Curator Pete Brook Looks at the Prison Industrial Complex From the Inside Out

Photo: Anonymous, courtesy of Steve Davis, Incarcerated girls at Remann Hall, Tacoma, Washington, reenact restraint techniques in a pinhole camera workshop, 2002.

In the United States of America, there is a hidden one percent, the one percent the lives behind bars, incarcerated in the belly of the beast. One any given day, 2.2 million men, women, and children live within one of the more than 5,000 locked facilities located across the nation. Mass incarceration comes with a price tag of $70 billion per year that is thrust upon the taxpayers, while private corporations line their pockets with profits.

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The prison industrial complex exploded in 1980, under the auspices of President Ronald Reagan, who reaped what Richard Nixon had sewn a decade before when he created the “War on Drugs” as a cover story to destroy minority communities. Over the past 36 years, the prison system has quadrupled in size, creating a crisis level event that is hidden from public sight.

Josh Begley, Screengrab from ‘Prison Map’ (www.prisonmap.com) of tiled satellite images of U.S. prisons. ‘Prison Map,’ modifies Google API code to automatically photograph every locked facility in the country. Courtesy the artist.

Josh Begley, Screengrab from ‘Prison Map’ (www.prisonmap.com) of tiled satellite images of

U.S. prisons. ‘Prison Map,’ modifies Google API code to automatically photograph every locked

facility in the country. Courtesy the artist.

In response, curator Pete Brook has produced Prison Obscura, a traveling exhibition that reaches its seventh and final home at Newspace Center for Photograph, Portland. The exhibition is currently on view now through May 28, 2016. Featuring the works from Josh Begley, Brown v Plata, Steve Davis, Alyse Emdur, Robert Gumpert, Paul Rucker, Mark Strandquist, and Kristen S. Wilkins, Prison Obscura presents provides an entirely new way of looking at the prison system

Featuring rarely seen surveillance, evidentiary, and prisoner-made photographs, Prison Obscura inverts the formal tradition of documentary photography is search of a new approach. As Brook explains, “Prison Obscura taught me to experiment with everything that exists outside the documentary tradition. The documentary tradition is a Western/Eurocentric perspective, a pursuit by the privileged, primarily practiced by older white men. They have hold the camera and point it at the world. I don’t discredit it. If you’re going to question the prison system, you have to look at what is outside of it.”

Mark Strandquist, Image of a dam, made in response to a description provided by a prisoner in Richmond County Jail, Virginia. Courtesy the artist.

Mark Strandquist, Image of a dam, made in response to a description provided by a prisoner

in Richmond County Jail, Virginia. Courtesy the artist.

By curating with an eye to the insiders, to those who use the camera to record their own lives, rather than document someone else, Prison Obscura gives us an unflinching look at reality as it is experienced on a daily basis. This is not the sensationalized images the media produces to reinterpret this world; rather this offers an insightful look at life in the system from the inside out.

“I wanted to present something new to the majority of viewers,” Brook observes. “Generally what exists in the show is more direct, sometimes a more brutal perspective. The installation is claustrophobic; there are 700—800 works. Josh Begley’s work [a manipulation of Google Maps’ API code] features hundreds of small images tacked to the wall. The overwhelming mass reflects mass incarceration. It’s not precious. There are only two bodies of the work that are framed.”

This raw, unvarnished, unromanticized look is new to those who have not been through the system, or been involved with those who have. For those who do not know, the media images are distortions based in narratives and myths. Prison Obscura offers an antidote to this.

Kristen S. Wilkins, Woman in Montana prison, from the series Supplication. Courtesy the artist.

Kristen S. Wilkins, Woman in Montana prison, from the series Supplication. Courtesy the artist.

Alyse Emdur’s prison visiting room portraits and Robert Gumpert’s recorded audio stories from within the San Francisco fail system provide a voice and a face for the millions tucked inside the system, forever changed by their experience. As Brook observes, “The prison visit room portraits are made for loved ones, for grandma, mum, and the kids. These are the only photographs they’ve made since being in jail. The last time their portrait was taken is their mug shot.”

Mug shots are frequently released to the public, here they are treated as both gossip and evidence. They invite speculation in the court of public opinion, such is their very nature: to make a suspect that much more identifiable. The portraits in the visiting rooms are an entirely different manner. Here, an illusion is pursued; the visiting room becomes a photography studio momentarily, a stage for escape, performance, and something else. It is the creation of an identity that can be preserved long after the moment has passed, an idealized self that occupies the place that the person is not able to possess. It is here that the photograph takes on the role of being a proxy for the person who has been removed from the world. But who those people are and how they ended up here, that we may never know.

Anonymous, courtesy of Alyse Emdur. David Wells, Thumb Correctional Facility, Lapeer, Michigan. From the series Prison Landscapes (2005-2011).

Anonymous, courtesy of Alyse Emdur. David Wells, Thumb Correctional Facility, Lapeer, Michigan. From the series Prison Landscapes (2005-2011).

Taken as a whole Prison Obscura allows us to perceive that which many of us are fortunate never to know, and to recognize that out of sight should not be out of mind when it comes to the system abuses of power that manifest in the prison industrial complex.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.