Forensic Architecture

Saydnaya: Inside a Syrian Torture Prison

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

With the widely remarked upon image saturation of our culture, it is easily overlooked that the production of visibility, through technologies and networks, produce a parallel world of the invisible and unrepresented. As Ulises Ali Mejias has written in Off The Network: Disrupting The Digital World, the nodes on a digital network are trained to recognise only other nodes. In the network, an object that does not appear to be a node simply does not exist. Such is the network’s blindspot, recognising only itself. And so it is for our positivist relationship with visibility, with a world that is continuously imaged. The history of photography is laden with such notions: that the world exists to be photographed; that an object/place has not been truly seen until there is a photograph of it. We are largely unconscious that our regime of visibility, dependent upon the photograph as it is, also produces a world of invisibility, with objects, places and peoples that seemingly do not exist.

It is necessarily the case that if a culture is built around an apparatus like photography and the exchange of photographic images, a parallel culture will emerge where photography is resisted (perhaps to return to privacy) or prohibited (in order to construct alternative regimes of power). Such a world might be a respite from the unrelenting flow of media, information and chatter, but it might also conceal a deeply choreographed programme of violence. How would we bring such a world into view?

The research organisation Forensic Architecture explores the gaps between images. It produces analytical evidence to participate in the production of both political and juridical facts, relating to areas of conflict and sites of humanitarian crises. Using archaeological and forensic tools first developed to generate evidence and demonstrate the course of decades-old war crimes (see Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman’s Mengele’s Skull), Forensic Architecture has merged forensic procedures with new combinations of images sources and data analysis tools, to reveal how buildings both produce and bear the scars of control, and how these affect human subjects. Weizman describes this process as expanding the juridical process so that objects themselves can be sources of information and effectively placed within the context of a trial. One project, entitled A Drone Strike in Miranshah: Investigating Video Testimony, exhibited in the 2015-16 exhibition Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence assembles uploaded civilian photographic and video recordings to produce real-time 3D-mapped and geo-tagged verifications of drone attacks in Palestine.

Forensic Architecture projects counter government accusations of digital manipulation – an open but hard-to-refute claim made by numerous government forces – and strategies of hiding or concealing, by using multiple images as an accumulation of information which can be abstractly mapped. In using a combination of archaeological, forensic and photographic tools, Forensic Architectures demonstrates new expanded strategies of documentary practice, interlinking the documentary mode of ‘witnessing’ with analytical research, whilst providing real, juridical evidence.

Saydnaya: Inside a Syrian Torture Prison begins, however, at the very limit of photographic evidence. Saydnaya Prison is located 25km north of Damascus in Syria, and has been the site of civilian tortures since 2011. The prison remains out of view however: A single satellite image reveals nothing of what happens inside, and no images are known to exist of the site (in part because no independent visitors have been permitted to visit). The operators of Saydnaya have restricted all acts of photography to conceal any disclosure of the treatment of inmates, a strategy that is further facilitated by the conditions in which prisoners are held and moved around the site in continual darkness.

Without even a partial photographic record, Inside a Syrian Torture Prison nevertheless constructs a new body of imagery to make Saydnaya visible. The project responds to the difficulties of obtaining photographic documents by re-establishing the value of human experience as a source of evidence and information, advanced by a forensic focus upon detail. As a reconstruction based around the oral accounts of ex-prisoners – seen through an interactive model of the prison interspersed with interview extracts and video footage of the model’s assembly – it becomes clear the body and mind witness beyond the purely narrative account of the subject. The body and mind trace the site, are imprinted with it. Extensive interviews, where the prison structure and operations are discussed, compared and mapped with architects, form a picture of the building. But with darkened conditions as standard, information is not taken from general or emotive impressions, but from the specific relationships of the body to those architectures, in relation to the size and textures of cells, and the architectural particularities of the site. In one interview, a man recalls a hatch, which corresponds to the size of his skull (through which the inmate was forced to insert his head, sideways, so as to be beaten). The space, in turn, can be measured in reverse, its position towards the floor located by the bodily memory of the witness. Each body maintains the physical residue of the architecture, but the senses similarly maintain a sense of space: the material properties of spaces were reconstructed through acoustic modelling.

Forensic Architecture’s account of Saydnaya begins with an outline shell, but populates the prison with intense details emerging from the human subject. Sense experience is transformed into visible mappings of the site. And temporarily without photographic input, the forensic reconstruction of site and experience re-situate the human agent as a reliable, in fact, valuable witness. Photography could learn from such methods, progressing beyond a notion of fact, or indexicality, to one of testimony for its claim to relevance in the world. If we find ourselves blinded by our dependence upon the image, we find in the human who testifies a key.

All images courtesy of Forensic Architecture. ©Forensic Architecture and Amnesty International

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Adam Golfer

A House Without a Roof

Essay by Janna Dyk

They sat on stumps in the dirt.” So A House Without a Roof begins with these simple seven words, a personal note by the New York-based photographer Adam Golfer, whose project recently migrated to an inter-genre book composed of equal-parts photographs and short stories that function together, published by the Greenpoint-based Booklyn Press and subsequently shortlisted for Aperture’s Paris Photo First PhotoBook Award 2016.

Golfer refers to the work as a negotiation of the memories and mythologies of his own personal past. His family “was implicated by the Nazi Holocaust… and almost everyone beyond [his] grandparents were lost.” The dynamic created for him a “desire to connect the imagined histories that echo back through such places as Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, Israel, and Palestine”. In particular, to trace the histories of violence and displacement that link them and, “…to question and draw connections between different geographies, peoples and times.”

It is through this intrapersonal archive of family photos, mementos, telegrams, emails, and imagined and remembered writings, that Golfer navigates both his family ties and representations of the complexities of Israel’s ongoing military occupation. Many of the book’s images are referenced in the appendix with contextualising information. “I was seeking out images in archives and on the internet that echoed pictures I’d already made, and other times creating new images that looked like pictures I’d found,” he has said. “In these moments, different time periods and places became difficult to distinguish from one another. The boundaries were starting to collapse.”

As such the book resides in the slippery space between reality and fiction, employing multiple, simultaneous narratives. Throughout the pages, there emerges the disorienting sense of locating oneself within a historic ‘home.’ Golfer references the novella, Returning to Haifa (1969), by the Palestinian writer, Ghassan Kanafani, the story wherein a Palestinian couple who fled Haifa in 1948 twenty years prior ventures back to revisit their native land. “The events were mixed up, the past and present running together, both in turn jumbled up with the thoughts and illusions and imaginings and feelings of the past… Had he known?… Sometimes he told himself, “Yes, I knew it even before it happened.”

A sentiment reiterative of Returning to Haifa occurred for Golfer in formulating A House Without a Roof, and is palpable in the book. Recalling the experience of visiting his grandmother’s (formerly confiscated) house in Lithuania, Golfer says, “I had spent a great deal of time reflecting on what it would be like to go to Lithuania and knock to see who was living there. But when I finally made it to the town, there was no door to knock on. This agitated against all these interrelated histories for me in a very tangible, ironic way… In my case, there was no door… It’s a reality that pairs with fiction, and suddenly it became about seeing the irony and tragedy together as a new reality.”

This moment appears in a photograph of the house, over which the addition of orange pencil delineates where once the door may have existed. So too resides an imagined exchange: “A knock on the door. An old man answers looking tired so I say, this is my house, and he says something to me in a tongue I don’t understand… I pick up my camera and click take a picture and now the man looks angry…I keep knocking.”

Perpetual knocking and doorlessness (or rooflessness – the title alludes to the practice of refugees avoiding finishing the roofs of temporary houses so as to emblematically proclaim their temporality), of the unfinished or closed-off, carries the book. Each time a text and following image creates meaning via its pairing, it collides in subsequent pages with material that complicates such reading. In a manner similar to the way text functions within a Walid Raad installation or the poetic compilations with archival images of Susan Howe, photographs appear to inform words only long enough to complicate, assembling, to quote Howe, “the confusion or juxtaposition between living truth or acting life.” Photographs inserted one atop the other become “like histories asserted and recombined over each other.” These seemingly unrelated parts form partial wholes that leave vital, poetic gaps.

Such partial understandings find in the book repeating visual devices, or “echoes,” as Golfer calls them. Two photographs of the same windshield are bound, side-by-side, as if seen from each eye while the other is closed. As the human body holds simultaneously two views with which the brain must negotiate (at times leaving or filling in blind spots), so too function these photographic homonyms as simultaneous perceptions. References to aspects of vision, of seeing and its limitations, gazing, and the tricks one’s perspective plays on itself, undulate throughout the texts and photographs. Two neighbouring blown-out windows in a depopulated 1948 house visually mimic a delicate pairing of David Ben Gurion’s dishtowels, creating emotional and philosophic blurring between them. In another spread, the eye-holes cut out for the mask of a Palestinian prisoner are repeated on the next page in an ocular shape within a house’s gate. So too a text relays, “a cat is staring at me. She is black with a white belly. I blink and she is grey. I cock my head to be sure, and she is black and white again.”

This perspectival uncertainty – actual grey area – is also relayed in abrupt, cinematic-like shifts detonated by flips between the images and text, interjecting narratives, and repeating onomatopoeic words such as “click,” “clack,” “BOOM,” “wham,” and “bing…” They serve as poetic devices that alternately reference an exterior eye’s view from a camera, the noise of military conflict, the mental-scene shifts that occur while wandering through free-associative thoughts, or the psychological syncing when something clicks that puncture and punctuate.

Golfer seems to suggest that such holes resemble the way that memory and history reside, as incomplete or non-wholes. This intuitive incompleteness reiterates in one of the final texts, a humoured exchange between three generations of individuals attempting to resolve an unspoken question about what is was like to live in Kaunas, Lithuania, before the war. Remaining unanswered, the section ends: “I look at Dad and he is laughing and then Poppop starts laughing too and I start laughing and I feel a bit embarrassed but somehow relieved. There is a roll of paper towels on the table, and I am not sure why, but I pick it up and throw it at Poppop. He catches it and laughs, and then something clicks.” Metonymically, a lot clicks in this moment, leaving one to return again.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Adam Golfer

Janna Dyk is an artist and independent curator based in New York. In 2015 she received a MFA from Hunter College, after studying Photography at the School of Visual Arts, and Literature and Spanish Linguistics in undergraduate.

Virginie Rebetez

Out of the Blue

Q&A with Greg Hobson

In the UK around 250,000 people are reported missing every year. Of these at least 16,000 are unaccounted for after 12 months. For the families of the missing, the experience is conflicted and painful. Missing people leave a gap that is filled with shock, pain, grief and, above all, hope. In describing the experience, Andrew O’Hagan, in his haunting book The Missing writes, “The space they occupy lies somewhere between what we know about the ways of being alive and what we hear about the ways of being dead . . . The person missing cannot be brought into focus.” He goes on to suggest that the most awful outcome is that the missing person is found dead, “the dark, worst, last thing” that means the end of hope.

With over 13 million CCTV cameras tracking UK movements alone, and increasingly networked data across bank accounts, passports, national insurance numbers and social media, it seems almost impossible to be missing and alive. Coupled with the grisly realism of television and film police dramas it means that the unthinkable is an ever-present reality for the families of the long-term disappeared.

Artist Virginie Rebetez’s projects are concerned with this space and, in particular, how a material identity can be created for someone who has become invisible. Her most recent work Out of the Blue, now released as a publication by Meta/Books focuses on the unsolved disappearance of Suzanne Gloria Lyall.

On March 2nd 1998, Lyall stepped off a bus after work and began her walk to her campus dormitory room at the State University of New York (SUNY). This was the last time she was seen. Fascinated by the Lyall case, Rebetez made contact with the parents, who even after eighteen years, have never lost hope of locating their daughter. The relationship between Rebetez and the Lyall family was immediately empathic and the family shared any evidence they possessed. These remaining, tangible scraps of photographs and papers are now worn and tattered through handling. Some testimonies – albeit unofficial – from psychics professing to know her whereabouts have also been saved by the family. Aged only 19 when she disappeared, Suzanne Lyall’s face has also been age progressed into an approximation of what she might look like now. Commissioned by Rebetez from a forensic artist, these latter images are perhaps the most uncanny in their attempt to give a present materiality to Suzanne. Set against the family’s memory of Suzanne, which is necessarily rooted in 1998, these are unsettling and sad images to see.

Rebetez brings these last tangible things relating to Suzanne’s life together in her layered and complex book with the Dutch editor Delphine Bedel. The book is presented in three parts: a text booklet includes essays, a key to the images with detailed captions and reproductions of a selection of psychic predictions; the commissioned, aged-progressed posters are inserted and the book itself that includes photographs of ephemera, Suzanne’s parents and various related topographical views.

Greg Hobson: I’d like to know about how you found out about this case and whet attracted you to it specifically (as opposed to the many disappearance and abduction cases)?

Virginie Rebetez: In all my projects I’m interested in the invisible, in traces left after a death or an absence, in the space created by loss, in unfinished or unresolved stories. When a person dies or goes missing, this absence leaves a space. All my work is about that space; I try to understand and immerse myself into that territory. I’m fascinated by our need as humans for physicality, in order to get closure. I can say, in a way, that I use photography to give matter to this space created by absence – trying to give a form, a shape, to what is not there anymore.

During my artist residency in New York in 2014, I decided to work on stories of missing persons, so I started to make a selection of different cases based on the location and the number of years of disappearance. I wanted to meet the families, so I chose locations reachable by car inside the NY State. Also, it was important for me that it was a more than 10 years case because I didn’t want to meet the family just after the disappearance of their children. It was important that some time passed. The first family I contacted was the Lyall’s. Since the disappearance of their daughter in 1998, Mary and Doug Lyall never stopped looking for Suzanne and for answers. They are really amazing people! Unfortunately, Suzanne’s father passed away last year. In 2001, they created ‘The Center for Hope’, where they provide assistance to others with similar loss. They connect people in working closely with the police and different missing people related organisations. Since they were very active in the search for their daughter and involved in several groups helping families of missing kids, they are used to speaking about their story and open to sharing their feelings. When we met for the first time in 2014, I knew straight away that I wanted to work on Suzanne’s story. I had the click and felt connected. Their story touched me a lot, we got along very well and the material related to the 18 years of investigation was incredible. Also, Suzanne is one year older than me.

It is actually the first time I’m working on one specific story. In my previous projects, the characters are rarely shown and usually anonymous…

GH: How did you get access to the material – in particular the spiritualists’ notes and predictions?

VR: All the material came from Suzanne’s parents. Since 1998, they were in contact with more than 75 psychics. In the book, the psychics’ material is only a small selection of the total amount. The parents kept all of it, printed it, photocopied it, annotated it, re-transcribed it. I was very interested in the fact that these are not originals and keep on being reprinted, recopied and so on…Many layers are added throughout the years. Some information is added while other parts are erased.

GH: What is missing, for example, are witness statements. Why did you exclude these?

VR: There is no access to the police files, because it’s still an open case, so the police are not allowed to show or speak about the case publicly. The material I have only comes from the family, even though it includes some police material such as the images of the first helicopter search in 1998 or some correspondence introducing psychics to the family, for instance. My focus was not on the police investigation aspect per se but I was really more interested in the different purposes of the images, how they were used, depending on all the different people involved in the case – press, police, family, psychics etc.

All this various material is combined and re-organised in order to bring another angle to the story, another context, all the while offering a reflection on the photographic medium and the different status of the image. In the book, it’s curious to see how the images connect with each other and thus forge new links and new interpretations. The status of each image and document is constantly shifting and offering new meaning and new context.

The project plays with the notion of visible and off-camera, the front and the back. The idea of touch, repetition, endlessness and materiality is also very present in the haptic qualities of the book.

GH: What is the significance of the photographs of the various collections of material relating to Suzanne – are these as you found them or have you placed them in that way?

VR: These ‘wall images’ are made in my studio, in Lausanne. During the 2 years I worked on the project, I produced a lot of images and collected a lot of different material, which I started to play with (reprinting it, altering it…) on my studio wall. When we started to work on the edit of the book in my studio, we decided to include the wall in the book. Each ‘wall image’ now becomes one image, where my own photographs, family archive material, as well as altered archive, can meet and speak to each other. It creates another layer, another context for these images. Also, a new voice is added to the story – mine.

In the book, the narrative aspect is punctuated by an alternation of my own full-page images and the ‘wall images’. In a manner similar to the traditional police wall, the studio wall can be seen as my own artist research wall, the investigative nature of which is obviously not the same. These ‘wall images’ align the book with the idea of endless search, where the narrative is made in a sort of circle, as some images reappear and recirculate several times in the book – whether they are printed, cropped or sized differently. This movement of back and forth is really manifest in the book form of the project in particular.

GH: Are the location photographs from the same places and time of year of Suzanne’s disappearance?

VR: I decided to photograph locations to elaborate on this idea of movement, of wandering and to show the area Suzanne Lyall comes from. Throughout the book, you have this feeling of cinematographic travelling, without a real beginning or end. The landscapes also bring some breaks in the rhythm of the book. They are made in various locations, more or less near to where Suzanne disappeared. You can notice their captions are very vague (“Upstate NY, 2014”), because they are not necessarily locations relevant to the disappearance of Suzanne.

GH: Did Suzanne’s parents collaborate with you willingly?

VR: As I said before, they are really open and warm people and they are also incredibly involved in other missing children cases so they are well-versed and of course open about discussing their story to the press etc.

Even if my project doesn’t take place in a documentary or journalistic mode, they are happy that their story is shared and spoken about. Throughout the whole process of developing this work, I always tried to update the family and show them my progress and where I wanted to go with it. Just a few weeks ago before going to press, I showed to Mary Lyall, Suzanne’s mother, the final version of the book and she was so very enthusiastic and emotional about it. That means a lot for me.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Virginie Rebetez

Greg Hobson is the former Curator of Photographs at the National Media Museum, Bradford. Recent exhibition projects include William Henry Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph (2016), Revelations: Experiments in Photography (2015), and Joan Fontcuberta: Stranger than Fiction (2014), all of which showed at Media Space, London and the National Media Museum in Bradford. He is currently working on new photography projects as a freelance curator and arts advisor.

James Pfaff

Alex & Me

Book review by Natasha Christia

Alex & Me is an intimate autobiographical account of a road trip and broken love affair between a man and a woman. Materialised as a refreshingly original scrapbook with a strong diaristic scent, the project is the outcome of the creative tandem between the author of the pictures, Glasgow-based photographer James Pfaff, and two women; Francesca Seravalle, who curated the concept and sequence editing of the book, and Alex, the protagonist in the story. Alex & Me reunites a series of photographs from Pfaff’s archive that were shot during a two-week roadtrip he and Alex took in September 1998 from Toronto to New Orleans and then back north to New York.

The book carries the aura of a charmingly imperfect journal. It emerges as a container of elusive feelings that seek to accommodate themselves in the present and is replete with a plethora of snapshots on the move. Car interiors, highways, gasoline stations, bars and telephone booths are all embedded alongside Alex’s vibrant portraits within the pages of a hand-painted journal. They are tainted with expressive paintbrush strokes and handwritten texts.

Pfaff originally conceived the idea for a publication back in 2007. However, his attempts to bring it to fruition had somehow not fallen into place. It was not until 2012, with Seravalle’s thought-provoking input, that Alex & Me took shape as a diary, emulating the aesthetic of a scrapbook. Seravalle encouraged Pfaff to harvest from his archives an assemblage of notebook pages and a cover originally made in 1998, yet which was never intended for publication. The journal was completed with additional material originally shot during the journey and printed in local snappy snap shops along the way. Painting and texts came afterwards as a means for Pfaff to mark his contemporary response to the work. Partially present in his previous practice, painting served as the pretext for an artistically challenging process, one that at first was met with hesitation and then with more confidence. Far from a mere illustrative companion to the pictures, colour turned into an autonomous expressive element chronicling the dust and time of a journey past: white for the fences of the American houses, blue for the packaging of the cigarettes, red for the neon lights, and black for the highway darkness and so on. The same applies to Pfaff’s evocative texts and poems. They could have been nothing but personal. Their inclusion in book renders makes for an authentic, quiet, yet totally confident universe of words and images.

Two books in one is how Pfaff likes to describe it, Alex & Me is both a book and a memorial – haunting experiences crystallised in images, colour strokes and words that claim for themselves a three-dimensional space the same way objects do. Similar to Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence – a novel and a museum created simultaneously – it fulfils its mission as an iconographical depository of artefacts, scratches, clichés and love. The print reproduction and the poem in the envelope that accompanies it confirm this worshipping penchant. Articulated in first person, it reproduces Pfaff’s gaze, subjective response and passion and as such, it instigates an intuitive, heart-felt response from the viewer. No conceptual schemes are to be encountered here; just a cumulation of raw human experience alongside infinite stories of love, sorrow and solace.

September 1998. In a parallel temporal dimension, we find ourselves on the road. The trip was destined to turn into a catalyser of stormy inner changes in our timeline. We have however no material leftovers of these stories in our drawers. But somehow, Pfaff’s pictures succeed in filling the gap; gradually, they burrow into us as our most cherished souvenirs. They invite us to think of the myriad of insignificant incidents around the world that become unexpectedly symptomatic of the changes we are going through and prepare us to confront the larger issues. From today’s perspective, both Pfaff’s intimate fictions and ours seem to have unfolded when everything was about to change. Two years later, in September 2001, the new millennium abruptly affected history’s panorama and to a great extent our faith towards Images and the way we perceive and consume them. Something was irrevocably broken. America in September 1998 offers the set for a minor story with unexpected larger connotations, before the crashing and demolition of expectations and the beginning of a new era of neo-conservatism when the two protagonists of this story followed their own destinies and paths.

From the black and white sequences of its early pages to the subsequent double spreads in colour that intensify feeling and temporality, Alex & Me reveals itself as an open-ended artistic project that defies conventional progression. As if emanating from a Jim Jarmusch film, its neo-noir aesthetic makes a contained albeit heart-breaking allusion to love without idolising or fetishising it. It also establishes loose connections with Double Blind (No Sex Last Night), a 1992 film in which Sophie Calle and Greg Shephard, equipped with separate cameras, recorded every moment of their road trip across America. But whilst Double Blind finds its raison d’être in a voyeuristic tour-de-force operated by two antagonistic cameras within the confinement of its filmic time, here the weaving of relationships, desires and fears shifts outside narration and its historical time, in a continuous real-time narrative of a life shared and in a living book-object.

Alex & Me was conceived from the beginning as an ongoing and ever-expanding project made to be repainted, re-enacted and relived not only by Pfaff himself but by many others who have been actively involved in the reshaping of its story: his muse Alex (“everything comes out of me and her”), Seravalle (“the second woman who has scrutinised the project”), the audience, and, last but not least, the book which seems to claim its own life. Pfaff now gives public performances, collaborating with it anew threw paint and words. He invests layers of his contemporary feelings onto a story in constant evolution and onto a book he describes as a painful one —“a book that took so long to make, one with real consequences for peoples’ lives”. What’s more, this ‘unfinished’ book was marked by the sudden end of a friendship. Two years before its finalisation, Alex, his muse and creative companion in this sixteen-year endeavour suddenly became reticent. She asked him not to publish.

Pfaff’s story conjures up the impossibility of letting go. It also speaks to a desperate attempt to hold on to what is relentlessly evaporating – that persistent memory that still haunts us as a ghostly manifestation of a past once lived. But it somehow manages to square up to it and enable its reincarnation in the present without falling into banal melancholy. Beyond what a conventional solid (photo)book can represent, Alex & Me is a tangible performative capsule of memory. A cathartic meta-fictional experience in tenor, it opens up the possibility of alimenting, appropriating and recreating the past, while suggesting and acknowledging new collective modes in the creative process. Alex & Me has certainly become the path for Pfaff to look back over his story and deliver it to others. Now it is no longer just his; it is here for us to see and to react to in our own way. And, perhaps this is where redemption is to be found in photography –even if only momentarily and restlessly.

All images courtesy of the artist. © James Pfaff

Natasha Christia is a writer, curator and educator based in Barcelona. 

Amy Elkins

Black is the Day Black is the Night

Essay by Daniel C. Blight

Those prisoners that write while in prison do so as a means to manifest themselves; to declare to the outside world their otherwise concealed lives and to preserve something of their memory for others. In his The Consolations of Writing (2014), Rivkah Zim considers the canon of prison literature – from Anicius Boethius to Irina Ratushinskaya – as an experiment in memory, stating that the prison has historically “denoted a place of extreme suffering that forced attention on vital matters worthy of remembrance and careful consideration… the arts of memory may also be fixed and rendered distinct by the action of writing.” From a sense of confinement and immobility arises a need to articulate oneself, to resist one’s own invisibility. So it is said, writing from prison is an act of literary resistance. 

Amy ElkinsBlack is the Day Black is the Night considers the concept of prison time in relation to the personal identity of seven male prisoners in separate American penitentiaries, with whom she exchanged letters. In her images – often abstracted but rarely altogether evanesced – Elkins has visualised a very specific kind of confined remembering. Based on personal details – age, place of incarceration, sentence length and type of conviction – the artist has made a number of composite photographs, illustrations and found objects that reflect the lives of her subjects. In various formal and conceptual ways, these are visual portraits of people gleaned from their prison writing, or from their memories penned within the obsolete time of penal servitude.

To write from prison is to remember within a particular and defunct form of time. In durance, writing shifts time into redundancy: “The value of an hour changes and all the apparatus built up over the years for dealing with the passage of time suddenly becomes obsolete… measured as the outside world measure it, time becomes intolerable.” says Michael Fitzgerald in his 1977 Prisoners in Revolt. The time of prison writing is like no other, and images created by it, or deriving from it, take on strange and unique characteristics as a result.

Of course, prison writing reflects social concerns as well as literary ones. The Western ‘correctional’ system at large, marketed by neoliberal politics, is far less poetic in its socioeconomic associations. The “punitive turn” – a phrase coined by David Garland in his 2001 publication The Culture of Control – describes the way in which the American state has a new political identity for its intolerant approach to crime and imprisonment. Unsurprisingly in today’s world of post-fact politics, this new attitude to crime is the result of a kind of populism; one in which experts are ignored and instead a sense of vague ‘power to the people’ rhetoric pervades in which it’s better to appeal to the ‘rational’ and ‘moderate’ political centre, than it is to the minority views of statisticians or academic experts which might suggest or describe a less digestible image of America’s penal system.

In the recently published 465-page National Academic Press study The Growth of Incarceration in the United States (2014), the statistics are shocking: in the last four decades the rate of imprisonment in the US has quadrupled – one in one-hundred people are currently in prison; the prison population is predominantly comprised of poor, ethnic minority men under forty years of age; more than half the prison population suffer from a mental illness or drug addiction; and there has been a 400% increase in prison spending, much of this allocated to basic amenities scaled up to manage large numbers of inmates, which as a result leaves lacklustre funding for prison education and psychological rehabilitation. By these results, the punitive turn is one that disavows the idea of prison as a ‘correctional’ facility – ideally one in which adults might receive mental health support and education in order to prepare them for living in the outside world – and instead reframes it as a place of permanent residence for socially immobile people of colour. Its financial structure is for profit and its politics are indisputably racist. So when you hear Donald Trump say “we need to get a lot tougher”, what he really means is “we need to get a lot more racist, bigoted and intolerant”. This is neoliberal penal populism in action.

Elkins stopped writing to her pen-pals under different circumstances: three were executed, two declined to continue corresponding and two were released. It is clear that writing to prisoners comes with huge responsibility and prisoner well-being, relief from isolation and the balance between friendship and safety developed when writing is both of utmost importance and case-specific. Yet the commitment begs various questions: what do you say? When do you stop?

Alongside pixelated portraits, Elkins has included a number of images of landscapes composed of layered photographs. Of all the painterly detail of these composites, it is the vivid green of trees that stands out. A subject not unfamiliar to prison writers, trees are successful metaphors for life and freedom. In 2014 the graduating class of Goddard College in Vermont invited writer and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal – a man who had been sentenced to death and wrote ferociously on politics and ethics from prison – to undertake their commencement speech. Of the many poetic allusions and political affirmations made, it is Abu-Jamal’s description of trees that best reflects Elkins’ images, and one can imagine how he might have visualised his own landscapes not dissimilar from the artist’s: “I last walked on campus during the late 1970s. But although it was undoubtedly quite a long time ago, it still sits in memory, and sometimes even visits in dreams of the funky atmosphere that suffused the campus like a cloud of exhaled marijuana smoke. What really moved me however was the green life – the abundance of grass, trees standing like ancient sentinels, the majestic mountains of Vermont, which possessed a beauty that was, to a guy from the city, simply breathtaking. I remember with crystal clarity walking through the woods back to our dorms and feeling pure rapture in the presence of those trees. How many centuries had trees stood on this earth? My mind looked back to Indians who must’ve trod through these very woods, my steps touching the ground that once crunched under their moccasined feet.”

From within prison, a person penning a letter to another individual they do not know or will never meet, might think of them as the representative of an invisible, silent audience in the outside world. As is the case with Abu-Jamal’s essay writing, prison forces you to dwell on things, in strange durations. Time in prison has contingent as well as poetic uses. Rivkah Zim observes that for those locked up, prison writing is a welcome intrusion: “Writing distracted them, thus alleviating (to some measure) the contingent pressures of time and place”.

What is the relationship between prison time and photographic time in Elkins’ work then? Photography’s specific rendition of time is opposed to the literary resistance of prison time, which is there to be survived in movement. Prisoners must move forward in time as quickly as possible, while remaining alive. Hence Elkins builds composite images – layers of image and text; small gestures towards a form of durance (to once again use the noun which means both imprisonment and duration) which the stasis of single photographic frames might not provide. Prison time is not the ‘then’ that persists into ‘now’ that defines time in photography for Roland Barthes in his Camera Lucida (1980), but rather the “dual sense of time passing and standing still” understood by Azrini Wahidin in her 2006 essay Time and the Prison Experience.

Laura Mulvey refers to Hollis Frampton’s version of time in his film (nostalgia) (1971) as a “fascination with temporal paradox and contradiction”, which also seems to apply to Elkins’ composite photographic images that transcribe the identities and experience of prisoners through their writings. However, this might also be an example of photography’s power to convert one form of time to another, as Barthes’ or Frampton’s or Ekins’ time does not seem to be a luxury afforded by prison writing’s time-as-redundancy: prison time is “obsolete” and “intolerable”, to return to Fitzgerald – it cannot be converted into anything other than a reflection of its anachronistic self. Hence, Elkins reproduces photographic time as error, abstraction and pixelation as a means to reflect both the philosophical and social experience of time in prison under the influence of the punitive turn.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Amy Elkins

Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is co-editor of Loose Associations, a periodical on image culture published by The Photographers’ Gallery; visiting tutor in the department of Critical & Historical Studies, Royal College of Art and lecturer in photography at the University of Brighton. 

Francesca Catastini

The Modern Spirit is Vivisective

Book review by Gerry Badger

The first question one has of this book by the Italian photographer Francesca Catastini, which won the ‘Dummy’ prize at this year’s Vienna Photobook Festival, centres upon its title. The book is a meditation in images and text upon the process of studying human anatomy, which is essentially the same today as it was in say the famous Anatomical Theatre in Bologna University, constructed in 1637. Except perhaps for that fact that a paying public no longer attends these events, although there was of course the highly public dissection on Channel 4 in 2002 by Gunther von Hagens.

But here the operative word is dissection. The study of anatomy is based primarily upon empirical observation of the body’s inner parts, obtained by dissecting corpses. Catastini’s title however, The Modern Spirit is Vivisective, refers to vivisection, the cutting up of living bodies and a practice confined mercifully to the experiments upon live animals that so many of us find appalling.

Catastini’s title in fact derives from the modernist manifesto of the young James Joyce, a former medical student. In his posthumously published novel, Stephen Hero, Joyce lauds vivisection as the most modern strategy an analytical artist can deploy. The novel was published in 1944, although Joyce could hardly know that at the time the Nazis were using vivisection in diabolical experiments upon human beings in the camps.

Hopefully, Francesca Catastini is using the term in a metaphorical sense, in which she as a living artist is creatively dissecting the practice of dismembering and analysing corpses, musing upon a discipline which, in the early days, was linked more to natural philosophy than to medicine per se. And of course was a prerequisite for study by artists, such as Leonardo or Michaelangelo.

But already, we can see that this is a most unusual photobook. Beginning with the title itself, we are drawn into an intriguing web woven by Catastini, a web of image and word, metaphor and oxymoron, as she combines found vernacular photographs of old anatomy lessons with illustrations from Renaissance anatomy manuals, and sprinkles these with scientific, literary, and philosophical quotations. And of course, she adds her own photographs, scrupulously neutral large format images of some of the those famous Italian anatomical theatres, as well as some subtle photocollages.

The book, edited by Federica Chiocchetti, is divided into five sections, each corresponding to the five stages involved in dissection as detailed in the old treatises, each ‘chapter’ being framed by Catatsini’s interiors. The five are entitled respectively On Looking, On Canon Lust, On Touching, On Cutting, and On Discovery. But the narrative, while not exactly freewheeling, is, shall we say, a little whimsical, and some of the images have little interventions by Catatstini that one could easily miss. The Looking chapter, for instance, contains the expected diagrams of optical instruments, microscopic slides and so on, but also emphasises the theatrical aspect of the business. There are a couple of found photographs from the John Hopkins Medical School dating from 1943, one showing a group of rather serious anatomy lab students. A rip in the photographic emulsion ‘makes a mess’ of one girl’s face, which may or may not be relevant to the subject, yet nothing Catastani does is without thought, so I take it that it is. In the other picture from John Hopkins, a cheerful young lady holds a severed limb like a guitar. Anatomy students are a different breed.

On Canon Lust
is not quite what one might think. Sex crops up frequently in both anatomical studies and in Catastini’s imagination, but this section is in effect about anatomy’s relationship to art, and the obsession that both art and medicine have had with the perfect body, although paradoxically medicine is most often about the imperfect body. The section begins with a photograph of the young Ronald Regan (1940) – regarded as having a perfect physique when young – modelling in a life class. There is also an amusing passage quoted about never pointing out to students that you have a corpse with six fingers on a hand. Hide it – or maybe cut off the offending finger.

Catastini’s narrative is laced with such humour. On Touching has two images of blind people learning anatomy, by touching a skeleton. I don’t know if they go on to handle a corpse on the dissecting table, but that thought, and even handling a skeleton, somehow makes me squirm, although of course it shouldn’t.

In this section, there is also a French illustration of a kneeling man (hopefully a doctor) with his hand up the skirt of a remarkably insouciant woman. This illustration amused me because it reminded me of the only seaside postcard I know to feature a photographic joke. A young man on his knees has his hand up a woman’s black skirt. She is saying, ‘that’s the last time I let you change your film.’ The postcard is dated not only by its sexism but the idea of the film changing bag (no double entendre intended).

I could go on about this intriguing and engaging book, but one of it delights is that it is a cabinet of curiosities, and therefore surprises, so I may have given too much away already. I am impressed, for example, that Francesca Catastini didn’t opt for the obvious, with images of an échorché – the flayed corpse – or, even closer to home, something from the famous anatomical wax sculptures of Florence or Bologna.

Some felt in Vienna, that with such a plethora of drawn and engraved illustrations, whether this was actually a photobook, but does it matter? It pushes the boundaries of the photobook, not by containing the fewest ‘photographs’ (there are more than one might think at first glance) but by being so intelligent. In an era when the photobook seems all about flashy form and empty content, and drearily focused upon the self and little else, it is a pleasure to see a photobook, contentedly sober in design, looking outside itself, and engaging the brain as well as the eyes.

All images courtesy of the artist © Francesca Catastani

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 30 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.