The US prison system is an overcrowded wasteland. But a handful of photographers, with amazing access, are determined to humanise people shunned by society.
The US prison system is an overcrowded wasteland of wayward lives. But a handful of photographers, armed with exceptional access, are determined to humanise people shunned by society.
In 1974, Arthur Tress stepped out into the yard of Sing Sing Prison, a maximum security facility in New York, with a camera in hand and a challenge to face.
He’d been a photographer since the age of 12, when he first began shooting circus freaks and dilapidated buildings around Coney Island. Along the way, he developed an intuitive practice by mixing documentary with fantasy and calling it social surrealism.
Where most people would see Sing Sing as an unimaginative environment, Arthur was struck by lonely spaces reminiscent of a Giorgio de Chirico painting – a perfect setting for his process.
By encouraging inmates to play around with random objects in the yard, spurring them into spontaneity, he found a way to distil the nightmare of prison into resounding imagery.
“Interacting with the prisoners was quite emotional for me as I felt that most were victims of an unfair economic and social class system,” says Arthur, who’s now 76 and living in San Francisco.
“The prisoners became willing actors in a kind of mini theatrical drama that could express some of their interior lives.”
Arthur had been invited there by the Floating Foundation of Photography (FFP) – a New York exhibition space, teaching centre and hangout rolled into one houseboat – which promoted the educational and therapeutic qualities of photography.
To help further that mission, founder Maggie Sherwood would bring a busload of professional photographers into prisons to share their work, take portraits and offer tutorials.
The FFP branched into eight New York State prisons and published two books of inmates’ photos throughout the 1970s.
The impact of that may have had limits, Arthur explains, but it elevated stories otherwise destined to go unheard. “Perhaps the most important thing for the prisoners was the face-to-face encounters with concerned outsiders,” says Arthur.
“I think they got a positive reinforcement from having someone consider them potentially creative human beings with an interesting life history – one that could be shared with others via the process of art.”
The scale of efforts by the FFP, however, have never been replicated in the decades since – an era that has seen the US launch into an unprecedented prison-building boom, quadrupling the rate of incarceration at state level.
It is now more than six times the average across Europe. No society in history has incarcerated so many lives during peacetime as the US does today. Over 2.3 million men, women and children are held behind bars on any given night.
Photography may be a medium of the people – taking us places we would never go, illuminating them with a sense of social purpose – but these institutions are an exception.
While there are countless photographers making images about prisons, as well as their collateral damage, the capacity to see within that world is tied to the power of its administrators. That concentration of control threatens to stifle debate about this complex of failing, wasteful and brutalising systems.
Nevertheless, a handful of photographers have managed to pierce its barriers: connecting with subjects and producing images that challenge how we think about life in prison.
Photographer Zora Murff’s first exposure to the system was unique. From 2012 to 2015, he worked as a ‘tracker’ for Linn County Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
His job was to ensure that teenagers complied with the electronic monitoring, drug screening and community service conditions of their probation. He was also an undergraduate student who saw the world with “a level of naivety”, figuring out how to be an artist while also fairly representing those in his care.
“Looking back, it’s hard to divorce those dual roles and clearly state where my impact as a service provider and photographer began or ended,” says the 30-year-old.
“I had to get to know [the prisoners] on a pretty personal level; trust was key. But I do believe that photographing them and taking a genuine interest in who they were – just seeing them – helped bridge that gap.”
Zora gradually turned that court-ordered contact into Corrections: a project fusing anonymous portraits with austere interiors, studio-shot objects with juveniles’ own writing.
To Zora’s regret, the nature of his relationship with participants (“being the physical manifestation of consequence”, as he puts it) made long-term connections difficult. But, two years ago, he visited one young man and found that his life was clearly in a better place.
Although the photographer suspects that maturity played a big part in that, the young man’s mother assured Zora that he’d been a positive guiding influence.
“I do carry with me the way their eyes would light up when they’d see a portrait of themselves,” he says. “I feel that is some form of proof that our connection was genuine, proof that for a brief moment someone saw them as something more than a ‘criminal’.”
Zora comes across as a conscientious person whose word you can rely on, the kind who thinks a lot about the interactions he’s had with viewers of his work. That audience covers the broadest of spectrums: they tend to either have firsthand experience of the juvenile criminal justice system, or know nothing about how it functions within their own community.
“What is common between both is that everyone’s thinking and talking about stigmatisation,” he says. “That’s where I feel that the power of effective imagery resides: it makes us take a closer look and question our own values.
“Of course, individual images are hard-hitting and we understand them right away. But it’s when all of these elements begin to coalesce – the obvious and the nuanced – that the magic happens.”
Isadora Kosofsky’s documentary project Vinny and David began in a prison but extends far beyond. She first encountered Vinny as a 13-year-old detained after stabbing a man who assaulted his mother.
It was late on a Tuesday night in a New Mexico juvenile detention centre when she saw him pose for a mug shot, turning to the police officer to check he was standing on the right spot.
Isadora watched the teen slink into the D-unit, pick an isolated chair and silently sit in front of the television – his vulnerability hard to miss.
At the same time, Vinny’s older brother David was being released from a nearby adult facility. The 19-year-old had been introduced to drug dealing at the age of 10 by his father and spent the following years passing in and out of incarceration, shrouding the family in loss.
Within that void, Vinny considered David as a father figure while David came to see Vinny as the only person who truly understood him. Isadora spent the next six years documenting that dynamic, following Vinny through his trial and immersing herself in his family.
“I didn’t choose to photograph them because I felt that their situation was emblematic of a larger social issue,” says the 24-year-old. “I chose to photograph them because I have an affinity for the love between two brothers who happened to both experience incarceration.”
Isadora was just 18 when the project began. She’d grown up with friends who’d struggled with delinquency and, as a result, wanted to photograph detention centres from the inside. (Her applications were only approved once she became an adult.)
In person, Isadora is like a wizard of social intelligence. Her ability to bring people out of themselves makes for a canny, gripping presence that brings her deeper into their lives.
“I believe empathy is the basis of visual storytelling,” she says. “For the first few months, I usually spend hours listening to my subjects or just observing with the camera on my lap. I value the process of photographing individuals over time and witnessing the meaning they experience as a result of having their life documented.”
Six years after beginning Vinny and David, Isadora remains close with the brothers. She describes their lives as ‘trans-carceral’: released from prison, but still confined. They have been so entwined with state systems of control that each day is a struggle to balance personal trauma with the unspoken judgements and demands of society.
But both Vinny and David maintain that the project has gifted their family with a deeper understanding of their bonds, that seeing humanistic images of themselves lets them overlook some of the stereotypes they’ve internalised.
Social change is a pretty lofty goal for any documentarian, Isadora admits, but even in an image-saturated society, it still feels attainable. Delving into the specifics of the brothers’ lives, for instance, has uncovered relatable experiences – as Isadora found when a young girl approached her at a recent exhibition.
“She said that she had never seen images of ‘that life’ before and that it provided her an opportunity to look at an aspect of her own life, which she has often attempted to run from,” she says.
“Every documentary photographer wants his or her work to repair the world. But I strongly believe that a form of change occurs every time a viewer internalises poignant images.”
For over a decade, Robert Gumpert has been making portraits and audio recordings with prisoners of the San Francisco County Jail system.
The 69-year-old is committed to photography that raises our sense of justice. He does not consider his project Take A Picture, Tell A Story activism, nor journalism, nor pure documentary.
He simply sees it as storytelling taken on by a concerned citizen, a way to counteract attitudes that breed indifference to shortcomings of the criminal justice system.
“The most I can hope for is that the people who see this work and listen to the stories will begin to see prisoners as real human beings,” he says. “People with the same desires, issues and concerns they themselves try to cope with everyday.”
Robert offers participants a trade: he’ll make a portrait and provide the subject with copies in exchange for a spoken account.
Prisoners are free to talk about whatever they like: hopes, family, transgressions, life on the streets. Sometimes they deliver poems or advice, sometimes regrets. Robert prefers to stay out of the way as much as possible, publishing the prisoners’ words almost unmediated.
“It has given folks a bit of stress relief and a way to connect – perhaps a feeling of acceptance and value from someone who seems to be from the part of society that usually shuns them.”
Having witnessed the ebb and flow of US social movements over his lifetime, Robert values equality above all else. But these photographs aren’t trying to abolish jails, he says. They’re just a reminder that we must all face up to what happens in our name.
“Being locked up and unable to meet bail while more affluent others are bailed out, even on far more serious charges, is not an equal justice system,” he says.
“The competitive game of the trial system needs to be changed. It’s people’s lives – victims and defendants – not some sort of reality show.”
In 2011, Nigel Poor was working as a volunteer teaching the history of photography at California’s San Quentin State Prison when she was shown a stack of old negatives. As far as she could tell, they had never been processed and appeared to be made by prison authorities from the mid-50s to the mid-80s.
The scenes covered everything from graduations and holiday events to visitations and internal investigations – all encompassing prisoners, visitors and staff. Each one was made by uncredited correctional officers to provide visual proof that an event took place.
“The images were not meant to be interpretive or creative,” says Nigel. “They are seemingly deadpan photographs that say, ‘This incident happened; this man looked this way when said incident happened.’ They are direct, blunt images that rely on the assumption that photography speaks the truth, that it has an unquestionable veracity.”
The trove of thousands of never-seen-before photos would have been a story in its own right, but Nigel didn’t want to just publish them as found. Instead she wanted her incarcerated students to interpret them.
The Archive Mapping Project saw her scan dozens of images and print them on A3 cards with large white borders, allowing prisoners to ‘dissect’ them and apply their own experience.
The 54-year-old is originally from Boston and, despite being an experienced photographer, only realised that she wanted to spend her life working with prisoners five years ago. She has been crafting classes and projects to engage people on all sides of the system ever since.
But she is motivated by something bigger than photography: to ask “what makes a life and what is worthy of being told,” no matter the medium.
To that end, she has created a podcast called Ear Hustle – the first of its kind – with two San Quentin inmates, Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, both serving long sentences for robbery.
Like The Archive Mapping Project, Ear Hustle gives incarcerated men a chance to “give voice to a population that many prefer to silence” and illuminate their everyday reality.
Audiences, meanwhile, will have their assumptions challenged and biases exposed, leaving bigger questions to linger.
“Are we okay locking people up for incredibly long sentences and warehousing them in conditions that are subhuman?” says Nigel.
“I think we all need to take rehabilitation seriously and figure out what it takes to help people become contributing citizens, while also understanding that all people – inside and out – deserve to live safe and productive lives.”