In boots, overalls, and gloves, they traipse along forested trails. They carry picks, chainsaws, hose lines, and water canisters. Their goggles, pushed back on their helmets, reflect the tree canopy above. Below, they move through the dust, smoke, and shafts of golden-hour light. The firefighters in Brian Frank’s images are fatigued but focused. In photographs of them — and in the popular imagination — these individuals are heroic because of the lands they save and the risks they take. They are also prisoners of the state of California.
Over the past couple of years, I have noticed an uptick in coverage of prisoner-firefighters — Peter Bohler for the New York Times Magazine, Brian Frank for The Marshall Project, Tim Hussin for The Guardian, Gabrielle Lurie for the San Francisco Chronicle, Philip Montgomery for Bloomberg Businessweek. Freelancers David Ryder and Noah Berger have also produced images. The articles that accompany these photographs are good-faith examinations of the work of California’s 3,700 prisoner-firefighters. Regardless of its intention, this work resets our common assumptions about incarcerated people by revealing this lesser-known strand of modern-day servitude.
Absent bars, cells, and razor wire, it’s not obvious that these images depict prisoners. To a knowledgable viewer, perhaps, the orange uniforms give away this fact (civilian wildfire crews wear yellow). To a particularly keen eye, the acronym CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) emblazoned on some trousers indicates the fire crew’s prisoner status.
In one respect, these photographs can be read as redemption in action; images of men and women doggedly pursuing self-worth and making sacrifices for the greater good. This hero narrative is tempting. If these prisoners are heroes, they must be empowered. If they are represented as dignified and productive, only positive outcomes can result from these images. If they are not under the yoke of constant surveillance, they are somehow free, or freer, than they were. But these new — and, dare I say it, seductive — images might distract us from the reality of the tortured conditions in which hundreds of thousands of other U.S. prisoners exist.
Prisoner-firefighters account for only 2% of the California state prison population. The recent prevalence of photographs of this seemingly privileged minority might skew our perceptions and potentially undermine our ability to understand the gross abuses, waste, and failings of the prison industrial complex.
Over the past 40 years, the U.S. prison system has exploded from approximately 400,000 prisoners to 2.2 million, and now proportionately imprisons more citizens during peacetime than any other nation in the history of humankind. Prisons offer scant and irregular access to rehabilitation and education. Prisons disproportionately warehouse people of color. The vast majority of U.S. prisons are overcrowded. While characterized by very occasional spikes in serious violence, more often they are sites of boredom and trashed potential. Men, women, and children are sent down for longer sentences under harsher laws that have come to define America’s shameful failed experiment in mass incarceration.
As Americans who live within a racist, economically violent, and traumatic social reality, it makes sense that we might seek solace in images of useful, nonviolent, and pro-social correctional conditions. We welcome images that allow us to bypass examination of the darker corners of a largely invisible system into which we’ve discarded millions.
Thousands of low-security prisoners are mobilized out of 30 CDCR fire camps, where they are paid 32 cents per hour ($2.56 a day) and $1 per hour when they’re working the fire lines. The number of workers spikes each wildfire season.
As climate change advances, drier weather patterns extend, and the fire season grows longer and the blazes more severe, prison labor will take up more of the fight against fire. CDCR estimates that the fire camp program saves California taxpayers $100 million a year. Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, and Wyoming also use prison labor to fight fire, but no state relies on prisoners as much as California. Continuously on call, prisoner-firefighters are a virtually irreplaceable resource in the Golden State.
Just as some viewers may see images of prisoner-firefighters as examples of postindustrial capitalist abuse of disenfranchised people, others might see them as examples of prisons working and prisoners benefiting.
The publication (and recent appetite for) such photos is rare and unusual. Might these photos function similarly to propaganda? Is propaganda always propagated from the top down, cynically and strategically? Or can bottom-up public narratives develop among the popular conscience to forge diffuse and decentralized messaging? Could these photos be the building blocks of an internalized propaganda adopted by the public to suit and absolve itself?
Frank’s work is tethered to what we would identify as documentary. It uses a mixture of candid portraits and work scenes, relying heavily on grain and an earthen palette to evoke grime, texture, smell, and haze.
By comparison, Bohler’s images are clean, shot under clear ocean skies that make the orange uniforms pop. In both his individual portraits and group shots, Bohler’s magazine-y approach turns the women into pinups. One lounges in the dirt beside her chainsaw, peering over cocked tinted sunglasses. Another stands against a pink backdrop of flame retardant–covered brush. It looks like a constructed set.
In another photograph (above), a group stands on dunes above the Pacific Coast Highway, where they survey the land they’re working. They cut figures like those on a continent’s edge at the triumphant end of a disaster movie. Their boots and overalls reflect the post-apocalyptic wardrobe of so many end-of-days scenarios.
Bohler’s pristine composition of four women meditating, eyes closed, in the lotus position, sits in stark contrast to the baggy, slouching, slumbering men during downtime in Frank’s photos.
Bohler raises up his subjects by affording them editorial photography’s best treatment, lighting, and concern, whereas Frank raises up his subjects by baking in the caked-on dirt and sweat. Both photographers turn their subjects into heroes; they just get there by different means.
Serving time at a fire camp is better than doing time in any of California’s other state prisons. Comparably “the conservation camps are bastions of civility,” Jaime Lowe wrote in the New York Times. “They are less violent and offer more space. They smell of eucalyptus, the ocean, fresh blooms. They provide barbecue areas for families who visit; one camp has a small cabin where relatives can stay with an inmate for up to three days. They have woodworking areas, softball fields, and libraries full of donated mysteries and romance novels.”
Bohler’s image of prisoners practicing yoga and Frank’s images of TV and card games speak to this relative freedom. But it is possible to acknowledge the benefits of the fire camp’s relaxed living culture while simultaneously rejecting the wretched economics of the work culture.
Prison reformers and abolitionists frequently characterize the prisoner-fire program as slave labor. They say the same about those who get paid between 8 and 95 cents per hour in prison factories making furniture, license plates, uniforms, food, and other staples for state agencies. Outside advocates used the photographs discussed in this piece as ammunition during the recent Prison Labor Strike from August 21 to September 9, 2018.
In some ways, Montgomery’s work falls between that of Frank and Bohler. Montgomery captures action among the broken, charred ground and flora but also secures a couple of shots of men gazing toward the camera. All of Montgomery’s images are shot at night, and his subjects — rendered either by harsh flash or digital sensor in muddy lowlight — stare into the dark beyond. If fire is not the prisoners’ backdrop, we know they are on the move, headed toward more flames. Like Bohler, Montgomery channels the fashion-magazine aesthetic, but his on-the-fly portraits always point toward the work the prisoners have completed and the work to which they’ll return.
Bohler made some dusty pictures of women lopping scrub on steep canyon trails, but his immaculate portraits stand out. In reductive terms, Frank’s work is gritty, Montgomery’s is stylized, and Bohler’s is sexy.
Tim Hussin’s photographs, which are the most recent, forgo any color theorizing and cast the damaged landscape in wider gray scale drama. If Robert Adams were to photograph fire abatement, it might look something like this. Perhaps Hussin deliberately moved away from the textured chromatic work of those who went before.
The photographs made by Bohler, Frank, Hussin, Montgomery, and others are valuable, but their potential cumulative effect is troubling, particularly if they are shorn from context and experienced as an aggregated visual experience.
There are a few contradictory ways in which these images may function: the state, by allowing access to press photographers, pushes a soft propaganda of a purposeful prison system; activists, by opposing the prison industrial complex, adopt these images for didactic, targeted, anti-state messaging; and the public, by virtue of these easy-to-stomach images, salves its conscience and convinces itself that prisons aren’t too bad, prisoners get a fair shake, and we needn’t be concerned.
But prisons are bad. And we should always be concerned.
My inquiry is cautionary and somewhat speculative. I welcome prisoner-firefighter imagery, but I’d like to see it offset by raw footage of prisons’ tedium, manipulations, assaults, and stresses. (Since this writing, there has been a large public debate about the ethics of publishing prison images of extreme violence.)
The firefighting prisoners in these photos are heroes. They are individuals who—through luck, will, or coercion—are seen, if only momentarily, as more than their worst mistakes. Most prisoners are not afforded the perverse opportunity to work for slave wages in order to rehabilitate their lives and their image. Most prisoners are not seen. Most prisoners do not have the chance to work beyond the panoptic prison space. These prisoners working for pennies on the dollar in the great outdoors are outliers. We must applaud their labor but condemn the apparatus it serves. We must see them as individuals outside the norm and the prison walls. Going forward, we must demand to see the many individuals inside the walls, too.