Tag Archive for prison photography

Humane Exposures: The Beginning

Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time

Someone looking at our books and our film for the first time might as well ask how we got started down this particular path.

The roots of Humane Exposures go back 15 years and begin with Susan Madden Lankford’s interactions with the homeless. Having managed a successful portrait studio for years, she has decided that she wanted to do more. Renting the Seaport Village Jail, she then began photographing the homeless and collecting their narratives. Since many of those had involved incarceration, it was only natural that Lankford’s next step be touring the seven main jails in the area.

That tour brought her to Las Colinas, the county’s only all-women jail. It was then that Lankford has realized that prison reform is urgently needed, and decided to share the inmate’s situation with a the public in hopes of spurring that reform.

Mark Arner, a reporter for The San Diego Union Tribune, reported on the resulting book, Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes (also on Facebook) back when it was released in 2008:

Thirteen years ago, an inmate at the county’s only all-female jail said something startling to San Diego photographer Susan Madden Lankford.

‘Hey Susan, I have something to tell you: I found maggots in my sweet potatoes last week,’ Lankford said the inmate told her.

While her subsequent tour of the jail’s kitchen facilities revealed only clean surfaces and safe food, that one comment stuck with Lankford and became the title of the book. Here is Arner’s brief description of the book from the same article:

The 284-page book describes how Lankford obtained Kolender’s permission for the project in the mid-1990s. Primarily in 1995 and 1996, she conducted interviews and took black-and-white photographs of inmates, guards and jail overseers.

The book features 326 of those images, as well as journal entries and letters from several inmates from 1997 to 1999, research on domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse, and a section on white-collar crime.

Since then, we have released a book of Lankford’s homeless photography, downTownUSA: A Personal Journey with The Homeless, and have even branched out into the realm of video with our documentary, It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing. All of these projects relate to an interelated set of issues:

  • Incarceration is often a factor in homelessness.
  • Education and early home life have a huge influence on children and are negative early environments, often contributing to the future criminal activity.
  • Patterns of abuse and neglect cycle through generations.
  • If we shift our societal focus to actual rehabilitation into society, we can not only impact homelessness but also greatly reduce the state expenditures incurred. For example, if homeless people had access to health care, it would cut millions in emergency services costs accrued over the course of a year.

Later this year we will be releasing Born, Not Raised: Kids at Risk, in which we will explore the troubled psyches of youngsters serving time in juvenile hall. Without education and other humane assistance, many of these youth will be caught in the revolving door of institutionalization.

All of these projects relate to each other and, taken together, try to present, one aspect at a time, the complex and interrelated nature of the societal breakdowns they address.

So, tell us, how did you discover Humane Exposures, and when? We’d love to know!

Source: “A Portrait of Jail Life,” The San Diego Union Tribune, 09/23/08
Image copyright Susan Madden Lankford, from the book “Maggots in my Sweet Potates: Women Doing Time.” Used with permission.
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Homelessness: Facebook Resources

HUMANE EXPOSURESHere at HUMANE EXPOSURES, we believe in the power of the Internet to inform and mobilize people. This is one of the reasons that this blog exists.

Since we have just launched our new Facebook pages, we thought this would be a good time to share some of the groups and organizations on Facebook that also champion the cause of those discarded by society.

So, here, in no particular order, is a list of Facebook pages that you may find informative. Please visit them. (And, if you like our work, we would really appreciate it if you “Like” our new pages and help them start off on the right foot.)

We’re going to list our own new pages first and move on from there:

  • Humane Exposures Publishing — The main Facebook Page for our company. Updates on new films and books as well as a variety of new  items and resources. The books of HUMANE EXPOSURES PUBLISHING take a penetrating look at society’s disenfranchised, questioning how long we can ignore the broken segments of our population, and at what cost. If you stop by, please tell us what kind of content you would like to see more of!
  • downTownUSA: A Personal Journey With the Homeless (book) — Author and photographer Susan Madden Lankford kept a journal during her daily encounters with the San Diego’s street people, observing how even the defeated, or seemingly so, share many of our hopes and dreams.
  • Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time (book) – Through thought-provoking photographs and interviews, the author explores the kaleidoscope of alienation, personal despair, and fragile hopes of women caught up in the state’s zeal for incarceration.
  • It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing (film) – Important documentary film questions how long society can ignore the broken segments of our population and advocates for public awareness, correcting the underlying social issues, and improving the essential parenting skills.

The following is a list of other resources. All descriptions are quoted directly:

  • Feeding Pets of the Homeless — Feeding Pets of the Homeless is a nonprofit volunteer organization that provides pet food and veterinarian care to the homeless and less fortunate in local communities across the United States and Canada. How? Our volunteers collection sites receive donated pet food and deliver it to food banks and/or soups kitchens which have agreed to distribute the food to the homeless and impoverished.
  • PATH (People Assisting The Homeless) — In 2004, PATH reached its 20th year of existence. From a small program operating out of a church basement, PATH has now become a large regional agency serving over 1,800 people each month. The agency has developed a model of integrated services that communities from all over the state, the nation, and even internationally have looked to for replication.
  • InvisiblePeople.tv — Dedicated to capturing real stories by real people bringing visibility to the issues of homelessness. Our goal: for homeless people to no longer remain invisible. The stories are told by real people in their own very real words. They’re raw, uncensored and unedited. CAUTION: Some content may be offensive. Our hope is that you’ll get mad enough to do something. (Note: We’ve covered the InvisiblePeople.tv in an earlier post.)
  • Let’s get 1,500,000 people to support the 1,500,000 homeless kids in the US — This page was started by a small group of people committed to raising awareness and providing solutions around a problem we feel is not being properly addressed. It began with a question: “How is it that the wealthiest country in the world has well over a million of its children living on the street, not knowing where they will sleep tonight?”
  • The National Coalition for The Homeless — A national network of people who are currently experiencing or who have experienced homelessness, activists and advocates, community-based and faith-based service providers, and others committed to a single mission. That mission, our common bond, is to end homelessness. We are committed to creating the systemic and attitudinal changes necessary to prevent and end homelessness. At the same time, we work to meet the immediate needs of people who are currently experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of doing so. We take as our first principle of practice that people who are currently experiencing homelessness or have formerly experienced homelessness must be actively involved in all of our work. Toward this end, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) engages in public education, policy advocacy, and grassroots organizing. We focus our work in the following four areas: housing justice, economic justice, health care justice, and civil rights.
  • Real Change Homelessness Empowerment Project — Real Change exists to create opportunity and a voice for low-income people while taking action to end homelessness and poverty.
  • National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) – A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization governed by a 17-member board of directors… is the resource and technical assistance center for a national network of community-based service providers and local, state and federal agencies that provide emergency and supportive housing, food, health services, job training and placement assistance, legal aid and case management support for hundreds of thousands of homeless veterans each year.
  • Breaking Night: My Journey From Homeless to Harvard (book) – In the vein of The Glass Castle, Breaking Night by Liz Murray is the stunning memoir of a young woman who at age 15 was living on the streets, and who eventually made it into Harvard.
  • Healthcare for The Homeless, Inc. — For 25 years, HCH has provided comprehensive health care, mental health services, case management, addiction treatment, and housing assistance for tens of thousands of Marylanders experiencing homelessness.
  • Horizons for Homeless Children — Horizons for Homeless Children strives to improve the lives of homeless children and their families by providing the nurturing, stimulation and opportunities for early education and play that all children need to learn and grow in a healthy way.

So there you have it, please let us know if you would like to see more roundups of this nature. If so, we could make it a regular feature.

Source: Facebook.
Image copyright Susan Madden Lankford, from the book “downTown USA: A Personal Journey with the Homeless.” Used with permission.

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“Pregnant in Prison”: A Photographer’s View of Valley State Prison

CellMark Allen Johnson started shooting images in 2003. Since then, he has done photography for a stunning array of clients including Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, Marie Claire, The Economist, and VIBE. In addition he, like all photographers, pursues his own projects. It is one of those we’d like to speak of today: Pregnant in Prison.

On his website, Johnson gives the following description of the show:

With nearly four thousand inmates, Valley State Prison (VSP), located in Chowchilla, California is the world’s largest prison for women. At any given time, approximately 120 are pregnant on average each month. With over 340 babies born annually to female prisoners in VSP, only a handful of these children are able to avoid separation from their mothers. The State of California operates three mother-infant prisoner programs that allow those who qualify to live in a low level prison setting with their newborn if the duration of their sentence is less than six years. With as few as 75 beds in the program, prisoners are forced to give up their babies for adoption or foster care, or, in some cases, they give parental custody to friends or relatives. Since the majority of inmates come from poor backgrounds where friends and family members have also been incarcerated or involved in criminal activity, their children might be raised in the same environment as their lawbreaking parents.

This is sad, sad information to digest. Just imagine: 340 babies a year and only 75 beds in the mother-infant program. That leaves over three quarters of the incarcerated new mothers without an option. Things get worse from there. Johnson writes:

Unlike prisons for men, the VSP does not segregate their female inmates by level of crime committed, ultimately creating a dangerous atmosphere for the convicts. All levels of criminals — from petty thieves to murderers — are mixed together, including the inmates who are pregnant.

Take a moment to consider this. You’ve been picked up for some minor infraction, and immediately get thrown in the tank with a wide variety of violent offenders. It does not take much cognition to see how chaotic and dangerous this environment can be. Johnson continues:

‘At VSP you cannot show emotion, you cannot make friends easily, and you can never trust anyone. Being pregnant does not give you better treatment,’ a pregnant inmate complains. A common verbal threat towards pregnant inmates might be, ‘Your face isn’t pregnant, bitch, so I can punch you there!’

Johnson, as is standard with many photographers, keeps a tight reign on the use of his images. As a result, we cannot show you any here in this post. We do recommend visiting his website, the Pregnant in Prison gallery in particular, where you can see the images Johnson had created during his visit to the VSP.

Once more, the camera “sees” what is often invisible to a human eye. We are looking forward to Johnson’s next project!

Source: “Pregnant in Prison,” RelentlessPhoto.com

Image by miss_millions, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Photographing Guantanamo

Ex-Detainee's HomeWe cover a lot of prison issues on this blog. However, up till now, we’ve yet to touch on one of the most infamous prisons in modern American history — Guantanamo.

Award-winning photographer Edmund Clark is preparing to launch a show at the Flowers Gallery in London that features this very prison. The show is titled Guantanamo — If The Light Goes Out, and it takes a slightly different approach than the other photographers we’ve written about.

While most of the photographers we cover are working with images of inmates or the homeless, Clark purposefully has no humans in his photos. The photos are mostly of Guantanamo itself, with the images of the homes of some of the ex-detainees mixed in, giving a jolting dose of perspective.

When asked by Loredana D’Andrea at the London entertainment website Spoonfed about why he did not include portraits, Clark said:

I find that a lot of photographic portraits, you’re not really saying anything. All that’s going to happen is that the viewer’s preconceptions are going to bounce back at them. Some of the ex-detainees wouldn’t have taken part if I wanted to photograph them. I was absolutely adamant that this wasn’t journalistic; I just wanted to work in their homes.

I also think if I produced a set of portraits of ex-detainees from Guantanamo, most of whom are of Pakistani, Middle Eastern, African origin, I think a lot of people would look at those and say, ‘ooh look that’s what a terrorist looks like.’ The portraits would be completely dehumanised. They wouldn’t actually say anything about the individual — the spaces are much more evocative.

Addressing his first point, we must agree that there are many times when portraits don’t “speak” to the viewer. That is why we try to find and share with you those that do. It’s one of the reasons why we tend to look at creators like Susan Madden Lankford, who add elements of personal narrative to their works. The combination of the image and the subjects’ own words helps dispel the effect of reinforcing preconceptions.

As to Clark’s second point, it makes perfect sense. Removing the people themselves and simply presenting the context is a good way to communicate the message while (hopefully) managing to avoid the racial stereotypes that attend the issue.

In Clark’s own words:

[...T]he work ‘is not about monumentalising the historical fact of the camps, but evoking the experience of individuals caught up in events in a backwater of Cuba.’

And that, truly, is the important part — the human condition, the experiences of a daily life gone horribly off the rails.

We’d like to wish Edmund Clark success, not only with his art show but also with the release of his new book, Gunatanamo, If The Light Goes Out, which is due in November following the opening. To keep up with the news about the book and the show, check out Clark’s Facebook Page.

Source: “Guantanamo, If The Light Goes Out – An interview with Edmund Clark,” Spoonfed, 09/24/10
Image copyright by Edmund Clark, used with permission.

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Photo + Narrative: Prison Photographer Robert Gumpert

Locked and Found

Those familiar with our work here at HUMANE EXPOSURES are aware that we believe that images, combined with personal narratives, are the best way to communicate the ongoing crisis occurring in the American penal system. Susan Madden Lankford’s second book, Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time, demonstrates that approach very well. There are, however, other socially conscious photographers out there doing similar things.

One of them is Robert Gumpert. Much like Lankford, he aims his camera at the inequities of life, including incarceration. He carries things one step further though. The personal narratives attached to each photo are not written, they are playable recordings of the inmates’ own words and voices. Here is the short description from Gumpert’s website:

Work on ‘Locked and Found’ started in 2006. Any prisoner in the San Francisco County Jail system can take part telling any story, on any topic they choose but for an open case. Those who take part in ‘Locked and Found’ get photos and an audio copy of their story.

The picture we used in the post, for instance, is of Shanika Perkins. It was taken last March, and, along with, two recordings were made. The two audio clips are only a few minutes long, one is called “20 Years,” and the other one is “They’re sexy to me.”  The first one reflects on the substance abuse issues that had brought Perkins to jail, how incarceration has jumpstarted her writing, and her first forays into Buddhism. The second one is Perkins’ own perspective on her (primarily “jailhouse”) tattoos and their meaning. [Listen here, the play buttons are underneath the photo.]

Gumpert explores other social issues with his images as well. In the first half of 2003, he produced a series of works for the Institute of Industrial Relations Gallery at Berkeley called Field Work. It is described on the Institute’s website as follows:

‘Field Work’ is one of a series of projects that hopefully raise questions in the viewer’s mind about relationships in the world we live in. In this case the subject is agriculture and those that work the fields. All the images are from California, where half of the nation’s vegetables and fruits are grown, including 85% of the strawberries and 95% of the tomatoes used in processed foods. The photo/text panels illustrate the harvesting of specialty crops such as asparagus, romaine lettuce, pomegranates, garlic, and cotton, and together tell the story of the political economy of agriculture and of the field workers that form the labor backbone of this industry with falling wages and increased corporate subsidies.

Ryan Hinckson, a writer for TrendHunter.com, was quite impressed with a photo series Gumpert did on the subject of prison tattoos and their meanings:

Whether you are interested in it for the tattoos, the look at prison culture or because of a love of photography, the Robert Gumpert ‘American Prison Tattoos’ photo series will not disappoint.

Check out Gumpert’s work — it will make you think.

Source: “Take a Picture, Tell a Story,” Take a Picture, Tell a Story
Source: “Robert Gumpert,” RobertGumpert.com
Source: “Exploring Inmate Ink,” TrendHunter
Image copyright Robert Gumpert, from the show “Locked and Found.” Used with permission.

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Susan Madden Lankford to Host Encinitas Library Food Drive

downTown USA: A Personal Journey with The HomelessAs part of its Third Wednesday Series, the Friends of the Encinitas Library presents our own Susan Madden Lankford this Wednesday, September 15, at 6:30 p.m. Lankford will host the library’s annual food drive for the Encinitas Community Resource Center’s Food Program. The library staff will be collecting non-perishable food items at the event, so we encourage you to bring donations.

Additionally, we would like to thank KPBS for the kind words about Susan in its article that announced the food drive:

Lankford’s penetrating photographs, rich personal narrative, and candid interviews are supplemented by contributions from the street people themselves, creating a compelling portrait of a population at risk. Susan will be exhibiting photography from both of books — ‘downTown U.S.A.‘ [link is ours] and ‘Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time.’

Here is a taste of what you will be in for:

Please join us at the Encinitas Library, and bring some canned goods! The event is free and open to the public. The address is: 540 Cornish Dr. in Encinitas [Google Map].

Source: “Susan Madden Lankford, Author & Photojournalist, Hosts Food Drive,” KBPS, 09/15/10
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