A gymnasium that was converted in to a dormitory for men held at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California, July 19, 2006. One of hundreds of photographs submitted as evidence by plaintiffs — all prisoners — against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in the Brown v. Coleman/Plata class action lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment stemming from overcrowding and subsequent inadequate physical and mental health care. Photo: CDCR

‘Prisons Are Man-Made …. They Can Be Unmade’

An interview with Pete Brook, the curator of Prison Obscura, an exhibit that plunges people into the U.S.’s disastrous prison system.


Interview and introduction by Matthew Harwood


PRISONS IN AMERICA OFTEN HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT, even as writer and curator Pete Brook tells me prisons are “central to the American identity.” He couldn’t be more right. The United States incarcerates more human beings than any country on earth, even authoritarian countries such as Russia, Iran, and China. The price tag for this, which doesn’t count the senseless suffering or degradation of our ideals, is an astronomical $80 billion a year. Often, our prison-first mentality disproportionately and unjustly targets communities of color, in effect hollowing out neighborhoods, families, and individual lives. Black people, for instance, are incarcerated for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of white people, even though both racial groups use illicit drugs at roughly the same rate.

The idea that the land of the free is home to the world’s largest prison population shouldn’t sit well with Americans, and there’s evidence that people are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with our burgeoning prison state. Organizations from the left and right, including the ACLU, have joined forces to create the Coalition for Public Safety, which aims to reduce the prison population by 50 percent by 2020. The issue has also attracted the attention of presidential hopefuls, such as Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul, who couldn’t be more divided on most public policy issues.

While the recent attention to the nation’s problems with mass incarceration provides hope that the public policies that got us here will soon change, we often forget that our prisons are teeming with more than 2 million people, many of whom are imprisoned for non-violent offenses that should not land them in a cage for years on end or destroy their lives. This is the moral realization Pete Brook is trying to provoke with his “Prison Obscura” exhibit, which visually confronts its audience with what daily existence in our incarceration nation looks like and asks the audience to see these people for who they are, human beings.

Matthew Harwood: Why the name Prison Obscura? What does the Obscura mean?

Pete Brook: Camera obscura means literally “dark chamber.”

Prisons in America have been geographically located and strategically managed to be invisible. The “out of sight, out of mind” attitude allowed the state to increase its prison population five-fold in less than 40 years. It’s high time we learnt more about how the dark chambers that house 2.3 million men, women, and children look and operate.

I considered many names for the show — there’s a Google Doc to prove it — but ultimately I was looking for something that was catchy. Prison Obscura had that, and it also references the histories of art and perception as well as humans’ search for knowledge. By virtue of its stunningly simple design, the camera obscura intervenes in a way to reveal something new. Prisons are not natural; they are an intervention upon human nature and behavior. Let’s look at what prisons claim to do and what they actually do. Let’s consider them not as the default response to human transgression but as a system of man-made surveillance and social discipline.

Prison Obscura forces us to reflect on America’s prison industrial complex. What we see and what we don’t see. The walk-in camera obscura is a good analogy for the box-like prison cell, literally. Figuratively, it speaks to the different access to sight and knowledge when we are searching for images of prisons.

For those people on the outside, it’s difficult to imagine what occurs within prisons, or within the box. For those inside the box, they never have access to a “real” view of the world. It is my opinion, too, that prisons are obscure places.

MH: You say that photographers often act as “extensions of the prison authority.” How do the photographers you showcase avoid this ethical compromise of getting access but knowing they’re only showing what bureaucrats want us to see?

PB: There’s an ongoing criticism of documentary photography that goes back to the ’70s at least. It’s based on the idea that a single person (most commonly a white male from the West) wields the power attached to making images, telling stories, and writing history. It’s a big debate which I’ll not get into heavily here, but when I conceived of Prison Obscura, I wanted to showcase and examine modes of image production outside the documentary tradition.

For example, Robert Gumpert makes portraits, but he only ever exhibits them with the audio recordings of the voices of his subjects — he refuses to decouple the image from the audio. It works. The audio always shifts your perception of the person in the portrait and often subtly uncovers subconscious assumptions we all make of people when we look at them for the first time.

Photo: Robert Gumpert from Take a Picture; Tell a Story

Kristen Wilkins and Mark Strandquist both collaborate with prisoners. Wilkins makes portraits with women imprisoned in Montana. The women choose their poses and select a landscape from their personal history that Wilkins can shoot and exhibit alongside their photo. As a result, we’re given a more rounded idea of these women as real people.

Photo: Kristen Wilkins from the series Supplication. Text: “A cross. The biggest one you can, maybe on a hill. They’re so beautiful.
(Photo: Kristen Wilkins from the series Supplication. Text: I’m the fastest runner in prison. I would like to see the Finish Line.)

Strandquist asks prisoners, “If you had a window to the past in the wall of your cell, what would it look out upon?” He never takes a camera inside the prison, but he’s still asking prisoners to think photographically. He and his collaborators then go into the world and make those images a reality. When they are exhibited, they are shown alongside copies of the handwritten descriptions. The photographs are never the end point of the process; to the contrary, they are the start of a larger discussion.

Photos: Mark Strandquist from the series Some Other Places We Have Missed
Photos: Mark Strandquist from the series Some Other Places We Have Missed

Josh Begley used his significant coding skills to write a program that automatically captured an aerial view of every single federal penitentiary, state prison, county jail, immigration detention facility, and private facility in the nation — over 5,300 institutions. In one fell swoop Begley has managed to capture the sheer and terrifying scale of the prison industrial complex.

Photo: Josh Begley

There is a persistent idea among documentary-photography folk that images can change the world. That’s hyperbolic. Occasionally, an image can provoke social change, but it is rare. Many more other factors drive a shift in public opinion and policy. As a thought experiment though, I tried to think of images that had in fact played a measurable role in changing the life of American citizens touched by the prison system.

The art I’ve outlined above is only a small part of the extensive Prison Obscura exhibit that attempts to make people face up to our addiction to mass incarceration.

MH: I’ve heard you refer to prison photography as a niche. How were you drawn into this world?

PB: As part of my studies, I was critiquing the San Quentin Prison Museum from an institutional perspective. In order to evaluate the museum’s narrative, I had to know what was happening in current policy and politics. This was California in 2004; things were really bad with the state’s prisons being extremely overcrowded. I was gob smacked when I learnt how rapidly prison populations had grown and seemingly without any checks and balances in my lifetime. Then I was angry. How had I not heard about this?

Then I realized that at that time, very few people — except the prisoners and their families — had any incentive to talk about the issue, let alone criticize it. Here was a system that purported to deal with a problem in which most folks in society aren’t interested. While no one was watching, the United States of America decided to put a larger proportion of its citizens behind bars than any society in the history of mankind. It’d be one thing if the massive prison system works, but it doesn’t function well. Worse still, it brutalizes America’s poorest communities.

It wasn’t until late 2008 that I figured out looking at images might be a novel way to bring people into the discussion. That’s when I started the website Prison Photography.

Photo: Josh Begley from the series Prison Map.

MH: Are you still hopeful that photography, like what you’ve curated for Prison Obscura, can move people enough to want to change public policy surrounding mass incarceration?

PB: Absolutely. But we have to do our part. We’ve been fed fear-driven stories and demonizing depictions of crime and prisoners for too long in our news and entertainment. We need to disassemble the notion that prisoners are different. We need to rehumanize the population, give them back their constitutional rights upon release and reintegrate them into our society. It might not seem like prisons are part of our society, but they are. So we need to be conscientious consumers of images. I hope that I am pointing people in the right direction with Prison Obscura.

MH: Obviously you wear your politics on your sleeve with Prison Obscura. What do you want people to take away from the show after they’ve done looking at the photographs?

PB: I hope people are informed as a result of this work. Change begins at home. I hope Prison Obscura gives folks the starting point to discuss these issues at the dinner table and with friends, arming them when they go to the ballot box. In a small way, I hope it contributes to what appears to be a growing movement toward more sensible debate and policy in this country surrounding criminal justice reform, particularly in U.S. prisons.

I don’t want Americans who think and talk about prison issues to be dismissed as radical. Given how expansive the prison system has become, I’d argue prisons are, unfortunately, central to American identity.

The road to solving the prison crisis will, in fact, unearth all sorts of issues we need to deal with as a society — addressing shortcomings in health and education services, dealing with economic inequality, talking honestly about community policing, and so on and so forth.

MH: You and your photographers humanize people who have been put in dehumanizing situations. Have you ever had anyone react negatively to the photography and the social justice philosophy animating it? Any colorful interactions you can tell me about?

PB: You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But I haven’t really. The worst I’ve had is nasty comments being posted on the website, but the Internet breeds that special type of dissent. In person I’ve only ever encountered positive reactions. I think that is because I’m not trying to bully people or scare people into my way of thinking. I’m presenting a tough issue with openness and honesty and suggesting we can be the change. A lot of the content is new and engaging — if I’m presenting to a “prison crowd,” the photos are new and describe a lot of their work. If I’m presenting to a “photo crowd,” then I’m shedding new light on the medium through a particularly fraught and vital current issue. It works both ways.

MH: You’re a Brit. How do you make sense of this “land of the free” locking up more of its citizens than authoritarian countries like China, Russia, and Iran?

It just says to me that prisons have more to do with politics and economics than they have to do with crime. Prisons are man-made; they exist because of decisions in legislatures. They can be unmade.

MH: Of all the photography you’ve curated and showcased, whose work has left the biggest imprint on you?

PB: Impossible to answer. But of note, I’d single out one of three images included in the appendix of Justice Kennedy’s majority Supreme Court ruling for the Brown v. Plata case. I wrote about it for Aperture.

Photo: Photographer Unknown. Group holding cages, C-Yard, Building 13, Administrative Segregation Unit, Mule Creek State Prison, August 1, 2008

Low-resolution, anonymous, poorly lit photographs were used in the initial filings and ongoing compliance stages of the case. Their inclusion infuriated some law eggheads who believed that photographs are too emotive and too imprecise and have no place in high-profile legal cases. I’m left to wonder at what point did the legal community decide written and oral evidence was more legitimate than visual evidence?

Of the works presented in Prison Obscura, the 200-plus raw images from Brown v. Plata have spurred the most visceral responses and gripped folks. They feel they are seeing an unmediated view of prisons, which supports my hypothesis that images outside of the documentary tradition might give us more to go at as a society in investigation of the issues.

Read Pete Brook’s essay, “Can Photos of Prisoners Actually Improve the Lives of Prisoners?,” for more on the Prison Obscura exhibition.