Questions of Framing & Images of Solitary Confinement in America

My current research seems to be headed more towards vernacular photography (wedding photographs, instagram, etc), which marks a significant shift away from my previous work on framing violence in war and the Abu Ghraib prison photographs.  In working to find a common thread that links these seemingly disparate bodies of visual artifacts (mostly as a way to help me feel a little less unhinged), I’ve settled for the time being on a concern with a relationship between photography and narrative.  Specifically, I want to build an argument that starts from the premise that we use photographs to shore up the shifting stories we tell about ourselves and others.  Our narratives may change with time and with audience, but the photo provides a persistent point of reference.  The photograph can incite particular narratives based on what it includes, but its exclusions can also shut down narrative possibilities: what’s not in the picture isn’t often the focus of our stories.

There are two key claims undergirding this premise.  First, that we continue to invest photographs with an evidentiary quality, despite the fact that they are alterable and that they do not guarantee an accurate record of events.  Second, that framing practices are active in the moment of making a photograph and these practices have a delimiting effect on the narratives the image might incite.  The second claim is critical because it introduces a political stakes to photography that might not be readily apparent.  Quite simply, what does not get photographed generally does not get spoken about and is more likely to be forgotten than images that are widely circulated.  Perhaps most obvious in mainstream news coverage of wars and other disasters, the practice of selecting images is also a practice of deciding what will be publicly known and thus discussed.  That said, the process of framing extends beyond the photo editor’s newsroom call or even the photographer’s decision of where to direct her camera.  There are norms of recognition operating in our culture (and operating in different ways in different places) that delimit the field of visibility long before a photo is taken.  These norms can function innocuously, directing our attention towards action rather than stillness, to lit spaces rather than dark corners.  But in the case of war photography, these norms can also work to delimit our ability to perceive human-ness and human suffering: the shot-up soldier appears as unambiguously human, but the local, the prisoner, the deviant can be a bit more troubling.

All of this is to say that how we see the world affects the photographs we take.  Long before a camera is in a news photographer’s hands or a smartphone is in mine, there are norms of recognition at work that directly and indirectly effect the way a photo is framed.  And the resulting photographs (along with the visual silences, images uncaptured) reiterate these norms and framing with the narratives that might spring up around them.  However, narrative might offer an counter to the frame operating within the photograph: we can ask what happened before or after, to the left or right, etc. Indeed, every photograph circulated carries with it the weight of photographs untaken and, by extension, stories untold.

And how does all of this link to images of solitary confinement in America?  I’ve mentioned Pete Brook’s excellent blog, Prison Photography, before.  Recently, he posted on the paucity of photographs of solitary confinement in American prisons.  Prompted by a journalists contacting him with requests for photographs of solitary for various stories, Brook’s article discusses the lack of visual images of the practice and its facilities, despite the widespread use of the tactic in American prisons.  Brook includes a small selection of photographs, but ends the post with a request to any photographers who might have more images.  Carceral practices and facilities are visually un/under-represented in North American news media, resulting in a lack of public knowledge of prison conditions.  Far from an innocent exclusion, the absence of a visual record is essential to the continuation of current carceral practices.  To show would be to open the possibility of multiple narratives, some of which might raise the question: how can we do this to other human beings?

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