Prisoners’ images in Russia and California from ‘Prison Photography’

Two fascinating posts from Prison Photography caught my eye this past week.

The first is a reference to Olga Chagaoutdinova‘s collection entitled ‘The Zone/Prisoners’  which was exhibited at Far East Museum of Fine Art, Khabarovsk, Russia, in 2006. Olga’s website reveals tantalisingly about the work behind the images, other than to say: ‘“Prisoners,” begun in 2005 and continued for two years, is a series of psychological portraits taken in a women’s prison in the Russian Far East. The intent of the project was to observe human existence in a panoptic and punishing environment. Extended interviews with the prisoners allowed me to investigate the notion of personal identity, virtually extinguished under the pressure and rules of the penal system. Gender issues and the official suppression of sexuality within the penitentiary system constituted a further aspect of my study.’ But the photographs are utterly compelling, and reminded me strongly of the women interviewed for my previous research with women incarcerated in Russia.

The other is a more contemporary piece which draws attention to an extraordinary 20 year ban on prisoners’ access to their own images in solitary confinement in California. Prisoners were banned from access to portrait images of themselves, despite the importance to families of tangible images of their loved ones – because photographs were apparently seen as potential ‘calling cards’ —” circulated by prison gang leaders — both to advise other members that they’re still in charge and to pass on orders.” The ban was eventually lifted in 2011, and in the article on which the post is based, the author Michael Montgomery quotes Sean Kernan, the former Under-Secretary of the CDCR “I think we were wrong, and I think (that) to this day,” he said. “How right is it to have an offender who is behaving … (and) to not be able to take a photo to send to his loved ones for 20 years?” Kernan directed prison staff to ease the restrictions for inmates who were free of any disciplinary violations.

As Montgomery points out, lack of access to images of themselves, a situation accentuated by the lack of mirrors in many cells, means that prisoners’ sense of identity is limited: “Some inmates complained to relatives of losing a sense of their own identity, even their own physical features. In addition to the photo ban, inmates at Pelican Bay do not have mirrors in their cells. “My brother tells me that sometimes he forgets how he looks. He doesn’t remember how he looks,” said Sylvia Rogokos of Los Angeles. Her brother, Frank Reyna, 51, was sent to Pelican Bay in 1992.”

Whilst lifting the ban is a major step forward, particularly for the prisoners’ families [“Seeing an image of their incarcerated relative for the first time in years has sparked renewed hope and revived dormant family connections. For others, the photographs are a shocking reminder of the length of time some inmates have been held in isolation.”]there is still a question of the use of prisoners’ images beyond the prison and their families. As Pete Brooks of Prison Photography points out, ‘in light of recent art market fetishism, it would seem the primary reason anyone would want to gather prison portraits would be to repeat Harper’s Books’ $45,000 hustle and cash in on the images’ He is referring to the recent sale of a collection of California prison polaroids – the ‘anonymous and previously unheard-of collection The Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive’ with an asking price of $45,000. As the post suggests, ‘if these images deserve a $45,000 price tag, they deserve a vast amount of research to uncover the stories behind them.’

Which brings us back to Olga Chagaoutdinova’s collection, where the images are evidently underpinned by discussion of the very issues raised by the portrait ban in California.

In any case, for those interested in prison images, Prison Photography is a superb resource with informed and thoughtful commentary. Take a look.