This post is a continued conversation about SFMoMA's Bearing Witness symposium, March 16.
The irredeemable nature of our prison system can be considered a human rights emergency, and yet the issue is often cast beneath larger shadows. In an effort to reverse this, freelance writer and curator Pete Brookconsiders photography’s game-changing role in prison reform. For many, prisoners carry a stigma of sub-humanity that is debilitating and merciless, a condition that, Brook shows us, activists have tackled through the power of photography. The projectTamms Year Ten, prompted by the horrendous treatment of inmates at the super-max prison in Illinois (now closed), invited prisoners—all of whom were in solitary confinement—to request a photograph of their choice to be sent to them. Here is an example of one such request:
A grey & white (mix) “Warmblood” horse(s) in an outdoor environment — shown in action, such as rearing up or jumping or climbing. I’d like the photo to convey freedom, strength, and the wisdom of nature.
Additional instructions: If possible, taken in a cold environment so that clouds of hot breath can be seen.
It’s hard not to liquefy after reading this; the prisoner’s sense of deprivation is so patent as to inspire a visceral awareness of things that we take for granted, like “clouds of hot breath.” The essential humanity of this prisoner is clear; he craves freedom and nature and movement.
Josh Begley, on the other hand, takes a macro approach to prison reform, using photography to capture the geography of incarceration in the United States. His project, Prison Map, culls together aerial photos of prisons, prompting us to consider the abundance of prisons in our country and, most importantly, ask: why so many?
Josh Begley, Prison Map (Facility 226). Google Image. Bearing Witness Symposium, SFMoMA, San Francisco.