Ronde de nuit, 2010. © Grégoire Korganow pour le CGPL.

The Most Gripping Photo Essays on Criminal Justice, on Vantage

Crime, courts, prisons and police. Fueled by urgent calls for reform, the U.S. is scrutinizing its systems of justice. These are the images that inform the debate

Pete Brook
Mar 28, 2016 · 12 min read

From a personal and professional standpoint, the decision by Medium’s head honchos to initiate a two-week-long conversation about prisons and policing earlier this month, was encouraging. As some of you may know, long before I began as editor of Vantage, I built a reputation as blogger focused on the imagery of prisons. I still blog regularly at Prison Photography. For years, I’ve wanted to suss out which images are A) most useful to incarcerated people, and B) most reliable for people outside of the prison system.

Do images of our prison and criminal justice systems inform or mislead debate?

Over the past 40 years, we’ve voted time-and-time-again for harsher laws … and for the politicians who supported them. Our tax-dollars have built thousands of new jails and prisons, but how much do we know about what goes on inside? Can photography and photographers help us know?

I wanted to take the opportunity, this March, to reflect back on Vantage’s best visual stories and photo essays about policing, incarceration and crime. Content-wise, it’s a long, but rich and rewarding list.

Let’s begin with a three-parter, commissioned by Medium and produced by Everyday Incarceration and Vantage. Photographing people involved in crime, courts, activism and punishment is a sensitive pursuit. We wanted to learn what those in the photographs though. So we asked.

In part one, photographer Isadora Kosofsky spoke with the family of two young brothers from New Mexico who’d been in and out of jail.

Listening to Those Who are Photographed

Felicia and their 10-month-old daughter Lily see David through video visitation.

In part two, Jacobia Dahm spoke with Candis Cumberbatch-Overton about her visits, with her young daughter, to see her partner in an upstate New York prison.

I Ride a 9-Hour Overnight Bus to See My Husband in Prison

Candis Cumberbatch-Overton holds her then-1-year-old daughter Camryn on a bus between New York city and Wyoming Correctional Facility, Attica, NY. Photo: Jacobia Dahm/Redux

In part three, Lisa Riordan-Seville reflected on what we see and don’t see in photographs of prisons. She concludes that rarely do photographs reflect the degree to which families an children suffer when a loved one is incarcerated.

Andrew Lichtenstein’s photograph comes close, but Riordan-Seville concludes family portraits form the visiting room are the most emotionally reliable and valuable pictures around.

Prison Is Where Families Go

The Hughes Unit in Gatesville, Texas, c. 2000. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein

In Vancouver, Canada, Aaron Goodman tried for one year to make a different type of photograph of drug users. He realized the answer to illuminating the issue and engaging audiences wasn’t by focusing on his own images per se, but rather on canvassing and privileging the responses of the photos’ subjects. In three parts, Goodman presents the feedback three heroin addicts.

Cheryl: Heroin Users Help Us See Photos Of Addiction Differently

Johnny: When a Drug User Looks at Photos of Himself

Marie: A Needle In My Arm Is Only 10% Of Who I Am

Johnny and a nurse before he self-injects his medication at Vancouver’s Crosstown Clinic. Q: “How would you have liked me to take photo differently and why? What’s missing?” A: “I would like it if maybe they’d let me comb my hair, instead of looking like a real hard core junkie here. I didn’t realize my hair looked so bad when I take my shirt off. The reason why I take my shirt off is because I muscle the dope, I don’t IV it, because the reason why I do the dope is different from why a lot of other people do it. They do it to get high, I do it to help with some pain issues I have. I don’t want people thinking, ‘You know, these guys are going in there taking our tax dollars and doing heroin and getting high, look at them. You know, they’re nothing but detriments to society.’ Well, I’ll tell ya, it’s saving my life. I’m hoping within six months to have a new hip put in, and go back to work, do some part-time painting work. Just start to get back to living life on life’s terms.”

Raymond Thompson Jr. provided the header image for Medium’s announcement of its two week focus on criminal justice and prison reform. It was made in a juvenile prison in New Orleans.

He provides the back story “a silent image formed by lost American dreams.”

Behind the Photo: A Basketball and a Tall Fence

In Key West, Kim Raff photographed prisoners caring for birds, reptiles and other unexpected creatures.

Inside the Florida Jail that Doubles as an Exotic Animal Zoo

Smith cradles “Thumper”, a flemish giant rabbit, as “Fat Albert” a giant tortoise who roams the farm waddles over looking for attention. Smith gives a few pats to “Fat Albert’s” head and then holds out “Thumper” as visitors pet the his soft fur. Photo: Kim Raff

In a Cuzco jail, Kike Arnal documented the relentless and hyper-productive crafts industry. Prisoners make hundreds of thousands of rugs, baskets and carving each year, mostly for sale to tourists.

That Souvenir Andean Rug of Yours? Woven by a Prisoner in Peru, Probably

Brandon Tauszik’s survey of one year of homicides in Oakland, California, continues to be a poignant reflection on crime — that which takes lives and tears at communities. An excellent case study in how to photograph absence and loss.

White Wax: Documenting Oakland Gun Violence Without Photographing Any Guns Or Any Violence

Cosmin Bumbuț visited every prison in Romania to complete a photographic typology of conjugal visit rooms.

Sex Cells: Inside the Conjugal Visit Rooms of Romania’s Prisons

For Georgia Public Broadcasting, Grant Blankenship has been reporting on social justice issues consistently. In one dispatch he talks to Anthony Ponder who was once a prisoner and now volunteers and cuts the hair of newly-released prisoners at a local church each Sunday.

Say a Prayer for the Old Barber

In Colombia, France, Uganda and the U.S., Jan Banning has made a multiyear comparative visual survey of courts, prisons and punishments.

How Do the Prisons of Colombia, France, Uganda and the United States Compare?

Canning greens at a canning factory at which the workers are prisoners of the State of Georgia. Of the 1500 prisoners at the medium security Rogers State Prison near Reidsville, 350 work. Some unpaid. The products of the Georgia Correctional Industries manufacture plants, food production and processing factories are sold to government agencies. This plant producing one million cans of vegetables per year. Photo: Jan Banning.

From California to Mississippi, artist Amy Elkins corresponded with seven men in solitary confinement to reconstruct the altered sensory perception created by long-term isolation.

What Do the Memories of Prisoners In Solitary Confinement Look Like?

Photo: Amy Elkins, from the series ‘Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night’

In New York City, photographer Clara Vannucci spent dozens of days and nights shadowing of cat-and-mouse games, played out in the shadows

Ride Along With New York’s Bail Bondsmen and Bounty Hunters

Bondsmen during a stakeout that could last all night. Bushwick, Brooklyn, NYC, 2013. Photo: Clara Vannucci

In northwestern México, photographers Alonso Castillo gave cameras to the adolescents in the Instituto de Tratamiento y de Aplicación de Medidas para Adolescentes (ITAMA) a youth prison in the city of Hermosillo, in Sonora.

No Filter: A Juvenile Prison in Mexico Seen Through the Lens of its Young Inhabitants

In Iowa, photographer Zora Murff considered what it means for youth to be under 24-hour electronic surveillance.

A Look Inside the Lives of Electronically Monitored Kids

In Belgium, Sébastien Van Malleghem photographed a troubled and curious prison system. At one point, he even stayed for three days in a cell to understand the psychological of imprisonment.

Making Photos Inside to Bring the Stories Out

In Rhode Island, local arts organization AS220 has been conducted photography workshops in the state’s youth training school

Painting a Juvenile Detention Facility With Light

In Louisiana, Giles Clarke became the latest of thousands of photographers when he documented last years Angola Prison Rodeo.

“They Didn’t Want Us To Show the Reality and the Gore”


Photographer Grégoire Korganow brokered a deal with the French prisons chief and ended up becoming the system’s official shooter. A visual watchdog of sorts.

In France, What Happens When a Photographer Is Made an Inspector of Prisons?

© Grégoire Korganow pour le CGPL

Unapologetically critical when it is warranted, Richard Ross has photographed juvenile detention in America for nearly a decade. Masterbate, Sleep, Deteriorate is the latest of his missives from the field on the punishing toll that solitary confinement takes on young minds.

In Romania, photographer Dani Gherca asked female prisoners what the thought about as they lay in their beds at night.

Alone In Her Bed

What I’m thinking? Really, what I’m thinking? Only about the day that passed, and the day that will come… Maybe nothing can be more beautiful and more good than to feel that what I’ve done today is better than what I did yesterday and tomorrow I will start something better. Any day is A BEGINNING for me!

And to round out this listicle, some of my own essays and interviews.

Two years ago, an exhibition I curated named Prison Obscura started traveling. It’s final outing is at Newspace Center for Photography, Portland, Oregon, April 1st-May 28th, 2016.

Can Photos of Prisons Actually Improve the Lives of Prisoners? is the catalogue essay, in which I argue that some types of images (such as prison visiting room portraits) are more valuable than others when seeking accurate representation of the prison industiral complex.

Left: Alyse Emdur. Brandon Jones, United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois. Right: Alyse Emdur. Robert RuffBey, United States Penitentiary, Atlanta, Georgia

The ACLU wanted to know more about Prison Obscura, so asked a few questions. I say, “Prisons Are Man-Made … They Can Be Unmade.”

In Illinois, debate has raged about committing juveniles to solitary confinement. David Weinberg Gallery in Chicago along with the ACLU Illinois organized Try Youth As Youth to highlight the issue. I was invited to write a catalogue essay and challenged people within not cell walls, but gallery walls to ask What Are We Doing Here?

Sometimes images are used to manage prisoners’ behaviour. In a Supermax in Oregon, the administration is implementing nature videos as sedative, in a pilot scheme known as ‘The Blue Room’.

Can Nature Videos Calm Prisoners In Solitary?

Photo: Beth Nakamura.

In the summer of 2015, I was invited by Ernest Collective to contribute to their exhibition catalogue. I reflected on some maddened drawings by Ernest Jerome DeFrance from within the belly of the California prison system.

These Prisoner’s Near-Opaque Pen Drawings Mirror the Horrors of Solitary Confinement

And if it feels like I’m blowing the same old horn here, take not my word for it but that of lawyer and human rights advocate Bryan Stevenson.

“It is important for photography and photojournalism to be a component of the kind of work we’re trying to do […] We don’t really know what prisons and jails look like. We don’t know what the people inside them look like. We have some very outdated and exaggerated presentations of jails and prisons in popular culture. I don’t think people can get a perspective on what it is like to lock someone down 23 hours a day, year after year, decade after decade. We don’t understand what it is like for a child to be in custody in an adult facility where the risk of sexual assault is 10 times greater than it would be for an adult.”

I just served up a whole lot of content. Thanks for clicking through and learning more about the photographers and their work. In contested sites and seemingly controversial debates, everything is about context, so I wanted to add a (very lengthy) footer here linking to the best stuff on Medium in this month of March as concerns criminal justice. It was fruitful and challenging to hear from lawmakers, advocates, returning citizens, cops, judges, community activists, and prisoners themselves, to name a few.

Here’s how I saw it play out:

Medium stoked the fires early with an invite to Republicans Senator Orrin Hatch, Senator David Perdue, Senator Tom Cotton and Trump “foreign policy” advisor Sen. Jeff Sessions to lay out their positions on the currently-debated Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. They went on a tear about how it is too lenient. If you can stomach such retrograde opinions read here: one, two, three, four.

Thankfully there’s a US Senator with some common sense and moral compass who is countering Republicans’ Punish-As-Usual approach: Cory Booker wrote a wise retort “Why Public Safety and Justice Are Not Mutually Exclusive in America”. Of course, that shouldn’t come as a surprise as he, along with Senators Chuck Schumer, John Cornyn and others co-sponsored the bill. (Sen. Chuck Grassley introduced the bill to the Senate.)

Hey, but liberals aren’t all good. Meagan Day describes how in their attempts to remove bias from the system in the 70s, liberals ushered in Mandatory Minimums and screwed up the criminal justice system. At least now there’s plenty of lawmakers who want to abolish mandatory minimums, so says AJ+.

The United States is made of much more than our legislators though, and so it was thrilling to read the words of former prisoner Russel Omar-Shareef who is now a free man and making art. Similarly, it was sobering to hear the self-told story of Arnold Cabarris who is in his 18th year of a grossly unfair 21-year sentence. Specialising in complexity, The Genocide That Genocide Created, by John Fisher for Those People, is a very important 3-part series about the crack cocaine explosion told from the perspectives of a former Baltimore drug dealer, a current Washington D.C. police officer, and a recovered Maryland drug addict.

The indubitable JJIE continues to serve up countless narratives from youth inside the system — almost too many to mention, but this piece From The Inside on arts as rehabilitation, and these reflections by Chapo, a 16-year-old kid being sentenced as an adult stand out. Likewise, youthradio gives voice to the children in our justice system and simultaneously tallies those voices with the giant co$t of juvenile justice.

More on juvenile justice … Sarah Bryer wrote a letter to the next President, and Ira David Socol looked at how schools produce problems, prisoners and abusive cops. Oh, and on violent cops, the Inst. for Policy Studies on how they occupy lower income schools all-the-while presuming guilt. Dwayne Betts for ACLU National talked about he was in cuffs and solitary at age 16 even before he went to trial. Let’s just do away with solitary for kids can’t we already?

There were many highlights in the Town Hall Meetings where — on topics ranging from addiction, drugs laws and alternatives to incarceration — I heard the expertise of Nazgol Ghandnoosh and Jeremy Haile from The Sentencing Project, Aviva Shen from Think Progress, Simone Weichselbaum from The Marshall Project, Joanna Schwartz from UCLA School of Law, Sakira Cook, Michael Collins from Drug Policy Alliance, Diane Goldstein from LEAP, Jesselyn McCurdy from ACLU, Matt Mendoza from Addiction Unscripted, Paul Larkin Michael G. Santos of Earning Freedom, Seth Ferranti, and Irving Schattner, LCSW.

I dove into the republished articles of Shaka Senghor (who made one helluva impression on Russell Simmons). Elsewhere, Jeff Adachi and his staff at the San Francisco Public Defenders Office explain that Federal reforms are a good thing but nowhere near a solution to decades of broken policy. And Carl Tennenbaum’s account of his work as a Narcotics Officer in San Francisco is eye-opening. From Katherine Katcher, I learnt about Root & Rebound’s reentry work and films about returning citizens’ experiences. I discovered Planting Justice.

On and on, Zachary Norris, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights explained how the debate over reparations was derailed before it even began — largely due to the fact that people aren’t seeing reparations as “reinvestment in our communities.”

I’ll end there because that’s a good point to understand how much our thinking and laws need to shift if we’re to right this ship. Billions on cops and corrections won’t solve deep rooted inequalities and social ills. Billions on schools, healthcare, reliable food, mental health treatment, and jobs will. More than the politicians or the police, it is the people who should be given the resources to improve their communities.


Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

Pete Brook

Written by

Writer, curator and educator focused on photo, prisons and power. Sacramento, California.



Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

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