Survey by Qualaroo

Prison Photography - Means of Control and Protest

Photographer Pete Brook tells how he came to discuss prisons in his work. Questions by Francesca Cronan (ICVL)

What initially inspired you to work with prisons?

I was born and raised in England. Prisons were never on my radar and I cannot say for certain they ever would have been had I not lived and studied in the United States. The U.S. locks up people at six times the rate of any other industrialised nation. There are 2.3 million men, women and children behind bars. When I learnt about prisons and I saw how their proliferation was based on divided classes, racism, craven politics, empty rhetoric, legal overreach, cheap media and negative emotions of fear and revenge, they became my issue. I want to look at prisons and frame them as the problem because, for sure, they are no solution.

How does photography help to bridge the gap between prison life and society?

Prisons can illuminate a lot about photography and of course photos can reveal a lot about prisons. Prisons deal with images very differently to other sectors of society. Images in the prison environment are most frequently surveillance or mugshots for the purposes of control. On the outside, however, we think of images as art, personal mementoes and throw away picture-messages. The tension between those official uses and innocent associations are interesting in themselves. As we think of photographs as speaking up for human rights, we can ask how photography stands up when it comes up against a visually, strategically and cynically closed system?

With whom do you collaborate? 

I don’t make images. I collaborate with artists who create images. I could say that all of my research has been one long collaborative project. Many of the image-makers whose work I’ve given context and exhibition, had not been asked about their work since their creation. A lot of photographers have since become allies in the cause to speak out about the broken criminal justice system. I have delivered workshops in prisons in which I ask for feedback on prison photographs.

In the coming year, I’d like to give prisoners the final say on what we think is a fair and accurate representation of prisoners; I wish to co-author a history of prison photography with currently incarcerated people.

You exhibit your work both digitally and physically. Do people respond in different ways?

If I can get people in a room I can convince them more quickly that mass incarceration in the US is a problem. Writing lacks the immediacy and requires a more precise argument. It is a lot of work to shape a piece, but once the work is done, you know that the piece remains forever online. I guess I use the gallery in the same way I do the website; to push information. I try to be in control of the text and the spoken word. The images are a bit different. On the blog, they cascade in one long scroll. In the gallery, I like to use appropriate formats—small prints for prison visiting room portraits, projections for surveillance imagery and computer printouts for evidentiary images.

What can we expect to hear in the talk on Thursday?

From different starting points, Gemma and I have come to value the same questions of power, participatory processes and the open possibilities of social engagement. We’re going to do an experiment. We’re each going to pick a handful of exemplary projects and put them on a timeline. We’re not certain but we expect that the most pioneering projects in the free world will proceed from those completed behind prison walls. The fact that artists have accomplished these complex and collaborative ways of working in carceral settings is incredible in itself. 

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Saturday 02 November 2019, 13:00 to 15:00

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