In this month’s blog post we look at prison photography through Pictures from the Outside, a photobook that maps the city of Boston, Massuchusetts, through the collaboration of a teacher (Zakari) and her 13 students (who are all prisoners).
Image 1: Front cover of the photobook, Pictures from the Outside
The process of making the images is simple.
‘I teach a book design course in the prison system and this book is based on my collaboration with 15 incarcerated men’,’ writes Zakari. ‘I asked them if they wanted a picture from the outside within a reasonable driving distance.’
Zakari’s students give her addresses and she asks for directions on how to photograph the scene. In true participatory style, she surrenders her authorship to her students – this, she writes in the introduction to the book, ‘…is a design assignment, and they will be my art directors.’
‘My collaborators drew diagrams and detailed descriptions on how I should make the photograph.’
Image 2: Set of four black and white images of buildings and streets in Boston
Zakari makes the images, drives back to the prison and the prisoners choose the ones they like best. Choosing the images, having the images made, and seeing the images are also a kind of memory exercise:
It's a way to test how the outside world has changed since they’ve left. Or, a way to see how reliable their memory of the place is, to see how their emotions might have distorted the images preserved in their minds all these years during their incarceration. Upon receiving the pictures, they responded with a piece of writing that varies from childhood memory to fantasy.
- Chantal Zakari
The resulting images and the accompanying writing reveal the complexities of how one sees the urban environment from prison, and how that environment has changed over the years.
Image 3: An inmate's childhood home on Tirrell Street in Worcester
The first image is of C.V.’s childhood home on Tirrell Street in Worcester. He writes beautifully of how this was his first home, the place he first felt settled after years of wandering around military bases. He talks about the comfort of snuggling under ‘Nana’s knitted Afghan’, but also of the tensions caused by his father’s drinking.
There are multiple pictures of the house, some with notes written by C.V. detailing his feelings of seeing a picture of the house after so long. He is not disappointed; it makes him emotional.
Image 4: Playground and basketball court where a student played as a youth
Another student requests a picture of the playground and basketball court he played at as a youth. He gets the image and writes about the gang culture of his town, the way gangs, sports, dress, and urban infrastructure created its own geography.
Different streets support different sports teams (and not based on geographical location), the Portland Trailblazers being the team K.W.’s street supported. ‘We took something as innocent as an athletic team and built a culture of violence, oppression, and self-destruction on top of it. The sad thing is that we take pride in it.’
Image 5: View from the top of a hill looking towards a church
Image 6: Photographs collaged together to create panoramic image of the viewpoint
J.S. asks for a panoramic view, giving a super detailed map of the perspective he wants. Zakari responds with a Hockneyesque collage, while A.I. asks for a picture of the courthouse which he accompanies with a piece of writing that details the entrance to Greek hell of Tartarus.
Image 7: The back entrance to a courthouse which A.I. accompanies with a piece of writing that details the entrance to Greek hell of Tartarus.
There are storefronts and a neighbourhood mosque, the school where J.P. was ‘diagnosed with ADHD and was put on Ritalin’. The side effects were too strong, he stopped taking his medication and that’s when he fell in with ‘violence, drugs, and gangs’.
M.O., who is out of jail after serving a 17-year sentence, writes extensively about the neighbourhood he grew up in, about the people he knew who ended up doing life sentences, about the gentrification overtaking the place he once lived. He would love to live there now he’s out, but property and rental prices have left him behind. It’s not the neighbourhood it once was in more ways than one.
Image 8: Older black and white photos of Orchard Park, a housing complex and the childhood home of M.O.
There are more stories of the places students played, and drank, the court houses they visited, the clothes or sneakers they used to wear.
Image 9: An inmate's diagram of where he was raised
Pictures from the Outside shares some of the ideas of Photo Requests from Solitary, but is gentler, more thoughtful and less consistently damaged. With the interaction between students and the images Zakari brought into class, there is a touch of San Quentin Project, but the text in Zakari and her students’ book is perhaps more focussed on the lyrical, thoughtful, and moving side of life.
Altogether it is a wonderful example of participatory photography in practice, a book where both the process of making the book, and the book that has come into being, have a value that increases our understanding of our world and the people who live in it.
Read more about Photobooks in previous blogs:
- The Grid: Bringing Order, Comparison and Narrative to the Story
- Laia Abril and Rafal Milach: Windows on the world of Misogyny
- Women and Photobooks: Unwriting History
- Photobooks and Collaboration
- Ernest Cole, Photography and Justice
- Photography and Brexit
- Arian Christaens and Returning the Gaze
- Photobooks and the City Destroyed
- Photography and Grief
- Photobooks and the Immersive Landscape
- Through their lens: Exploring travel photobooks that captivate
- Greenland and photographing the world you inhabit
- Collaboration and community in the Sinai desert