Interview: Pete Brook on the Road


In 2011 writer Pete Brook took his blog Prison Photography on the road. He used Kickstarter to successfully fund his trip, and produced a number of interviews with photographers, prisoners and activists, gave six lectures and visited three prisons. Last year the project grew in to the exhibition Cruel and Unusual at Nooderlicht in the Netherlands, with a newspaper-style exhibition catalogue and an upcoming Prison Photography on the Road (PPOTR) book.

After he was safely back in Portland last fall, he and I were discussing some of what he had accomplished and what he was thinking about doing next. Fortunately for us, he agreed to an interview so I can share some of his interesting insights and ideas. It has taken a while for us to find the time to put this together, but I’m excited to share some of Pete’s reflections on PPOTR and how he sees his work as a writer and curator evolving. It is especially relevant for other photographers and bloggers as they think about producing work ‘across platforms’ and offline, and what is possible when engaging and collaborating with our community at large.

Pete Brook at Sing Sing Prison in New York State. Photo courtesy Tim Matsui.

dvafoto: I heard through the grapevine that you had an interesting experience right as you hit the road?

Pete Brook: I think you’re referring to my arrest. Before the trip began officially, I was in California. I’d been at a wedding, dancing and drinking in the sun all day. When the after-party began to die down, and being a gent, I offered to walk a couple of ladies home as they were across town and not staying at the hotel. Along the way, I took a piss on a palm tree (not so gentlemanly).

Thirty seconds later, two California Highway Patrol squad cars pulled up. I was pulled aside and told that urinating in public was an offense. I didn’t think a discrete piss on parkland at 5 am would land me in jail so I may not have taken the interaction as seriously as the officer expected.

I was on the road, had no permanent address, I was a bit merry, had no ID with me and was generally bemused as to why so much attention had fallen upon me. When asked if I would answer the officer’s questions, I said I didn’t feel compelled to do so. He took my wrist, turned me round, cuffed me and walked me to his patrol car.

The officer said, “We’ll do it your way. You could be in jail for days, weeks, months, even years.” A nonsense statement. He was reacting emotionally to the situation. Not good. He was also proving who had the power. I’m guessing it was late in his shift and he may not have had the patience for an inebriated me. I get that, but his solution, so to speak, was unnecessary and disproportionate.

I was in jail for 9 hours (as quick as they process anyone, I was told). Upon release, I was served with a court date and faced two misdemeanor charges of ‘Disorderly Conduct’ and ‘Willfully Resisting Arrest’. Just ludicrous. The court date was two weeks away, by which time I had scheduled to be in Ohio. I had to juggle my itinerary, bring all my Southern California appointments – that were to be in the last week of PPOTR – forward, and extend my research in the Bay Area.

Two weeks later, at the courthouse, I didn’t even see a judge. Not wanting to waste court time, the District Attorney threw the charges out. Common sense prevailed but not before I’d been inconvenienced.

The arrest nearly jeopardized PPOTR’s main prison visit, to Sing Sing in New York State.

Visitors to prisons must go through a criminal background check and mine flagged the arrest. So, now the New York Dept. of Corrections knew of the interaction, but had no details. I had to explain that no charges were brought and scramble for the paperwork to back up my claim. The workshop I did with the men in Sing Sing was a highlight of the trip and it would have been a sore loss to miss out.

I remain in the system. I am interviewed about the interaction by Customs & Immigration every time I re-enter the U.S. I’ve been told the record cannot be updated to include the info that there was no conviction; I’ll have to go through the same conversation every time I travel from overseas.

The experience was not great, but the irony could not have been greater. If I can get a copy of my mug shot it’ll be my press-photo for life!

Now that you’ve finished the fieldwork for PPOTR, co-curated an international exhibition, and printed a newspaper, do you think that Prison Photography the blog will change at all?

I’d like to say no, but it probably will. Not because of these projects but because more like them are in the pipeline. These emerging projects will take away from my time at the keyboard-helm.

Before I tell you about those new developments, I should say that PPOTR was designed to test the limits of the blog, test my stamina with the issues and test the reception of the public. In some ways, maybe I could or should have had the imagination to take on new formats earlier?

THEN

Directly out of PPOTR came the opportunity to co-curate Cruel and Unusual at Noorderlicht and that was a phenomenal privilege. Given how much I enjoyed that there’s no reason to draw back from activities outside the blog.

Cruel and Unusual travelled to the Melkweg Gallery in Amsterdam last April and then to Photoville in New York in June. This year it will show in Ireland and Australia. There’s some logistics involved in making those exhibits happen, and Noorderlicht and Photoville are greasing the wheels with that.

NOW

I initially planned to self-publish the Prison Photography photobook for the PPOTR Kickstarter backers, but Silas Finch a non-profit photobook publisher expressed interest and I decided to make it a bigger production … and print run.

We’ve signed on the dotted line and I’m writing the text for it now. The image edit will come in the summer and we hope to release it later this year. It’s wonderful to have, again, institutional support.

LATER

A couple of photographers working on the topic of prisons have expressed interest in collaborating on books and that interests me, but it has to be right for them too. That might sound silly, but how many essays would I need to do before I became the guy who writes introductions for prison photography books? Not many! It’d be good bylines for me, but not necessarily for the photographer. As a reader, I generally enjoy photobook essays that are not about the photography per se but about the larger subject and there’s many activists, advocates and academics who can write better on aspects of the prison system than I. Perhaps one or two essays will get done in time.

Furthermore, I just agreed to curate a photography show on the East Coast in January 2014. It’ll be an entirely new collection of works with a new curatorial statement.

So, I’d say I am busy. Somewhere in that whole mix I have to be submitting copy to Wired.com so I can pay my bills!

Do you think your perspective has changed at all, in terms of how you will approach photography?

If anything, my politics have been emboldened. At times on the road I was overwhelmed by the number and importance of stories that need to be told; medical malpractice in Alabama prisons; prison photography from the 80s that hasn’t seen the light of day; the injustices of dozens of wrongful convictions. The sheer difficulty of communicating the complex issues of a broken system with millions of lives effected reminds me how important my work can be.

One example. I saw photographs of a corpse. It was the burnt body of a man who was the first execution in a southern state after the reintroduction of the death penalty in the seventies. He was executed by electric chair. The electric chair doesn’t instantly zap the person and they are dead; it boils the brain over a period of 5 to 15 seconds. It’s torturous.

Incredibly, the photographer was the man’s mother. She made the images in the morgue as a visual record of the burns on a body so that the images could be used in future court cases against the death penalty on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment. They were in the possession of a lawyer who specialized in death penalty post conviction appeals.

These photographs were not permitted by the judge for use in the courtroom and have never been seen by the public. They should be in the Library Of Congress; they say more about America than many documentary photographs.

Has your perspective changed on photography in prisons?

I am more and more interested in prisoner made photographs. I believe that there can be a large rehabilitative worth in creating images that self-represent, especially if there is a meaningful discussion to surround such activity

I’d like to see more photography workshops done in prisons, but they are tricky because the camera immediately poses a security threat. The pen and paintbrush do not.

Vance Jacobs in Columbia, Mikhael Subotzky in South Africa, Patrick Lopreno in Switzerland, Zoraida Lope in Columbia and Ioana Cârlig in Romania have proved workshops can be done and perceived security issues can be negotiated. These types of photo workshops used to exist in American prisons in the seventies before mass incarceration took hold.

Furthermore, there are photography projects that create images that prisoners conjure in their minds without ever having to hold a camera. These stem from an activist persuasion before they do fine art pursuits. The Tamms Year Ten Photo Project, Mark Strandquist’s Some Other Places We’ve Missed and Jordana Hall’s Home Is Not Here are three good examples.

Prisoner-made are rare but when they happen I think can speak more directly to the injustices within prisons. They present a completely new set of criteria for discussing photography.

Alyse Emdur’s work, which is a collection of prison portraits in visiting rooms is a pretty pure presentation of a significant form of American vernacular photography most of us just don’t see. The creepy, inoffensive, garish backdrops designed to specifically for portraiture in the visiting room, reflect both the naïve art culture within prisons and the manipulative power of the prison. They are both the evidence and the substance of heterotopic space; they exist nowhere else and would make no sense anywhere else.

Cruel and Unusual exhibition at Noorderlicht in the Netherlands.

Did you learn anything from the trip (in the US or in the Netherlands) about photo blogs and/or the community around them? Does meeting your audience and peers change anything?

Hester Keijser, my Cruel and Unusual co-curator, and I talked about blogs in the Netherlands. We determined that photoblogging in the Netherlands is less active and there seems to be less solidarity among photobloggers. Part of this is down to language; English still rules and few bloggers in Europe (understandably) don’t blog in English for an international audience.

I understand, that my small audience in Europe is not familiar with U.S. prison issues, or even the social landscape that underpins them and their discussion. I have to try, more now than ever, to be selective, succinct and clear with my writing. I need to make it accessible.

Perhaps what I’m most excited about everything you’ve been up to in the last year is the guidance and ideas to be drawn from actually getting out from behind the computer/camera and meeting people and producing physical things (exhibitions, publications). Do you see this as more of a goal for you in the future?

Aren’t the exhibition and book still kings in the photo-world? I reckon folk are pursuing those as readily as ever.

PPOTR gave me the opportunity to meet many folk familiar, peripherally interested and entirely new to my work. In every case though, chatting – even for just five minutes – and explaining where I’m coming from had a much bigger impact than sending someone to the blog.

People want to know your motives; if they buy into you then they might then buy into your work. I didn’t appreciate the importance of this before.

Do I want to get out in the world more in the future? I was inspired by Arnon Grunberg’s show at FOAM. He embedded himself with vacationing families. Grunberg is a well-known New York-based Dutch writer who used photography as a means to investigate the “war-zone” that is the family holiday. I wonder if I can do something similar with families of prisoners. Just thinking out loud here. A project such as that would be more akin to the activity of an artist – which I am not, yet.

Should we, as writers of blogs, concentrate on taking our projects beyond the internet and to make physical things? Is that where we are headed?

Not necessarily. Blogging can be a comfortable pursuit. By that I mean you can have total control over what you publish. There’s no rule to say that comfort should be disrupted.

That said, if blogging becomes too isolating then I think you might be missing out. But, most bloggers I know have increased their activities out in the world due to their online pursuits.

[Bryan] Formhals at LPV produces a magazine. Tony Fouhse has just released the photobook Live Through This, which for years was just a blog project. Joerg [Colberg, of Conscientious] emphasizes the importance of the photobook to his students; he is a teacher at Hartford because of the reputation he built through Conscientious. Roger May, I just heard, is working on a book. John Edwin Mason should definitely curate a photography exhibition; it’d be flawless and challenging. BagNewsNotes runs salons and public lectures. Maybe your question is phrased incorrectly? I think bloggers are trying their hand at a whole host of other formats. And I applaud them.

If we look at it another way, I think it is a good challenge for anyone who is looking at a lot of photography and/or issues to think about structuring information. We all want to have an impact right? Well that depends not only on the content and the message but how it is delivered. I think our community of photobloggers have learnt from one another and many are well placed to try anything they want to put their minds to. Hell, they’ve got the passion and the discipline.

Is it easier to measure the impact of your work when it is an exhibition or book, as opposed to a blog post? Do you get more or less feedback; is the quality of response different?

Tough question to answer. The newspaper was well received and I got a lot of positive feedback. We gave it away for free so it was, literally, something people could hold on to. Cruel and Unusual was an unqualified success. This was down to a few factors; Hester and I worked very hard; the photographers’ works were novel to the Dutch audience; and the issue is, for many reasons, fascinating to people.

The Dutch press response was huge; national radio, regional press, magazine features. Noorderlicht are very happy. None of this was guaranteed. I mean, I’m not surprised due to the rich content, but it’s good to see I didn’t stuff up my first curating gig!

Is feedback, or measuring the impact of your work, important to you?

Yes, but it’s tricky. Maybe invites to try new non-blogging ventures are the best way to measure how my work is received? Such invites suggest a degree of relevance I think.

Stephen Mayes, director of VII Photo, talks about “Transmedia” projects, which is a fancy way of saying, “Do everything.” Obviously, there needs to be strategy, but if you have the opportunity, the time, the framework and the gumption to try different approaches then why not?


  1. [...] Pete Brook on “taking our projects beyond the internet:” Not necessarily. Blogging can be a comfortable pursuit. By that I mean you can have total control over what you publish. There’s no rule to say that comfort should be disrupted. [...]

  2. [...] week, I was interviewed twice  - firstly, for DVAFOTO and secondly, for HERE BE MONSTERS - about Prison Photography On The Road and my activities [...]

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