I came across this project while reading Pete Brook‘s Prison Photography, one of my favorite blogs out there. Photo Requests from Solitary became part of a larger project, but was initially founded by Tamms Year Ten, a grassroots coalition of artists, advocates, family members and men formerly incarcerated in Tamms Correctional Center in southern Illinois. Photo requests from Solitary consists on inviting people held in solitary confinement to request an image, then commissioning artists on the outside to fulfill their requests.
Although the project initially concerned a particular context, it then changed hands and made its way to New York and California, where it was featured in an exhibition, which makes me question its purpose. Did the prisoners, who commissioned the photographs, got to see the resulting show, meaning: what other’s, in the same situation of confinement, wanted to see? Pete Brook’s article, entitled In Assessing ‘Photo Requests From Solitary’ Let’s Ask If the Image Meets the Prisoner’s Brief? is exemplary in addressing the nature of the project and the lives it went on to live. Regarding its simple beginnings, here’s how Brook describes it:
The core concept of PRFS is disarmingly simple. TYT sent forms to men in solitary in Tamms. The form explained that they would make an image—real or imagined—for the prisoner to have in his cell. A prisoner could, in writing, describe an image, offer specific instructions, and return the form. TYT would then coordinate with outside artists to make each image and send a copy to the prisoner.
Brook’s article focus on a partnership between Photo Requests from Solitary and Vice Magazine, that happened in 2015 and marked the first time the requests and the photographs became so detached from their roots. As I read Brook’s and other articles about PRFS, I am somehow confronted with my own radical stance: as far as I see it, the project shouldn’t even be showed anywhere other than in the prisoners’ intimate space or in spaces they could attend and be present, but the art system is just incapable of containing its greed and vanity. A real shame, I always feel…
Knowing that one of the purposes of the group of activists who began PRFS, was to make people aware of the conditions of solitary confinement, one can obviously overlook the way they dealt with the succeed of PRFS, but still… On that note, Brook comments that it was a successful politically engaged art project: “PRFS galvanized activists, forged solidarity with prisoners and kept the issue at the forefront of the public conscience. This three-birds-with-one-stone efficiency is the effectiveness to which socially engaged art projects aspire.”
Before partnering with Vice, in 2015, PRFS partnered with several other institutions and groups and was exhibited in 2013, in New York. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m happy to be able to see some of the imagery created because of PRFS, but I don’t think they should reach me; I don’t think they should be seen; we should keep wondering about the roots of the project, not the imagery it creates. I don’t need to see them in order to write this (in fact, until now I’ve only seen one photo of dogs at night, and that was a choice; I’m now going to see the rest).
When PRFS entered in a collaboration with Vice, photo editor Elizabeth Renstrom took over. She “hired a blend of new and old contributors” and photographers such as Fryd Frydendahl, Anthony Tafuro and Ole Tillmann, were given the task to complete the requests from the prisoners. Brook thinks some were complete failures and he gives examples of those (below), but, again, is that the real problem? Why are we looking at these images? Why am I looking at someone else’s daughter if that image was only created to fulfill a dad’s request? Isn’t that a breach of their intimacy? Don’t they serve the single purpose of illustrating the prisoner’s request? Why are we then looking at them in a magazine, an exhibition and online and judging whether the “artwork” is or is not made according to the brief.
I can’t recall how often people attack me for saying that most photographers are not artists or that I don’t teach artists, but aspiring photographers. Could we do anything worse to an artist than judging her/him on “meeting the brief”? Why would an artist put herself/himself in that position? Brook asks “if they [the images] appear to serve the prisoner or if they appear to serve the photographer”, to which I’d like to add “don’t these images, published in the magazine serve Vice’s public? But I’m sure Brook is aware of this. He does mention a comment from a colleague, Gemma-Rose Turnbull, with whom he’d discuss the issue. She states that maybe some artists forgot, at some point, that they’re public is the prisoner. And that is exactly the point. If they aren’t able to understand the nature of the project, they just shouldn’t participate.
I’m obviously unable to access the success of the project. Only if and when hearing the prisoner’s thoughts would we be able to understand if, because of the images, they were able to escape their condition of being in solitary confinement. But I find the idea extremely beautiful and courageous: to take photography as a gift that we are able to offer human beings to nurture their dreams…