Excerpt from Chapter 8 of
A Survey of the Repesentation of Prisoners
in the United States: Discipline and Photographs:
The Prison Experience (Edwin Mellen Press: NY,1999)
I don't want no money, no big car, none of that, because I know that none of that means nothing. When I am dead and they land me in a casket, I want people to say, "Yeah, his life started out bad, but it ended good. He was a bad person in his youth, right, but look at him, what he did before he died."
Harry Twiggs, a lifer
Texas leads the nation in executions with 92 since 1976, and during the year I photographed 14 men that were killed. Over the eight months I worked, I found myself in the oddest communities, a place where men count the inexorable passage of time both as a victory and a threat.
Narratives do not just occupy our time as we read, write, and imagine them, they determine the passage of time ("first this happened, then that happened . . .") and let us know that in fact time was not empty, it was abundant with activities and experiences we assigned to it. Such assign-ation is a profoundly political act, for it not only establishes what happened (according to the writer/thinker) but fixes an identity in time for those who are part of the narrative.
Steve G. Jones
Kevin Wright's The Great American Crime Myth (1985), a very perceptive historical look at our popular discourse of crime from within the context of the retour d'ordre of the conservative 1980s, argues that the public is frequently manipulated by, and subjected to, misleading crime statistics. What he terms "Crime Myth 1" crime statistics indicating a new wave of criminal activity "allows the public to focus on a common enemy: a group of predators toward whom anger and hate can be directed." He identifies this as a control tactic that provides society with "scapegoats for everything that is wrong," so that "society maintains a clear distinction between right and wrong." An evil empire within our own borders, "Criminals are other people not ourselves or anyone we know. They are," he continues, describing our prevalent societal attitude, "worthy of moral condemnation, and it is society's duty to avenge the pain they have caused."
Since the demise of the external "Red Threat" and the establishment of our own "War on Crime," Wright's observations are even more germane. We have increasingly turned inward, identifying "undesirables" within our own social body that we feel we must expel or destroy. Wright's observations, albeit made a decade ago, describe our social malaise today:
If crime is perceived to be increasing, it follows that the quality of life in the community must be deteriorating (Crime Myth 2). Fear causes people to sequester themselves in their homes and to avoid social contact with other people, particularly strangers. By directly limiting social variety, withdrawal impoverishes lives. Furthermore, it eats away at the fabric of society, increasing distrust and destroying the ties that bind the society together.
As we approach the year 2000, the communitarian spirit of the 1960s the belief in social "holism," what theologian Paul Tillich termed "beside-each-otherness" is fast eroding. We increasingly narrow the scope of those we trust and care for. This is a social "atomism" that is manifested in our indifference to the impoverished, our lack of concern for those who end up in prison largely due to their educational and economic deprivation, and our bitter cries for eye-for-an-eye revenge via the death penalty. This is an "against-each-otherness" expressed even in our "road rage" at those unfortunate enough to get in our harried way while driving a rapidly increasing form of violence that has resulted in murderous assault that, in turn, may put the perpetrator on death row where he or she will be killed by the state. A circular pattern of indifference feeding violence feeding indifference feeding violence. Need I ask whose political and economic interests this social atomism and wheel of misfortune serves?
In Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences (1996), Mennonite prison activist and writer-photographer Howard Zehr identifies another carceral myth, that we are too soft on crime. In fact, "Offenders are punished more often than is usually assumed; the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the developed world." And some states are more zealous in this matter than others. In Pennsylvania, a life sentence without parole is mandatory for all first- and second-degree murder convictions; release is only by commutation of sentence by the Governor, and so some 3000 men and women are serving life sentences in that state alone. On the average, notes Zehr, 10 lifers die each year as 150 are added yearly. What about Texas? Suzanne Donovan notes in her introductory remarks to Ken Light's photographs in Texas Death Row (1997), of the 3000 inmates on death row in the United States, some 400 are condemned to die in the State of Texas, where 90 per cent of the voters have enthusiastically supported the death penalty and more than 100 executions have been carried out since that penalty was reinstated. The condemned are mostly men in their early twenties, some in their teens, there were only six women awaiting execution in Texas in 1994; most will spend between seven and ten years waiting idly in a non-air-conditioned five-foot by nine-foot cell to be executed. "Richard," an inmate featured in Texas Death Row, identified this as a form of torture, "It's not right. Course I don't want anybody's sympathy. But this situation here, this ain't human. There is a certain element of torture. I don't know anybody in here that had a case where they tortured their victim five or six years before they actually took their life. Yeah, there is torture." But a life sentence without parole isn't perceived as much better; Tyrone Werts, a lifer in a Pennsylvania prison, observes in Zehr's book, "The sentence of life without parole is among the most unjust, most immoral, least effective, cruelest, and most barbaric of our punishments. It is nothing short of execution by installment, the death penalty in slow motion."
Ken Light's Texas Death Row (1997)
This, of course, should not make us forget the horror and pain these individuals left in the wake of their crimes William Mason's rap sheet reproduced in Texas Death Row attests to his kidnaping and murder of his wife by crushing her head with a rock. Why? He objected to her playing the radio too loud. But it should suggest we contest the one-sided, dominant representation of these individuals and the depressing spaces "death camps" as one condemned man called them that confine them. The fact that one leaves "The Walls" as a corpse is powerfully brought out in a double-page spread where Light reproduces Ruben Montoya Cantu's mugshot and rap sheet detailing a 1984 robbery and murder committed at age 18; juxtaposed to these official documents is to a close-up of a detailed cell wall drawing executed by the inmate who, we read below, was "Executed 8/24/93."
Boston commercial photographer Lou Jones (b. 1945) is well known for his portraits of Jazz greats, his photography for corporate accounts, and his strong commitment to social justice. In Final Exposure: Portraits from Death Row (1996), Jones demonstrates that commitment and presents his case against the death penalty in a most effective argument, "The act of murder is an admission one's inability to solve a dilemma in any other way. The state of Texas solves its problems with lethal injections." The book is full of such pithy statements. Remarking upon the routine of incarceration, Jones comments, "The penal system removes the mystery from life; perhaps that is the essence of punishment." On his project to maintain the memories of these soon to die inmates, "My camera only chronicles the repetitions of our injustice and hypocrisy. We can bury these people, but as long as these photographs exist, never will we bury the memories."
"Duncan Peder McKenzie, Jr.," from Lou Jones's
Final Exposure: Portraits from Death Row (1996)
Jones's humanitarian project developed during the early 1990s after reading an article in Vanity Fair about four serial murderers in California in which he saw a marked disparity between text and image:
The story described their daily routines and interaction. But the photographs that accompanied it confused the portrait the author had drawn. Small and grainy, they made the perpetrators look crazed and insidious. The implication was deceptive. Those pictures gave me the incentive to photograph death row.
Jones enlisted his project manager, Lorie Savel, in interviewing and assisting in photographing a cross section of death row inmates languishing in U.S. prisons. These included six in the Ellis I Unit where Light would later photograph. The condemned range from the first man to be executed since FDR was in office, to the much touted and sympathetic political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, incarcerated in Pennsylvania; to the notorious and reviled multiple-murderer LaFonda Fay Foster placed in a woman's facility in Lexington, Kentucky; to Michael B. Ross, a serial killer of women locked up in Connecticut. Several of the inmates depicted have since been executed, and a negative image of them juxtaposed to the positive visually suggests their fate once alive, now dead. Many inmates, especially the women, complain of how they were demonized by the media, how their side of the events were ignored in the press. As Jones was concerned to probe the genetic aspects, the social sources, of crime, we find a common denominator linking the 27 men and women Jones has introduced to us in his book: an abusive childhood, sexual and physical, often by substance-abusing parents. Execution can kill off the symptoms of our social problems but, this book claims, what is really needed is to address the deep underlying causes of violence in our society.
Howard Zehr's Doing Life: Reflections of Men
and Women Serving Life Sentences (1996)
Unlike Zehr, Jones reveals the gruesome results of that violence in detail the inmates' offenses precede their interviews. This is, however, tempered with the images and interviews that show us the humanity of those we would assume encouraged by the media representations of them to be subhuman. This doesn't mean victims are ignored. To understand the sources of violent behavior is to come closer to preventing violent crimes and reducing the number of victims. Executions simply will not address this issue. Social reform and better families, not revenge, is what is needed that is the gist of Jones' argument. Within the context of today's conservative Hobbesian social vision with its increasing media hype over capital crimes and stiffening penalties, to "fry em fast," Jones's Final Exposures, Light's Texas Death Row, and Zehr's Doing Life present their own specific type of alternative discourse that disorders the order of the carceral regime to differing degrees. Their respective texts are scripto-visual counterparts to earlier, purely verbal, texts giving voice to death row inmates, such as Shirley Dicks's Death Row: Interviews with Inmates, Their Families, and Opponents of Capital Punishment (1990). Each photographer Jones, Light, Zehr employs a style that could hardly be more different. Each constructs the prison and the prisoner differently. Each shares in a sense of the death row inmates' humanity and the inhumanity of putting them to death, but Jones and Zehr argue more fervently on their behalf.
Howard Zehr, a photographer and dedicated reformer with religious ties to the Mennonite community, is clearly sympathetic toward his subjects men in Graterford and Huntingdon prisons and women in Muncy warehoused throughout Pennsylvania. He observes that "They have probably thought more seriously than most of us because of the lives they took and because of the difficulty of their own present life circumstances." But he makes no claims these men and women constitute a representative cross section of lifers. He proceeds to frame the inmates within the familiar discourse of reflection and remorse. This discourse can be traced back to the rhetoric of redemption evoked during the early nineteenth-century penal reforms by the Quakers in the United States and England thay underwrites the birth of the modern penitentiary, i.e., the substitution of solitary cellular confinement and religious instruction for the harsh brutalities of public corporal punishment and the loosely managed congregate housing of prisoners in bridewells and gaols.
Zehr's photographs also isolate the inmates in an appeal for reform. "What style of photography should I use?" he rhetorically asks himself in his introduction. "At first I considered environmental portraits in the prison setting," he continues. "Yet I had noticed how often photographers seem fascinated by the bizarre features of prison life. I recognized how the barren formidable settings of prison trigger our stereotypes about prisoners." So, working more like an itinerant photographer carrying about a portable studio, he decontextualizes these lifers from their carceral surroundings via a plain backdrop, dressing his subjects in street clothes, and close-cropping so close that most of the inmates' heads are trimmed by the frame. This type of image might be best termed "subjunctive," the what-might-be-yet suggested by the portrait is a free, productive, rehabilitated individual. So the inmates seem to come across the frame (from in prison) into your personal space (free society) with great immediacy and engage in a dialogue with you, i.e., philosopher Martin Buber's I-You relation as discussed in I and Thou (1923).
Three such flattering, honorific portraits grace the cover of Zehr's book. The effect of this approach is to humanize these people and announce to us that the inmates who are about to argue their cases before us are just like us, that "there, except for the grace of God, go I." Open the book to its first image. Smiling out at you is Lois June Farquharson, looking every bit the fastidious school marm in her high-necked dress, glasses, thin, pursed lips, and bobbed hair. Once a psychiatrist imprisoned for some 20 years and now 67 she tells us, "I'd like to get out of prison and contribute." One thinks, "How can this woman further endanger society?"
Jones's self-reflexive comments in his interviews with inmates sees him query his relationship to his subjects. In his interview with Nelson Shelton, a prison religious convert who had made no appeal, hastening his execution, the photographer remarks:
I thought about the effect I was having on Nelson. Every photographer must address the fact that all photography is exploitation. On death row, my presence is a transgression at any time, but in Nelson Shelton's case, it was obvious from the first. By interviewing him I exacerbated his problems, forced him to confront his guilt even more.
Kind thoughts about inmates come less easily while flipping through Texas Death Row. Stark, spare, hard, demanding, tough, these are adjectives often applied to photojournalism. These qualities of the image come to mind as Ken Light introduces us to his photographed subjects. He's chosen for his cover an isolate cell that cages Bobby West Jr., convicted of brutally slaying a young woman; the man's hungry-animal stare contrasts sharply with a childhood snapshot he holds next to his face depicting himself as an innocent-looking former Cub Scout. This image both captures Light's conflicted feelings toward these men they are constructed as both "Other" and "Same " and figures the inmates' own decentered sense of self as described by an inmate Donovan interviewed:
Sometimes I'll just be sitting in my cell and I'll look in the mirror and just look and, well, just try to see if I can see the difference. Just what I got in my mind, or what I'm thinking. I don't know what kind of expression I could use to describe it. It's kind of scary. . . . I look in the mirror and I see somebody that doesn't look like me.
These caged beings are, indeed, human so Light can see the death penalty as "an archaic form of justice." But he also recalls "that in the free world there were victims [of these men]." Moreover, the condemned young men, after up to a decade behind bars, change by the time they are executed. He who committed a murder at the age of 17 and who dies for it at 27 are often very different people. Light broaches this issue by interspersing earlier mugshots of the men with contemporary images, a strategy first used by Danny Lyon in Conversations with the Dead (1971). But Light ups the ante by also taking several images of the same inmate, in which the man appears markedly different. The pages devoted to Robert West Jr., William Mason, and Richard Beavers best exemplify these two tactics. The several photographs of inmate religious services, the phenomenon of dramatic religious conversion, also confront this issue of change. This fact of men changing while on death row presents a moral dilemma that suggests two antithetical possibilities: a) if the condemned person is sincere, has truly repented, and is religiously active, then he or she should have their sentence commuted to life; or, b) speed up executions, "fry em fast," so the criminal who was caught will most likely still be the "monster" who committed the crime.
The latter option is being sought now in many states. But the usual tactic of those supporting the death penalty a punishment that "pronounces these men incapable of change, irredeemable, and unfit to live" has been to maintain the condemned person's otherness. It was this tactic that fed the economy of hate that led to Nazi Germany's death camps. This dehumanizing of the condemned was observed by David Bruck, an anti-death penalty lawyer, who witnessed the execution of Terry Roach in South Carolina, ". . . he appeared to be just a piece of trash. It was dehumanizing. Not only to him. It was a ritual which denied the importance and uniqueness of any of us." This desensitizing is accomplished by focusing on the invisible presence of the victim while circulating images and accounts of the perpetrator as he or she was "back then," then harping on the need for "closure" in the present for the aggrieved relatives of the victim by claiming the life of the murderer, even playing up the revenge aspect of the act by passing laws permitting relatives of the victim to view the execution.
It is precisely this image of the convict as "Other" that Zehr admits he is out to subvert. Eschewing abstractions and stereotypes, the last thing Zehr's Doing Life wants to reveal are symbols tattoos, pornography, menacing bars, weight-lifting, etc. that could be negatively perceived by a free-world audience. He doesn't want the reader to feel ambiguous about the injustice of life-without-parole sentences. This also holds for Lou Jones's imagery, although the inmates wear standard prison-issue clothes. Moody lighting, unusual camera angles (Jim Vanderbilt in the Ellis I Unit is shot from above, as if seen from a surveillance camera), thoughtful poses, and long-sleeves shirts hiding tattoos dispel the stereotypical from these images.
Jim Vanderbilt, Ellis 1 Unit, Huntsville, Texas from Lou
Jones's Final Exposure: Portraits from Death Row (1996)
The varied approach to each subject much more so than Zehr's pervasive frontal view gives Jones's convict-subjects an aura of uniqueness, personality, and deep subjectivity that makes these images akin to Jones's haunting black and white portraits of Jazz greats. On page 64, David Lee Powell stands in a corner; peeling white paint on brick walls echoes the ruined life that the inmate, looking down, seems to ponder. On page 87, Nelson Shelton Jones leans forward in a chair; dramatically side-lit, an unlit Christmas tree looming eerily behind him weird juxtaposition resulting in a film-noir Christmas. The tenor of the image is not festive. Robert West's image on page 51 was shot between the arm and body of guard whose arms were held akimbo. The guard's form is cast in deep shadow, its shape akin to a distorted paper cutout of a heart. Behind the inmate curving lines from a sketch radiate out from near the inmate's head as if expressing the energy, an aura, of the condemned man. These portraits literally celebrate these condemned men and women, showing them to be more complex than their rap sheets or the media coverage given them.
Jones became involved with them during his photography and the interviews; he has stayed in touch with many of them long after. This dialogic relationship is seen explicitly in the text accompanying the portrait. Each interview is prefaced with basic information (date of birth, marital status, children, date of offense, date sentenced to death, and current status) set in bold type. Then he details the inmate's crime (set in italics); thereafter, Jones intermixes his comments and observations during the shoot (set in normal type) with the inmates' responses (set in grey type). The effect of this dialogic format is to make Jones as much a subject as the inmates, to textually create the I-You relationship espoused by Martin Buber. It also recalls Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of dialogic discourse, "A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another. If one end of the bridge depends on me, then the other depends on my addressee. A word is a territory shared by both addresser and addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor." But this sharing can create an agon when we have a collision between two disparate, unequal discourses in this case between the empowered outside visitor and the disempowered inmate. In some cases the inmate's discourse takes the upper hand, as Jones describes his first interview with a condemned man:
. . . alone I was in the same room with a convicted murderer. This was no longer theoretical. I panicked; I didn't know what to say. But Wili's [Harold Lamont "Wili" Otey] quiet confidence helped me to regain my equilibrium. As I listened, he told stories of betrayal by the press, of friends who had championed his cause. Slowly, I realized he was not the person I thought he was. I would never again fall into that trap with my subjects.
In other cases the interviewer's discourse reigns, as in the Mumia Abu-Jamal interview (set in greyed type, but shown here in italics):
I remember one very respected newspaper in Philadelphia described MOVE [which Mumia was affiliated with] as the lowest form of human species. It is not odd or out of the ordinary, to hear, to read, in whatever medium in Philadelphia, MOVE described, not just demonized, but animalized, dehumanized. That's the norm.
Mumia took his time with us. His attentiveness and commitment paralleled ours. He was very honest and uncompromising about his situation, but it was hard to distinguish the rhetoric from what was sincere.
But overall mutual respect, albeit guarded at times, occurs between Jones and his interlocutors. This mutuality, this give-and-take between inmate and photographer objectified in the text, was taken to the extreme limits when Jones sympathetically sat with and comforted Black inmate Edward Dean "Sonny" Kennedy during the final moments of his life (which Jones did not photograph) at Florida State Prison prior to his electrocution on July 21, 1992. "Sonny" and Jones shared a love of Jazz, the inmate having once been an accomplished saxophonist.
The closest Light gets to this kind of sympathy is his portrait on page 91 of "Mauro Barraza, On the Row at seventeen years old". The young Latino sports a flat-top hair cut and directly faces the camera. He tries to present a brave front, but fear still seeps through his large boyish eyes. His face slips into shadow, the lighting figuring this pleasant-looking kid's eventual fate. What crosses one's mind in looking at this image? Maybe, "Could this kid have done such a heinous deed?"And then probably the question, "Even so, is this young man incapable of rehabilitation?" Flip to the last image in the book "Execution chamber at the Walls' Huntsville, Texas" you can see the lethal-injection gurney on which this young man will be legally murdered with the consent of the majority of the good citizens of Texas. A final thought crosses one's mind, "Must this kid really die before his adult life has begun?"
Morrie Camhi's The Prison Experience (1988)
Whereas in the photobook The Prison Experience (1988) Morrie Camhi will depict an inmate in everyday street clothes, then let the inmate's accompanying short statement ironically undercut his benign appearance or vice-versa Zehr adheres to the street clothes consistently throughout and unambiguously juxtaposes a sympathetic image with large amounts of positive commentary by the inmate. Benjamin Velasquez openly confesses, "I realize I made a mistake, and I repented many times." Zehr's portrait of well-groomed Eugene McGuire clothes him in an ivy-league shirt, sits him at a school desk with an endearing smile. A Born-Again Christian, he looks like your typical bright college student circa 1963 and muses:
It's like a bad dream, a nightmare. Having killed someone and receiving a life sentence there's no coming back from that. There's no hope as far as man is concerned. But my relationship with the Lord gives me hope. About six and a half years ago I received him as my savior and repented for what I did. A real change happened in my life. A big burden was taken off my back. A big weight of guilt left, and that is my hope.
Jones at times problematizes the veracity of what the inmate says by his own asides and by reporting the guards' banter:
As we listened to McKenzie, the guards made derisive remarks about his veracity. This had been a fairly common occurrence during our sessions at various institutions. They didn't understand our purpose, but they knew they made us uncomfortable, and they enjoyed that.
Light's position toward the condemned men is more ambiguous. In Texas Death Row he chooses to reproduce correspondence from Thomas Miller-El, a condemned man whose take on society is very different from Velasquez's:
I frequently wonder about the so-called free world, or free people, as alleged by many of my comrades. Because in reality, there is no such a thing, since most people are merely a reflection of the prison's [sic] built around them by their indoctrinated perspectives of social correctness. Much of which has been established by politically, and socially rich and powerful leaders to accommodate, employ, and exercise their purposes for greed and human domination.
Moreover, Light's imagery often dramatizes an inmate's physiognomy in unflattering ways. The title of the image on page 108 reads, "Jerry Hogue, H-18 wing, row 2, cell 5," hinting at how the men are coldly, rationally pigeonholed within. Earlier in the book, Light depicts H-18 wing's exterior, replete with menacing fences and sterile architecture, all eerily lit up and contrasting with the pitch black night. Yet this verbal and visual commentary on how the carceral regime specifics the inmate as a numbered body within a forbidding space also coexists with Light's own exercise of power over Hogue: his optical specification of the convict via a wide-angle lens that laterally distorts the man's features. Light makes Hogue appear squat and lengthens his large hairy arms, giving him a distinctly ape-like appearance. Simply placing the man in frame-center would've eliminated this optical bias, so we must assume the tactic was overt and purposeful.
Another instance where Light draws our attention to the otherness of the inmates is in the image on the opposite page depicting "Robert Anderson, Two months on Death Row." Here Light measures a close-up of this man's shaved head and face against the grid of the cell bars immediately before him. He is "graphed" in a way reminiscent of nineteenth-century physiognomic studies. Even the slightest irregularities and asymmetries in the inmate's physiognomy his left ear turns out more than his right, his lower lip and right eye droops to his right is glaringly obvious. So, despite the man's emotionally neutral expression, he seems a bit "tweak-ed." Someone we might have barely given a glance to on the street becomes the object of our critical gaze once he or she is behind bars.
Ken Light, a documentary photographer with an impressive track-record, and Suzanne Donovan, former director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, admit to having conflicted feelings during the shooting of Texas Death Row. Light sums up this ambiguity in an interview, "It was like a fork in the road where I'd know they did horrible things," he writes, "but they are human you don't agree with the Death Penalty, you do agree with punishment, so how do you tell the story? The axiom that Suzanne [Donovan] and I had is that these murderers are the dark side of us all, and Americans don't want to know about the dark side." And Jones remarks, "No matter what time we entered these prisons, it was always night inside." Dark and light time-worn, yet powerful metaphors that Jones, Light, and Zehr all use in their respective texts.
Zehr's scripto-visual narrative concerning "lifers" attempts to narrow the black and white distinction between outside visitor and inmate: "If I were photographed among bars and cells, I would probably look like a stereotypical prisoner, too." He shows the inmates rejecting a dark past to face what they hope is a brighter future via a self-enlightenment to be rewarded by an enlightened public voting for parole as a possibility for lifers in Pennsylvania. To further suggest the passivity of his subjects and his uninflected approach toward them, Zehr used the same square medium-format negative as Jones, composing within the "passive frame" of that format. But unlike Jones's attention to the dramatic interplay of light and shadow, Zehr consistently well-lit each scene, minimizing all shadows. This banished the raw and austere grainy-look of 35mm grab-shot photography that Jones had taken a dislike too when he saw the Vanity Fair article and removes any foreboding darkness from Zehr's prints.
In contradistinction, Light and Donovan photographer and writer, recalling the famous Depression Era collaboration of Walker Evans and James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1936) construct death row as a dark space hidden from public view, a female-coded matrix "shrouded in mystery" that they will open to our gaze. In a carceral rite of passage, they descend into a hidden world into what is repressed by bourgeois morality and respectability in order to try and decode and decipher signs and restore a kind of order though a process of rational investigation. Laura Mulvey might see here a pictorial journey and narration through a dark underworld that is mythic and analogous to psychoanalysis, that parallels the process by which unconscious material is transformed. This underworld, this prison unit, is known as "Ellis." Therein, Light and Donovan probe as alien visitors just as Danny Lyon had fifteen years previous; one inmate even asks Donovan, "Are you from this country?" While Donovan enlightens us with words, Light moodily reveals the stark carceral conditions with some 400 rolls of grainy high-speed 35mm film, conditions necessitating a departure from the photographer's preferred medium-speed, medium-format film.
The resulting photographs are often contrasty, dark spaces playing backdrop to the condemned men's white prison uniforms. And like Lyon before him, Light can't resist an occasional indulgence in formal photographic tour de force. "Kool-aid, lunch, Administrative Segregation cell block" adopts a defamiliarizing angle on an array of bars dramatically punctuated by an inmate's hand sticking out holding a jar of the liquid. This is certainly a visually compelling composition; it recalls Europe's New Vision Photography of the 1920s, a style whose original aesthetic goal was to "defamiliarize-the-familiar," even figure "the Proletarian-Eye" of the downtrodden as it rises to overthrow authoritarian strictures. But Light, due to his pastiche of this well-known convention, ends up familiarizing the unfamiliar, pacifying the carceral-strange. And the gaze of the revolting social subject is here exchanged for the gaze that specifies and subjects.
But not every depressing aspect of death row could be so "enLIGHTened" and "redeemed" for the educated spectator by formal ιlan. Administrative segregation cells, solitary confinement, disciplinary actions, and executions were all to remain in the dark due to official restrictions. Light especially regretted the latter; picturing an execution would've brought closure to the narrative, "an incredibly powerful ending" moving the condemned from life to death, from the dark confines of the Row toward the Ultimate Light. But such closure here, I think, would've only functioned to preserve the status quo to reaffirm the naturalness of "eye-for-an-eye" executions by integrating disorder (the effects of both the crime perpetrated by these criminals and the disruptive presence of the photographer among them) back into stability (one has "paid" for one's crime). Light did make several photographs of one condemned man just prior to his death. In "Richard Beavers a few hours before his execution, Death Watch cell" we are given an indexical trace, close-up through the cell bars. The man's eyes stare directly as us, he who is no longer present in our world; yet, paradoxically, he remains forever poised before his impending death. This recalls Roland Barthes' comments in Camera Lucida (1980) concerning the paradoxical tense that photographs embody, the "anterior future," as found in Alexander Gardner's famous Portrait of Lincoln Conspirator, Lewis Payne (1865), "He is dead and he is going to die . . . I shudder . . . over a catastrophe which has already occurred." Given Barthes's notion that the photograph freezes life into a "flat Death," all the inmates Light has photographed on death row will suffer a double-death: being photographed and then executed.
Other activities were off limits to Light's photography due to the wishes of the inmates, but the very place itself (coded "female" and pre-Oedipal) seemed to resist clear and distinct seeing: either dark corners that refused to be exposed, or sights so profoundly alien to everyday experience they were difficult to look at and obscurely understood. Light wields his camera like a gynecologist his vaginal speculum:
The camera has given me a way of seeing firsthand the world of others. Photographing Death Row would allow me to enter a place so deeply hidden that I couldn't begin to visualize what it might be like. This was an odd experience, . . .
Donovan, describing her initial entry into this eerie place, speaks of, "Sweating and feeling shaky, I could barely take in, let alone interpret, what I was seeing." Recalling comments by earlier photographers invading nineteenth-century slums, she "was choked by the mix of smells and my own fears and uncertainties," and, expressing the otherness of the place to her own experience, "recall[ed] even feeling somewhat awed."
As if making a point about the carceral matrix as a dark hole evoking both fascination and revulsion, Light makes an atypical record, "Convict with girlie magazines, Work Capable cell block." Here an inmate lurking in his dark cell gives us the "evil-eye" only one unkind eye is visible while literally shoving into the light and toward our surprised faces two pictures of women lasciviously spreading their labia. This image is markedly aggressive compared to a myriad of other images in its genre wherein the girlie images are always shown by the photographer, often from an oblique angle, passively taped on a cell wall. It's as if in Light's version, the inmate both submits to the photographer's visual statement about the prison as the site of the con's symbolic "castration" and rebels against his being so positioned.
The image is "ironic," holding in tension two conflictual modes of carceral representation figuring the tension between structure and agency: 1) repressive a passive "silent image of woman" (the incarcerated) tied to "her" place (the prison) as bearer of someone else's meaning, the inmates being akin to "showgirls" for those from outside the cells, for the public image of convicts has, like women's, invariably been associated with their bodies; and, 2) honorific the inmate as the empowered, active maker of meaning.
Zehr images a carceral space of minimum detail and depth; it is a shallow window of clear seeing and presenting of the inmate not the institution a place where hope can blossom. Jones's images develop the carceral as a confining space. We see inmates locked inside and sense their frustrated, nervous pacing of those small spaces. Given the sparsity of these spaces, one marvels at Jones's ability to come with so many varied images of his subjects. Light's death row is envisioned as full of ambiguity, contradictions, and mystery. That is, until the inmate comes to the end of the road execution in full view of witnesses, including family of the victim what many victims' families call "closure" and what Light admitted to being "both scared and excited by." Yet here the one brutally clear act of the State has to remain, ironically, in the dark, unphotographed; moreover, guilt is not certain: inmates often go to their deaths protesting their innocence. Neither is the ultimate spiritual outcome of the inmates' death: salvation or damnation of the condemned must forever remain unknown. The Row's curious inhabitants lurk in shadow in Light's imagery and are described by Donovan as "perennial losers," yet she admits, as if a psychoanalyst referring to the unconscious, "We cannot afford to remain blind to this invisible sector of our society."
For Light the project, like his earlier books, was about revealing an aspect of "the human condition," about seeing "how the men on the Row created their own world and survived the years there," using a medium whose illusionary power to persuade and fascinate was succinctly remarked upon by the early-modernist photographer Edward Weston:
The photographer's power lies in his ability to re-create his subject in terms of its basic reality, and present this re-creation in such a form that the spectator feels that he is seeing not just a symbol for the object but the thing-itself revealed for the first time.
Moreover, this medium, as many feminists have pointed out, has functioned in the patriarchy to aid the active controllers of the look to avoid anxiety, to control, to specify. Even as this medium has been used against women, it has been used against convicts doubly so against female convicts.
From the psychoanalytic perspective developed in Laura Mulvey's writings on cinema in the mid-1970s (in Visual and Other Pleasures, 1989), there are two avenues of pleasure for the viewer confronted with the male other. This male other is assumed to be female but, to avoid biological essentialism, should include those coded "female" by the power structure, such as convicts. On the one hand, says Mulvey, is voyeurism which she associates with sadism, where pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt (associated with castration), and asserting control, subjugating the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness. The ubiquity of this pleasure to the carceral narrative is obvious. On the other hand, she claims, is fetishistic scopophilia associated in my carceral context with surveillance, which, says Mulvey, "builds up the physical attractiveness of the subject, transforming it into something satisfying in itself." Here would fit the representation of inmates as massive constructions of muscle and bone, bare flesh and tattoos. Whereas the usefulness of voyeurism, Mulvey admits, lies in the fact that "This sadistic side fits well with narrative. Sadism demands a story. . . . [of] victory/defeat, all occurring in a linear time with a beginning and an end,"fetishistic scopophilia exists outside linear time in "an erotics of the look alone." Of course, both avenues of pleasure coexist in the Hollywood films Mulvey examines, and both coexist to various degrees in the texts I've treated throughout this book.
Inmate Mickey Yates in Jeanne C. Finley's
videotape Nomads at the 25 Door (1989)
It is my contention that Karen C. Finley's video tape Nomads at the 25 Door (45 min., color, 1989)and Morrie Camhi's bookThe Prison Experience (1988) are texts highly self-conscious of these two pleasures, which can be problematized brushed against the grain but not wholly eliminated. Of the three photographers discussed in this chapter, Light, like Lyon before him, is less critical in his use of voyeurism, more clearly dramatizing his carceral narratives around those carceral binaries of light/dark, rationality/irrationality, outside/inside, repentant/unrepentant, and not guilty/guilty. Where Jones and Zehr plays to our preference for those who most resemble ourselves in an erotics of recognition, actively garnering our support for legislative change, Light underscores the con-demned prisoner's social otherness in an erotics of difference that does much less to win our sympathies. But this doesn't mean that Jones's and Zehr's images are more "truthful." Jones writes of his interview with Lesley Lee Gosch held in the Ellis I Unit, Huntsville, Texas:
I had always thought that evil could be sensed; really bad people exuded it. But Gosch's countenance gave no hint of it. I don't know if the real man was hidden behind his large glasses, or if his aversion to the constant limbo of death row made him look harmless. In his manner and his way of speaking I sensed only his confusion and despair.
Zehr depicts lifer Donald Montgomery as a charming, middle-aged, thoughtful man, and even includes an old photo showing him as a handsome man not more than 20 years old. Yet Montgomery concludes his statement by undermining our trust in the image:
You can look at this picture, and you don't know if this guy is doing well, or if he is doing badly. Is he going on with the program? Is he trustworthy? You know, this really doesn't show you anything. A picture doesn't show you nothing!
The picture can't guarantee for us if Donald is still the criminal "Other" or become rehabilitated, one of the "Same" now. This admission in the middle of Zehr's text, coupled with Zehr's qualifying these images as not a representative cross section of lifers, subtly undercuts traditional documentary photography's claim to veracity, typicality, and neutrality.
Light is as cautious about claiming neutrality in his work as Zehr. The construction of carceral otherness is, compared to Zehr, enhanced by Light. For instance, he follows a convention found in Lyon's Conversations with the Dead: reproducing inmates' rap sheets, their official representations in text and image before the judicial system, along with images shot in situ. But Lyon, unlike Light, used this method to ironically juxtapose official "repressive" material to distinctly sympathetic material concerning Billy George McCune, thereby arguing a case against the injustices suffered by this "Sartrean hero." Light's use of the material presents us with a dilemma. Are we to be urged into anti-authority feelings or action when shown the signifier of the impersonal judicial authority that reduces the complexity of a man to a mere rap sheet? Or are we to blanch at the signified, the detailing of the horrible crimes perpetrated by these men, and agree they deserve to die?
This tactic discarded by Zehr whose images eschew ambiguity has seen its filmic equivalent recently in Dead Man Walking (1995). Therein, the convention of the flashback permits the audience to witness the horrific nature of Matthew Poncelet's crime again and again a sort of repeating rap sheet. This film, conflicted in terms of its politics, argues both against and for the death penalty. It can be read depending on one's politics as anti-death penalty (the Christlike "crucifixion" scene with Poncelet on the lethal-injection gurney evokes this) and as firm justification for capital punishment (those hard-to-watch flashbacks). This waffling on the issue is praised in HBO's chief film critic Jim Byerley's neo-conservative review as journalistic objectivity, "If you are expecting DEAD MAN WALKING to be a politically correct, liberal plea against capital punishment, you will be surprised by the writer/director's evenhandedness in presenting all sides of the issue." Evenhandedness? Might it be more the smart ploy on Hollywood's part to sell tickets to both sides of an ideologically divided audience? Given the double-coding of the movie, given its ability to give a subject position to both liberals and conservatives, no one need feel alienated. One's preconceptions about capital punishment whether pro or con are easily reconfirmed.
This "evenhandedness" despite Light's stated rejection of neutrality in his "Afterword" characterizes Light's Texas Death Row. There is enough text rap sheets versus sympathetic inmate statements enough imagery kindly-looking inmates versus a serial killer whose eyes are dark and foreboding to invite identification with either position on the death penalty. This shouldn't be surprising. After all, Light and Donovan's access to the prison and freedom to shoot and interview there were dependent upon maintaining the good graces of the prison officials, especially the warden. As if to remind us of this, the frontispiece photograph depicts a concertina wire-topped fence sporting a sign reading: "NO CAMERAS BEYOND THIS POINT," while the warden and other prison officials are graciously thanked in the book's "Acknowledgments" for permitting an exception to this restriction. We, of course, must bear in mind that the warden's job is dependent upon on keeping in the good graces of the politicos in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a Department that can boast a 90 per cent voter support for its executions.
I think we are naive to expect a more rousing anti-death penalty polemic to emerge here given: the conservative political climate today, Light and Donovan's own conflicted feelings about the condemned men (women would've garnered more public sympathy take the case of Carla Faye Tucker's execution and Darlie Routier's recent appeal in Texas but they were not photographed), the practical circumstances of maintaining good relations with the prison officials in order to sustain access to the prison, and the finding of sympathetic publishers willing to push a photobook touting an unpopular position. The truth is, it's not that effective and conscience-jarring, vociferous attacks on the death penalty anthologies like A Punishment in Search of a Crime: Americans Speak Out Against the Death Penalty (1989) are hard to come by. The fact is that photobooks taking such an explicit position on execution are rare due to the controlled access, the censorship inevitably involved, and the gritty style of photographic document usually made. Lucinda Devlin's detailed and chillingly sterile color photographs of various unpeopled death chambers in her "Omega Suites" (1991-1992) make their plea in visual terms, but have only been sporadically published and remain without textual elaboration. Jones's Final Exposure and Zehr's Doing Life are the closest I've seen to successful pleas for mercy in visual terms.
Unlike Jones's project, in which only two women are featured, and Light's, where no women are recorded, the nature of Zehr's project with lifers more easily permitted him to broach the plight of women in prison one-third of his images are of women. Sharon Wiggins a Black woman whose death sentence was commuted to life and who now is incarcerated far from her urban roots and family at rural Muncy describes her prison experience in terms of darkness and light:
The first three years of my sentence, I spent in solitary confinement on death row. . . . It's like being in a dark room with a blindfold on. There's no visual light, but, after a time, your imagination creates light for you. . . . we create our own sense of light through hopes and dreams.
"Sharon Wiggins," from Doing Life: Reflections of Men
and Women Serving Life Sentences (1996) Howard Zehr
Familiar with the machinations of the patriarchy, she elucidates the gender disparity between those who will first see the light of freedom and those who will linger behind bars:
I don't believe women are released as soon as their male counterparts or even, in some instances, their male codefendants. There have only been a few clemencies [granted by the Governor] for women in Pennsylvania in the past 15 or so years. . . . The parole board is very male-oriented, and I believe that men have set ideas about what women should be and do.
As Mickey Yates observes about the prosecutorial prejudice against her in Jeanne C. Finley's Nomads at the 25 Door (1991) she's vilified as a "witch" so does Wiggins describe the sexism of the judicial system:
When women are outside the norms that men in power have created, then it's like a double whammy because you disappointed them. They can't even imagine a situation that would cause a woman to participate in violence or in criminal activity. The violence of men, on the other hand, is accepted. . . . I think this attitude prevents a lot of women from being released.
Both Yates and Wiggins transgress the male discourse of penality which seeks to entrap them.
Incarcerated at age 17, now in prison some 27 years, Wiggins was an inmate tutor and Student Services Liaison to Penn State for inmates desiring GED and AA degrees, until laid-off recently due to cuts in State funding. Yes, she is in a position to keenly observe the machinations of the Pennsylvania judicial system! Zehr's portrait of her celebrates her energy, tenacity, and kindliness. The composition is asymmetrical, the woman being placed frame-left. Generously smiling out at us, the fingers of her folded hands and the folds of her sweater point up and left at about a 45-degree angle. The effect is to create a dynamic composition that appears too energetic to be confined (or defined) by frame. Zehr here formally re-enforces the dynamic personality evoked by this women's articulate words, figuring in photographic terms her desire to leave the carceral-frame so as to be productive in free society.
Diane Weaver's portrait makes her look like an average middle-age suburban housewife, but her statement below the photograph undercuts any notion of an "Ossie and Harriet" family life:
I lived in a prison in my own home with an abusive husband. When I first came to jail, it was a refuge. I didn't have to worry whether he was going to kill me. But it didn't take long for the reality to set in.
We assume her crime, although never made explicit, to was kill her husband before he killed her an offense for which she has suffered 20 years behind bars. She was deprived of a happy marriage, cut off from her (then) six-year-old son; her one joy, tending cows on a prison farm, was taken away recently when funding cuts forced the farm's closure. If she is released, her overarching goal is to see to her aging father and improve the relationship with her son, to "mend some fences." She was, probably, incarcerated prior to when the issue of the mitigating circumstances of wife-abusive, and the psychological studies showing why women remain with abusive partners played much of a role in sentencing women who killed their husbands. Diane, consequently, has done hard time for doing precisely what patriarchal society, the Catholic religion (which she has since dropped for Quakerism), and Country and Western song demanded of wives, "Stand by your man" until she could stand it no longer. Again, we ask ourselves, "Is this woman a danger to society now?"
If Light and Donovan's study of Texas's Death Row revealed inmates whose identities were unstable after years behind bars, Zehr's citation of Betty Heron's loss of identity after a lifetime behind "the bars of patriarchy" is even more deeply upsetting:
I remember the first question the psychologist asked. He said, "How's Betty?" and I said, "Betty who?" I was always Mrs. Heron, some-body's sister, somebody's mother. Betty was not there. I did not have an identity. It was frightening when he reminded me later of what I said. It gives me hope to see where I am now. I just hope that I can convince someone else that there are some redeeming qualities in this woman.
Betty, her mouth slightly open and hand gesturing, is depicted as if in conversation with the viewer. Equally engaging is Cyd Berger's portrait. Like Betty, she admits to having had a selfhood warped by the patriarchal expectations laid on women:
I didn't always have as clear a sense of who I am as I do now. When I was out, I was hung up on pleasing everyone, and I tried to live out their expectations. I lived for everyone except Cyd. When I came to prison I learned how to love me, how to care about myself.
One wants to respond to these women's comments, so effective is Zehr in suggesting the immediacy of our encounter with these subjects.
The two female offenders in Jones's Final Exposure are less sympathetic than those in Zehr's book. Jones's image of her puts her above the camera looking down on the viewer, an arm up on a chair that becomes a large solid black area hiding part of her body. The image suggests both empowerment and aloofness on the inmates part. LaFonda Fay Foster was found guilty of multiple murders while on a drug-induced crime spree. Like many others on death row, she was a victim of child abuse. Contradicting her demonization in the press, on death row Foster is involved in comforting fellow inmates, especially those with AIDS, and sends money regularly to her mother and younger siblings; she performs yoga and other self-help exercises. Bit by bit, via her diary entries, she is writing her "autobiography." "LaFonda Fay Foster," admits Jones, "is one of the most interesting people I've ever met. She is a good person who committed horrific crimes." Jones finds Pamela Lynn Perillo less interesting. Fewer are his comments interspersed throughout the interview with her. One remark is telling; it would seem to traffic in the same construction of the B-movie stereotype that he claims to be subverting:
Although she admits the prison routine is not as bad as it could be, time has not been good to Pam. She chain smokes; when she turns the wrong way, she appears feral [i.e., suggestive of a wild animal]. She has more tattoos than she cares to count. On the day we were visiting, she wore makeup: eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, lipstick, and very red fingernails.
Light's relationship to his subjects and where he places the viewer is more distantthat of detached spectator rather than interlocutor. In Texas Death Row the only image to have as much immediacy, that arouses our sympathy, and invites us to "talk" to the inmate is that of the Latino teenager Mauro Barraza. Light purposely draws our attention to this spectatorial detachment in his treatment of Emerson Edward Rudd.
"Emerson Edward Rudd, J-23 wing, Maximum Segregation
cell block," from Ken Light's Texas Death Row (1997)
Here's a very unsympathetic character, indeed! A young Black man condemned, as his rap sheet tells us, of gut-shooting a restaurant manager after the man turned over the cash register money as demanded. His mugshot, revealing a sneer, would seem to confirm the rap sheet's detailing of criminal mayhem. Light's photograph of Rudd, perspective skewed by a wide-angle lens distortion, generates an exchange of gazes from guard to inmate to us, and from us back at the scene. It triangulates us as a dominant spectator situated at the triangle's apex. The base of the triangle is formed by the extended right arm and gaze of a guard on the extreme right of the composition looking at Rudd on the extreme left; in turn, Rudd, sitting in his dark cell, stares out at us through the cell's food-delivery slot, situating the viewer at the apex of a triangle. But it's an oblique triangle as the viewer always seems to be closer to Rudd than the guard and, hence, one has the illusion of being situated to the left of the center of the image. This oblique triangularization (oblique is also defined as "devious") formalizes and "immobilizes" the positions of the "actors" in the stereotypical carceral narrative: the devious inmate who must be locked away and surveilled is presented like a caged animal to the curious spectator. It is this type of immobilization that Finley's Nomads at the 25 Door tries to subvert.
Two other of Light's images, placed in juxtaposition on opposing pages, reaffirm this spectatorial privilege and carceral narrative. Tightly cropped "Convict with scissors, Garment factory" places us up close and at navel level to an inmate with a scissors stuck in his pants on the side like a weapon ready to be drawn, his powerful arms folded across over his headless torso. A convicted murderer with access to this dangerous instrument! It seems bizarre. An opening scene presaging violence. That the violence implied in the scene might be realized is confirmed by the adjoining image, "Guard tower seen through a hole from a bullet shot at an escaping inmate, Garment factory wall, "in which we are invited to peek through the bullet hole from the dark interior. Light develops an implied narrative by giving us two static situations and lets us sketch-in, imagining the events of the story that connects them and those events would seem to be quite unfavorable to the inmate's fate. In contradistinction, recall that in the subversive jingle "Cummins Carol" (sung to the tune of "The Night Before Christmas" as cited from Bruce Jackson's Killling Time: Life in the Arkansas Penitentirary (1977) and detailed in my chapter six) it is the prisoner, figured as a Trickster archetype, who brags of his successful escape:
He spoke not a word, but jumped up from the floor;
Grabbed a trooper's .38 and ran for the door;
He shot some troopers, and bloodhounds a few; . . .
No one knows which way he went or just how far;
But I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight,
"Piss on you all, it's been a hell of a night."
That "Piss on you all" is, of course, directed to any and all spectators of the man's escapade. I cite the jingle to better point out that Light's implied narrative, as constructed by the typical non-inmate reader, will probably lean more heavily toward reconfirming official authority: escape attempts are punished by wounding or death. Yes, it's possible the viewer could construct a scenario in which the inmate shot at from the guard tower was imagined as making it to freedom, but given the actual circumstance it would be unlikely. The prisoner's jingle about a fellow prisoner's escape, however, details with great braggadocio an explicit counter-narrative touting liberation in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. As such a successful escape is a rare occurrence in Zehr's book Donald Montgomery mentions his failed attempt its accomplishment has become a mythic prisoner narrative, but a myth that via the prisoner-Trickster figure, upsets norms and hierarchies of the official judicial discourse. In other words, "Cummins Carol" is a species of the carnivalesque in the way Mikhail Bakhtin uses the term, while Light's narrative-provoking image juxtaposition discussed above is not. These men on Texas Death Row, those depicted in Jones's book, are only going out the door to the undertakers. Lifers in Zehr's collection of sad cases have some hope for release, but at 10 ten deaths per year from suicide, inmate assault, or natural causes, they too may suffer the same fate. Doing life would, then, lead to going to one's death. The differences exhibited on the textual level between Jones's, Light's, and Zehr's photographic efforts become moot when it comes down to the issue of the sameness of sufferings endured by the inmates these photographers present to us.