Photo Requests from Solitary: this could have been so beautiful…

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).

MYSELF WITH A BLUE SKY – Robert S. Several men asked for photos of themselves, taken from their online Department of Corrections photos, to give to their families. Robert wanted his picture matched with an alternate background. He wrote, “If you can place my picture on another background, nothing too much please. Something simple like a blue sky with clouds or a sunset in the distance would be fine.” Robert also said, “I want to extend my love to you, for you, as you have already done for me. Because genuine, authentic true love is when you do for others just because you can, and you hold no preconceived notion that you will be getting anything in return.” Photo by Laurie Jo Reynolds, 2011.
JLO’s BUTT—Johnny. Johnny asked for a photo of a very specific Jennifer Lopez music video—the one with her ex-boyfriend Ben Affleck on a boat, with her butt showing. Luckily, there were people who remembered the exact same video he did (“Jenny from the Block”), and Danny Orendorff was able to take a still from it. Photo by Danny Orendorff, 2012.

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. 

Photo request from Sonny, photography by Fryd Frydendahl.
Photo request from Dan, photography by Jason Altaan.

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…

Photo request from Jose, photography by Matthew Leifheit and Ole Tillmann.
Photo request from Christopher, photography by Edward Cushenberry.

8 thoughts on “Photo Requests from Solitary: this could have been so beautiful…

  1. Thoughtful summary Sofia and thanks for your responses to the questions I posed. You get at a crucial tension in the project here: should we see the images? And, if and when we do, HOW should we see them? The public education component of PRFS is central and I reckon the organisers want the unexpected (almost unfathomable, in many cases) images to jolt the viewer. The images have to exist to create that link between prisoners and artist-activists and then the images have to be shown to engage a wider public, but then these very personal interchanges have to be played out in public for the project to make its reach. The images serve to stoke discussion so, for me, as awkward as viewing them can be, I must. And then it’s upon me (and hopefully other viewers too) to consume the images conscientiously and with the political and social realities of mass incarceration in mind.

    1. Thanks for dropping by Pete. I think the subject is far more interesting than I was able to address in this text. I understand your point and the visibility “they” need to have, but If I’m going to be theoretically honest I must reaffirm that the visibility of these images corrupts the very essence of the making of the images; not the essence of the project. Maybe showing them in correction facilities would be a more truthful way of sharing them with the free world… And thank you for writing this. When I read your text for the first time I was so happy to know such a project existed. I wish it could come to Portugal…

      1. One of the other strengths of the project is that its methods are replicable. That’s not to say it’s not a huge undertaking with many partners and allies with keys to access and distribution, but similar type of work could come to Portugal. Heck, it could be initiated completely independently from PRFS in Portugal!?

      2. Yes, as soon as I wrote that it could come to Portugal, I thought the same. I’m going to consider doing something about that!

  2. Are you familiar with Mark Strandquist’s project Windows From Prison? http://www.windowsfromprison.com/

    Or Benjamin Weber’s work in Louisiana?https://prisonphotography.org/2016/04/18/what-is-the-meaning-of-death-to-a-prisoner-serving-life/

    Both are working with prisoners in spite of the challenges to make image-based work. The matters of collaborators, audience and distribution are so fascinating to me. And I presume there are more similar projects?

    1. I wasn’t aware of these. I’ll give them a proper look, My fascination is with photo-therapy, I mean: when photography actually activates something that is far beyond its history and materiality and, doing that, promotes a stronger ethical relation with life. Portugal and the US are two very different places, so it’s tricky to consider how PRFS would work here…

      1. Lobby away :) These are all great references, although Luigi’s work really hits home. Doing something like PRFS in mental hospitals would be a dream project, something like photo requests from parallel worlds. Thanks for all this feedback.

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