Friday, 30 October 2009

The Context of the Image and Sentimentalising Prisons

The Times ran a recent article that discussed images of well known killers in terms of whether their faces could betray the nature of their crimes. The article argued that when images of the killers are released to the public everyone tends to agree that there is something in their faces that is recognisable as the trait of a murderer but that if this were indeed true, crimes could be foreseen and prevented. Everyone is familiar with these images of convicted killers and in conjunction with the knowledge of their crimes we conclude that evil is visible and distinguishable on their faces.

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.

Philippe Bazin - Détenus

In fact in his series Détenus, the images of prisoners are so unremarkable that the spectator even empathises with them. Would this be true if we were made aware of the crimes they had committed? Or would their previously ordinary faces take on a more sinister air?

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

Typology and the Truth in Prison Photography

“The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about conditions in this world. On the contrary photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth”. Brecht
(from 10th anniversary issue of A-I-Z magazine, quoted in by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin)

uch 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.

Klavdij Sluban 1995-2005 Entre Parenthèses, Adolescents en Prison

Artists such as Klavdij Sluban in Entre Parenthèses, Adolescents en Prison and Jean Gaumy in Les Incarcérés epitomise this much used style and although their images are beautiful they are so frequently repeated in prison based art and photojournalism that their resonance is lost on a spectator numbed by uniformity. The repetitive nature of prison art raises other questions, such as what is the role of prison photography? Is it to inform the spectator or is it to satisfy a bourgeois desire for voyeurism? The Guardian coined the term “prole porn” in response to the enormous amount of middle class interest generated by the Karen Mathews affair whereby the middle classes became fascinated by this situation that was worlds apart from their own. Is prison photography just another way of providing the public with further voyeuristic insights into an unfamiliar world? Does it necessarily have to be accurate or is entertainment its goal? I also wonder whether the “otherness” of prison life is emphasised by photographic effects. By removing all colour from the images and creating a style that resembles real life but which is closer to art, does the photographer distance the spectator from the persons depicted in order to satisfy the interested middle classes but at the same time reassure them that this is not them? Or are the reasons behind this typology less cynical? Mathieu Kassowitz claimed that his decision to shoot La Haine in black and white was influenced purely by aesthetics. Perhaps it is also the case for prison photographers but in those circumstances, as with any instance where a motive exists, there is an inevitable untruth.

Photography is often accepted as documentary evidence of an event that has taken place however, it must be questioned whether the image is giving a faithful representation of said event. Valerie Jouve suggests that « la photographie est encore considérée comme le miroir de la réalité » (photography is still considered to mirror reality) but this is a risky assumption and rarely an accurate one, especially in respect to art photography and photojournalism. Rex Bloomstein, a well known documentary film maker who has concentrated much of his filming on prisons, asserts that truths are undermined by artifice and thus refuses to use artistic effects and music in his films. Similarly the impact of the photograph as documentary evidence is perturbed by artistic stylisation. When looking at typical prison photography (as demonstrated by Sluban and Gaumy) the expectation of their truthfulness must be placed under scrutiny. In concentrating on the beautification of the image do artists disrupt the subject of the photograph? Is seems likely that the importance of the subject of the photograph is undermined by the desire to stylise and beautify the image. The “truth” that is being photographed is being eroded away by techniques; stylisation and staging that transform the image into a piece of art (and/or propaganda in support of the artist’s motivations?) rather than documentary evidence of circumstances within the prison. Take, for example, Jean Gaumy’s image of a prisoner.

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?