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Shutter stories: prison life behind the lens

Shutter stories: prison life behind the lens

In this blog post, Chair of the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance, Alison Frater, talks about our 2016 Anne Peaker lecture. The event took place in December last year, with a focus on the use of photography and film in prison settings. Artist Edmund Clark gave the key note speech, which was followed by a lively and engaging panel discussion.

“We were privileged and delighted to invite Edmund Clark, an award winning photographer and author of a number of monographs to deliver this year’s Anne Peaker lecture. Anne Peaker was hugely important in the development of the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance during its formative years. Our annual lecture honours her and the work of arts organisations working in criminal justice.

This event focused on the use of photography and film in criminal justice settings, looking at how different media can reveal life behind prison doors, and how film and photography can be powerful tools for sharing stories.

Edmund has held collections in prestigious galleries including the National Portrait Gallery and is currently exhibiting at the Imperial War Museum. Now working as Artist in Residence at HMP Grendon (the only therapeutic prison in the UK), his talk elaborated on his artistic themes of shared humanity and ‘otherness.’ During his lecture, he developed ideas of representation; using a range of processes he explored people, possessions and environments revealing unseen experience.  The event was full to capacity and was proceeded by a lively panel discussion and Q and A.

Photography has always held a huge fascination for me. I think this is because it uses both science and arts to reveal the deepest sense of something or someone.  The lecture by Edmund Clark was, for me, completely unique. It challenged my way of seeing

Edmund Clark began his talk by describing the creative process and how he had moved from portraits to working with people’s possessions and their living environment

As a photographer and artist in residence at HMP Grendon Edmund Clark was curiously accepting of the limits of photography. It wasn’t just about prison rules, he also imposed his own restrictions about who or where or when.  Focusing on the prison environment, rather than intruding on people, his work was no less remarkable: a shared humanity of self and place illustrated by how people inhabit a prison, their possessions, what they choose to display and how. These were tender, though harrowing, personal insights contrasted with hostile grim buildings. . It was clear – almost viscerally – that the impact on him was personally affecting, disturbing; it had changed him as an artist.

Edmund Clark expressed a level of self-deprecation as an artist that was almost a form of self-harm – especially in acknowledging that the work may never be seen. Yet, this felt like a travesty. His portraits of lifers, ageing, were overwhelming. They were achingly poignant.  The futility of years served was etched on the faces of men who had spent most of their lives behind bars, images that had not been published and may never be allowed to be seen.

But it was in another context that I found the work most profound. Working with people serving relatively long sentences with specified mental illnesses he had created art that was truly arresting. The background to this was of a struggle with the use of the camera. Throughout the talk he made reference to growing discontentment with photography. He wanted to use it less and to turn instead to other art forms such as sculpture or drawing.

Maybewith a reluctance to abandon the camera completely he instead exploredstripping back technology and picked up the very origins of image making, a pinhole camera.  He then asked the participants to work on top of their own portraits in various media to create personal interpretations of self.

Working with men in the prison he created pictures that were extraordinary.  They revealed ambiguity. These simple blurred images enabled a conversation about identity – not ‘who I am’ but ‘who am I? These troubling photographs suggested internal conflict, a shared humanity otherwise unseen, only made possible because of the prison context.

I began to see that the conversation could indeed be about a journey. The images could be interpreted as transitional, in a process of change. I felt that Edmund Clark had revealed how unclear the beginning and end of the journey was or could be and its complexity.

The panel for the evening was made up of Carlotta Allum, founder and director of Stretch Charity, Rashmi Becker, PhD student at the University of Cambridge working on a photobook of people with learning disabilities in the Criminal Justice System and Raheel Mohammed, founder and director of Maslaha. The discussion that followed their introductions was engaging and informed, with each panelist contributing from their own experience. The discussion revolved around two key questions: How can film and photography change public perception about life in prison? How can we use film and photography to enable prisoners to share their voice – and can this help them on their desistance journey?

The questions from the audience were interesting. People asked about issues of identity and practice: how had it been possible to work in in this way? Edmund talked over the difficulties of working as a photographer in a prison setting, the restrictions, how in some settings prisoners are not allowed to use cameras, and finding different ways to engage people’s experience through photography.

A question about exploiting people within prison as a means to create art was especially interesting and an issue we must return to often. For me Edmund Clark’s work was far from exploitative. It was about humanity, it was revealing and profoundly respectful. Most telling was that this unique and fascinating art enabled within and because of a safe, supportive therapeutic environment may, like the people living there, remain unseen.

Thank you to the panel contributors.”

Click here to see the Storified Tweets from the night

– Alison Frater