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Punishment

Jenny Wicks:

This is a great article by Pete Brook about Working Spaces Punishing Spaces, the exhibition and the book.

Originally posted on Prison Photography:

RESIDENCY

Body orifice scanner and surveillance camera, HMP Low Moss, 2012

UK photographer and artist, Jenny Wicks – working as an artist in residence at The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) at Glasgow University, the largest centre for criminological research in Scotland – set out a year ago to document spaces of said research. Invariably this meant photographing prisons. She photographed in two working prisons – Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Barlinnie and HMP Shotts. She also shot in a new prison, HMP Low Moss, prior to its opening.

I have posted before about Wick’s portrait project They Are Us And We Are Them also completed during the residency. Here, I’d like to focus on Wick’s prison interior photographs.

Wicks’ research broadly titled Working Spaces, Punishing Spaces: The Meaning and Construction of Place through Criminological Research sought to explore key boundaries: between innocent and guilty, researcher and researched.

“The conceptual frame for the project…

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I’m waiting on my framer to complete the work for the Barlinnie installation (early November) and I’ve pretty much finished the audio piece. I still need to get my hands on monitors that could be used as ‘surveillance’  TV’s but apart from that all seems to be under control. I am now preparing the first book dummy for Punishing Photography and plan for it be ready in time for the public show at The Briggait in late February 2013.

It’s a case of editing and re-editing and Blue Peter style sticking but it enables me to build the sequence, look for holes, see the flow. It looks terrible but at least I know it will work when I come to the final design.

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The residency has been an almost constant source of inspiration, albeit challenging at times. I hope the Criminologists at SCCJR and those following have found this blog interesting and that the work I’ve produced provided you with an alternative perspective on the subject.

If you are new to the blog: part of the residency/ my interest lies in the mugshot (it’s aesthetics, history, meaning) and the theories of the criminologists of the late 19th Century (Lombroso, Bertillion). The images that follow are a new batch, of prisoner, prison officer and criminologists and they are an attempt to challenge the boundaries between them and us.

The work is not only an exploration of the mug shot, i.e. not solely the space where a person is accused (not convicted) and automatically marked as a criminal, it’s the first significant, visual display of power where judgment is cast on that person and how they re-cast themselves. Through the effect of the extraction process used to make these images (negative from the Polaroid back bi-product) along with the accepted concept that ‘photography objectifies’ and the idea that historically the use of photography could ‘identify’ the criminal trait or personality, I am also attempting to convey the idea of depersonalisation of the individual in contemporary society.

The simple view of depersonalisation is that the person becomes a number, a statistic. Another view is that depersonalisation in social psychology refers to  – “the stereotypical perception of the self as an example of some defining social category”.[1] What I find interesting is that it (the mug shot, prison, the criminal justice space) strips away the complexities of that person and they then become part of a subset, in the eyes of others and of themselves. The ‘self’ is redefined.

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

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© Jenny Wicks

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1 – Turner, John; Oakes, Penny (1986). “The significance of the social identity concept for social psychology with reference to individualism, interactionism and social influence”. British Journal of Social Psychology 25 (3): 237–252.

Backing, as ever, into the obvious, I realise that the central theme being interrogated through this blog is power. The power of punishment, the power of researchers and the power of space. The visual imagery collected here to my mind comes closest to evoking Foucault’s concept of power, flowing through the spaces and actors who are simultaneously also its effect. That is, power is not an entity which is wielded consciously by one against another, as if it could be contained in a bucket and flung out. Rather than acts of (or actors with) power let’s start thinking about states of power.

Focusing on a state, or situation, of power draws in people, objects, spaces and relationships connecting them together in a web through which power circulates and is maintained. I would like to use some blog entries to explore specific themes emerging from this, and the first one that came to mind is complicity. Complicity is an issue raised immediately for the researcher working with human subjects where maintaining a critical distance is prerequisite to the scientific aspiration of objectivity. Through this project, however, a second complicity problem we worry about finds a place to get some attention. This is our complicity as researchers in reinforcing particular states of power in which subjects of punishment are degraded, oppressed, dehumanised or infantilised, and humiliated.

I am about to give two examples of this, and I warn you the first one is upsetting.

In 2005, I joined a tour of CYA facilities (California’s juvenile prison system) with a group of summer law interns at the Youth Law Center. The YLC had sued over conditions at this particular institution so it was also an opportunity to research how conditions had changed. We were taken through cell blocks, past the mostly Latino and African American inmates in the general population, shown the boxes that look like standing coffins used to discipline them (since found to violate the US Constitution’s 8th amendment, I believe), given access to empty class rooms, empty workshops and empty playing fields. Like all prison tours I have been on it was a mixture of glorifying and sensationalising prison as a dangerous, sexy place on the one hand, and on the other a place where rehabilitation was at least theoretically available.

Towards the end of the day, we were seated in two rows of folding chairs in a rec room while a prison guard led in an obedient line of juvenile inmates. The white, middle aged and moustachioed male guard called each youth forward to describe for us the crime that led to him being incarcerated. The first young man called (‘X, tell ‘em what you did.’) stepped forward and began a monotone recital of his part in a brutal gang rape of a young boy. This was the prison’s attempt to show off its juvenile sex offender treatment programme. Everything about the situation horrified and sickened me. The guard calling the young man to speak to strangers about such a traumatic experience, the youth’s rote recital evidencing for me how regularly he was being called on to do it, us sitting there complicit as polite listeners in our own traumatisation and shaming of this person. Our complicity, moreover, was achieved in an underhanded way. We were not told what would be happening, and were only grateful to sit down after a physically and emotionally tiring walk around the grounds. If we were to say we did not want to hear the boys speak we would be rejecting them and their humanity, their voice. Early into this re-telling, I interrupted. Shaking, I asked the guard on what authority or treatment expertise he was requiring these youths to re-live their crimes, and did he have their consent to do so. The guard simply looked at the boys and asked them if they would refuse to speak, and none of them replied. We sat there for half an hour listening to their horrible stories. It took every atom of will I possessed in my body to mount even this minimal challenge to this guard, and just as important, to this setting with its explicit and implicit architecture of control. I had nothing left though I look back and wished I had walked out. (But could I have? The door was manned by another guard.)

The second experience draws once more on the work Beth Weaver and I did on ‘user views’ of punishment. Here I want to recall the process of interviewing prisoners. The prisoners were led in for interview, often not making eye contact as we walked into interview rooms. Prisoners were required to sit facing the window in the door to allow for observation by staff. The size of the room also meant researcher and researched were required to sit on opposite sides of a table. This spatial dimension of control is powerful enough, and simply by sitting on the side of the table facing away from the window the researcher is established as more powerful than the prisoner. Like anyone working in this age of ethical review/IRBs, Beth and I spent weeks preparing our ethical protocols, designing a clear consent form and allowing for numerous opt outs (such as to opt out of having the interview recorded). In the end, none of the prisoners I interviewed spent more than one minute looking through the material we prepared before signing their consent. I cannot claim to know the reasons for this willingness to sign away the rights to their words being used in my research but wonder if it is part of an acculturation to constant privacy invasions inherent in an institution like prison. If so, a tool we prepared so carefully to ensure we were respecting the rights of the people we wanted to learn from became simply one more way of demonstrating and thus furthering their subordination.

Complicity is enacting and effecting, sometimes unwillingly and unconsciously, particular forms of control. Criminological research is always complicit.

Working title, ‘They are us and we are them’, a quote made by John Laub in Fergus McNeill’s Discovering Desistance documentary film ‘The Road from Crime’ . It seems to fit well with the concept of challenging the boundaries between ‘Us and Them’ and was recently mentioned to me by Fergus.

The process used in making this next set of portraits has been quite different to the ones I’ve presented previously. All the way through the project my system has been to make an image on Polaroid film initially (to ensure the composition is correct and as a reference for developing the film) and then, ensuring the sitter hasn’t moved, take the next shot on sheet film (negative). I kept hold of the byproduct of the Polaroid (it’s backing) and extracted the negative from this. It’s an unstable, messy and laborious technique. I’d originally planned on doing the entire project in this way but after extracting 18 negatives realised it was unrealistic. I also wanted to promote large format; the detail that is held within the 5″ by 4″ negative and the quality of the medium but because Polaroid negative is so drastically different (aesthetically) this wouldn’t come across. So I have essentially produced two quite different pieces of work at the same time. It adds an ethereal element to the final instillation and an innocence. Someone described this set of images as “womb-like” which I quite liked. I’d be interested to see what other people thought.

Full project description can be read on my previous post ‘Us and Them’.

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

“… an icon in contemporary visual culture. The pose, framing and formal conventions of the image are easily recognised throughout the general public. It is an image that is taken to indicate criminality.” Jonathon Finn on the mug shot.

The portraits are of criminologists, prisoners and prison officers and the eyes closed motif is a leveler.  I didn’t want to accept the objectification of the traditional mugshot, the concept was to challenge it.  Nor did I want to deliberately “humanize” the subject as they would tend to become too meretricious. I did want to present sensitive portraits.

Full project description can be read on my previous post ‘Us and Them‘.

Some more images from the series:

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

I’ve arranged to go to HMP Cornton Vale tomorrow, Scotland’s only all female prison. This is to initially meet with the Governor, Teresa Medhurst to discuss the possibility of making portraits of the female prisoners and prison staff. I’m sure it will be an altogether different experience to that of the male only prisons I’ve been in recently, but none-the-less interesting.

I’ll be working on the audio part of the residency when I get break from scanning and colour balancing negatives. One of the reasons why I wanted to use colour rather than black and white was to move away from the stereotypical ‘prison’ portraits; grainy, black and white images.

Here are some more of the portraits I’ve been working on today, I’ll continue to post more on a regular basis. The full project description is on my previous post, ‘Us and Them’:

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

© Jenny Wicks

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