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Representations of Prisons in Contemporary Photography
Melinda Hawtin BA
Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for MA French, University of Sheffield, 2010.
I hereby declare that this dissertation is all my own work, except as indicated in the text:
I would like to thank the following people for having helped and supported me throughout the writing of this dissertation.
Mathieu Pernot: Ce mémoire n’aurait pas été possible sans l’interview qu’on a faite et tes œuvres pénétrantes. Amanda Crawley-Jackson: For your unwavering patience and encouragement. Alexander Burns: For your love and above all tolerance.
Cover photograph, Prison Door, courtesy of David Hawtin, 2010.
1) The Prison: An Impossible Subject of Representation
2) Photography as an Act of Confinement
3) Interrogating the Architecture of the Prison
4) Interrogating Recurrent Themes in Representations of Inmates i. Representing Bodybuilding ii. The Posed Body iii. The Female Body Fragilisé iv. Ethical Issues Associated with Photographic Representations of Inmates v. Representations of Men and Women in Prison Photography vi. Conclusion Conclusion
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The aim of the following dissertation is to discuss representations of the prison in contemporary French photography. There is currently almost no research on photographic representations of the prison and therefore this dissertation responds to a gap in scholarly research. The dissertation aims to produce an original critical discourse of an expanding genre in order to offer the reader a comprehensive and analytical guide to understanding prison photography and prison representation.
The dissertation will approach the question thematically, beginning with quite a general question and becoming gradually more specific. The first chapter will discuss whether or not the prison can be represented in photography and will focus on some of the visual taboos of the prison whilst questioning whether an image can represent reality. The second chapter will consider forensic and police photography and the implications that this type of photography has for creating an understanding of a criminal type. 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 will also include an analysis of the ethical problems of representing the prison.
By considering a selection of important French prison photographers the dissertation hopes to present the most significant concerns of prison photography and will do so within a complex theoretical framework.
France has received a lot of publicity recently regarding the lamentable state of its prisons. In 2005 Alvaro Gil-Robles, the then Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, judged prisons in France to be the second worst in Europe after Moldova (Robles and Gomez, 2005). Accordingly, French prisons have since attracted significant interest from the media and photographers alike. This dissertation will discuss representations of prisons in
contemporary French photography. Although there is clearly a sociological study to be written on the subject of French prisons, this dissertation will exclusively focus on how photography represents the prison and will not attempt to draw any sociological conclusions from the images.
There is an ever increasing amount of prison photography available and thus, I have inevitably had to limit myself to, what I consider to be, a few key photographers. I have approached this dissertation thematically so rather than focussing on individual photographers and their work, I have selected images that best illustrate my theory. In the case of Jean-Marc Bodson, Gaël Turine and Hugues de Wurstemberger, there is very little information to be found and consequently I have used some of the images that they submitted to the 2007 Enfermement exhibition. Other photographers are more prolific such as Lizzie Sadin, Klavdij Sluban and Jane Evelyn Atwood. However, these three photographers, like those in the Enfermement exhibition, (which also included some of Atwood’s work) emerge from the photojournalistic tradition. Due to the fact that this dissertation is concerned with how photography represents the prison rather than what ideological point photographers are trying to make, I have limited the amount of photojournalistic work in the dissertation and have included only images from the Enfermement exhibition and Atwood in the final
dissertation. I feel that the images that I have used adequately demonstrate the prison photojournalism genre and are best placed to allow me to analyse photographic representation. Although Atwood is of American origin she is very much part of the French photographic scene and has lived in France for many years. Consequently, I feel that her inclusion in the dissertation is justified.
Jean Gaumy was the first photographer, who was not employed by the prison, to be allowed to photograph inside French prisons (Actuphoto, 2009) and accordingly, it seemed appropriate to include some examples of his work and findings in this dissertation. Mathieu Pernot has been of great importance in regards to writing this dissertation. His work offers much critical insight into the theories that this dissertation develops and the interview that I conducted with him in 2010 was invaluable. The Impossible Photographie exhibition, which took place in Paris in 2010, presented a number of prison photographers and raised several questions regarding the representability of the prison. As such, I have taken a number of images from the exhibition, such as those by Michel Séméniako, Joël Robine, Jacqueline Salmon and Catherine Réchard, which I felt best supported and enhanced my own theories. The historical prison images used in this dissertation also come from l’Impossible Photographie as the exhibition demonstrated a very comprehensive collection of historical images that were hard to find elsewhere. Philippe Bazin’s images helped me in my analysis of police photography in chapter 2 and Léa Crespi’s art photography allowed me to develop an argument regarding how prison photography should be understood in chapter 1. Besides Atwood’s images and those photographs taken from the Enfermement exhibition, the contemporary photography that I have used in this dissertation comes predominantly from the art tradition. Although, classifying images in prison photography is problematic and will be discussed in detail in chapter 1.
This dissertation provides an important study regarding a growing body of work that photographers are developing on the prison. This dissertation will prove that prison
photography is not solely concerned with presenting the prison but raises some really important questions about the status of the photograph and what is representable and that is what makes this study so fascinating. Despite the large amount of prison photography available there is virtually no research on it, scholarly or otherwise. The Impossible
Photographie exhibition is so far the most comprehensive study of French prison photography. Its images have been very useful to this dissertation and it presents a very interesting concept as regards the representability of the prison. However, its analysis is insufficient. The exhibition catalogue contains a number of articles but they are mainly descriptive and do not deal with many of the problematical issues of representation that this dissertation will address. The only other literature that I have been able to find pertaining to photographing the prison is a review of the Impossible Photographie exhibition by Dominique Baqué (2010, pp. 90-91), which was very short and of limited academic value.
The Enfermement exhibition has been useful in introducing me to a number of prison photographers, although the exhibition was concerned with raising awareness of prison conditions rather than analysing the ways in which the prison is represented. Therefore, its accompanying articles were of little use in this dissertation. Furthermore, besides a handful of Internet articles, there is very little literature on most of the photographers featured in this dissertation. Where possible I have obtained books by prison photographers but mostly these are only beneficial in terms of the image resources that they provide and do not give any significant insight into the photographic representations themselves. Many of the
photographers considered in this dissertation have an ideological point to make through their
photography and consequently their publications tend to focus on this rather than any photographic theory. Gaumy and Pernot are the notable exceptions in that their focus
predominantly concerns the photographic act and as such their publications have been very useful. In particular, Pernot’s book contains an interview with Mellany Robinson, which was very analytical of his work and explained much of his theory (2004) and Gaumy’s includes an essay by Yann Lardeau, which raises some very interesting points about photographic representation but does not respond to them in a lot of detail (1983). Thanks to these books and the interview I conducted with Pernot, I was able to formulate a number of my preliminary ideas.
Pete Brook runs an interesting blog on worldwide prison photography, which has introduced me to a number of prison photographers. However, he is concerned with presenting
photographers rather than interrogating the act of photographing. I have therefore had to put together my research based on writings in Gaumy’s and Pernot’s publications as well as books that address the photographic tradition such as André Rouillé’s La Photographie (2005), Roland Barthes’ La Chambre Claire (1980), Serge Tisseron’s Le Mystère de la Chambre Claire (1996) and works by Susan Sontag (1977 and 2003) and John Tagg (1998 and 2009). Prison testimony such as Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Cette Aveuglante Absence de Lumière (2001) and Robert King’s article in The Guardian (2010) have been of some use in helping me to understand the theory behind some photographic techniques, although as I have said, the dissertation is not a sociological study and therefore prison testimony is only useful if can help towards understanding why photography represents the prison in certain ways.
Writing this dissertation has therefore required me to adapt resources and theories in order that they tally with my own arguments. It has proven that there is a significant deficit of
scholarly research on prison photography and a total absence of research in regards to French prison photography. Specifically, prison photography raises a number of questions regarding how the prison is represented in photography. How is the prison represented, for example? Who is representing the prison? Why are photographers choosing to represent the prison? What do photographs typically represent? Photojournalistic and more artistic representations of the prison co-exist and typically fuse, which prompts the question; should representations of the prison be considered documentary or artistic? It is also necessary to question whether or not the prison is representable. How was the prison historically represented and how have representations changed? Furthermore, does prison photography say more about the prison or photography? And what does it say? What are the ethical concerns of representing the prison and how does photography respond to them? This dissertation will address each of these issues. However, due to the constraints of time and space some aspects of prison photography will inevitably remain unexplored. For example, I have included a chapter that addresses the recurrent themes of prison photography and as such I have had to limit myself to what I felt was the most crucial theme; representations of the incarcerated body. I have therefore not addressed representations of guards, homosexuality or of medical treatment in the prison, although these aspects do exist in prison photography and they no doubt merit future study.
In order to respond to my research questions I have had to develop a theoretical framework in response to the absence of research on prison photography. This framework is largely based on work by Michel Foucault, Erving Goffman, John Tagg and Judith Butler. None of these writers specifically address prison photography and therefore my dissertation has had to select some of their theories and adapt them to my own. For example, Foucault’s work in Surveiller et Punir (1975) provides detailed analysis regarding how an inmate can be
controlled. I would like to argue that many of his theories are reflected in photography and, in particular, police photography, which comprises the focus of chapter 2. In addition, there is some important theory in his earlier work Les Mots et les Choses (1966), which discusses the ways in which individuals are classified and thus provided some of the basis for my analysis of police photography.
Tagg (1998) is the only scholar, that I have found, who has included analysis of prison photography in his publications, although his work only concerns police photography. I have used a number of his findings in conjunction with Foucault’s work to support my own research and I have developed many of Tagg’s ideas to include an analysis of both forensic and non-forensic photography. Therefore, I have been able to produce a united discourse on the capabilities of all types of prison photography to control or liberate individuals. Goffman (1961) was also helpful in explaining a number of prison procedures and as such allowed me to understand some of the many ways that the prison reduces an individual to a controllable body. Again, his work was predominantly useful in considering police photography and I have been able to relate some of his theories to forensic photography, which has also assisted me in explaining how non-forensic photographers respond to the control exemplified in prison photography.
Butler’s work, taken from Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (2009) was of particular use to me in regard to the ethical concerns of photographing the prison. Whilst she does not specifically mention the prison she discusses the frame through which a photograph is taken, thus raising concerns relating to the ethical position of the person taking the photograph when the image pertains to a violent or private act. Butler’s theory can be applied to
representations of the prison, which contain violence or aspects that can be considered
voyeuristic. Consequently, Butler has provided me with an interesting starting point from which to consider the photographer’s and the spectator’s ethical standpoint when contemplating representations of the prison.
The interview that I conducted with Mathieu Pernot in 2010 was arguably one of the most important resources that I have used to develop my theoretical framework. The interview amounts to a substantial, original primary resource and provides a lot of critical insight into the ways in which photographers represent the prison. It constitutes one of the major advantages of the dissertation, revealing much of the theory behind Pernot’s own images and presenting many interesting hypotheses from which I have been able to analyse other photographers’ work and draw my conclusions.
Due to this dissertation being an original piece of work and the fact that almost no other research exists on French prison photography, assembling a primary corpus became a substantial piece of work in itself. I have consequently developed a comprehensive
bibliography based on extensive Internet and bibliographical research, which is, in itself, of significant value to future researchers. In addition, individuals such as Pernot, in the
interview we conducted, and Pete Brook, in an email, have pointed me in the direction of certain photographers or other areas of interest. Using the interview with Pernot and research that I have carried out into photographic traditions, the individual photographers and prison theory, I have been able to develop a theoretical framework, which has allowed me to identify and examine the primary areas of interest in regards to prison photography.
I have approached this dissertation thematically and, as such, my research questions for this dissertation are as follows: Firstly, is the prison an impossible subject of representation?
Secondly, can photography constitute an act of confinement in itself? Thirdly, how is the architecture of the prison represented in photography? And lastly, what are the recurrent themes of prison photography in regard to representations of inmates?
The first chapter of this dissertation will discuss the representability of the prison. The prison is subject to a number of visual taboos, which make the act of photographing difficult in the first place. There is also a tension between documentary and art in prison photography, which will be explored in order to explain how representations of the prison should be understood. The chapter questions the photographer’s involvement in the image and whether representation of the prison is possible in view of the photographer’s own limited experience of the prison and their resulting interpretations of what they photograph. Furthermore, it will demonstrate how photographers themselves question photography’s ability to represent the prison and will propose that prison photography potentially says more about photography than it does of the prison. In doing so, the chapter will examine whether documentary truth can ever exist. Lastly, the chapter will challenge the limitations of photography in terms of its representative capabilities and will demonstrate the impossibility of providing a complete representation of the prison.
The second chapter sets out to explore photography as an act of confinement.
commence with a study of forensic photography, demonstrating how Bertillonage and mug shots enable the authorities to identify and control offenders. It will then go on to describe how police photography can classify and reduce its subjects to a singular criminal identity, thus further facilitating control of criminals. The chapter will explain how the creation of a criminal type impacts on the public and their understanding of offenders. It will conclude
with an exploration of contemporary prison photography and how it questions and counters the reductive and unilateral nature of police photography.
Chapter 3 focuses on the architecture of the prison. It begins with a description of how prison architecture was historically represented and explains that it tended to be depicted in terms of an efficient penal machine. The chapter will compare historical representations to contemporary ones and will demonstrate how, rather than showing the prison as a machine, contemporary photographers show how prisoners inhabit and appropriate their surroundings.
The final chapter discusses representations of inmates.
It will consider images of
bodybuilders, which are often posed, and will compare the posed images of bodybuilders, who tend to be men, to posed images of women. It will then discuss why women tend to be portrayed as vulnerable in prison photography and will analyse the depiction of violence in the images. The chapter will explore the ethical concerns of photographing inmates, focusing on shock value, voyeurism, the issue of obtaining consent from inmates where their image is used and the role that the photographer and the camera play in the violence shown in the images. The chapter will also address the differences between representations of men and women in prison photography, discussing issues such as agency and voyeurism.
The Prison: An Impossible Subject of Representation?
In this chapter I will consider whether photographers are capable of representing the prison and whether photography itself is a viable medium with which to do so. L’Impossible Photographie, a recent prison photography exhibition held in Paris, suggested that representation of the prison is impossible, but why is this the case? And if it is the case, why do photographers continue to photograph inside the prison? In order to answer these
questions I will be considering images from Mohamed Bourouissa, Jean-Marc Bodson, Léa Crespi, Jane Evelyn Atwood, Mathieu Pernot, Michel Séméniako and Joël Robine. Besides the Impossible Photographie exhibition which, although it raises the issue of the representability of the prison, in fact, offers very little in terms of analysis, there is no specific theory relating to photographic representations of the prison. Therefore, I will be drawing on documentary photography theory to help explain my conclusions. In addition, Mathieu Pernot has offered some important critical insight into the issue, which I will refer to throughout the chapter. One of the foremost factors inhibiting representability of the prison is the visual taboo of the prison itself. This chapter will examine how not only prison
regulations but also the prison architecture prevent effective representation. Photographic representation is further hindered by artistic elements such as framing in the images, which create an ambiguity concerning whether the image is to be considered documentary or artistic. This results in an uncertainty regarding how the image should be understood and consequently, photographers are able to employ this indistinctness in order to question the ways in which we look at and assign meaning to images. Other photographers exploit and subvert documentary techniques so as to interrogate the ways in which spectators assume that the documentary image is truthful. They thus highlight the limitations of photography, such
as its inherent partiality and its inability to convey sentiment. Photographers like Mathieu Pernot raise an ethical issue of representing the prison and conclude that someone outside the prison cannot understand its reality and can, therefore, only represent it from their perspective, that is to say the exterior. He consequently photographs the way in which outsiders interact with the prison and thus uses photography to counter the notion of the prison as separate from wider society and demonstrates that it is, in fact, an integrated component. Even though representation of the prison can, at best, be described as heavily flawed and at worst be described as impossible, photographers use images to comment on the representability of the prison, to highlight the visual taboos and to discuss photography’s limitations. The interest of prison photography is, therefore, perhaps not what it can tell us about the prison but what it says about the act of photographing the space.
Mathieu Pernot suggests that: ‘des fois c’est le monde lui-même qui est un peu comme une conséquence de l’image, de la photographie’ (appendix). He explains that sometimes
buildings are constructed or demolished in certain ways because they will be photographed or filmed. As such, the external construction of the prison is important as it is almost made to be photographed. The exterior of the prison is constructed so as to preclude anyone outside from seeing into the interior. It is comprised of the highly visible architecture terrible, which is designed to instil fear in passersby and deter them from a life of crime (Fichet, 1995, p. 438). As I discuss at length in chapter 3, the prison was historically photographed from the exterior so as to project its fearsomeness and foreground its efficiency. It was portrayed as impenetrable and, most importantly, as fundamentally separate from wider society. The prison gate is a recurrent image in historical prison photography and its symbolic function is one of a boundary that is not easily traversed; a barrier dividing one world from another. Therefore, a camera entering the prison means that an important boundary is being
transgressed and in entering and leaving with an image, the camera highlights the porosity and fluidity of the prison, which undermines the architecture terrible. Therefore, as chapter 3 suggests, the fact that photographers are going inside the prison renders the prison not as an efficient machine, like the historical images imply, but as a linked architecture. However, once inside, photographers are subject to further visual taboos pertaining to security and inmate protection. For example, a law passed in 2009 means that photographers in France are no longer allowed to photograph inmates’ faces (Jauffret, 2010). Furthermore, as Pernot points out, photographers are accompanied by guards wherever they go and are restricted in what they are allowed to photograph (appendix). Therefore, even though photographers are going into the prison they cannot represent it.
Mohamed Bourouissa’s recent project Temps Mort is a series of photographs and videos that were captured on mobile phones by two of Bourouissa’s acquaintances in prison. The photographs were then re-photographed and enlarged. The project is shocking as it implies circulation between the interior and the exterior, when the function of the prison is to prevent precisely that. In printing the mobile phone images, re-photographing them and enlarging them to life size, Bourouissa enhances the graininess of the images, which draws attention to difficulty of seeing the images as well as the fact that they are images. In addition,
Bourouissa hangs the photographs at real height, that is to say that he positions them at the same height as they were when the photograph was taken (Fondation d’Entreprise Ricard, 2010). Consequently, the spectator is given a partial experience of standing in the space in which the photograph was taken. The spectator is then left to mentally reconstruct the other elements in the space. In this way Bourouissa draws attention to the fact that representation can only ever be partial and will never be able to reconstruct the reality of the prison.
The images considered in this dissertation emerge from a factual setting. In each of the prison images that this dissertation considers, factual and fictional elements exist simultaneously. The settings are real prisons and where people are included in the depictions, they are (with the exception of figure 2) real inmates or prison employees. However, each of the images has been framed according to that which the photographer wished to present and the effect that they wished to produce. Consequently, there is a tension between that which is documentary and that which is art in prison photography. This blurring of the boundaries between documentary photography and artistic concerns affects the way in which the prison is represented and how it is perceived by the spectator.
Figure 1: Jean-Marc Bodson – Untitled from the series Namur. From L’Enfermement exhibition, 2007. Technical specifications unknown.
For example, this image, which is of the inside of a prison cell in the Namur prison in Belgium, immediately corresponds with the spectator’s idea of what is documentary. The image correlates with André Rouillé’s description of what constitutes documentary photography: ‘la netteté, la précision, la minutie descriptive, la profusion des détails tout à la fois caractérisent le document photographique’ (2005, p. 104). It shows three men who jointly occupy the cell, as can be seen by the existence of three beds in the room. Each man is either sitting or lying on his bed. The image employs a large depth of field so as to demonstrate each aspect of the cell in sharp focus. The image is informative as it depicts a prison cell in detail – somewhere that most people will never visit – and its inhabitants. From the image, the spectator can visualise the conditions in this particular prison cell; they can see the sort of clothing worn by inmates and the kind of drinks they consume. The documentary content of the image is therefore evident. However, upon closer inspection there are many artistic elements in the photograph. For example, the formal composition is triangular and symmetrical. There are two white men, who are similar in appearance, lying on two of the beds at the sides of the frame and a single black man sitting on the middle bed. His head is directly in the centre of the frame, which thus produces a triangular structure within the image. Furthermore, crumbled plaster and the remnants of old posters form white patches on the back wall behind the black inmate, which create the effect of an aura. The symmetry of the image is exemplified by the two white men on each side of the frame. Their poses are similar although one looks at the camera whilst the other looks away. Further symmetry is created by the shelf units on each wall and even the bottles and food stuffs next to the beds. What is more, although framing in the image, which encompasses much of the cell, creates the sensation that the spectator is viewing the cell in its entirety, the wall against which the photographer stands and along which the cell door is situated, is not visible. Consequently the image does not show the inmates’ perspective and instead demonstrates that of the
warden or the photographer. In addition, the photographer’s presence is detectable in the image. He obscures one of the prison walls and one of the inmates looks directly at the photographer, which interrupts the idea of the photographer as invisible and the photograph as evidence. This image, which on the surface appears documentary, in fact contains a number of more artistic elements such as staging and stylisation.
Figure 2: Léa Crespi – Untitled from the series Lieux, 2008. Technical specifications unknown.
In some cases the nature of the photograph, even one that is based in a factual setting, is clearly predominantly artistic, however that does not preclude it from possessing documentary content. In this image by Léa Crespi for example, the image is set in a corridor of a prison. The photographer has employed a shallow depth of field with middle ground focussing so that both the foreground and the background are slightly out of focus whilst the middle ground is in sharp focus. In the central foreground is a close up of a naked woman with a shaven head, whose face and body both turn away from the spectatorial gaze. The blurring and backlighting of this figure give her a ghostlike resonance, which excludes her from the factuality of the prison setting. Whilst a subject foregrounded in the centre of the
frame would tend to be assigned a greater importance than the other elements in the image, the middle ground focussing produces an effect whereby equal importance is attributed to both subject and setting. The prison interior itself appears run down and disused; paint is peeling from the walls and the cell doors are open. Documentary photography and
photojournalism tend to include contextual information in order to convey the relevance and meaning of the images (Becker, 1995). However, this image is devoid of context. The prison may well be a factual element but due to the absence of context explaining where the prison is, the documentary function of the photograph is undermined. Furthermore, the absurd presence of the spectral naked woman communicates the artistic nature of the image. Nevertheless, Beaumont Newhall states that: ‘any photograph can be considered a document if it is found to contain useful information about the special subject under study' (Newhall, 1982 cited in Suchar, 1989) and as such there are some documentary elements present in the image. For example, the prison setting does communicate the conditions inside the space, even if its exact location is unknown. Even in images such as this one, which are
predominantly artistic in nature, documentary and artistic considerations converge. Because the setting is factual, a documentary aspect in prison photography is unavoidable. However, there are also inevitable artistic elements in prison photography. As a result of photography’s inability to capture every facet of the prison in a single image, each image is subject to a selection process whereby the photographer chooses what he will represent in the photograph:
Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation. A photograph is a result of the photographer's decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen (…) At its simplest, the message, decoded, means: I have decided that seeing this is worth recording. (Berger (1974 cited in Suchar, 1989)
Mathieu Pernot summarises the tension between the art and documentary function of prison photography:
Je pourrais très bien dire que je suis journaliste et des fois mon travail a été publié dans la presse parce qu’il apprenait aussi des choses sur les prisons. Sauf que le travail n’a pas été fait pour ça et il répondait à un projet personnel (…) Je l’ai avant tout pensé comme des images qu’on accroche au mur (…) c’est plutôt un projet artistique dans le sens que ce sont des objets à regarder comme des images qui suffisent à elles-mêmes et qui ne sont pas forcement à voir comme un reportage sur les prisons (appendix).
However, Pernot says the question of whether an image is art or documentary is irrelevant: ‘je me méfie toujours un peu des catégories qu’on fait sur “ça, c’est de l’art. Ça, non, c’est du journalisme”. C’est la photographie’ (appendix). In his discussion of François Bon’s Prison, a literary work which merges factual events with fictional elements, Andrew Sobanet proposes that the blend of documentary and fiction that is present in the work can only be described by the ambiguous term récit as it is: ‘an appropriate generic designation for his work, as it reflects the singular mixture of the real and the fictional found in prison’ (2008b, p. 9). By the same token, perhaps Mathieu Pernot is correct in insisting on the indeterminate term photography. In using the term photography the images are able to transcend generic constraints and as such can utilise both documentary and artistic methods, conventions and effects to comment on both the prison and its representations. The artist Denis Darzacq proposes that metaphors can be more informative and powerful than documentary evidence.1 Consequently the blend of documentary and art that is present in prison photography is well placed to comment on and criticise prisons in France. In addition, art offers a critical perspective on the real. Prison photography can draw our attention to the ways in which we look and assign meaning. As Pernot suggests, it is perhaps this which constitutes the interest of prison photography rather than any claim it might make to represent the real.
Denis Darzacq, speaking at a talk at Sheffield University, November 2009.
Figure 3: Jane Evelyn Atwood – Untitled from the series Forest. From L’Enfermement exhibition, 2007. Technical specifications unknown.
For example, this image has been taken in a visiting room in the Forest prison in Belgium. In the image the spectator can make out two individuals in sharp focus. In the foreground is a blond woman, who has her back to the spectator and whose face we cannot see, nor can we see her torso, which is not visible due to the lack of lighting in the lower half of the room. Instead, her light arms and hair are illuminated against the blackness of the visiting room. She is facing a man who, although he is facing the camera, cannot be seen because his face has been almost entirely obscured by the back of the woman’s head. There appears to be a third figure in the background although this could be a reflection of the subject couple. The photograph has been taken through an opening in the visiting room walls, the edges of which are visible in the photograph and thus the image is framed by the prison walls themselves, therefore drawing attention to the construction of the image and the containment and
confinement that are the subject of the work. The photographer has chosen not to stand immediately in the centre of the opening so as to angle the image in order to effectively display a number of recurrent frames, which lie beyond the two subjects of the photograph and which are either other visiting rooms or are the reflection of the one portrayed in this image. This draws the spectator’s attention beyond the two individuals, creating a mise en abyme, drawing attention to the constructedness of the image. In addition, the woman’s arms, which are instrumental in balancing the image, are positioned in such a symmetrical way as to suggest possible staging. Although the fact that this situation was not in question, the measured framing and possible staging of the image detract from its documentary message by suggesting the presence of the photographer and her involvement in the image. This puts into question the representative capabilities of the photograph. For example, if an image is photographed then that which is shown in the image must be an interpretation of that which the photographer has witnessed. Susan Sontag suggests that a photograph: ‘cannot be simply a transparency of something that happened. It is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude’ (2003, p. 41). Consequently, Atwood, in figure 3, has chosen to photograph these individuals and circumstances in a certain way and has therefore projected her interpretation of reality onto the photograph. Furthermore, because the photograph is incapable of demonstrating each aspect of the prison it is partial and fragmented. In response to images such as figure 3, which purport to show the prison, photographers like Mathieu Pernot challenge representations of the prison and conclude that representation is impossible.
Figure 4: Mathieu Pernot – Promenades : Cour de promenade, Avignon. 2001 – 2002. Barium print, 80 x 100cm.
For example, this black and white, eye level image depicts an exercise yard in a prison in Avignon. The yard is entirely empty save for a couple of weeds growing at the bottom of the right hand wall. There is what appears to be a door or an alcove immediately to the left of the frame and another door, which is on the back wall, is centred within the frame. Two walls run parallel and join a third wall, which constitutes the exterior wall of the prison. There are a number of barred windows overlooking the yard and barbed wire mesh lines each of the walls and runs between them. Documentary photography’s principal function is to provide answers, to reveal circumstances and to supply evidence of conditions: what Charles Suchar calls the interrogatory principle (1989). This photograph by Pernot adheres to the accepted codes of documentary photography. For example, the image features an existing, working prison and nothing has been added or removed from the image; the scene is factual and remains exactly as Pernot found it. However, whereas documentary claims to inform the spectator, what does this image actually show? By Pernot’s own admission, the images in his 21
prison series do not show very much (appendix). This, he says is for a number of reasons. Firstly, it constitutes an investigation into the architecture of the prison (ibid). However, Pernot’s decision to restrict his representations in terms of what they show is principally a response to the invisibility of the inmates. In France, a photographer is no longer allowed to show the face of an inmate, thus, in photographing the prison architecture, Pernot reflects the constrictions that were imposed on him as a photographer and demonstrates photography’s inability to provide a complete representation of the prison. Prisons are created to separate certain people from the public therefore the inmates are effectively invisible to the outside world. Pernot adds that even when he went inside the prison to take his photographs, the inmates remained invisible to him: ‘on est juste à côté de la porte, on est à trois mètres du prisonnier, on ne voit rien. (…) Quand on rentre dans les prisons on ne voit rien’ (ibid). Therefore, his images fail to inform the spectator of conditions in the prisons and thus fail in terms of documentary’s revelatory function. Stella Bruzzi suggests that: ‘a successful
documentary is contingent upon representing the truth at its core as objectively as possible’ (2000, p. 39). Therefore, Pernot’s images also fail in terms of objectivity, which is a requirement of documentary photography. Pernot’s images are necessarily subjective since they are highlighting the photographer’s influence over the image. However, Pernot’s images can be considered documentary evidence of the photographer’s own experiences in the prison. Whereas Roland Barthes evokes the ‘ça-a-été’ of photography, whereby that which has been photographed necessarily existed at the time of the shutter release (Barthes, 1980, p. 120), Pernot’s images connote what Serge Tisseron refers to as the ‘ça a été vécu par le photographe’ (1998, p. 60). Thus Pernot subverts the documentary genre, and demonstrates the impossibility of anyone, who has not been incarcerated, gaining anything but a rudimentary knowledge of the space. Pernot’s images question how photography can
comment on the reality of being incarcerated:
Je n’ai jamais été dans une prison, je n’ai jamais été à la place de quelqu’un qui y a été donc je n’ai jamais voulu non plus donner une espèce de représentation de souffrance parce que moi, quand je rentre dans une prison, je ne souffre pas du tout (appendix).
They also highlight the role that the photographer plays in the image by revealing that photography, even documentary photography, is the result of how the photographer understands the prison. Furthermore, in portraying so little of the prison, Pernot interrogates the photographic act: ‘Comment photographier les invisibles, comment faire une image de ceux qui revendiquent une forme d’opacité? Comment inscrire ces images à la fois dans l’histoire de la photographie et dans celle de ces communautés invisibles’? (2004, p. 75). In photographing only the architecture of the prison, Pernot forces the spectator to consider those that inhabit the prison. By focussing on the space that is occupied by the prisoners Pernot’s images reflect the inmates: can we ever understand architecture without also thinking about its users? As a photographer, access is limited and prisoners remain unseen.
Rouillé states that: ‘les artistes affranchissent la photographie des servitudes fonctionnelles et la libèrent des contraintes de la transparence documentaire, ou bien ils adoptent cette transparence comme un trait artistiquement pertinent, ou encore ils l’interrogent’ (2005, p. 454). Therefore, photographers are able to employ documentary techniques in order to destabilise the documentary message. In subverting the documentary genre through the use of framing, staging and technical manipulation photographers can convey their political and aesthetic motivations through the image. They are also able to interrogate the way in which spectators assume that what they see in the image is truthful. In his prison series Pernot questions the transparency of the documentary image, suggesting that the content of the image reflects only the photographer’s understanding of the situation. He also employs
documentary techniques to subvert the genre, challenging photography’s representative capabilities. Pernot therefore suggests that the only way to represent the prison is from an exterior position. As such, he reveals the limits of what the camera can see rather than implying that it can see all.
Figure 5: Mathieu Pernot – Les Hurleurs: Giovanni, Avignon. 2001. Colour c-print. 80 x 100cm.
This colour image presents a close up of a young boy, who is cupping his hands around his mouth whilst shouting. The image employs a shallow depth of field so that only the boy is in sharp focus, thus communicating that he is the only important element of the photograph. Behind him are the blurry outlines of a lake and some trees. Pernot explains that les Hurleurs are people who shout over the prison walls so as to communicate with their loved ones inside. In photographing the actions of the inmates’ loved ones Pernot, once again, comments on the
insufficiency of photography when it comes to representing the prison. He suggests that because neither the photographer nor the spectator can ever fully understand the reality of the prison without experiencing it for themselves, photographic representations must be devoid of inmate representations. Pernot claims that by photographing the shouters he is also photographing the prisoners, in the only way that somebody from the exterior can. That is to say, he photographs how others outside interact with the prisoner: ‘en photographiant les hurleurs dehors, pour moi c’était une façon de montrer les détenus, même si on ne les voit pas physiquement (…) il y a un cri à un moment qui s’adresse à eux’ (appendix). The individuals in Les Hurleurs therefore take on the role of intermediaries between the spectator on the outside and the prisoner in the interior.
Les Hurleurs also demonstrate that the prison is integrated into society and is not a separate entity, which is something that most photographers fail to do. In this series Pernot links the exterior and the interior and suggests that in order to represent the prison, photographers cannot show it as a closed environment and must, instead, show it in relation to the outside: there are links to the outside. For example, people enter and leave the prison, they visit it and relationships between the prisoner and their family continue. There is a sociological study to be written on the relationships between prisoners and their families, which I am not going to attempt in this dissertation as I am more concerned with how the prison can be represented. However, the idea of photographing the prison has to take into account the prisoner in relation to the outside. There are images of families on the inside, especially in Atwood’s photography since she photographs in women’s prisons and in many cases women are allowed to keep newborn babies with them in prison for a certain amount of time. However, in terms of photographing the prison and gaining an idea of what the prison is, it must be considered as part of a wider society. Other photographers seem to suggest that the prison is
self-contained. They uphold the idea of the prison as separate, deviant and removed. Pernot, on the other hand, demonstrates its connectedness. His images are focusing on people in relationships rather than just the prisoner. As I will discuss in chapter 2, forensic
photography decontextualises the prisoner, removes them from their full identity and thus reduces them to a uniquely criminal identity. By showing the families of prisoners Pernot restores them to a network and resists forensic photography and the type of prison photography that treats them as separate from society.
In addition, Pernot’s images of the shouters further undermine the documentary genre through staging. Pernot admits that the images are manipulated according to the desired aesthetic:
La situation est vraie sauf que moi, parce que je suis photographe, je leur demande s’ils peuvent bouger un peu, je leurs mets aussi en scène, c’est-à-dire que peut-être à un moment quelqu’un était en contre jour ou que ça ne convient pas, je lui demande s’il peut se mettre de l’autre côté (appendix).
He claims that the most important element in his photographs is the aesthetic quality of the image: ‘la situation est importante mais ce qui compte à la fin c’est la photo. Je suis photographe donc il faut que l’image, elle soit forte’ (ibid). The photographs depict a real life situation, which the spectator accepts accordingly and without question, when in fact, Pernot, in staging the scenario, subverts the photograph’s role as evidence. Therefore, Pernot
demonstrates Rouillé’s conjecture that artists disrupt the documentary genre by the way he challenges documentary transparency. He puts the factuality of documentary photography into question by illustrating the impossibility of representation when it comes to areas such as the prison. He also interrogates documentary transparency by depicting, what the spectator
accepts as a truthful situation, whilst imposing his own staged elements on the scenario. Consequently Pernot examines whether there is any such thing as documentary truth.
Figure 6: Michel Séméniako – Colour image from the slide show entitled Portraits sans Visage, la Santé 2008, shown as part of the l’Impossible Photographie exhibition, Musée Carnavalet, 2010.
In this image, Michel Séméniako also challenges documentary photography’s ability to accurately portray circumstances. This image depicts a centred close up of an inmate. He is pictured in front of a white wire fence and wears a dark coat. The subject is turned full face towards the camera although his face his completely covered by what would appear to be a back to front balaclava, thus preventing the spectator from being able to discern any visual characteristics. Documentary photography purports to illustrate circumstances with truth and accuracy and often leads the spectator to believe that they have understood the situations depicted. By refusing to show the inmate in his photograph Séméniako, like Pernot,
challenges and subverts photography’s documentary capacity and concludes that (documentary) representation is impossible.
Figure 7: Joël Robine – Vue à travers l‘oeilleton. La Santé, 1998. From L’Impossible Photographie exhibition. Technical specifications unknown.
This image depicts the view of a prison cell as seen through a peephole in a cell door. Like Jane Evelyn Atwood’s image in figure 3, Joël Robine uses the prison architecture to frame his image, which in this case consists of the surrounds of the peephole. The image displays solely the back wall of the prison cell and gives a very linear view of the room; the only visible part of the cell is that which is directly in front of the peephole; the peripheries remain invisible. The spectator is thus presented with a limited view of the cell, comprised of the back window, which possesses two broken panes of glass, what looks like a makeshift washing line, two cupboards and a few personal items, including toiletries and a couple of posters pinned to the back wall. The edges of two bunk beds are visible at the extremities of the peephole’s line of sight but the remainder of the room is obscured. This image appears to compare the deficiency of the peephole, as a way of seeing, to photography’s inability to represent the prison: notably the shape of the peephole strongly resembles a camera lens. 28
Robine seems to ask what can be shown by documentary photography, which can only show one aspect of the prison but which gives the impression of total information. Jean Gaumy says that when he photographs the prison: ‘la plupart des choses que je ressens dans les prisons ne sont pas visuelles: je trouve les limites mêmes du sujet, du reportage photo en général. Le temps surtout, ce temps de réclusion, sans relief, monotone, désespérant : Consequently, photography is ill equipped to
visuellement informable’ (1983, p. 13).
demonstrate the reality of the prison due to its representative limitations. For example, how can a photograph communicate the boredom and trauma of being imprisoned? A photograph is of a fleeting moment in time. Moreover, a spectator can observe an image for how ever long or as briefly as they wish and therefore a photograph is insufficient to describe both enforced incarceration and the sentiment of a lengthy stretch of imprisonment. A recent exhibition which sought to discuss the impossibility of representing the prison concurs that:
La photographie en prison est impossible, à la fois au sens strict (il est difficile voire impossible de photographier en prison et de photographier la prison) et au sens esthétique (la photographie échoue en partie à montrer ce qui relève d’une sensation, d’une pratique et d’une expérience de l’enfermement qui sont bien différentes d’une simple expérience visuelle). On ne photographie pas le sentiment d’enfermement, les odeurs, les bruits (Tambrun, 2010 cited in Studievic, 2010, p. 132)
Gaumy seems to suggest that to achieve any sort of representation of prisons it is necessary to have a multiplicity of photographs since there is no single prison experience that can be applied to all inmates (1983, pp. 7-13). Therefore, in prison photography there is an inherent lie by omission since photography cannot represent all facets of prison life. Documentary photography communicates a sense that it is informing the spectator of circumstances in the prison. However, artists such as Robine, in this image, highlight photography’s limitations as a representative tool and explain that true representation is an unattainable ideal. Furthermore the stance of the photographer is always embodied and subjective. For example,
in figure 1 the photographer has taken the photograph from the doorway. He therefore omits an entire wall from his representation. Consequently prison photography is always already a limited and partial point of view. In demonstrating a deliberately obscured view of a cell, Robine is able to draw the spectator’s attention to the frame, which in turn draws their attention to the ways that they see and look at images. Robine thus suggests that
representation will always be partial and that understanding of the prison is an experiential quality. For example, not only is the spectator visually hindered in their understanding of the prison due to photographic limitations but they are restricted in their sensory understanding of the prison. For example, as I have already briefly mentioned, how can a photograph communicate any sense of time or the monotony of being imprisoned?
As I suggested at the beginning of this chapter, the interest of prison photography lies, not in what it can tell us about the prison, but in what it says about photography. Photographers, therefore, photograph the prison with the aim of assessing photography’s documentary and representative capabilities. They highlight the ways in which images are understood and comment on that understanding, stressing that the photographic image should not be accepted as sufficient evidence of circumstances since it is subject to what the photographer has wished to convey and how they have interpreted the scene. In response to the photographer’s influence over the image Pernot highlights that it is wrong for photographers to try to represent the prison since they cannot understand its reality. He thus proposes that
representation must be from an exterior position, which takes into account the photographer’s lack of personal experience in the prison and incorporates the prison into wider society. Prison photographers also demonstrate photography’s limitations. For example, they
illustrate how photography is always the result of an embodied stance and can thus only ever produce a partial view of circumstances. Furthermore, photography can only produce a
visual impression and cannot convey any other senses or emotions. Prison photography, therefore, is concerned with questioning the act of photographing and commenting on the insufficiency of documentary photography. Its focus is not on representing the prison but moreover on how it is represented and how the spectator should understand those representations.
Photography as an Act of Confinement in Prison Photography
The new police act will take down each fact That occurs in its wide jurisdiction And each beggar and thief in the boldest relief Will be giving a colour to fiction Men’s hands will be done by a ‘stroke of the sun’ And I fear by these facts you’ll be stagger’d But by its truth on my word, that without steel or sword By copper and silver you’re Dagger’d (Gernsheim, 1968 cited in Hugunin 1999 pp. 73-74)
Prison photography presents a double confinement. Firstly it illustrates and represents the captivity of the prison and secondly it can be considered as a confining method in itself. Police photography, for example, has long been a disciplinary instrument. It is a means of identifying, recording and documenting the inmate so as to assert control over them. This chapter will discuss how historically, control over prisoners has been achieved through police and forensic photography and in doing so will draw on a number of Michel Foucault’s theories pertaining to knowledge and surveillance in order to demonstrate how police photography is well placed to enable the control of offenders. This chapter will then go on to examine how the technical aspect of taking a photograph can be regarded as an act of confinement because of the way in which light is captured in the mechanism and converted into an image on the photographic film or digital chip. Furthermore, the photographer’s techniques such as framing and manipulation of the image can impact on the issue of confinement in that they trap the subject within the frame, which can metaphorically stand for the prison cell itself. In prison photography there are essentially two types of photography. The first concerns official, police photography, which purports to know the prison and the prisoner. The second type of photography suggests that knowledge of the prisoner is
impossible and demonstrates this fact through its examples of photographic insufficiency. In reviewing police photography, and notably the mug shot, I will consider how forensic photography produces a criminal self and locks the prisoner into a singular criminal identity, thus enabling a classification of the prisoner. Consequently this classification impacts on public and official perceptions of prisoners in terms of how it leads them to believe that they understand and recognise a prisoner based on the singular identity that the police photograph produces. Police photography is based on a binary division of criminal/law abiding and as such omits all of the prisoner’s identifying characteristics bar that which is criminal, thus encouraging the public to see the offender as other. The chapter will consider how
photography responds to police photography and the public’s perception of inmates resulting from police photography. Using examples from Jane Evelyn Atwood, Philippe Bazin,
Jacqueline Salmon, Gaël Turine and Mathieu Pernot, the chapter will illustrate how photographers can compel the spectator to reconsider previous assumptions and interrogate the sufficiency of photography as a representative tool.
Photography has long been used by the police to identify, record and discipline criminals. Its use in France dates back to 1883 when the Parisian police adopted an anthropometric system, created by Alphonse Bertillon, called Signaletics or Bertillonage (US National Library of Medicine, 2006) The system required the measurement of the subject’s head, body and facial features in addition to noting individual markings such as tattoos, scars and personality traits. The results were logged as a formula that referred uniquely to the individual and were recorded onto cards alongside frontal and profile photographic portraits of the subject (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Préfecture de Police, Service de l’Identité Judiciaire – Album des Individus Interdits de Séjour, Évadés ou Recherchés, 1906. From the Impossible Photographie exhibition 2010. Technical specifications unknown.
Bertillonage proved such a success in France that it was adopted across Europe and the USA. Even after the introduction of fingerprinting, the photographic element, or mug shot, was retained. The aim of these photographs was always to identify and document offenders so that in the event of a repeat offense or an escape, they could be easily recaptured as a result of their recognisability. It must be noted that photographs of inmates, in their most basic function, are essentially a device by which those convicted of crimes may be recognised so as to aid future physical incarceration and implement physical control over those photographed: the lens enables a surveillance that can confine the subject forever to a dominant, controlling gaze, which, as John Tagg affirms is: ‘the very coincidence of an ever more intimate observation and an ever more subtle control; an ever more refined institutional order and an
ever more encompassing discourse; an ever more passive subjection and an ever more dominant benevolent gaze’ (1988, p. 81).
It is therefore, no coincidence that photography developed at the same time as the human sciences, for example criminology, psychology and sociology, which sought to expand knowledge of humanity. The emergence of the human sciences, according to Foucault, marked the moment when: ‘l’homme s’est constitué dans la culture occidentale à la fois comme ce qu’il faut penser et ce qu’il y a à savoir’ (1966, p. 356). Similarly, police photography is a means by which the police and psychologists attempt to understand and know offenders. Police photography, for example, enables recognition and identification of those convicted of crimes and it can facilitate their recapture and control. Foucault says that not only is knowledge power (1975, p. 36) but that surveillance is power (ibid, p. 229). Therefore police photography is ideally placed to allow the police to exert power over offenders: it documents previous offenders, which makes it easier to identify and discipline them and, in principle, it allows a permanent state of control to exist whereby the police have potentially constant access to the subject’s file and can observe them unreservedly. In this way, police photography assumes a similar purpose to the Panopticon, whose primary role is: ‘induire chez le détenu un état conscient et permanent de visibilité qui assure le fonctionnement automatique du pouvoir’ (ibid, p. 234).
The Panopticon is a concept that was conceived by Jeremy Bentham in order to implement effective control inside prisons. The cells were to surround a central surveillance tower from which all cells could be viewed and thus all inmates watched. However, inmates would not be able to return the gaze and consequently could not be certain of whether they were, at any given time, subject to observation. This creates a system whereby the inmate would be aware
of the possibility of perpetual surveillance and would subsequently behave correctly, leading Foucault to describe the inmate as: ‘le principe de son propre assujettissement’ (ibid p. 236). Mathieu Pernot suggests that, whilst photography does not create camps or prisons, it provides an effective means of control so that detention may be facilitated (appendix). He cites the case of Romany communities in France who were compulsorily photographed and documented between 1912 and 1969 (Hubert, 2008). As a result of these regulations the communities were easily rounded up and confined in concentration camps during the Second World War. Therefore, police photography’s principal aim is to identify, document and discipline the prisoner, thus assisting in his recapture if necessary. It is a means of
controlling the offender through knowledge of them, which facilitates surveillance and discipline.
The most undemanding parallel that can be drawn between photography and confinement is the physical act of taking the photograph itself. Serge Tisseron proposes that: ‘La
photographie semble lutter contre l’enfermement par un autre enfermement, celui qui préside la fabrication de l’image dans la boite noire de l’appareil’ (1998, p. 24). For example, the analogue camera lens captures beams of light, redirecting them to where they can be chemically recorded onto the photographic film. Similarly, digital cameras have a lens that traps light and focuses it onto a semiconductor device, a CCD (charge coupled device) or a CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor), which converts the light into electrons whose value is read and recorded onto the digital chip. Therefore, it could be considered that the camera is trapping the light beams that have been refracted through the lens and thus captures and confines the image within the photographic film or the digital chip. Consequently, in prison photography, could capturing an image can be likened to the
confinement of inmates within a prison? Is the release of the shutter akin to the locking of the prison door?
In addition to capturing beams of light in order to chemically record and trap an image, the photographer manipulates the scene, framing it and appearing to freeze time, so as to influence the spectator’s response to the image. Tisseron proposes that the frame of a mirror, a window or a door can be viewed as a metaphor for confinement (ibid, p. 21) and as such, the framing of an image by the photographer can also be considered thus. The framing of the photograph assumes the role of a window frame through which another space might be observed; it is also reminiscent of the prison cell itself. Mathieu Pernot concurs with this conjecture, affirming that: ‘il y a le cadre de la photo, il y a le cadre de la prison, il y a le cadre où on enferme les gens. Une photographie, c’est aussi faire entrer les gens dans un cadre’ (appendix). Furthermore, the camera records a split second of a moment in time, which can be reviewed and accessed time and time again, thus giving the impression that the camera has captured and confined this moment to the photograph. According to this logic, it is the essence of photography to capture an image of something that once existed and it is this quality that Barthes refers to as ça-a-été stating that: ‘dans la photographie, je ne puis jamais nier que la chose a été là’ (1980, p. 120). Before the likes of Photoshop, a photograph acted as proof of something that had occurred and even since the emergence of image manipulating technology the image still retains a degree of authenticity. For example, in certain contexts, we want to believe that the photograph could not have been digitally altered and in instances such as a courtroom context, its evidentiary function is still much relied on. Police
photography communicates a sense of factuality: veracity is expected in forensic photography and digital manipulation and staging would not be acceptable in this context. Therefore,
police photography, to a greater extent than any other type of photography is accepted as
wholly accurate. Consequently the spectator is convinced that they possess knowledge of the prison because of the photographs they have seen, despite the inaccuracy or representative insufficiency of the images. The prisoner is thus confined to the identity that the prison photograph purports to represent.
Photography in the penal and judicial context is often seen as a direct reconstruction of reality and as such the portrayal of inmates in forensic photography can lead its subjects to be defined by their photographic depiction. That is to say, they are branded criminals and all other identities are erased. Stipulations dating back to Bertillonage state that photographs of prisoners should be full face with the head uncovered and specific lighting and equipment is prescribed (Rouillé, 2005, p. 108). The homogeneous images produced by police
photography can be considered to create a new representation of the prisoner. John Tagg indicates that:
What we have in this standardised image is more than a picture of a supposed criminal. It is a portrait of the product of the disciplinary method: the body made object; divided and studied; enclosed in a cellular structure of space whose architecture is the file index; made docile and forced to yield up its truth; separated and individuated; subjected and made subject. When accumulated, such images amount to a new representation of society. (1988, p. 76)
Therefore, in police photography, the uniform images, the unvarying format of the photograph, the prescribed lighting and equipment eliminate all of the subject’s individual specificities and generate a singular representation of the inmate by which they can be classified criminal. Foucault asserts that: ‘la classification demande le principe de la plus petite différence possible entre les choses’ (1966, p. 173) and as such, police photography effectively fulfils this requirement. Indeed, Erving Goffman suggests that admissions
procedures, which include photography, in total institutions such as the prison:
Might be better called “trimming” or “programming” because in thus being squared away the new arrival allows himself to be shaped and coded into an object that can be fed into the administrative machinery of the establishment (…) Many of these procedures depend upon attributes such as weight or finger prints that the individual possesses (…) action taken on the basis of such attributes necessarily ignores most of his previous self-identification (1961, pp. 25-26).
However, the mug shot is intended to make each offender individual in order to facilitate recognition and detention. Yet at the same time it reduces prisoners to the same typology. This is an interesting contradiction, which highlights a tension between making a person absolutely individual and singular so that they can be identified according to all of their singular characteristics and the fact that the typology of the police photograph reduces all of its subjects to a criminal type. Therefore, despite its intention to document individuality the homogeneous layout of police photography is reductive and can be said to play an instrumental part in the production of the criminal self. The mug shot, as produced by the police, is a confining medium that becomes the sole representation of its subject. Foucault says that control over the individual is achieved through that of: ‘un double mode: celui du partage binaire et du marquage (fou-non fou; dangereux-inoffensif; normal-anormal)’ (1975, p. 232), or in this case criminal/law abiding. As such, prison photography fixes the prisoner’s position within this binary framework, erasing all other identities and thus confining the prisoner to a singular criminal typology. Police photography produces a criminal self
because its typology reduces the individual to nothing more. It disregards everything else about its subject whom it registers within the cellular structure of the photograph as criminal, thus creating an identifiable mark to produce a criminal body, with which the subject can be recognised and consequently controlled. Furthermore, the mug shot is symbolic of
criminality. Only those who have been arrested will have had their mug shot taken and are consequently pushed into the criminal category: ‘c’est la condamnation elle-même qui est
censée marquer le délinquant du signe négative et univoque’ (ibid, p. 16). Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon can be considered an effective metaphor for the control that is exercised over the offender by photography: police photography enables the potential of constant surveillance of the subject by an unseen authority. In producing a recognisable criminal body, the act of control is made easier as is surveillance of the particular group of individuals in question: ‘Notre société n’est pas celle du spectacle, mais de la surveillance (…) la belle totalité de l’individu n’est pas amputée, réprimée, altérée par notre ordre social, mais l’individu y est soigneusement fabriqué, selon toute une tactique des forces et des corps’ (ibid, pp. 252-253).
Therefore, the police photograph creates the criminal so as to understand them according to the binary framework and thus implement effective control over them. The subject of the police photograph is no longer an individual but a classifiable body, confined to a criminal typology.
Figure 2: Philippe Bazin – Untitled from the series Détenus, 2005. Black and white print, 100cm x 100cm.
This image by Philippe Bazin, whilst using similar techniques and formatting to forensic photography, attempts to restore to its subjects some of the humanity that has been eliminated by police photography whilst questioning the representative capabilities of police photography. The image is a large print featuring a full frontal image of a man’s face, which fills the frame and which allows the chin and forehead to touch the edge of the frame. The image is in black and white and the man’s observable face is highlighted against a dark background, demonstrating that his face is the only important aspect to consider. There are no other distractions within the photograph, thus the spectator is forced into an unavoidable dialogue with the image. Bazin’s work consists of numerous series, which concentrate on many groups across society; adolescents; newborns; the elderly. All of his images adhere to the format demonstrated above. Through his images, Bazin interrogates the face. He claims not to be performing any psychological function through these photographs, nor, he says, is he investigating the inner nature of the prisoner or trying to evoke any sympathy in the spectator. Instead he asserts that the images are a response to the institutionally imposed invisibility of inmates and are an attempt to restore a face to this branch of society and affirm its humanity (Bazin, 2005). By implementing very similar techniques to those used in forensic photography, Bazin achieves entirely opposing results. Rather than excluding all humanising characteristics, like forensic photography does, these large scale portraits demand a face to face with the prisoner, which reinstates the prisoner’s humanity. Furthermore, they also demonstrate that a photograph cannot provide complete knowledge of an individual. In comparison with Bazin’s other series, the Détenus do not stand out as deviant and therefore defy the notion of a criminal type. Instead, they hint at photography’s inability to classify and question whether anything can be learnt about a person from a mug shot.
Most people are unlikely to ever visit a prison, much less, to experience its reality firsthand. Therefore they tend to rely on representations of prisons (photography, television and cinema) to demonstrate and help them to understand the reality of the prison. The public is familiar with police photography as it is frequently reproduced in newspapers and televised news reports and the images are thus capable of influencing public opinion regarding offenders. As has been discussed in the previous paragraph, police photography reduces the subject of the mug shot to nothing more than the criminal self, which allows classification of the subject as criminal. It is, therefore, the image of the criminal self that confronts the public when they are presented with images of prisoners in news reports, and which they thus accept to be representative of offenders. The binary division of criminal/law abiding allows the public to think that they know offenders. The format of the mug shot appears intrusive and analytical: the prisoner is exposed, both full face and in profile to the camera. In this simplistic, uncomplicated criminal identity that the mug shot creates, the spectator is given the impression that the image leaves nothing undefined and communicates that they know all there is to know about the prisoner. In addition, the homogeneous format of the police photograph is such that each individual subject begins to resemble all of the others and together they form a singular representation of a criminal body. This allows the spectator to assimilate an image of the prisoner into their understanding. They believe that they have a good idea about the physical make up of a prisoner, conclude that they are not of their class and catalogue them according to a genre constructed of snippets of partial information, which they comfortably accept to be the totality. Foucault asserts that knowledge is power. Thus in viewing police photography and concluding that the prisoner is recognisable and understood the spectator feels a sense of control and empowerment: they feel that they would be able to identify criminality if it presented itself to them. The public’s assumption of knowledge restricts the prisoner to a stereotype. Bazin’s Détenus challenge this conjecture by suggesting
that offenders cannot be distinguished from the rest of the population and that photography is insufficient in that it cannot show a spectator everything about its subject.
Furthermore, police photography, in confining the subject to a uniquely criminal identity, eliminates all other traits and characteristics that may challenge the notion of us and them. Additional details would confuse the singular representation of the prisoner and make it more difficult for the spectator to reach a conclusion regarding what constitutes a criminal and what separates the criminal from them. Therefore, the spectator is able to rely on the police photograph as a representation of someone who is completely removed from their own self, as no common ground is depicted in the mug shot. The criminal/law abiding binary that is present in police photography offers further basis for segregation. Most people would place themselves in the law abiding category, which is, according to the binary division, the direct opposite of the criminality depicted in the mug shot. Therefore, police photography allows the spectator to distance themselves from the prisoner and reassures them that they are entirely dissimilar from the subject of the mug shot. Andrew O’Hagan, writing in The Times, suggests that: ‘the point of the picture is not how well it represents [a criminal] but how well it represents the feelings of the viewer: we require it to speak to us of evil, and so it does’ (2009). In this way, police photography comforts the spectator and convinces them of the prisoner’s otherness. Consequently the prisoner is confined to a classification of otherness and is effectively excluded from humanity. However, the spectator suffers his own
confinement, in that they are limited by their unilateral readings of prisoners. The spectator is convinced that these police photographs can communicate the character of the prisoner, when in fact they show very little. They thus fail to consider the prisoner in any wider terms, believing that they have understood the reality.
Prison photography responds to the totality of photographic confinement demonstrated by police photography, through both questioning the classification, to which prisoners have been hitherto confined, and opening up the spectatorial readings; encouraging a new representation of inmates. For example, where as police photography confines the prisoner to a uniquely criminal representation photography presents alternative identities and restores individuality to the inmate.
Figure 3: Jane Evelyn Atwood – Untitled from the series Berkendael from the Enfermement exhibition 2007. Technical specification unknown.
This black and white image by Atwood shows a young, beautiful woman sitting on a bed, cross legged, leaning her chin on her hand in what we can assume is a prison cell. She is obscured by one of the bars of the cell and a shaft of light illuminates part of her face, which is not presenting itself to the spectatorial gaze but which looks to the right of the photographer, towards whatever lies beyond the confines of her cell. Our gaze is drawn as
much to her body as it is to her face and we notice that she is wearing a mini-skirt and a vest top, which suggests that despite being imprisoned, she has managed to retain her femininity. The photograph employs a shallow depth of field and focuses solely on the young woman, who appears in sharp focus, although behind her we can see a couple of pillows and the mattress of her bed. The woman’s beauty and her fragility come as a surprise to a spectator who is accustomed to seeing police photography that presents a wholly criminal, thuggish aspect to the prisoner. Instead, from looking at this image, the spectator is forced to confront the issue of why this woman has been imprisoned. She is not the other that police
photography represents. She is ‘one of us’. This representation threatens our secure notion that the prisoner is an identifiable other, with which the law abiding public do not have anything in common.
Figure 4: Jacqueline Salmon – Cellule collective de 11m2, quartier haut, bloc A, la Santé, 2009. From the Impossible Photographie exhibition 2010. Technical specifications unknown.
Similarly, this coloured image by Jacqueline Salmon, which depicts reading and study materials spread over a prisoner’s bed, challenges the spectator’s notion of the prisoner as other. The image shows a number of books and some other personal effects, which are scattered across the bed. The lighting appears to come from either natural light or the light in the cell and overall the effects are not artistic. The image is moreover presented as evidence of the prisoner’s lifestyle and personal preference in terms of reading matter. The
overwhelming effect of this image is in its intention to present the humanity of the inmate, which is absent from mug shots. Notably the inmate is not present in the photograph so their visual identity remains anonymous, which reverses entirely the system of mug shots, which aim to eliminate all other identities but the physical. This image, instead, focuses on the personality of the inmate. It also further disrupts the spectator’s understanding of the
prisoner as other. Spectators may find themselves remarking that they too have read some of the books shown in the photograph and thus they are surprised to discover that they have something in common with a prisoner. The result is that the spectator is forced to
acknowledge that their understanding of the prison is incomplete; that mug shots do not reveal any truth, that their claim of being able to portray a criminal identity is wholly inaccurate and that their representative qualities are entirely insufficient. The spectator is also forced to consider that inmates do not differ from the rest of the population, in the sense that they possess individuality, and that they may not be an identifiable group, as is suggested by police photography.
Figure 5: Gaël Turine – Untitled from the series Marneffe, from the Enfermement exhibition 2007. Technical specifications unknown.
In the same way, this black and white image restores humanity to prisoners through its depiction of a prisoner’s creativity. In this image an ageing man sits on a chair in the centre of the frame and rather than looking towards the camera he concentrates on painting a model boat. Behind him, on a desk, sits a second model boat that we imagine that he has painted and on a windowsill are a number of potted plants. The man appears to have painted both boats with painstaking precision and by the same token he has attempted to make his cell more comfortable by growing potted plants and by placing tablecloths on each of the desks. The photographer has employed a large depth of field so as to include each of the elements in the room, thus assigning an importance to each of them and consequently the spectator’s gaze is drawn to each of them in turn. The result surprises the spectator as, through the
demonstration of the many elements that compose the man’s room, the spectator is introduced to a number of components of the prisoner’s identity, of which this photograph shows just a few. This disrupts the forensic image, which purports to show the criminal in
their entirety but which, in fact, is a reductive image that fails to sufficiently describe the individual. The man’s actions are not in keeping with societal constructions of the singular criminal identity. By demonstrating the skill and creativity of an inmate, Turine is able to demonstrate his humanity. The spectator is thus forced to question what they think they know about prisoners.
Figure 6: Mathieu Pernot – Promenades, cour de promenade, quartier d’isolement, Toulouse, 2001-2002. Black and white barium print, 80 x 100cm.
This black and white image by Mathieu Pernot shows an exercise yard in the isolation area of the prison. In the image three walls are visible as is a wire mesh over the tops of the walls, upon which sit two footballs. Graffiti covers the walls of the yard and a patch of grass is visible in the centre, whilst weeds grow along the bottom of the back wall. The image employs a large depth of field and each element in the photograph is shown in detail, in sharp focus, which communicates a sense that the scene is completely exposed and can thus be subjected to the spectator’s scrutiny. However, despite the fact that the image conveys the
impression of complete visibility, little is actually shown. Pernot, in his prison series, refuses to include any inmates, saying that: ‘le sujet de la prison serait les gens sauf que du coup le sujet n’existe pas parce qu’on ne peut pas le voir et ce que je voulais montrer c’était cette absence, le fait de ne pas voir’ (appendix). He says that his images highlight the It is
impossibility of representing any aspect of the prison beyond its architecture.
impossible, he claims, because since 2009 in France a photographer is not allowed to show a prisoner’s face (Jauffret, 2010) but it is also impossible in that there is no complete prisoner identity to be represented; they escape the camera. Bertillonage assumes the contrary,
suggesting that all necessary information is obtainable from a mug shot. However, Pernot’s images contradict this conjecture by interrogating representations of prisons, and suggest the insufficiency of the mug shot system. How can the diversity of the prison population be represented in a photograph, for example? If police photography connotes the fullness or presence of the criminal subject, Pernot absents and voids it. The spectator desires the reassurance of knowledge and understanding when it comes to areas of unfamiliarity and this is often achieved through a visual medium. Police photography responds to this desire for knowledge by producing images that present the prisoner in simple, unilateral terms, which provide the spectator with an illusion of knowledge. Pernot’s photography, however, denies the spectator a voyeuristic opportunity and thwarts the hungry spectatorial gaze. Instead, his work compels the spectator to question all other representations of prisoners and wonder whether there is any truth in them whatsoever. For example, if it is impossible to represent a prisoner, what does photography (including police photography) actually represent? In this way, Pernot’s images could be considered to free the inmate from the spectatorial gaze altogether, in that they suggest that knowledge of this milieu, without being a part of it oneself, is unattainable.
Photography’s ability to confine, therefore, depends on the way it is used, where it is used and the context in which it is used. Police photography has been specifically developed to document prisoners, reducing them to an amoebic identity so that they may be recognised and controlled. It also confines them to an exclusively criminal identity, which it presents to the public gaze. The public, in turn, becomes accustomed to the homogeneous images in police photography and accepts them as being representative of offenders as a whole, which thus confines criminals to a singular criminal body, according to which they are classified and judged. Police photography does not allow for any characteristics that deviate from the typology that it has created and as such, the public is able to distance itself from the criminal other as it believes itself not to share any common ground. Other photographers, however, often endeavour to combat the metaphorical confinement of the prisoner that is caused by police photography, through their attempts to provide a more complete representation of the individual. For example, figures 4 and 5 demonstrate aspects of the inmates’ characters that have been deliberately eliminated from their identity by police photography, whilst figure 2 aims to restore the inmate’s humanity. Often photography tries to challenge the stereotypes to which prisoners have been hitherto confined. Figure 3, in showing the beauty of the inmate, for instance, forces the spectator to consider the incompleteness and insufficiency of the criminal identity as created by police photography. Figure 5 shows the prisoner’s
individuality and restores part of the identity that the mug shot erased. Lastly, figure 6 questions photography’s capacity to represent an inmate at all, which thus refutes all representations of prisoners, no matter that they are artistic or scientific. The spectator is consequently forced to acknowledge that anything but firsthand knowledge of a situation is inaccurate and insufficient. And surely even firsthand experience, because it is embodied rather than a bird’s eye view, will be partial and fragmented. This is in part due to the architectural layout of the prison, which will be discussed in more detail in chapter 3.
Therefore, whilst photography can confine its subjects it can also reverse photographic confinement, rupture the visual conventions of carceral discourse, open up spectatorial readings and release its subjects from the confining gaze.
Interrogating the Architecture of the Prison
There is a dominant trend in prison photography to photograph the architectural space without any human presence. Therefore, a study of prison photography would be incomplete without a section devoted to an analysis of its architectural representations. Photographic representations of prison architecture have changed greatly throughout the years. Historically, photographs would depict the prison in terms of its efficiency, focusing exclusively on its architecture and its intended functions, as though it were a machine. Contemporary photographers, on the other hand, tend to be far more interested in representing the individual and as such focus on how individuals have reacted to and indeed altered the space around them. Consequently, when considered together, historical and contemporary representations of the prison’s architecture raise various questions regarding the changeability of the space, which is historically presented as a constant, and the way in which architecture – including the prison – takes on different meanings depending on who uses it.
Historically speaking the prison was photographically represented as a component of the larger penal machine. Photographs taken of the prison focused largely on its external
architecture as can be seen in figure 1 and show the prison in terms of what Jacques-François Blondel refers to as l’architecture terrible (Fichet, 1995, p. 437). That is to say that the architectural style of the prison is such that its exterior immediately communicates its purpose as a deterrent, a highly visible containment block for criminals and a centre for punishment and penal reform.
Figure 1: Hippolyte Auguste Collard – La Grande Roquette vue de la Petite Roquette, 1985. From the Impossible Photographie exhibition, 2010. Technical specification unknown.
Figure 1 shows the entrance of la Grande Roquette in Paris, as seen from la Petite Roquette, a juvenile detention centre. With its imposing and impenetrable façade, it is as impossible to view the interior of the prison from an external position as it is to view the exterior from an internal position. This is due to the high surrounding wall and the small and infrequent windows. L’architecture terrible aimed, with its intimidating appearance, to deter passers-by from committing a crime in that it contributes: ‘en quelque sorte, à annoncer dès le dehors, le désordre de la vie des hommes détenus dans l’intérieur, et tout ensemble la férocité nécessaire à ceux préposés pour les tenir aux fers’ (ibid, p. 438). With that in mind, historical images of the prison appear to depict it as part of the penal machine, highlighting its fearsome exterior as though to demonstrate the efficiency of the apparatus.
Some historical images of the prison show it from a bird’s eye view, as can be seen in figure 2.
Figure 2: Préfecture de Police - la Santé, 1974. From the Impossible Photographie exhibition, 2010. Technical specifications unknown.
These images reflect Jeremy Benthams’s panopticon model of the prison. Not only do they demonstrate a panopticon style of layout but they perpetuate surveillance, which is the foremost principle of panopticon theory, by allowing spectators to visualise the totality of the external layout. For security reasons, aerial photographs are no longer a possibility for photographers. Mathieu Pernot describes how he initially wanted to photograph the prison from the air but was denied access by the prison authorities on a security basis (appendix). Pernot explains that the prisons employ their own photographers in instances where they might require aerial photographs. For everyone else, the practice is strictly out of bounds.
Historical representations of the prison interior further uphold the notion of the prison as a machine.
Figure 3: Préfecture de police – Dortoir des nourrices, sale Saint-Joseph, Saint-Lazare, 1911. From the Impossible Photographie exhibition, 2010. Technical specifications unknown.
For example, figure 3 shows a maternity ward. There are a number of beds lining the left and right walls of the room and their corresponding cots are in the middle section. The bedding is in pristine condition as is the rest of the room, which, it should be noted, is unoccupied. In the majority of historical images pertaining to the prison the effect is similar and they show no trace of human presence. This is because photographers were not allowed to photograph inside working French prisons until 1976 when Jean Gaumy became the first photographer, who was not employed by the prison, to do so (Actuphoto, 2009). Consequently, the images appear not unlike a brochure in which the prison facilities are advertised to the public. The
hypothetical efficiency and functions of the prison are foregrounded, whereas the occupied prison is not shown.
Contemporary prison photography, on the other hand, demonstrates the prison in use. It frequently depicts the interior of prison cells. For example, figure 4 demonstrates the interior of a shared prison cell in occupation.
Figure 4: Jacqueline Salmon – Cellule collectif de 11m2, quartier haut, bloc A, la Santé, 2009. From the Impossible Photographie exhibition, 2010. Technical specifications unknown.
There is a trio of beds, stacked one on top of the other, two of which are unmade. They stand in immediate contrast to the neatly made beds in figure 3. Furthermore, figure 4 shows signs of occupation which are absent from figure 3. Laundry is drying on makeshift washing lines and on the lowermost bed it appears as though a washing line has been set up so as to shield the bottom bed from surveillance and provide a private sanctuary for its occupant. The
occupants of the cell have also put up their own decorations on the walls in the form of postcards and magazine clippings. In the Musée Carnavalet’s 2010 exhibition L’Impossible Photographie contemporary images such as this are juxtaposed with historical photographs. The juxtaposition highlights the discrepancy between the historical representations where the prison is depicted as solid, efficient and unchanging and the contemporary representations where the inmates have personalised the space, transforming it from one where individuality is designed out to one that Albertine Sarrazin, a novelist who spent much of her life in prison, refers to as homely (Crawley Jackson and Butterworth, unpublished). The adjacency of historical and contemporary images stresses the inmates’ subversion of the prison machine. The historical images portray a strict machine that should not be personalised yet the contemporary images contradict this representation. They instead show it as a place which is occupied and appropriated by individuals: a place where humanity continues to thrive despite the construct and conditions, which attempt to suppress humanity and the individual (Goffman, 1961, p. 47). In this way, photographers can simultaneously demonstrate the prisoners’ resistance to the autocratic nature of the prison and criticise the conditions of the prison. For example, in a number of cases, historical and contemporary images have been positioned next to one another so as to demonstrate the lack of improvement in facilities since the prison’s construction and its structural deterioration: two thirds of French prisons are over a hundred years old (Delarue and Attal, 2010). In order to further illustrate resistance against the totalitarian prison machine through the imposition of the self on the prison space, Catherine Réchard has produced a collection of images that were also displayed in the Impossible Photographie exhibition. They demonstrate how inmates have transformed
everyday and, more importantly, available objects into items of comfort. Figure 5, for example shows a lamp made out of a coffee jar, whilst figure 6 shows a lampshade that has been made out of an old t-shirt.
Figure 5: Catherine Réchard – La Lampe de Michel, La Santé, 2000-2001. From the Impossible Photographie exhibition, 2010. Technical specifications unknown.
Figure 6 : Catherine Réchard – Le Plafonnier de Moussa, La Santé, 2009. From the Impossible Photographie exhibition, 2010. Technical specifications unknown.
In historical terms, prison representations excluded inmate representations and displayed the architecture whilst not in use. Contemporary photography is more focused on representing human presence in the prison and the ways that prisoners have of reacting to and resisting against their imposed confinement. Therefore, there exists a contradiction between that which should not be seen and that which contemporary photography represents. That is to say, the prison should signify order and control and yet contemporary images demonstrate that, in fact, control is not absolute. Prisoners resist the depersonalisation and repression of the prison through small acts of resistance such as putting a picture on the wall or making a lamp shade.
Through their depictions of the prisoners’ use of space, contemporary prison photographers demonstrate how the prison, rather than being the congealed, unchanging institution that l’architecture terrible purports it to be, is in fact a constantly evolving and ever redeveloping space, in which the users play as important a role as they do in architecture on the ‘outside’. Adrian Forty claims that architecture is: ‘made and remade over and over again each time it is represented through another medium, each time its surroundings change, each time different people experience it’ (Forty, 1996 cited in Crawley Jackson and Butterworth, unpublished). Therefore, the inmates, in decorating the space and thus stamping their identity onto it, transform the space from that of the historical representations – a sanitised, pleasure free and dehumanised one – into what Sarrazin describes as home. L’architecture terrible thus
becomes something more familiar and comfortable. In addition, photographers play a role in remaking the prison through their contributions to the public realm and through their photographic involvement with the space. For example, l’architecture terrible is no longer impenetrable but is accessible to outsiders both in terms of the photographer’s physical presence in the space and the access that the images give the spectator.
As we have said, historical depictions of the prison foreground it as a place of punishment, discipline and detention and accordingly there are numerous representations of cell doors, which are ultimately symbolic of a deprivation of liberty. The images proudly display the captivity of prisoners and enhance the notion of the prison as controlling and hermetic. This image, for example, has an ethereal quality, as a result of a shaft of light that illuminates the archway and a cell door. It is as though the photographer is suggesting that the prison is endorsed by God himself.
Figure 7: Henri Manuel – Escalier de l’Entrée, la Conciergerie. 1929-1931. From the Impossible Photographie exhibition, 2010. Technical specifications unknown.
Doors are also a common theme in more contemporary prison photography. For example, Pernot has photographed an entire series of prison doors. Conversely to historical prison photography, however, Pernot’s images do not praise the prison system or reflect its efficiency. Instead, Pernot’s doors demonstrate that despite the photographer’s physical proximity to the prisoner, there is no possibility to interact with him, even though all that is separating the two individuals is a single door (appendix). Through these representations, Pernot suggests that those who use the architecture see and react to it in different ways. For example, the historical images of the prison and its doors, tended to be used to publicise the prison’s efficiency and were intended both to underscore the segregation of prisoners from the public and the prison’s total control. For Pernot, the doors represent a barrier to both
interaction with the prisoner and to a comprehensive understanding of the prison. And no doubt, for inmates of the prison, the doors will represent something else entirely. Consequently, Pernot presents the argument that understanding of the prison is experiential. Each person’s experience of the prison will be different and therefore, representation is impossible. Pernot reminds us that as with all architectures, there can be no totalising (panoptic) view; all view is both embodied and partial.
The title of the exhibition from which I draw these images – L’Impossible Photographie summarises the tensions that beset the encounter between prison and photography. How can photography, which is limited to a uniquely visual representation of a fleeting moment, communicate the reality of imprisonment, for example? In terms of representing the
architecture of the prison, contemporary prison photography has turned its back on the clinical, brochure-like representations that are historically dominant. Instead photographers show the space in use, revealing the tension that exists between the dehumanising nature of the prison and the humanising character of the cells. They thus illustrate how the prisoners interact with their surroundings and react against the depersonalisation that the prison imposes on them. Photographers reveal the prison to be an ever changing institution that is adapted to its occupants as much as they must adapt to it. However, although the images interrogate how the inmates use and respond to the space, representations of prisoners themselves are largely absent from the domain. This prompts the question, is it easier for photographers to photograph the architecture of the prison than it is to photograph its inhabitants? Photographers like Pernot problematise prison representations by suggesting that everybody will experience the prison differently and that, therefore, a singular accurate representation is impossible. Instead, each person will have a unique reaction to the prison architecture in accordance with their personal position.
Interrogating Recurrent Themes in Representations of Inmates
In this chapter I will explore the representation of the body in prison photography. I will focus on the way in which the incarcerated body is presented by and presents itself to the camera’s lens. I will be using images by Hugues de Wurstemberger and Jean Gaumy to illustrate my theories concerning representations of men in the prison but I will only be considering images by Jane Evelyn Atwood in respect to representations of women. I will go on to question the ethical concerns of the photographer in regards to photographing the body in pain. Although there is no specific research that deals with photographic representations of the prison, I will refer to studies by Elaine Scarry, Susan Sontag and Judith Butler to explain my conclusions.
L’Impossible Photographie, a recent exhibition of prison photography held in Paris, presented the impossibility of representing the prison. Although its accompanying texts lack any real analysis, the images themselves effectively demonstrate the tensions and problems of representing the prison and those who are incarcerated within its walls. For example, on the one hand there are bodies that are not available to the photographer, for instance those taking drugs or engaging in homosexual relationships. Or, if the photographer does capture images of intimate moments then they are understood as a type of voyeurism. On the other hand, there are the men who wish to be photographed, such as the bodybuilders who want to present themselves to the camera so as to show off their bodies. Furthermore, as I mentioned in chapters 1 and 2, due to a ruling in 2009 a photographer is no longer allowed to show a prisoner’s face in his work. In comparison with the images of the bodybuilders, who evoke a sort of hyper-presence, the difficulties and ambiguities of representing the prison become
clear: there is either an absence or a performance, neither of which reflect the reality, as we would typically understand it, that photography often claims to capture. Therefore,
representation can never encompass the totality of the prison. Mathieu Pernot underlines this fact through his refusal to include representations of inmates in his work. This chapter will consider how Pernot, through his photography, raises the ethical concerns associated with representing the prison. It will illustrate how he demonstrates that photographers are
incapable of effectively representing the prison since they cannot understand what it is to be imprisoned and thus cannot relate to the experiences that they purport to represent.
i. Representing Bodybuilding Bodybuilding is a common trope in prison photography, which seems to portray bodybuilding in terms of a primarily masculine act of resistance against the prison system. That is to say that it offers a source of entertainment and a means of passing time in an institution where pleasure is intentionally minimised. This aspect is particularly evident in some of Jean Gaumy’s photography, where prisoners can be seen to enjoy their physical achievements. However, bodybuilding might also be considered a response to the
psychological needs of prisoners in that it can amount to a reassertion of masculinity and control in the disempowering environment of the prison. Prison photography demonstrates how bodybuilding can reinstate masculinity and agency whilst paradoxically illustrating how bodybuilding can contradict any reassertion of the self since it offers prisoners a means with which to conform and embrace a stereotype.
Figure 1: Hugues de Wurstemberger – Untitled from the Saint-Gilles series, from the Enfermement exhibition, 2007. Technical specifications unknown.
For example, this image has been taken in a prison cell. In the centre of the image stands a young male prisoner who poses topless in order to display his muscles. The photographer has composed the image so as to reflect the man’s power and strength, thus contradicting the disempowerment evidenced by the setting. For example, the prisoner’s stance is one that is typically associated with strength: legs apart, shoulders back, muscles tensed and head held high, the prisoner dominates the space. The image has been captured contre-plongée so that the camera looks up at its subject. A window frames his head so as to emphasise his power and draw attention to his gaze, which dares the spectator to question his masculinity and 65
looks down at the camera defiantly and with authority. The wide depth of field ensures that each element of the photograph is presented to the spectator. By juxtaposing the prisoner and the cell in this way the photographer reveals the tension between the control and disempowerment of the prison and the inmate’s need to assert his masculinity and reclaim his self.
However, representations of bodybuilding can also contest the agency of the prisoner. Representations of bodybuilding, like tattoos, are prolific in prison photography, which raises the question; is bodybuilding just a means for prisoners to conform to norms? And what does this mean in terms of the prisoner’s agency? Although this dissertation will not focus on tattoos in any depth since there has already been substantial research on the subject, it is worth noting that they often appear alongside representations of bodybuilding. Prisoners are stereotypically depicted as muscular and tattooed. Therefore, in reproducing stereotypical images of prisoners, photographers demonstrate the absence of the inmate’s agency: even where elements of their lives can be controlled by the inmates themselves, such as their physical build or whether or not they have tattoos, photography, in its repetitive representations, demonstrates that inmates tend to conform to a typology. In this way
photography questions whether the hyper-masculinity evidenced in bodybuilding is borne of a pressure for the men to conform both in prison and in wider society; to be a man; to be tough.
ii. The Posed Body Photographic representations of bodybuilders are often posed. Prisoners appear to want the photographer to take their picture and, as such, they present themselves to the camera and use the opportunity to display and show off their bodies. Whereas the posed images allow the man to assert his masculinity and exhibit his body, of which he is proud, posed images of women are altogether different. Images that contain women who are posing are infrequent and, in contrast to the representations of men, which are assumed and owned by their subjects, the posed images of women often seem to focus on the women’s vulnerability.
Figure 2: Jane Evelyn Atwood – Lacerated and Burned Arms, not True Suicide Attempts but Self-Mutilation Common among Female Prisoners. Correctional Centre for Women, Pardubice, Czech Republic, 1992. From the series Too Much Time. Technical specifications unknown.
For example, the women in figure 2, who have cut and burnt themselves, are holding their arms out so as to allow the photographer to photograph them. The image is posed but whereas in posed images of men the individual presents himself to the camera, this image focuses solely on the self-mutilation evidenced on these women’s arms. It is a close-up shot
that removes the women’s faces and the rest of their bodies from the photographic frame. The men appear to assert their agency in the images. For instance, in figure 1 the man presents himself to the camera in the way that he would like to be viewed by a spectator. In figure 2 however, the women’s arms are displayed but the women are not. In excluding the women’s faces from the image and thus refusing to present them to the camera in their entirety, Atwood reflects the way that women are repressed and controlled by the prison and suggests that they have no way of reclaiming their selves and asserting control except to use their own bodies as a site of resistance. Figure 2 therefore presents the women as victims of the prison regime, suggesting that their agency is denied and that they are forced to selfmutilate in order to resist the control of the prison.
iii. The Female Body Fragilisé Figure 2 provides an effective example of how photographers demonstrate the vulnerability of the female body. Atwood explains that these self inflicted wounds were not suicide attempts and that self-mutilation is common amongst prisoners. By including references to self-mutilation, photographers can illustrate the emotional pain that the prison provokes. Christiane de Beaurepaire, speaking in Le Monde’s web documentary Le Corps Incarcéré, claims that because inmates are often poorly educated and have never been taught or encouraged to express themselves, the body can assume the role of a page where inmates can etch out their suffering (Seelow, S et al., 2009). Therefore, in some cases, where words do not suffice, emotional pain can be expressed through self-infliction of physical pain. Elaine Scarry adds that pain is inexpressible in language (1985, p. 4) and therefore, in a similar sense to the way inmates carve out their suffering, creating visual representations of their emotional pain, photography describes the pain of inmates through visual reproductions. People who have not experienced the prison cannot easily understand the emotional pain that
incarceration causes and therefore, photographs can be a way for photographers to convey this concept. Similarly, figure 3 shows a woman injecting herself with heroin.
Figure 3: Jane Evelyn Atwood – Prisoner Shoots Heroin in her Cell. Hindelbank Prison for women, Hindelbank, Switzerland, 1994. From the series Too Much Time. Technical specifications unknown.
Prison photography rarely touches on the issue of drug abuse in the prison even though it is a widespread problem. This, perhaps, is not very surprising since prisoners would not want evidence of their transgressions recorded as it could be used against them. However, this photograph was taken in a Swiss jail where needles are provided so as to allow safe and controlled drug use, which may explain why this woman has allowed herself to be photographed. By photographing the woman in figure 3, the photographer is able to visually describe the woman’s drug abuse and consequent self-abuse. However, not only are visual reproductions of violence such as those shown in figures 2 and 3 arguably more effective than words in demonstrating situations that the spectator is likely to be unfamiliar with, but they also, and problematically, give the photographer currency in shock value, which as
Susan Sontag suggests: ‘has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value (…) How else to make a dent when there is incessant exposure to images, and over exposure to a handful of images seen over and over again?’ (2003, p. 20) Therefore, images such as these, which shock and disturb, arguably allow photographers to have a greater impact on audiences and express their own ideological and political opinions. For example, Atwood is opposed to female incarceration and in showing harrowing images of female suffering she aims to arouse empathy in her audience. This may go some way towards explaining why photographers feel it necessary to communicate the pain and suffering of inmates to spectators but there is nonetheless a distinctly voyeuristic element to this kind of photography, which will be discussed in a later section of this chapter.
Photographers also use upsetting images to criticise the prison and highlight the violence that occurs there.
Figure 4: Jane Evelyn Atwood – Handcuffed Inmate Writhes in Pain during Gynaecological Examination, Moments before she gave Birth by Caesarean. Providence City Hospital, Anchorage, Alaska, USA, 1993. From the series Too Much Time. Technical specifications unknown.
For example, figure 4 is a series of images that show a woman giving birth in handcuffs. The woman is clearly in agony but is restricted in her movements by the handcuffs that she has been forced to wear. By photographing the situation Atwood is able to criticise prison protocol and bureaucracy. In her images she exposes the irrationality of forcing a woman in
labour to wear handcuffs. In a caption accompanying the images Atwood explains that two guards were stationed outside the door whilst the woman gave birth inside. By showing close-ups of the woman’s face, which contorts in agony, it is obvious to a spectator that the woman is incapable of violence or escape in view of the pain she is in, thus the use of handcuffs seems absurd. In this way Atwood can pass comment on the dehumanising treatment of the woman. The prison system refuses to recognise the individual or the individual circumstances and instead sees the woman as nothing more than prisoner. Consequently, figure 4 proposes that prison bureaucracy and protocol are established on the reductive notion of the prisoner as in possession of a singular criminal identity (as described in chapter 2), thus they apply identical procedures to each prisoner regardless of individual circumstances. Atwood can therefore illustrate the dehumanising effect of the rigid and regimented prison system. However, the act of taking photographs, in this instance, is problematic. The ethical concerns of representing the prison will be discussed at greater length towards the end of this chapter but it is important to highlight the camera’s polemic involvement in this scene. For example, why was Atwood taking photographs in a labour ward? Is it ethical to produce voyeuristic images of a woman in labour? In photographing a woman whilst she gives birth, the camera, it could be suggested, reinforces the ways in which the woman is disempowered and stripped of her dignity at the hands of the prison. And consequently, does capturing this image constitute a secondary act of abuse?
Figure 5: Jane Evelyn Atwood – Corrections Officers Strip a Newly Arrested Woman who Tried to Commit Suicide by Swallowing her Own Clothes. Wildwood Pre-Trial Facility, Kenai, Alaska, USA, 1993. From the series Too Much Time. Technical specifications unknown.
Figure 5 shows a number of male prison officers and a half naked female inmate. One of the officers is restraining the woman whilst the other two prison officers strip her of the rest of her clothes. Meanwhile, the woman struggles on the floor. The image portrays the guards’ treatment of the prisoner as abusive. The woman’s vulnerable nakedness is juxtaposed with the authority of the prison uniforms, which communicates a sense of helplessness and violation. In this way Atwood suggests that this sort of event is a frequent occurrence and thus demonstrates the demeaning violence that female prisoners are faced with inside the prison. The woman’s position on the floor, the fact that she is being pinned down by a uniformed officer and her forced nakedness produce a sense of institutional sexualised violence, which Atwood highlights and criticises. However, as if to justify the circumstances depicted in the image, Atwood includes a caption explaining that male prison officers were only called in to help when female officers could no longer handle the situation. The
spectator has to question why a photographer has included this explanation of the violence in the image. Did the prison insist on it, for example? Or is it the photographer’s responsibility since she understands how the image may be misinterpreted? Although it will be discussed in detail later on, it is worth briefly questioning the camera’s involvement, in this scene, here. In explaining the circumstances shown in the image, is Atwood excusing the voyeuristic nature of her photograph? Is she attempting to explain why it was necessary to take this photograph?
Images such as figures 4 and 5 suggest the existence of violence performed upon prisoners by the prison itself, whilst images like figures 2 and 3 demonstrate self-inflicted violence.
Figure 6: Jane Evelyn Atwood – Inmate shows a Razor Blade Slice in her Back Inflicted by a Man whom she Refused to Sleep with after he’d Offered her a Ride. Maricopa County Jail, Phoenix, Arizona, USA, 1997. From the series Too Much Time. Technical specifications unknown.
This picture however, depicts a woman whose back is scarred as a result of abuse prior to her incarceration. In this image, Atwood hints at the continuity of violence throughout inmates’ lives thorough her inclusion of the words sheriff’s inmate that run across the back of the 73
woman’s shirt. In the image, the woman is off centre and the image has been angled so as to present her on a slant. Consequently, the words sheriff’s inmate appear horizontally in the centre of the frame, which thus bestows upon them a title value. They also run in parallel to the woman’s scar, which almost underlines them, thus reinforcing the suggestion of a continuity of violence. Atwood thus illustrates that brutalised bodies tend to be the ones that go to prison, where they will continue to be brutalised, whether that be at the hands of the prison or self-inflicted.
iv. Ethical Issues Associated with Photographic Representations of Inmates
Figure 7: Jane Evelyn Atwood – Corrections Officers give a Drunk Woman an Alcohol Test. Sixth Avenue Jail Annex, Anchorage, Alaska, USA, 1993. From the series Too Much Time. Technical specifications unknown.
Figure 7 shows two police officers forcing a woman to perform a breathalyser test. The prison officer in the background is holding the inmate’s head still whilst the one in the foreground is holding the inmate’s nose and squeezing her cheeks together so as to force her to open her mouth in order that the alcohol test can be carried out. The inmate’s face is
almost entirely obscured by the second prison officer’s hands and her head is pressed against the wall, which highlights the violence in the image. In addition, the camera is very close to the scene thus further emphasising the violence, since it fills the frame. However, this closeup shot also demonstrates the photographer’s own proximity to the scene. For example, she appears to be standing underneath the prison officer’s body so as to capture the image, which is extremely invasive. Even if she zoomed in on the scene and cropped the image there remains a sense of the photographer’s intrusive involvement in the scene. By putting herself so physically close to the violence in the image is Atwood in turn abusive? Or is she instead hinting at photography being part of the violence? In her proximity to the subjects in the image Atwood is necessarily participating in the scene and whether or not it is intentional, the image raises questions about the camera’s participation in the violence. Judith Butler
supports this theory by stating that: ‘photographing a scene is a way of contributing to it’ (2009, p. 84).
In chapter 2 I discuss photography as an act of confinement. There we see that police photography is instrumental in the production of the criminal self. Do photographers who photograph violence inevitably produce a second act of abuse? For example, in
photographing the situation the photographer is not playing a passive role but is actively participating in the scene, which raises the question; what is the photographer’s role in the production of violence? Judith Butler suggests that: ‘rather than merely referring to acts of atrocity, the photograph builds and confirms these acts for those who would name them as such’ (ibid, p. 70). Therefore, it could be considered that photography, rather than just documenting circumstances, actually reproduces the violence in its images. Furthermore, if that is the case, what are the ethical considerations of the photographer? Should they photograph acts of violence if they constitute a secondary abuse? In addition, if the
photographer is participating in a scene, do they have a duty to intervene so as to prevent suffering? It could be argued that photographers would not be able to intervene but, in that case, should photographers refuse to participate in or photograph the scene? Atwood often includes captions in her work that describe and clarify the situation depicted. Therefore, she is aware of the suffering and violence in the events that she is witnessing and yet she fails to intervene and instead chooses to record the circumstances on her camera. For example, in figures 3 – 5, where violence is taking place at the time of the shutter release, the spectator cannot help but wonder why the photographer has chosen to photograph the scene rather than interrupt it. Atwood would probably argue that her photography is a means of intervening: she is currently using her photography to raise awareness of a US death row prisoner, Gaile Owens, and campaign for her release, whilst at the same time campaigning against women’s prisons in general (Atwood and Jackson, 2010). However, Butler states that: ‘photography has a relation to intervention, but is not the same as intervening’ (2009, p. 84), which seems to support the theory that Atwood’s photography plays a social role whilst at the same time further problematising it, suggesting that despite whatever intentions Atwood may have to raise awareness and question incarceration, her images are still essentially participating in the violence. Although, she does acknowledge that images do raise awareness of suffering and encourage reflection on the circumstances depicted (ibid, pp. 84-85). However, the ethical question of whether or not the photographer should intervene in the violence that she is witnessing remains.
In addition to the concerns raised regarding the reproduction of violence in photography and the participation of the photographer in the scene, there is a sense of voyeurism in many of the images that is problematic. Sontag states that people prefer photography that carries with it the weight of witnessing (2003, p. 50). She adds that: ‘it seems that the appetite for
pictures showing bodies in pain is (…) keen (…) There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching’ (ibid, p. 36-37). Figures 2 and 3 are arguably particularly liable to cause the spectator to flinch. Why has Atwood included them in her series? By including representations of pain and suffering in her images, is she essentially exploiting bodies in order to satisfy a voyeuristic desire? Figure 2, admittedly, is posed but figures 3, 4, 5 and 7 seem not to be. Atwood appears to have captured these images as the violence unfolds and this raises a further ethical issue regarding consent. It is unclear whether the inmates have given their consent to be photographed. These images are of an act of violence in progress and it therefore seems unlikely that the photographer would have interrupted the situation to ask the inmate whether she can photograph it. In figure 3, the woman is injecting herself with heroin. Is she even in a place to be able to give her consent? Consequently, many of the images seem intrusive and the spectator, as Sontag describes, feels uncomfortable at viewing such personal images whilst at the same time relishing them with voyeuristic gratification.
Butler explains that for a photograph to have political or ethical import the spectator must be aware of the frame, which is to say from where the photograph is being taken. There is someone taking the photography; doing the framing. She says that: ‘the photographer,
though not photographed, remains part of the scene that is published, so exposing his or her clear complicity’ (2009, p. 95). Butler goes on to state that: ‘that scene now becomes the object, and we are not so much directed by the frame as directed toward it with a renewed critical capacity’ (2009, p. 96). As a consequence of the photographer’s evidential
involvement in the scene the spectator is forced to ask questions, such as; where was that person standing so as to take the photograph? What kind of situation must have existed in order for that image to be produced? Unless one is aware of the frame, why the image was
taken and from what perspective, these kinds of photographs will never achieve significant political or ethical impact. In addition, the frame can be viewed as both the person taking the photograph and what the spectator is looking through when viewing a photograph. For example, even when the spectator is able to peer at women unhindered, for instance in the case of figure 8, it feels so voyeuristic that it makes the spectator aware of the act of looking. The spectator is thus made to feel guilty by the frame: looking is rendered more complicated than just looking because the frame underlines that the spectator is not just looking innocently and thus makes them aware of the act of their looking. Therefore, as L’Impossible Even if the
Photography suggests, effective representation of the prison cannot exist.
spectator believes that they are experiencing a direct and uninhibited encounter with reality, due to the fact that the images are making the spectator aware of the act and the nature of their looking, it problematises representation.
In response to the ethical problems raised by representing violence, photographers like Mathieu Pernot refuse to photograph acts of violence. Butlers says that in the case of photographs which appear to document circumstances: ‘what emerges under these conditions is a viewer who assumes him or herself to be in an immediate (and incontestable) visual relation to reality’ (2009, p. 73). Pernot, in his photography contests the notion that
photographs are capable of reproducing reality. He photographs the spaces within the prison, which are empty of human presence, or he shows how members of the public interact with prisoners, such as in his Hurleurs series. He claims that by refusing to show inmates in his images he underlines the fact that someone from outside the prison is ill equipped to represent a prisoner since he cannot understand what it is to be imprisoned (2004, p. 75). He adds that he is incapable of representing suffering in the prison as he cannot relate to it (appendix). Therefore, the only way that he has of representing prisoners is from an exterior
perspective, which is why no inmates are included in his work.
In this way Pernot
problematises representations of prisoners and suffering by underlining the fact that photographic representations of them are impossible. In doing so he raises each of the ethical concerns that have been discussed in this chapter and criticises photographers who do not recognise the often contradictory and exploitative nature of their images.
v. Representations of Men and Women in Prison Photography Following on from the issue of voyeurism, it is worth considering some of the most noteworthy differences in representations of men and women in prison photography. The difference that is immediately apparent concerns the agency of the individuals pictured. Representations of men are largely assumed by the individual and present him in the way that he wishes to be presented. For example, in figure 1 the man has chosen to present himself to the camera with authority, whilst in the case of women, images are often produced seemingly without the woman’s consent and the women pictured often seem unaware that they are being photographed. There is, therefore, more of a voyeuristic element where representations of women are concerned. Furthermore, women are more likely to be naked in prison
photography. In her book Too Much Time Atwood describes how European prisoners were more prepared to allow her to photograph them in the nude (2000, p. 13). Yet, why would she want to? In some of Atwood’s images women are pictured in their cells naked from the waist up. It seems strange that photographers should be particularly keen to portray naked women in their images, especially when these images are compared with representations of men. For example, women are often naked and unaware of the camera, as can be seen by figure 5. Moreover, the nudity shown here is involuntary: the woman’s clothes have been forcibly removed by prison officers. However, with men, where there is any nakedness it is voluntary and performed with the individual’s knowledge. For example, the man in figure 1,
aware of the camera, has intentionally removed his shirt so as to display his upper body. Representations of men demonstrate their agency and the choice that they have been allowed to make, whilst representations of women seem to highlight female vulnerability. They are also far more voyeuristic, capturing and focusing on the woman’s naked body and her fragility either unnecessarily, as is the case of Atwood’s posed Europeans, or without her consent. Sontag suggests that: ‘all images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic’ (2003, p. 85). In this way Sontag supports the view that images of naked women in prison photography are both voyeuristic and gratuitous. Even where the circumstances represented are similar, there are significant differences in the way in which men and women are represented, which suggests that the camera, as well as the prison, plays an important role in constructing subjectivities of the incarcerated. For
example, photography, as I suggested in chapter 2 with my account of Bertillonage, is as much a part of the production of the criminal self as the prison itself and therein lays the danger of prison photography. Historically it produced the criminal self and in its
representations of the body it looks as though it might be well placed to produce the incarcerated self.
Figure 8: Jane Evelyn Atwood – Prison Sauna for Inmates. Ryazan corrective labour colony for juvenile delinquents, Ryazan, former USSR, 1990. From the series Too Much Time. Technical specifications unknown.
For example, this image depicts a group of naked female inmates washing themselves using individual, shallow metal buckets of water. The buckets have been placed on a brick island in an otherwise bare room. Furthermore, the photographer has employed a large depth of field so as to include all women in the image in sharp focus. These elements enhance the lack of privacy that the women must endure, which is also reflected in their being photographed. Four of the women scrub themselves using cloths and bars of soap whilst the woman in the left hand foreground, who has presumably finished her own scrubbing, tips the remainder of the water over her body. None of the women, however, look towards the camera, nor do they interact with one another. Moreover, they are totally focussed on the task of washing themselves.
Figure 9: Hugues de Wurstemberger – Untitled from the series Saint-Gilles from the Enfermement exhibition 2007. Technical specifications unknown.
This image depicts a man in a close up profile shot. He seems to be combing his hair whilst looking at himself in a mirror, although the mirror is not visible in the image. The
photographer has employed a shallow depth of field so that the man stands out in sharp contrast with his surroundings. Although despite the background being a little out of focus, the spectator guesses, from the tiles on the wall, that the man is in a bathroom or sanitised space. The man, like the women in figure 8, is completely focused on combing his hair and his forehead even creases as he concentrates on styling his hair.
Both figure 8 and figure 9 depict scenes of personal grooming although that is where the similarities end. Firstly, in figure 8, the women are not looking at the camera; neither do they seem aware of its presence whilst the man, although he is not looking at the camera, appears
to have invited the photographer into the confines of a bathroom in order that he might be allowed to capture his image. Furthermore, the man is looking at himself in the mirror so is aware of the image that he is presenting to the camera. By presenting oneself to the camera inmates are already demonstrating their agency. However, by being able to visualise what he is presenting to the camera, the inmate is assigned even more power since he can shape his expression and present himself to the camera in exactly the way he wishes to be viewed. Women are largely denied the possibility to assert themselves in front of the camera and are consequently at the mercy of the photographer and how they wish to present them. In addition, the women are completely naked whereas the man is fully dressed. In the very rare cases where men are shown naked the images are out of focus, thus allowing the prisoner to retain a degree of anonymity and privacy.
Figure 10: Jean Gaumy – Untitled from the series Les Incarcérés. 1976-1979. Technical specifications unknown.
For example, this image shows a strip search of a male prisoner. The prisoner stands in an office whilst a prison officer crouches down to perform the search. If we compare this image to some of the representations of women, many differences are immediately apparent. For instance, the setting is one of an office, which is a more human setting that the empty cell shown in figure 5. Furthermore, the man is being stripped calmly by one officer, whilst, in the case of figure 5, three officers violently restrained and forcibly undressed the woman. The male prisoner is thus depicted in a more dignified way than the woman. He is allowed to stand and is unrestrained whereas the woman in figure 5 is being held to the floor. In addition, the prisoner’s face is blurred whereas in figure 8 the women’s faces are clearly shown. He is therefore allowed to retain his dignity and his anonymity whereas the images of the women are largely more voyeuristic, stripping them of their anonymity and any remaining privacy and allowing the spectator to view them unreservedly.
There remain further differences between the representations of men and women in prison photography. For example, in the close-up of the women in figure 2, their heads and the rest of their bodies are excluded from the image, whilst in the images of men the individual is shown in his entirety. Furthermore, the way that men and women interact with the camera differs. For instance, women frequently do not look back at the camera whilst in figure 1 the man stares directly back into the camera lens. Furthermore, in figure 1 the man is shown as taking up as much physical space as possible whilst in figures 5 and 7 the women are being pushed into a corner. Prison testimony has often documented the need for prisoners to feel in control of their space: ‘some days I would pace up and down every inch of the cell. Maybe I looked crazy walking back and forth like some trapped animal, but I had no choice – I needed to feel in control of my space’ (King, 2010). In showing men to have control of the space and women to be controlled by the space photographers seem to be suggesting female
vulnerability. In addition, as I suggested in chapter 3, prison architecture can be adapted to the prisoner’s needs, thus becoming a lived in space. Prison photography demonstrates that men own and use their space. For example, in figure 1 the man fills the space. In contrast, women are shown as occupying the prison architecture very differently.
Figure 11: Jane Evelyn Atwood – Newly Booked Woman in Holding Cell. Wildwood Pre-trial Facility, Kenai, Alaska, USA, 1993. From the series Too Much Time. Technical specifications unknown.
For example, in figure 11 the woman lies naked on the floor, which contrasts immediately with figure1. The photographer appears to have photographed the woman from eye level and through a gap in the doo. Like in many of the other representations of women that are discussed in this dissertation the woman seems unaware of the photographer. She is lying on a sheet and seems to have something in her mouth. Whereas the man in figure 1 appears to own his space, women are frequently represented as being restricted and subdued by the
architecture. For instance, in figure 11 the cell is nothing more than a brutal container where a naked woman is being held. There is no decoration in the cell and no way for the prisoner to use or appropriate the space. Representations of men and women, therefore, present different ways that the body encounters or dwells in the prison architecture.
In noting discrepancies between the way men and women are represented in prison photography, the spectator is forced to question why these differences exist. Are they as a result of what the prison or prisoners are allowing them to photograph? Or are they choosing to photograph men and women differently in order to reproduce a certain kind of discourse about male strength and hyper-masculinity and vulnerable women? The answers to these questions are impossible to know but the result is that representations of men’s bodies are very different to representations of women’s bodies.
As I explained in chapter 1, representing the prison is not merely an act of recording what is there. It is moreover an act of construction whereby representations are created. The camera is not a passive recorder. It manipulates. It is an active agent in the scene of representation. The photographer chooses what to photograph and how to do so, subjecting the image to framing and other techniques, which alter the way a situation is presented and transform its meaning. Rex Bloomstein, a well known British documentary film maker, who has
concentrated much of his filming on prisons, asserts that the people that featured in his documentaries always behaved naturally.2 But how is it possible to know that? The camera inevitably changes the behaviour of its subjects. Would the man I figure 1 be posing in this manner if it were not for the presence of the camera, for example? Where the subjects are aware of the camera’s presence and because of the camera’s participation in the scene, the
Rex Bloomstein speaking at a talk at Leeds University, October 2009.
subjects become actors in the scene of representation, which undermines the photographic representation as a whole.
vi. Conclusion I began this chapter suggesting that representation of the prison is impossible and I will reiterate that here. In the first instance, representations of bodybuilding are contradictory in that they seem to allow the inmate to assert his masculinity whilst simultaneously questioning his agency. Then there are the images, which both demonstrate often violent or troubling situations whilst at the same time allowing the spectator to question photography’s capability to represent circumstances due to its own role in the situation. The spectator is left to wonder whether the images were ever intended to represent the prison or whether they are, in fact, commenting on photography. Pernot’s images are certainly as much an interrogation of the photographic act as they are of anything else and they are extremely useful in providing critical insight into photographic representations of the prison. Through his images Pernot offers up many of the criticisms that I have discussed here. For example, he refuses to show inmates in his photography, claiming that the photographer’s stance as an outsider, who cannot understand the prison, will influence the production of the image and undermine a representation of reality. Pernot will only represent the prisoners from an outsider’s
perspective and as such he demonstrates the absence of prisoners where he is permitted access and proposes that the only way for an outsider to photograph the prison is by focussing on other outsiders’ interaction with the interior. The differences between representations of men and women offer further cause for criticism. They appear to reproduce a stereotypical discourse whereby men are strong and tough and women are fragile and vulnerable. It cannot be known why photographers have represented the prison in the way that they have, whether the stereotypical, problematic or ethically questionable aspects in the images were
intentional. What is certain is that the camera appears as much involved as the prison in the production of the incarcerated self.
The representability of the prison is subject to a number of visual taboos, which immediately influence what the photographer can photograph, such as the prison architecture, which precludes individuals from entering or leaving the prison, and the restricted access granted to photographers once inside. The result is that photographers are unable to capture images of a number of prison aspects: Mathieu Pernot describes his own frustrations at the limited access he was granted inside the prison in this dissertation’s appendix. Consequently,
representations of the prison can only ever be partial and thus will never be able to impart the reality of the prison. Mohamed Bourouissa’s installation in Temps Mort is an interesting piece as it reflects that partiality explicitly. The difficulty of representing the reality of the prison is also due to the fact that the photographer themselves, having no personal experience of the prison, will not have a complete understanding of the reality of the prison. Their images, therefore, will be influenced by their interpretations of what they have witnessed. Consequently, although photographers are breaching some of the visual taboos that the prison presents, they are still not capable of accurately representing the prison. Other
photographers, such as Pernot, Séméniako and Robine, expose the insufficiency of photography in terms of representing the prison and challenge what we often accept to be documentary evidence. They criticise representations of the prison and suggest that not only is a photographer with no experience of the prison incapable of representing the prison, but that a spectator with no experience of the prison is incapable of understanding those representations. Pernot, therefore, suggests that prison photography should take into
consideration the subjectivity of understanding and should, therefore, only represent the prison from an exterior position. Some photographers therefore argue that the prison is not
representable and as such put forward the interesting theory that prison photography says more about photographing and the act of photographing than it does the prison.
Although its principal aim is to document the individual’s singular physical characteristics so as to facilitate identification and discipline, official police photography, with its homogeneous layout and its intense focus on the individual’s face, tends to confine its subjects to a criminal typology. The public, familiar with this sort of reductive
representation, develops its own understanding of the physical composition of a criminal. This type of photography fails to take into consideration anything beyond the physical. In addition, the layout of the mug shot immediately assigns to its subject a criminal identity, since only those who are suspected of committing a crime will have their mug shots taken. Therefore, this type of photography erases all but the criminal identity. The public is
therefore given the illusion of knowledge, believing that they can now recognise a criminal type based on their understanding of police photography, which is frequently used to accompany newspaper articles and televised news reports. Non-forensic contemporary It
prison photography questions the representative insufficiency of police photography.
demonstrates the reductive nature of the mug shot by illustrating some of the diverse elements that comprise the inmate’s identity. This unsettles the spectator and forces them to question what they think they know about the criminal type and to acknowledge that criminality is not other but is, in fact, a component of wider society which cannot be immediately recognised.
Prison architecture was historically presented as a fearsome, unchanging and solid machine. The prison was designed to be impenetrable and its imposing façade reflects this. As chapter 1 describes, photographers are already transgressing an important barrier by entering the
prison and their actions necessarily undermine the fundamental principle of the prison; to separate two worlds. Contemporary prison photographers further undermine the historical notion of the prison as congealed and unchangeable by demonstrating how inmates inhabit and appropriate their space. For example, hanging bed sheets in a certain way so as to create a private sanctuary for the inmate subverts the idea of a prison where inmates have the potential to be constantly under surveillance. Hanging pictures on the walls of a cell
transforms the prison from that of a brutal container to a liveable, and, some might argue, homely space. Prison photography therefore challenges the supposed unchangeable nature of the prison architecture and proposes that, in fact, prisoners adapt the space to their needs. Consequently photographers suggest that architecture is something that constantly evolves and develops depending on who uses it. They thus illustrate the discrepancy between how the prison was conceived and how it is actually used.
A lot of prison photography, particularly that emerging from a more photojournalistic tradition, includes representations of inmates. These representations raise a number of For example, the repetitive
questions regarding the representability of inmates.
representations of bodybuilders and the absence of images pertaining to illicit activities, such as drug taking or homosexual relationships, highlight a tension between what is absent from photographic representations of the prison; what is perhaps inaccessible to photographers, and what is, arguably, over represented. These types of representations suggest that
representation of the prison can never encompass the totality of the prison. Representations of inmates overwhelmingly seem to present women as fragile and vulnerable. When one considers the representations of bodybuilders, where individuals project a hyper-masculinity and toughness, the spectator cannot help but wonder whether prison photography is recreating a, potentially problematic, discourse on female fragility and male strength.
Atwood’s work, as presented in this dissertation, as well as work by other more photojournalistic photographers, often depicts violence in the images. This, in turn, raises a number of ethical questions concerning representations of inmates. For example, what are the implications of presenting an image which carries with it a notable shock value? Furthermore, the photographer’s involvement in an image is problematic. The intrusiveness of many of the images, especially those showing scenes of violence, raises questions regarding whether or not the photographer necessarily participates in the scene and consequently reproduces the violence shown. Other images seem unnecessarily voyeuristic; particularly those featuring nudity or which appear to capture an inmate’s image without that person being aware of the camera. Pernot criticises these representations and argues that it is unfair to represent inmates or situations concerning inmates since the photographer has a limited understanding of what they are witnessing and may, through their photographic involvement, exacerbate any abuse shown in the image. Moreover, he argues that the
spectator will also have a limited understanding of what they are seeing and that images are subject to interpretation. Consequently, representation of inmates is an unachievable task.
As I approach the end of this dissertation I would like to summarise what I think prison photography teaches us above all. Understanding of the prison can only be based on
firsthand experience, which most photographers and spectators will not have. Therefore, we are left with a number of partial representations of the prison without any real understanding regarding whether or not they possess any element of truth. Consequently, since there is no way of knowing whether or not prison photography gives a truthful representation of the prison, all we can do it question what the images are trying to say. Whilst the more
photojournalistic images, such as those by Atwood and those taken from the Enfermement exhibition, appear to try to demonstrate and document the reality of the prison, it is the
images that emerge from a more artistic tradition that prove to be most interesting. For example, in exploiting documentary techniques and drawing attention to the representative limitations of photography, they force the spectator to question documentary truth and the representations of prisons that they might, under other circumstances, consider realistic portrayals of the prison. Photographers like Pernot cause the spectator to reflect on what they think they know about prisons and challenge whether representation is possible. As a result it can be considered that prison photography can tell us more about photography, the act of photographing and the spectatorial gaze than it can the prison.
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Interview avec Mathieu Pernot le 25 Mars 2010
Melinda Hawtin - Je voulais savoir tout d’abord pourquoi vous avez décidé de travailler sur les prisons.
Mathieu Pernot – En fait, j’ai commencé par faire un travail sur des tsiganes. J’ai fait deux livres, un qui s’appelle « Tsiganes » qui est sur des familles que j’avais rencontrées à Arles car je faisais mes études de photos à Arles et après en rencontrant ces familles et en m’intéressant aux histoires des tsiganes j’ai appris que pas très loin de là où j’étais en Camargue, il y avait un camp de concentration pour les tsiganes pendant la guerre. Il s’appelait le camp de Saliers. Sur celui là, je pensais faire un passé… une histoire
particulière [sic]. Donc, je ne sais pas si vous avez vu ce travail ou pas ?
MH – Oui, j’ai le livre.
MP – Voilà, vous avez le livre. Donc j’ai fait tout un travail là-dessus et je crois que c’est vraiment ça qui m’a amené à la prison en fait. Il y a la question d’enfermement et il se trouve que quand j’ai fait le travail avec les tsiganes, il y avait un moment où j’étais fatigué par le travail du portrait, la relation avec les gens et puis c’était compliqué, mais au même temps je voulais continuer à travailler sur l’enfermement mais je voulais plus interroger auprès de l’architecture et donc quand j’ai commencé ce travail je ne voulais que faire les photos de lieux, de chemins, de cours de promenades, de chemins de ronde ; le dispositif. Donc en fait c’est les tsiganes qui m’ont amené à la prison directement.
MH – D’accord. Et pourquoi avez-vous décidé de représenter les espaces ainsi ?
MP – Je trouve ça assez fascinant, enfin, l’architecture des prisons est vraiment intéressante. Il y a des différences entre prisons. Il y a les prisons anciennes qui avant d’être les prisons ont été des fois des hôpitaux, des abbés, qui ont été transformés en prison. Donc les espaces ont été aménagées et il y a des lieux qui n’ont été pensés que comme des prisons et ce qui m’intéressait était de me mettre un peu à la place d’un architecte d’une certaine façon. Ces lieux où certains sont renfermés… donc comment on fait ce lieu ? Comment on construit ? Comment on pense ? À ce moment là je lisais Foucault, Surveiller et Punir, et la question de l’architecture et du dispositif optique de l’architecture du panoptique, c’est là où c’est intéressant parce que je voulais faire des photos aériennes des prisons (rires) et quand j’ai fait le demande au ministère et j’ai dit « j’aimerais bien euh.. ! » mais en fait au départ comme je savais que ce allait être impossible à faire je voulais faire pour eux, donc j’ai essayé de me faire embaucher comme photographe des prisons pour le ministère. Ça n’a pas marché, ils avaient des photographes, ça ne leur intéressait pas et heureusement car je pense, de toute façon, même si je travaillais pour eux je n’aurais pas pu faire ce que je voulais. Mais en fait, pour eux, les bonnes photos des prisons étaient les photos aériennes, vues du ciel et je voulais (rires) avec un hélicoptère et puis… main bon, voilà, avec tous les problèmes de sécurité… En plus il y a un hélicoptère au dessus des prisons en générale.
MH – J’ai vu à l’exposition hier (L’Impossible Photographie) des images des anciennes prisons où il y avait des images aériennes…
MP – En fait, en lisant Foucault, dans Surveiller et Punir, enfin dans la version française, il y a au milieu du livre des plans en fait, des prisons. Ce sont des plans d’architectes. Donc le panoptique, enfin le tout dispositif, la meilleure façon de le montrer c’est vu du ciel en fait. Donc au départ je voulais faire ça, bon c’est impossible donc j’ai fait autre chose.
MH – Il est évident qu’il y a beaucoup de problèmes dans les prisons françaises en ce moment. Pensez-vous que la photographie joue un rôle social quant aux représentations des prisons ?
MP – Non ! (rires) Non, mais… social dans le sens où ça peut changer les choses ?
MH – Oui.
MP – Je ne crois pas parce que maintenant, enfin, je pense qu’il y a une prise de conscience. Tout le monde sait que les prisons en France sont lamentables. Ils ont fait le sondage sur l’état des prisons en Europe. Les pires sont en Moldavie et après la Moldavie c’est la France. Les pires en Europe hein ?! Donc je pense que tout le monde sait et même les politiques, ils reconnaissent, c'est-à-dire tout le monde, même Sarkozy disait que c’était une honte. Voilà. Tous les ministres et le président disent ça donc je pense qu’on le sait, je pense qu’on le voit et que la photographie l’a montré mais je ne pense pas que la photographie, en fait, change… En plus, quand on fait les photos dans les prisons on ne photographie pas non plus ce que l’on veut. C'est-à-dire qu’on est toujours accompagné par le gardien, il y a des contrôles de ce que l’on fait donc on n’est pas non plus complètement libre et je pense que même si on l’était, quelque part je crois que la seule chose qui peut changer, c’est peut être d’imaginer qu’il y a un alternatif à la prison et que la prison n’est pas la seule réponse. Je pense que c’est plutôt
ça et je pense que de toute façon une prison ça fabrique du malheur et voilà. Mais moi, je n’ai jamais été dans une démarche sociale en tout cas. C'est-à-dire, toujours ce que j’ai fait, même si je suis un photographe politique, je fais de la photographie politique, engagée dans l’histoire sociale, je n’ai jamais pensé que les photographies pourraient changer quelque chose.
MH – Aux États-Unis et en Angleterre il existe pas mal de documentaires sur les prisons mais j’ai remarqué qu’il n’y en a pas beaucoup en France donc du coup est-ce que cela influence la réception public des représentations artistiques vu que la photographie est peut être la seule façon pour le public de reconnaître la prison ?
MP – Oui, mais je ne sais pas si le public s’intéresse, enfin, je ne sais pas. J’ai l’impression parfois… une fois il y a une chose qui change, il y a eu un évènement. Il y a eu une femme qui travaillait à la prison de la Santé elle s’appelait Véronique Vasseur. Elle était médecin chef à la prison de la Santé et à un moment elle avait sorti un livre qui racontait son expérience de médecin et à quelle point la prison de la Santé, qui est la grosse prison Parisienne, était… enfin, la situation était mauvaise, lamentable. Et donc, quand son livre est sorti, là oui, on en a beaucoup parlé et il s’est passé quelque chose. Mais moi, je n’ai pas l’impression qu’à un moment un travail de photographe peut changer quelque chose… je ne crois pas. Ce livre par exemple, il ne montre pas grande chose.
MH – Il y a des autres photographes telles que Jane Evelyn Atwood et Lizzie Sadin qui accompagnent leurs photographies de témoignages…
MP – Oui, mais Jane Evelyn Atwood, ce sont des prisons un peu partout dans le monde. Elles ne sont pas qu’en France. Et les plus émouvantes, je pense que ce ne sont pas celles en France. En France on ne voit pas grande chose. En France on n’a pas le droit de
photographier les détenus. Les gardiens ne veulent pas être photographiés, ce n’est pas facile du coup.
MH – Donc, diriez-vous que vous le faites par l’amour de l’architecture ?
MP – Non, je le fais pour la photographie et pour la question que ça pose à la photographie et parce que moi, je m’intéresse aussi un peu à tout ce qui est un peu à la marge. C’est vrai que mon travail est vraiment sur l’urbanisme ; cette urbanisme des banlieues et les prisons sur une marge, les tsiganes sur une autre. Donc pour moi, c’est un univers qui m’intéresse et je pense que ça pose des questions à la photographie aussi et donne une autre façon de voir le monde et de penser le monde et je pense que pour moi il y avait quelque chose qui est un peu de l’ordre de la métaphore de la photographie dans les prisons. C'est-à-dire la prison et le fait de surveiller les gens, et donc c’est le regard qui dirige l’acte de construire une prison. C’est le dispositif optique, et pour moi il y avait quelque chose qui disait beaucoup de choses aussi de l’acte de regarder et contrôler. Ça c’était aussi un peu par travail de photographe dans tout cas. Se cacher derrière un appareil pour regarder d’autres gens, c’était quelque chose qui était intéressant pour moi. Photographier les prisons l’était aussi un peu, se demander ce que ça pourrait vouloir dire de faire de la photographie. C’était presque plus quelque chose de théorique pour moi que de sociale. Peut être que socialement, après, quand j’ai fait ces portraits, là oui, il y a du coup quelque chose d’humain mais finalement, les lieux, il y a quelque chose d’assez froid, d’assez objectif, d’assez construit.
MH – Je vais écrire un chapitre sur la photographie comme acte d’enfermement. Qu’est-ce que vous en pensez ?
MP – Oui, oui, pour moi c’est ça. Et puis il y a le cadre de la photo, il y a le cadre de la prison, il y a le cadre où on enferme les gens. Une photographie, c’est aussi faire rentrer les gens dans un cadre. Bon, après je ne vais pas développer tout un discours métaphorique. Faire une photo, ce n’est pas la même chose que mettre les gens dans une prison ! Ça ne serait jamais la même chose mais je trouvais qu’il y avait quelque chose dans l’acte de regarder, dans le rapport au cadre et à l’histoire qui pourrait être intéressant. Pour moi c’est vraiment, voilà, c’est un peu ça au départ. Les choses qui m’intéressaient beaucoup plus que le côté social et la dénonciation sociale… je ne suis jamais allé là pour dénoncer. Pour moi c’est évident. Tout le monde sait que les prisons sont dans un très mauvais état, qu’il y a des suicides toutes les semaines dans les prisons françaises. Tout le monde le sait et je n’ai jamais pensé que mon travail pourrait changer quelque chose et d’une certaine façon ça ne m’intéresse pas. (Bruit). En plus, moi je suis concerné par les prisons mais au même temps je n’ai jamais été dans une prison, je n’ai jamais été à la place de quelqu’un qu’y a été donc je n’ai jamais voulu non plus donner une espèce de représentation de souffrance parce que quand je rentre dans une prison, je ne souffre pas du tout. Je sais que deux heures après je serai dehors et les photographes, les gens qui disent « c’est impressionnant quand on rentre, j’étais mal à l’aise ». Pour moi il y a un mensonge là dedans, même si on peut être
impressionné, parce que quand on sait que deux heures après on est dehors. Bon, on peut dire que là effectivement ça ne doit pas être facile, on peut faire les rencontres, mais on ne peut, je pense, jamais éprouver ce que c’est d’être quelqu’un qui rentre et qui est enfermé.
MH - Je suis intéressée aux perceptions de l’extérieur et de l’intérieur et comment ça change les représentations de ces lieux. J’avais regardé un film qui a été réalisé par des détenus à Fleury-Mérogis. C’était assez choquant et je l’ai trouvé intéressant de voir les différences entre les représentations professionnelles et les représentations amateurs et donc, je me suis demandée si les représentations amateurs étaient plus « vraies » que les représentations professionnelles. Je dis cela parce que quand moi, je prends une photo je ne fais pas attention au cadrage où à l’éclairage ni à mon propre position et du coup la photo ressemble tout à fait à ce que j’ai vu. Mais les artistes doivent réfléchir à tout ça et donc est-ce que cela influence la vérité de l’image ?
MP – Pour moi il n’y a pas de vérité dans l’image déjà. Une image d’un détenu qui va faire en cachette une photo avec un téléphone portable par exemple, c’est une image qui dit quelque chose. Une image que moi je fais avec ma chambre, c’est une image qui va dire autre chose mais pour moi il n’y a pas un morceau de vérité. Par contre pour moi, j’ai un regard un peu du dehors finalement, c’est un œil du dehors qui à un moment interroge un lieu et je pense que pour moi je ne pourrais le faire que comme ça. Par contre, il y a des regards du dedans et ça c’est les prisonniers et là effectivement ce sont des images qui ne montrent pas la même chose. En tout cas, des fois il y a des photographes qui essaient d’avoir un regard du dedans dans les prisons. Peut être que Jane Evelyn Atwood c’est un petit peu ça ou Klavdij Sluban en France, c’est peut être un petit peu ça. Moi, je préfère vraiment assumer un côté froid. Je suis quelqu’un qui vient de l’extérieur et j’observe, j’interroge et je
représente un lieu dans lequel je ne vit pas, dans lequel je n’ai aucune expérience et qui me pose des questions, moi qui fais de la photographie. Voilà, ça c’est une façon et pour moi, l’autre façon effectivement, et ça révèle autre chose, c’est les détenus… Il y a un projet de Mohammed Bourouissa, je ne sais pas si vous avez entendu parler ?
MH – L’ami qu’il a dans une prison qui a filmé avec un téléphone portable ?
MP – Voilà. Il a un ami qui est dans une prison et en fait ils ont fait une correspondance d’images. Je ne las ai pas vues mais en tout cas il y avait l’idée à la fois de quelqu’un qui est à l’intérieur qui faisait une image du dedans et l’autre de l’extérieur et entre cet extérieur et cet intérieur il y avait un échange.
MH – Ah, je croyais que c’était un film ?
MP – Je crois que Mohammed Bourouissa lui a demandé de faire les photos et en fait le film est sur leur échange. C’est interdit d’avoir les appareils et les téléphones mais tout le monde en a je crois et donc Mohammed Bourouissa lui demande de faire sortir les images mais je crois qu’elles sont des images de nature morte, des choses comme ça et donc c’est un film sur cet échange là. Donc il y a des gens qui interrogent et qui font des représentations qui sont entre le dehors et le dedans. Sinon je pense que effectivement quand les prisonniers, enfin les gens incarcérés, font les photos de l’intérieur c’est un vrai témoignage sur ce que sont leurs expériences.
MH – Ce que j’aime dans votre travail, c’est que vous semblez avoir une très bonne conscience de votre position comme quelqu’un qui est de l’extérieur.
MP – Voilà. Et du coup qui dit aussi qu’on ne peut rien voir dans une prison. C’est ça qui m’intéressait. On voit l’architecture et finalement ce qui fait les prisons c’est que les gens sont incarcérés. Le sujet de la prison serait les gens sauf que du coup le sujet n’existe pas
parce qu’on ne peut pas le voir et ce que je voulais montrer c’était cette absence, le fait de ne pas voir. C’est ça qui m’intéressait. Donc interroger un lieu qui est fait pour enfermer des gens et ces gens, finalement, on ne les voit jamais. On voit les gens qui les surveillent ; on voit les gardiens qui les gardent ; on voit les couloirs, des cours de promenades, des portes. Les portes par exemple, on est juste à côté de la porte, on est à trois mètres du prisonnier, on ne voit rien. On ne voit jamais rien donc quand on rentre dans les prisons, on ne voit rien. Et on ne peut rien voir. C’est aussi l’impossibilité de montrer ça, pour moi c’était un peu ça. Montrer l’architecture et montrer l’impossibilité de voir autre chose.
MH – C’est vrai que quand on regarde des autres images des prisons qui montrent des détenus, elles peuvent, des fois, sembler un peu sentimentalisées…
MP – Je trouve que très vite on peut tomber un peu dans un caricature… le détenu forcement doit être malheureux, doit être tatoué avec les cicatrices, enfin. Et moi par contre, les détenus étaient là quoi. C'est-à-dire qu’en photographiant les hurleurs dehors, pour moi c’était une façon de montrer les détenus, même si on ne les voit pas physiquement. Mais il y a un cri à un moment qui s’adresse à eux. Ça je n’y ai pas pensé au départ, je ne pensais pas le faire, je ne connaissais même pas les hurleurs : je ne savais pas qu’ils existaient.
MH – Comment avez-vous fait pour faire ces photographies ? C’étaient des gens qui avaient accordé que vous les photographiez ?
MP – C’étaient des gens que je connaissais. Moi, j’ai travaillé sur les tsiganes et après quand j’ai fait ce travail sur les prisons, le père de la famille que je connaissais très bien était en prison. Ça c’est un de ses fils. En fait le livre des tsiganes, la couverture, c’est lui en fait.
C’est lui peut être huit ans après. Je ne voulais pas faire de portraits et puis j’en ai refait parce que j’ai retrouvé ces personnes. Mais moi, je suis quelqu’un d’un peu timide, enfin non, mais comme photographe je ne me serais pas vu aller voir les gens que je ne connaissais pas, leur dire « voilà est-ce que je peux vous… » Et donc, en fait, je l’ai fait à partir des gens que je connaissais ou des gens que des amis connaissaient.
MH – Et est-ce qu’ils font ça d’habitude ?
MP – Oui, la situation est vraie sauf que moi, parce que je suis photographe, je leur demande s’ils peuvent bouger un peu, je leurs met aussi en scène, c'est-à-dire que peut être à un moment quelqu’un était en contre jour ou que ça ne convient pas, je lui demande s’il peut se mettre à l’autre côté. Ce qui compte… bon, la situation est importante mais ce qui compte à la fin c’est la photo. Enfin, je suis photographe donc il faut que l’image, elle soit forte. Donc de toute façon quand on fait une photo, forcement on intervient, même dans les photographies les plus documentaires. La présence du photographe modifie déjà le comportement des gens.
MH – Oui, il est important de le reconnaître. J’ai lu quelques autres interviews que vous avez faites et j’ai remarqué que vous semblez toujours avoir une grande conscience de votre propre présence et de votre influence dans les images. Je voulais savoir ce que vous pensez est la portée de cela et est-ce que c’est nécessaire pour un photographe de se rendre compte de son propre présence dans les images ?
MP – Ça dépend des photographes. Pour moi, une des choses qui m’intéresse c’est de photographier l’acte même de photographier aussi. C'est-à-dire, je voulais que la
photographie pose les questions sur ce que ça veut dire de photographier. C’est un peu
compliqué là, ce que je raconte mais dans le travail sur les tsiganes ce qui est, pour moi, important c’était de poser la question du regard qu’on a porté sur ces gens. C’est intéressant quand on regard les photographies des tsiganes, il y a deux types de photographies : il y a des photos où des gitanes avec une guitare (bruit) et l’autre iconographie, c’est l’iconographie policière, ethnologique, on essaie des les observer, voilà. Moi, ce qui m’intéressais c’était un peu le rapport, disons policier de contrôle de ces populations que la photographie a souvent eu avec eux. Je faisais un portrait d’un tsigane pour montrer la personne mais je voulais aussi questionner la façon qu’on a de la regarder. Et donc voilà. Par exemple quand je
photographie la prison c’est le dispositif optique, c’est un peu plus l’image dans l’image. Un immeuble qui s’effondre quand on le fait s’effondrer, on le fait s’effondrer pour qu’il soit filmé ou photographié. On construit une image en fait. Donc moi, ce qui me plait aussi c’est de dire que la photographie, elle fixe le monde mais des fois aussi, elle est la conséquence de ce que l’on voit. Mais des fois c’est le monde lui-même qui est un peu comme une
conséquence de l’image, de la photographie. Par exemple, si on démolie un immeuble c’est pour qu’il soit photographié. Et si la photographie n’existait pas ou le cinéma n’existait pas, on ne le démolirait pas comme ça sans doute. Parce que ce que les gens font c’est qu’ils adressent une image amère quand ils décident de faire imploser un immeuble, ils font ça pour qu’il y ait une image qui soit adressée à d’autres. Donc moi, souvent ce que je photographie ce sont des choses qui existent aussi, qui sont liées à la photographie. Le camp de
concentration sur lequel je travaillais : si les tsiganes n’avaient pas été photographiés, fichaient depuis 1912 en France, il n’aurait pas été si facile de les enfermer dans les camps. Donc quelque part ce camp, ce n’est pas à cause de la photographie mais la photographie, elle joue un rôle. Donc pour moi, ceci c’est photographier un monde qui existe aussi parce que la photographie l’a rendu comme ça. Donc il y a toujours une double distance à ce que je
photographie et il y a aussi ce que cette chose… ça prend un peu du médium que je pratique, de la photographie.
MH – J’ai lu quelques articles qui vous décrivent en tant que documentaliste. Comment répondrez-vous à cette supposition ?
MP – Moi, en tout cas, je m’inscris… il y a une histoire de la photographie documentaire qui commence peut être en France avec Eugène Atget, Marville, qui passe par Walker Evans aux États-Unis et August Sander et qui peut être se finit avec les Bechers en Allemagne. Moi, effectivement, c’est quelque chose qui m’a beaucoup influencé, marqué. Et c’est vrai que, enfin, je suis documentaliste dans le sens où ce que je photographie existe. Ce n’est pas mois qui fais exister, ce n’est pas moi qui le crée. Ça existe. La seule chose que j’essaie de faire après c’est de trouver une forme qui soit juste pour montrer. Mais je pense que ce qui fait la photographie c’est quand même la confrontation réelle : s’inscrire dans notre monde, l’interroger. Enfin, le numérique, le Photoshop ont transformé complètement la photographie parce que maintenant on peut faire tout ce que l’on veut. Et on n’a peut être moins besoin du réel parce qu’on peut l’inventer nous même. Par contre, je reste attaché à la confrontation. Je pense que la photographie est l’important là-dedans ; dans la confrontation. D’une certaine façon je pense que je suis documentaliste. (Bruit) Ce n’est pas juste photographier quelque chose qui existe… qu’est-ce que cette chose dit du monde, en fait ?
MH – Quelle est, selon vous, la différence entre la photographie artistique et la photographie journalistique quand le cadre est la prison ?
MP – Pour moi il n’y a pas de différence. (Bruit). L’histoire a montré que Cartier-Bresson, c’est un journaliste. Il allait, pour Paris-Match, faire des photos et à un moment les
surréalistes et d’autres on dit « ben, non, ça c’est un travail artistique ». Eugène Atget, il faisait son métier, il décide de vendre des images, c’est un artisan, ce n’était pas un artiste, il ne voulait pas. (Bruit). Et je pense que ce qui est intéressant dans la photographie est que c’est le seul médium artistique qui a été utilisé par des gens qui n’étaient pas des artistes. Par exemple, les ethnologues ont fait de la photographie, les policiers font la photographie, les médecins ont fait de la photographie, et donc voilà. La photographie, c’est un médium très ouvert. Et donc ce que je trouve intéressant ce n’est pas de dire que tout est là, ce n’est pas ça, mais il y a des questions différentes qui sont posées et je trouve que c’est intéressant de les… j’aime bien des fois me glisser un peu dans la peau, pas du policier, jamais, mais en tout cas de quelqu’un qui n’est pas forcement dans la peau de l’artiste, puis interroger la photographie en tant qu’eux. Après j’ai des photographies qui intéressent, d’autre part je me méfie toujours un peu des catégories qu’on fait sur « ça c’est de l’art », « ça non, c’est du journalisme ». C’est la photographie. Il y a des choses, moi, qui m’intéresse plus que d’autres. (Bruit). Je pense que la façon de le définir la plus simple, c’est l’usage. L’usage de la photo. La photographie journalistique, son usage c’est la presse peut être, c’est le journal et c’est du photographie qui est là pour illustrer ou raconter un évènement. La photographie artistique n’a aucun usage, c’est celui d’être exposé, montré mais qui n’est pas enfermé dans une fonction. Mais après n’empêche que l’histoire a montré que les gens qui se considéraient comme des journalistes ont produit des œuvres qui, à la fin, sont trouvées dans des musées. Tout comme il y a des gens qui se disent artistes ou photographes qui font des choses qui ne seront jamais montrées. Ça c’est une autre question d’après, c’est dans l’art qu’est-ce qu’il y a d’intéressant, qu’est-ce qu’il n’est pas vu ? Mais je pense que c’est une question d’usage en fait. Ce qui est très important dans la photographie, c’est qu’au départ, à quoi sert la
photographie que l’on fait ? Moi, je pourrais très bien dire que je suis journaliste et des fois mon travail a été publié dans la presse parce qu’il apprenait aussi des choses sur les prisons. Sauf que le travail n’a pas été fait pour ça et il répondait à un projet personnel. Moi, je l’ai avant tout pensé comme des images qu’on accroche au mur avec un format, avec une façon de les montrer. Donc là effectivement, c’est plutôt un projet artistique dans le sens que ce sont des objets à regarder comme des images qui se suffissent à elle mêmes et qui ne sont pas forcement à voir comme un reportage sur les prisons. Par contre un journaliste, forcement ça doit raconter une histoire.
MH – J’ai lu un article qui prétend que le public accepte plutôt les représentations intermédiaires, un terrain d’entente, quand il s’agit de la prison. Donc est-ce que les œuvres jouent un rôle social même sans qu’il n’en soit l’intention ?
MP – Moi, par exemple, ce travail, il a aussi été utilisé dans la presse, et on a parlé des hurleurs, et donc après forcement c’est un écho social qui va avoir plus ou moins de résonance, et heureusement parce que je souhaite que ça ne va pas rester que dans un musée ou dans une galerie d’art. Donc il peut quelque fois arriver, et moi, c’était le cas par exemple, surtout je trouve, sur les familles de tsiganes que j’ai photographiées. Je pense que alors que j’ai toujours dit que je ne m’inscrivais pas dans une tradition humaniste de la photographie sociale, finalement je pense que le travail que j’ai fait a changé quelque chose dans ces familles parce qu’elles ont été connues dans la ville où elles étaient, dans cette ville à Arles. Elles ont une notoriété par la photographie et du coup elles ont eu… ça a permis une certaine intégration. Donc du coup des fois effectivement, même si ce n’est pas l’objectif premier, on montre des choses et des choses peuvent quand même en changer. Et quand je fais un travail, bon c’est une peu autre chose - c’est un travail d’historien - sur les camps de concentration,
c’était une histoire qui n’était pas du tout connue et à la fin, enfin trois ans après, il y a eu le préfet qui est venu pour y mettre une stèle et qui a reconnu que l’état français avait enfermé les gitanes. Donc il y a une reconnaissance donc, oui, enfin, ça peut changer les choses. Ce n’est pas forcement au départ la raison pour laquelle on fait quelque chose. À ce moment, je pense qu’au départ on fait des choses pour nous parce qu’on a envie de les faire même si ça passe, après voilà, on peut penser espérer… Déjà à partir du moment où on fait quelque chose, et qu’on rend public, qu’on expose, qu’on fait un livre, ça veut dire qu’on espère en faire un enjeu ou un sujet de débat, de discussion, d’échange voilà. Si ça se passe bien, c’est que c’est raté !