Wednesday, 4 July 2012
Thursday, 14 October 2010
Melinda Hawtin: Representations of Prisons in Contemporary French Photography
Here is a link to my dissertation. It focuses on representations of prisons in contemporary French photography. The first chapter discusses whether or not the prison can be represented in photography and focuses on some of the visual taboos of the prison whilst questioning whether an image can represent reality. The second chapter considers forensic and police photography and the implications that this type of photography has for creating an understanding of a criminal type and reproducing a sort of confinement. The third and fourth chapters are specifically focused on the themes of prison photography and concern the prison architecture and representations of inmates respectively. In the fourth and final chapter I have also included an analysis of the ethical problems of representing the prison.
The photographers that I have referred to throughout this dissertation are as follows:
Mathieu Pernot, Jean Gaumy, Philippe Bazin, Jean-Marc Bodson, Gaël Turine, Hugues de Wurstemberger, Jacqueline Salmon, Jane Evelyn Atwood and Léa Crespi
Monday, 9 November 2009
“We are forced to call upon the powers of our imaginations – or the imaginations of someone else – to help us with the details of an institution about which we really know very little”
Query (1975), cited in Images of Incarceration: Representations of Prison in Film and Television Drama by David Wilson and Sean O’Sullivan, 2004.
The vast majority of people will never set foot inside a prison, even in the capacity of a visitor, so our impressions of prisons are formed by representations that are constructed in the exterior. Government reports, articles in the press and first-hand accounts, such as autobiographies, are available to the public but very few people will take advantage of this information. Most people are likely to form their opinions of prison from art, film and television and however inaccurate these depictions are, they form a basis of knowledge for most people. Images of Incarceration: Representations of Prison in Film and Television Drama by David Wilson and Sean O’Sullivan suggests that people tend to form their opinions based on a middle ground i.e. a happy medium between light hearted prison shows and disturbing dramas. Photography often represents this middle ground and, as I have explained in an earlier post, it is frequently falsely accepted as a direct reconstruction of reality. The images seem realistic enough and we welcome them as such. However, can art ever really capture reality? I have mentioned before that the need for it to be aesthetic and for it to demonstrate the photographic skills of its author prevent it from being wholly truthful. Furthermore a photograph is just a photograph. It is of a fleeting moment and the spectator can observe it for however long or as briefly as they wish, so how can it convey the trauma and the boredom of being imprisoned? Also how can an artist with limited personal experience claim to be representing something? The artist doesn’t experience imprisonment in the same capacity as the prisoner. He will always be constructing his images from an exterior perspective no matter how much time he spends in the prison, so his reality will invariably differ from that of an inmate. Perhaps, as Images of Incarceration: Representations of Prison in Film and Television Drama suggests, art too just sets the limits of plausibility.
Besides punishment, rehabilitation and reintegration are the principal goals of imprisonment. Whilst sentimentalising prisons is not necessarily always a wise approach, perhaps it plays an important part in easing the prisoner back into society. Artists that are more compassionate in their depictions of prisoners could be seen to be supporting this. If prisoners are portrayed negatively in art and in the press then their reinsertion into society is made all the more difficult by the impact that these images have on the exterior world. De-humanising images of prisoners will only allow the public to distance themselves further from inmates, thus making reinsertion impossible. Artists who try to portray a more sensitive and human side to prisoners influence public opinion towards attempting to understand inmates and this, in theory, should make it easier for them to eventually reintegrate into society.
Friday, 30 October 2009
From left to right: Peter Sutcliffe (The Yorkshire Ripper), Fred West, Steven Barker (Stepfather to Baby P), Myra Hindley
Philippe Bazin’s images are reminiscent of mug shots. However it seems as though his images are intended to evoke sympathy and portray the humanity of the prisoners rather than re-affirm that there is somehow a difference in the way we look that allows us to distance ourselves from perpetrators of abhorrent crimes.
Is it right for artists to sentimentalise about prisoners? No matter what may have contributed to their reasons for being in prison, the vast majority deserve their punishment so it seems strange and rather naive that artists like Bazin are so keen to portray the humanity of inmates. I’m not suggesting that they demonise them instead but monochrome, close-up images of prisoners could be seen to be over romanticising the prisoner somewhat.
Tuesday, 20 October 2009
(from 10th anniversary issue of A-I-Z magazine, quoted in http://choppedliver.info/pdf/unconcerned.pdf by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin)
Much of the art photography and photojournalism that concentrate on prisons seem to adhere to a set typology. The images are often black and white and grainy; anguished faces stare out at the spectator and seductive framing gives the images a gritty-beautiful air.
Jean Gaumy 1976 Convict
It is likely that in an encounter with the prisoner he would appear unremarkable yet Gaumy’s framing techniques, the lighting and the lack of colour, not to mention the possibility of it being staged, give the subject a fragile air and render his image beautiful. Gaumy worked closely with prisoners at many prisons in France and many of his photographs seem to be trying to convey a sense of the humanity within these spaces. Yet the stylisation in his images means that as spectators we must be mistrustful of whether he is representing truth or whether his own motivations are causing him to distort the image to satisfy his own ends and persuade the spectator to share his opinions. Any level of artifice within the photograph interrupts the idea of the photographer as invisible and the photograph as evidence.
If we are to accept Bloomstein’s conjecture that artifice undermines the documentary perhaps the most honest kind of images are to be found in amateur photography. In April 2009 a pair of inmates in the French prison Fleury-Mérogis smuggled a camera into the prison and filmed an illegal documentary. The images are crude but uncontrived. Their simplicity appears to testify to their honesty and these images seem to be representing the inner workings of the prison as they are, without the distorting aesthetics that we see with art photography and photojournalism. There is a sense that the spectator is seeing things exactly as they are seen by the person doing the filming and surely this is the definition of documentary. So if amateur photography is the closest representation of reality, does art photography serve any purpose as documentary evidence or should it only be considered in terms of its artistic value?