TB: You use words I've never heard before like "Sniffy". I see from your bio, you are from England. How did you land in Portland and what do you think of it? What have you learned about Oregonians?
I've lived in the states permanently for 7 years. First came over as a year-abroad student in 2001. Lived always on the west coast - Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Seattle and now Portland.
I've been in Portland for a year.
I had to leave Seattle for personal reasons and there was a list of one. Portland.
The place is great. I'm not an evangelist or anything. I'll just say it has been a very friendly, easy-to-get-to-know, engaging 12 months.
TB: You write and blog about Prison Photography. That's obscure. How'd you get interested in that?
I know that Oregon has the same rural/urban differences. I've been to the coast a couple of times and cruised up and down I-5, been to the eastern side of the moutnains a couple times, but I've barely scratched the surface.
It does. But few politicians are awarded for speaking sense.
I take holiday snaps.
I just got a smartphone, so I make images and share them.
I've got two series going that are hastagged on Instagram - which is the laziest way anyone would wish to put images out there.
#PETESNEWFRIENDS is a game of invention and jinx.
Each day, I publish a photo of a found photo I own and attach a fanciful story to the individual.
#PORTLANDPAINTEDGREEN is photos of stuff (mainly houses) painted green.
You may laugh, but you're going to see green houses EVERYWHERE, now!
I am not a photographer. Period.
I use Instagram in this way because, of course the majority of smart phone photography is total bollocks. I have rules: No dogs, no cats, no babies, no beers, no cocktails, no frothy coffees, no feet, no plates of food, no shots out of the window of the flight you just disembarked.
I'm not a fascist. If others want to make these things fine. I just probably won't be interested because I see these things ALL THE FUCKING TIME.
TB: The world would be a better place if everyone followed those rules. Of course, I would break the rules regularly.
I expect more and more people will get bored of these common things and look for the crafty, the involved, the cunning.
Imagine if people didn't make photos of those things just for one day?
They might make a photo of something different and it could be brilliant. Everyone is capable.
I love smartphone photography. It's unfettered. The issue for me is to filter it in a way I enjoy it and be able to say at the end of the day, I'm happy with what I put out into the world.
In conclusion, I am not a photographer.
TB: If you had advice for photographers wanting to photograph inside prisons, what would it be? What are photographers missing? What would you like to see them do? What story needs to be told?
Prisons are like the military; they operate on a chain of command. The only way any visitor gains access is by winning the approval of the warden/superintendent.
You need to strike up relationships with the administrations and wardens of each and every prison you hope to visit. This means drafting a very professional letter and in it stating clearly the nature and purpose of your project. Have references at hand to back up your proposal (media groups, teachers, politicians, people you've worked with in the past; folk with a name who'll vouch for your photography.)
Persistence as well as professionalism is the key. It takes a lot of work and phone calls to find a responsive prison authority.
There's no magic phrase to get your inside a prison as each and every facility is its own culture. It depends entirely on whether the warden wants his staff to accommodate you as a guest.
Try to think of a way of proposing your work as a benefit to the prison administration. What do they get out of your being there? Sometimes it helps if you work through and with an organization already established in a prison - an educational, religious, yoga, sports, mental health, veterans program.
You'll be in the prison as a guest and with a job to do. For the duration of the project, maintain a professional, respectful and friendly distance.
ON WHAT PHOTOGS ARE MISSING
There's three things that spring to mind.
1. There's a lot of image making that occurs in prisons that doesn't get correlated. IDs, medical photography, drawing and painting, surveillance, visiting room portraits, images made on the outside and sent in, illicit cellphone photographs. None of these things are easy (or even necessarily worthwhile to acquire), but they are in many ways as rich in narrative as an visiting photographer - documentary or otherwise.
2. Which leads on to my second point. A photographer who visits a prison for a day or a week is probably going to miss the story. Prisons are places of sporadic extreme violence and constant boredom. Have you ever seen those in a documentary project? Rarely.
How about we put the cameras in the hands of the prisoner?
How about we stop privileging the photographer and the image and think about what empowerment comes about through a) self-representation and b) supplementary materials, testimony and context?
I'm talking here about photography workshops. There are issue with security; the camera causes problems that the pen and the paintbrush do not, but I firmly belive photography can p[lay a more active role in education, rehabilitation and therapy of prisoners.
The workshop just has to be well conceived, well run and built on a respect between instructors, students and prison staff/administration. I'm hoping to run some classes in Pennsylvanian prisons in 2014.
3. People think I'm a thug-hugger. I am not. I think people should be responsible for their actions. One of the biggest problems with prison is that they lock people up and freeze them in the moment of their worst act. People need to be given options to improve, to step up and acknowledge the faults within themselves, the faults within society - that may or may not have exacerbated their problems prior to incarceration - and the problems within the system itself. That said, much of prison photography focuses on prisoners. I'd like to see some in depth work on the lives of prison workers.
Prison staff, although extremely well paid, are still derided. It's an incredibly stressful job. Alcohol and drug abuse is high as compared to other state employees. Marriage and relationship failure is more common.
Prison guard work is statistically safe in terms of the chances of physical harm, but the mental toll the pressurised prison environment takes is huge.
A lot of prison staff want to leave their work behind; they'd probably have no interest in having a photographer follow them home. But some correctional officers might be open to it.
TB: I think most of them are afraid of revealing too much information about themselves for fear of retribution from former prisoners.
Exactly, there's a security element to it. Correctional officers at some institutions absolutely do not want the faces of their family and friends, cars and house, recreation and home town published. I understand that.
But journalists have always faced confidentiality hurdles. It could be done.
And if it was, it'd be a service to the public.
Prisons are toxic and damage everyone who comes into contact with them - prisoners, staff, management, volunteers, family.
TB: You sound busy, what are you working on right now?
I continue publishing work on Prison Photography. I'm doing less analysis than I used to because I have less time these days. I'll happily expand my focus beyond U.S. borders, for example I've recently featured work from Switzerland, Spain, Israel, France.
But the development is interesting. I have more and more photographers contacting me these days (I presume because of the reach of PP) with some phenomenal work. It is my pleasure to feature more of others' images and less of my words.
The trade off is necessary right now, as I have two big projects in the works.
I'm writing a substantial essay for the Prison Photography photobook, which will be published by Silas Finch later this year. It features 40 photographers, the majority of whom I have met during my years of research and many of them have gone on the record with stories behind the pictures previously never told.
I've also just agreed to do my first solo curating gig.
Last year, I co-curated 'Cruel and Unusual' at Noorderlicht Gallery in the Netherlands, but this show in January 2014 will be all my own and will have a totally different curatorial aim. It'll feature more vernacular works.
So, I'm juggling those two things.
Day to day, I write part time for Wired.com's RAW FILE and I get to feature and profile photographers I respect - Dave Jordano, Eirik Johnson, Trevor Paglen, David Galjaard, Richard Ross, Jehad Nga, Matt Lutton, Brett Gundlock, Robert Burley, Jonas Bendiksen, David Chancellor, Monica Haller, John Faier, Cristina De MIddel ... the list goes on and on.
I've got big ideas for 2015 but I need to take care of what's right here, right now first.
Photography is more alive than it has ever been. If there is one problem it is that there is so much out there to see.
TB: Thank you so much for talking to us.