Monday, 9 November 2009

Influences Over Public Opinion

“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.

Why Sentimentalise?

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.