them, it seemed to have been the first time anyone had ever listened to them, much less believed they had anything of value to contribute. We laughed and cried, lived and died with them - sometimes in a portacabin in the middle of the prison yard, sometimes in a staff room, sometimes on the wings...
But there were obstacles.
Obstacles? Tell me more.
We’ll be the first to admit that we were a logistical nightmare for Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. It is a prosecutable offence to take digital equipment into a prison without the proper authority. For us to take sound and recording equipment into a Category B prison was no mean feat. But we did it.
The only problem was, once we’d taken the equipment in, we couldn’t bring it out.
Well that’s not quite true. We could bring it out. But only after we’d wiped our machines clean of all the men’s work. Everything they’d worked so hard on. Everything they’d done in the belief, promised by us, that they’d be able to share their stories, their hopes, their dreams, and their visions of a better world, with the outside world.
You mean to say the work was censored?
We hadn’t anticipated that level of censorship. But the stories were powerful. So powerful that, at the end of the programme, we were forbidden even from showing the men’s films to a select audience of staff and prisoners. For the men, who had worked so hard, had given so much of their hearts to the project, this was demoralising. But we too were devastated.
Except. These stories were meant to be seen and heard.
After negotiating with the prison authorities, we were finally permitted to take written transcripts of the stories out of the prison. And now we are helping these stories to take flight.
Take flight! I see what you did there.
WINGS is a collaborative multimedia book that skilfully and uniquely weaves together text, illustration and comic art to tell the stories of the men we met in an unreal world - the strange organism that is a prison. We’ve thought long and hard about the best way to bring this work to life, in a way that does justice - no pun intended - to the men who shared their stories, their honesty and their kindness with us during those months at Wandsworth.
I'd like to support you in principle. But what will I get out of it?
In terms of physical rewards, we're putting together a beautiful 128+ page illustrated book full of stories and artwork, showing not only the stories of the men we met, but our story of being inside one of Britain's most notorious prisons. So, you will get a copy of the book which will be professionally printed AND, if you pledge for one of the Limited Edition tiers, you will receive an ORIGINAL PIECE OF ARTWORK from the book.
And who are you, anyway?
A good question. Victoria is a writer and academic who has studied myth and folklore for many years and taught at a number of universities. Until recently stepping down, she was Chair of the rehabilitation charity Stretch. Wallis is an acclaimed artist who has been labelled 'one of the most vital voices' in UK comics (quote from Andy Oliver, Editor-in-Chief of Broken Frontier).
One of the things we wanted to develop with the men was the idea of visual storytelling and the use of metaphor to convey a story. In the criminal justice system issues are seen as very black and white; working in this way allows truth to surface in new forms. What was additionally remarkable about working in Wandsworth prison were the surroundings themselves which lent themselves to all sorts of mythic archetypes, from Beowulf to King Minos, and this is something we wanted to bring into the book.
From the mouldering piles of litter and oranges strewn in the prison yard, to the bizarre interior architecture of the prison wings - a hive-like labyrinth of memories and echoes - we began to see prison life as a kind of symbolic death. It was an underworld - lost to the outside world. And now the films, too, the stories so diligently crafted - these too are lost to the outside world.
Well, in the first place it refers to the prison ‘wings’, the long blocks of cells where the prisoners are housed. These are to be differentiated from the education blocks and other areas of the prison. Part of our ‘initiation’ into prison life was our time spent ‘on the wings’, which are a story in and of themselves.
One of our storytellers actually told us of having a vision of an angel in his cell. Another man told us of a dream where he was rising up in his cell. Wings are also tied up with idea of freedom, or rebirth, as in a phoenix rising from the ashes; or butterfly wings which evoke metamorphosis.
But above all, we couldn’t get away from the idea of bees and wasps, since everything on the wings in Wandsworth prison is premised on a hexagon. The interiors are like giant beehives. And the men inside like bees.
Wait a minute. These are people who have committed a crime. Why should we want to know their stories? Why should we even care?
People end up in prison for all sorts of reasons, from violent crimes to tax fraud to non-payment of council tax. Prison is full of people with serious mental illness or addictions and who, arguably, should never have been sent to prison in the first place. It's disproportionately full of people who have come through the care system. It's also full of individuals with astonishing creativity and generosity of spirit.
Sometimes', as one man said to us, 'good people do bad things'.
We think all of that is worth caring about. The more we know about each other as human beings, the less inclined we are to prejudge and condemn those whose lives may have followed very different paths to our own... or perhaps not so very different after all.
Isn’t producing a fancy book and artwork a bit frivolous when you’re dealing with serious subjects?
Actually we don't think so. The stories and experiences shared by the men we met at Wandsworth prison were so extraordinary, their creativity and candour so disarming, that we didn't want their efforts to come to nothing. We encountered individuals in that prison who are genuine creative geniuses. Poets and artists who had flown under the radar. Since we lost all their work, it seems to us that producing this book is the very least we can do to honour the experience and help share what we've learned with others.
But not only that. We experience empathy when we allow ourselves to step into someone else's shoes. We do that through storytelling, through creativity; not through lists of statistics.
What will you actually do with the money?
We will work with our printers to produce the book and rewards to as high a standard as we possibly can! Then we will package, post and distribute them to all our generous backers. Should we be in so fortunate a position as to attract surplus funding, we will plough that surplus back into future projects, working with prisons, prisoners, and their communities.
Oh? What sort of future projects do you have in mind?
Subject to funding, there are a number of things we'd like to do once WINGS is underway. Future plans include working with prisoners and families to create a children's book about parents being in prison. We'll be able to produce a prelude to this project should we meet our Stretch Goals, in the form of Marli-Parli - an autobiographical comic story by Wallis about her own childhood experience of looking after a younger cousin while her mother was in prison.
But how does buying this book actually help rehabilitate prisoners? It won't stop them committing more crimes.
This is a very good point, but it conceals a lot of assumptions. Firstly, without knowing a prisoner's story, how can anyone possibly gauge what kind of 'rehabilitation' might be effective? How do we know what crime has been committed, or what the circumstances were? 'Rehabilitation' in a prison context doesn't mean 'cure'; it means to restore people to 'normal life' and reintegrate them into society.
By seeing prisoners and ex-prisoners as real people, often with extraordinary potential rather than as monsters who deserve to be shunned, we believe that we are aiding with reintegration. While we can't expect to revolutionise the criminal justice system with the publication of just one book, we are nonetheless actively addressing the stigma and shame that so often goes along with imprisonment, and which research shows actually leads to further antisocial behaviour.
We also believe that we are framing prison and imprisonment in a rather unique context, one which we hope will lead to increased and improved dialogue about the form and function of prison in a modern society.
I suppose I can see the benefit in what you’re doing. But it would be even better if we could see art and films by the actual prisoners.
We agree. Wandsworth was the only prison that hasn't let us (or our alma mater, Stretch) bring the prisoners' work out. That's why we've decided to bring their stories to life in the best way we can. If you would like to see some original work from other prisons, head on over to this page. (If you do navigate away from this page, though, please don't forget to come back!!)
Having said all that, this book isn't just our take on the men's stories. It's also our story, about our shared experience of a very surreal situation. Not many people from the outside get to see as much of a Victorian prison as we did, and so we do think we have a unique perspective that is worth sharing.
Do you have permission to use these stories?
The men who participated in our projects provided their signed permission that we could use their stories both for research and public dissemination. Some specified that they wished to remain anonymous, although all have remained anonymous in order to comply with the wishes of HMP Wandsworth. Some of the stories and characters are composites and all have been rendered creatively; they should not be considered as depictions of actual events or real people, living or dead.
Unfortunately it has not been possible to remain in contact with the men since all were on remand or short sentences and moved rapidly through the criminal justice system - either moving to different prisons or out on release. Some were homeless and others were immigrants - one was deported to a Polish prison shortly after we finished his film. However, where we have a contact address we have endeavoured to keep in touch and would welcome any contact from them.
HUGE THANKS to all the staff at HMP Wandsworth and Carlotta Allum of Stretch Charity, without whom none of this would be possible.
Further HUGE THANKS to Seb Burnett of Rumpus Animation and Gemma Seltzer at Kickstarter, both of whom have been veritable pillars of wisdom and sage advice as we put this campaign together!
And finally, HUGEST THANKS to all the men we met at HMP - you know who you are - we hope we've done you justice.
UPDATE! As of January 31st we reached our initial £3000 target, which means that... drumroll... WINGS IS HAPPENING! Yesssssssssss.
As a stretch goal, rather than a financial target we'd now like to reach 111 backers by 11.11am Monday Feb 4th (UTC). As a thanks for all your support, we'll add fantastic bonus content for ALL BACKERS once we reach our goal.
Risks and challenges
We (Wallis and Victoria) have never worked on a collaborative book project like this before, but we have been working together on this and associated projects for around 18 months. Wallis has published a comic book called 'Fear of Mum-Death and the Shadow Men' and her second book, 'Like an Orange', will be published by Unbound Books. Victoria has published numerous articles and a co-edited book on masculine violence in visual culture (Bluebeard's Legacy, IB Tauris 2009). You can read more about our past projects, including links to relevant articles, on the 'about' page.
We were allowed to use the transcripts of the stories from Wandsworth prison on the proviso that we did not identify any of the participants directly. We would like to add that we are undyingly grateful to the staff at HMP Wandsworth who, despite the most trying of circumstances, were very kind and welcoming!
That aside, we can foresee no reason why we cannot bring Wings to completion within the stated timescale. We've been a long time sitting on this project, and it's ready to hatch.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (28 days)