In Assessing ‘Photo Requests From Solitary’ Let’s Ask If the Image Meets the Prisoner’s Brief?
If the picture ain’t in service, it misses the mark
Originally published on Prison Photography
Author’s note: A little under two years ago, I was quite rattled by a new contribution to the ongoing Photo Requests From Solitary project. At the time, I thrashed out some ideas with colleague Gemma-Rose Turnbull, wrote a pointed response, and then let the essay vanish. I return to it here.
Photo Requests From Solitary (PRFS) is a collaborative project that uses art to illuminate the issue of long-term confinement in U.S. prisons. I’m a fan, but I felt that the 2015 collaboration between PRFS and Vice Magazine missed the mark. Since 2015, PRFS has fallen under the stewardship of Jeanine Oleson who has worked on its expansion in New York and California, partly during an artist residency at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. In May 2017, a new round of images made in response to requests from men and women in New York’s state prisons was exhibited at the Legislative Office Building in Albany, NY.
As far as I can tell, the 2015 Vice partnership and article and gallery (the focus of this essay) was the first, last and only time PRFS assigned the creation of images directly through a media outlet. I feel my arguments apply as well now as two years ago (not a lot of new PRFS material has been released). I wanted to tidy up my original essay and tweak it to reflect the moment now in mid-2017. I think the key inquiries below will always be critical to the assessment of the relevance and impact of Photo Requests From Solitary.
— Pete Brook, 10th July, 2017
Doses the Photo Meet the Request?
Photo Requests From Solitary is one of the most imaginative, expansive and effective political art initiatives of recent decades. Launched in 2009, Photo Requests From Solitary (PRFS) was one project of many pursued by the grassroots activists Tamms Year Ten (TYT) in the campaign for the closure of the notorious Tamms Correctional Facility, Illinois; a facility purpose-built to house prisoners in extreme isolation.
The core concept of PRFS is disarmingly simple. TYT sent forms to men in solitary in Tamms. The form explained that they would make an image — real or imagined — for the prisoner to have in his cell. A prisoner could, in writing, describe an image, offer specific instructions, and return the form. TYT would then coordinate with outside artists to make each image and send a copy to the prisoner.
Founded in 2008, TYT employed multiple tactics to mobilize diverse constituents in the fight to abolish solitary confinement. I’ve followed TYT and PRFS since late 2011 when I met some of the organizing activists in Chicago. One of the impressive things about PRFS was that it was able to move adeptly between artistic and political spaces and it convincingly occupied both; its message and art moved to where it’d have most effect. As far as I know, PRFS collaboration with Vice Magazine’s “Prison Issue” (October 2015) was the first time images were made by a publication’s staffers and freelancers for the project.
When I heard about the partnership, I was curious, a little skeptical (I’ll admit) but mostly I was excited to see PRFS’s latest iteration.
Although PRFS was only one of TYT’s initiatives, it cannot be overstated how important PRFS was to the success of the group’s work. PRFS served both the needs of the men languishing in solitary confinement AND the needs of a public kept largely in the dark about the brutal conditions at Tamms Supermax. It provided an essential, constant and intriguing visual hook to TYT’s efforts; it kept the fight in the limelight. PRFS galvanized activists, forged solidarity with prisoners and kept the issue at the forefront of the public conscience. This three-birds-with-one-stone efficiency is the effectiveness to which socially engaged art projects aspire.
TYT worked closely with then-Governor Pat Quinn who, in 2012, proposed closing the facility. Tamms was shuttered in January 2013. (It needs to be noted that people in Illinois remain in solitary confinement in other wings of other facilities, but no longer is a facility designed solely for extreme sensory deprivation in operation in the Land Of Lincoln.)
That success did not spell obsolesce for PRFS, nor it’s radical methodology. People remained in solitary confinement in states across the U.S. In 2013, Tamms Year Ten partnered with Solitary Watch, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Parsons The New School, and the artist Jeanine Oleson to expand the project into New York and California. In September of 2013, with support from the Magnum Foundation and the Open Society Documentary Photography Project, Photo Requests From Solitary went on public view at Photoville in New York City.
Also in 2013, one of the founding artists of TYT, Laurie Jo Reynolds was awarded the Creative Time Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change, and in 2014 Reynolds received an A Blade of Grass Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art. A new genre — Legislative Art — was defined so as to describe the artworks of TYT and those of the same ilk. Legislative Art involves unglamorous admin, spreadsheets and letter-writing as much as it does poetry, poster-making and marching. Legislative Art strategically and creatively engages with government systems, with the intent to secure concrete political change. For those who had always wondered if art could change society, TYT seemed to provide an answer. Ask the 200 men moved out of extreme isolation. Art had changed their worlds.
All this is to say, TYT and PRFS are worth constant applause. They are also worth constant attention. We should analyze closely what PRFS puts out because due to the collaborative and decentralized nature of the project, contributions and results will vary considerably. Crucial to the ongoing success of PRFS is care surrounding its core principles. All this to say, it is right to judge when and how contributing artists meet the prisoners’ requests.
In a closed call, Vice photo editor Elizabeth Renstrom invited photographers who work regularly for Vice to contribute — including Jason Altaan, Edward Cushenberry, Fryd Frydendahl, Michael Marcelle, Keisha Scarville, Molly Soda, Anthony Tafuro, Ole Tillmann, and Vice photo-editor-at-large Matt Leifheit.
“I hired a blend of new and old contributors that I felt would best carry out their assigned letters for the inmates. I did this to make sure specific requests were sure to be completed,” says Renstrom, who was largely responsible for all the photography in the 2015 Vice Prison Issue.
I think some contributors succeeded. I think some failed. I think a couple failed spectacularly. For the simple reason that they did not meet the specifics of the requests, Jason Altaan and Fryd Frydendahl failed.
Frydendahl was asked, by Sonny, to provide an image of “a woman with a smile that shines as bright as the sun. Not a model type but an ordinary woman who, perhaps, enjoys every moment of her life. Who is not biased or judgmental towards anyone but full of love and compassion for everyone and everything.”
Judge for yourselves, but I don’t think the girl flashes a smile, nor does it “shine as bright as the sun”. The only warmth to be found in this image is that inferred by the yellow haze of the filter. I wonder what Sonny thinks?
Altaan’s case is less cut and dry. In a literal sense, he did photograph “a female in black leather pants w/ the same material stitches but a different color like hot pink all which can define her figures [sic] w/ a setting of orange and blue in the sky posted up next to a Benz (powered blue) in a park. Black female with hazel eyes.” But it’s clear that Altaan was unable to divest of his trademark 80s, glamor sneer and style.
Even temporarily, Altann could not put down his soft-focus cynicism. As with his other portraiture, Altaan has managed to match his disdain for fashion-shoot-charade with his clear infatuation with the playfulness of said charade. The skill of Altaan’s work lies in paying homage to the palette and poses of yesteryear’s beauty while simultaneously mocking the consumption, then and now, of versions of beauty. I think Altaan’s work is smart. That he is able to mock the industry as he climbs its rungs deserves applause but I just don’t think his signature look was what Dan had in mind.
“Our hope is that some of the [magazine] issue’s visuals, generated by and for inmates, offer a better understanding of the vagaries of the confined,” writes Renstrom introducing the Vice feature. All well and good, but only if we can conclude that the contributor’s image tallies with the prisoner’s intent. It’s possible that the Prison Issue’s visuals might derail understanding too. Assessing the level of understanding among audience is a difficult task but we can look closely at the images and ask if they appear to serve the prisoner or if they appear to serve the photographer.
Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not interested in the cheap-and-easy dismissals of Vice we see so often. This article is not of that nature. Vice draws plenty of ire for its tone but, as I have said before, Vice looks to be shedding the snark of its fledgling years.
Regarding the Prison Issue generally: I am a fan. I was grateful to see Zora Murff’s Corrections featured because the growing use of electronic monitoring is a relatively ignored issue in criminal justice debates. I was equally pleased to see Renstrom’s interview with Mark Strandquist about his numerous projects that nurture more sympathetic views of people involved in the prison system. Indeed, Renstrom told me she actively tried to get away from images made by outsiders to the issue. She succeeded for the most part.
On the success of individual images: I admit, it’s difficult to argue with any degree of certainty that the creative output of an artist does or doesn’t meet the visual imagination of a prisoner. Especially, when the medium between them is a hundred-or-so words, a few hundred miles, and all sorts of demographic distinctions. In the cases of Altaan and Frydendahl, however, I think I can structure an argument because their images appear to be closer to their existing artistic signatures than they are to the words of Dan and Sonny.
Friend and colleague Gemma-Rose Turnbull agrees. A specialist in socially engaged methodologies, Turnbull is currently writing a PhD on co-authorship models in documentary photographic practice.
“What I think has happened here is that the artists have not always connected to the fact that the prisoner is the primary audience,” says Turnbull.
She’s right. Photo Requests From Solitary is about process as much as it is about product. PRFS prioritizes prisoners’ visual escape and the process toward realizing their escape means ego, rules and wider expectations must be actively set aside. Easy to say; not always easy to do. Artists pride themselves on individual act and independent vision. Yet, for PRFS, artists operate, effectively, as functionaries. Artists serve the prisoners and serve the politics of the project. What we have to understand is that PRFS is a communication project, not a photography project.
“Images, here,” says Turnbull, “are supposed to help prisoners transcend solitary. Help them feel like they are being heard.”
PRFS is necessarily complex in structure because it attempts to connect people who have been forcefully disconnected by institutions and discriminations. In the absence of common shared media, PRFS builds images out of, and around, the issue of solitary confinement from which we discern our social responsibility and agency. PRFS uses imagery — as a seemingly innocuous thing — so that we might rally around it. Knowing the power of images, though, we realize that this project has been anything but innocuous. It changed political course in Illinois. Described in these terms, PRFS is owned by us all. The longer PRFS exists and the wider it reaches the more shared its possession. In these terms, the insistent artist signatures of Altaan and Frydendahl are out of place.
Of course, sometimes, the artist can just miss the point entirely. Terrence asked for a photo of the new buildings replacing the World Trade Center, shot from a nearby rooftop. Instead, Anthony Tafuro made a picture of the 9/11 Memorial Pool.
In the plus column, Keisha Scarville and Edward Cushenberry met their requests well, I thought.
I’m not singling out Altaan and Frydendahl so we can all just wag our fingers. I’d like this critique to be instructive. As PRFS moves onward to California, New York and potentially other states, it will not be under the guidance of one hand. Each participant is responsible for understanding the premium placed on service that is core to PRFS. Tamms Year Ten fought against a single facility, but CA and NY have dozens of secure housing units between them. PRFS must maintain prisoners as its primary audience. Those outside prison walls are the secondary audience. Don’t forget that.
“The pictures offer a new way to think about people in isolation,” writes Renstrom. She is correct.
“We don’t see,” Renstrom continues, “what prisoners see, but what they envision. Taken together, these requests provide an archive of the hopes, interests, and memories of people in the hole.”
Think of that for a moment. It is a huge responsibility for a loose cadre of artists to collectively paint the imaginations of hundreds of prisoners. The VICE feature was picked up by The Daily Mail (a right-leaning UK newspaper with a massive online footprint) and featured by an Illinois NPR affiliate. We can presume that each time PRFS puts out new images, they’ll circulate … and they’ll speak, to some degree, for prisoners. It’s an uncomfortable responsibility for a loose cadre of artists to collectively speak for hundreds of prisoners. Uncomfortable because no set of images can stand in for the experiences and thoughts of millions of Americans passing through locked facilities each year. Uncomfortable because we know images are slippery and we know the stakes are high for incarcerated individuals, their families and for anti-prison movements. Uncomfortable because inherent to the method of PRFS is the surrender of decision-making power to the artist and, frankly, we don’t want the artists to fuck up. We like artists and we like the resistance.
To be fair to the Vice contributors, their first introduction to PRFS probably differed to most before them. Renstrom emailed Vice contributors 2 or 3 weeks before the Prison Issue went to print. That email may have been the first time they had heard of the project? By comparison, in Illinois, there was a longer familiarity with the project; word-of-mouth and IRL interactions brought most contributors to the table. Some of those that conceived of the PRFS project made images too. Furthermore, publication of their images was implicit in Vice’s ask, so this may have appeared, and felt, like a standard assignment from a national publication. Altaan, Frydendahl and co. can be forgiven for not realizing that Vice readership is the secondary audience.
Despite my call to criticism here, I don’t want to discourage future collaborations between publications and the PRFS coalition of Parsons, Solitary Watch and TYT. As much as ever before, we need both PRFS’s empowering engagement across prison walls and we need alternative visual reference points for our understanding of the prison industrial complex.
“It’s really important to highlight and promote art activism so people aren’t constantly seeing the same type of photography surrounding prisoners,” says Renstrom. Hear, hear. It is precisely because I’m a huge fan of the open dialogue, the beautiful complications, the equity, and the shared responsibility that are central to PRFS’s methodology that I pay the project such close attention. PRFS cannot become a schtick. It cannot become cultural fodder. PRFS must remain rooted to its co-authorship intent. The photographers have to know they’re making work for the prisoner first, the rest of us second.
“The litmus test must be: Does the image meet the brief?” challenges Turnbull.
Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Hopefully not so simple as to forget.