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!
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Prison Photography on the Road

Our friend Pete Brook of Prison Photography is still on the road, in the middle of a 12-week trip around the United States reporting on prisons and photographers. He funded the trip with a very successful Kickstarter campaign, which you should visit for a wealth of information about his project and the photographers and prisons he will be visiting. While he is publishing regular and remarkable dispatches and podcasts from the road, I also recommend this short documentary produced by Seattle photographer Tim Matsui as a nice behind-the-scenes peek at what Brook has been up to and the substance of his project.


Pete Brook: Prison Photography on the Road from timmatsui.com on Vimeo.


It is very exciting to see the fruits of Brook’s labor and we cannot wait to talk with him about the project when he is home. Safe travels Pete.

Some recent stories worth reading

Over the last week or two I’ve read a number of great posts that I haven’t been able to really write about, but I wanted to make sure to forward them on. Well worth a read.

Asim Rafiqui on his blog the Spinning Head writes about (and questions) ‘dissident’ photography in the US: “The Dissenting Photographer Or How American Photographers Turn To Intelligence In Times Of Intransigence”. He profiles some interesting ‘political’ work coming out of the States, and it buttresses nicely with A Photo Editor’s recent interview with Nina Berman.

The Basetrack journalism experiment, created by Teru Kuwayama and featuring photographers Balazs Gardi and Tivadar Domaniczky, seems to have hit a final wall, with accreditation/embeds scrubbed for the final months of the project. BJP has a solid report “US Marines pull the plug on photojournalism experiment” and Wired Magazine’s Danger Room Blog covered the story as well.

Duckrabbit also has a challenging post about concerns with photographer Marco Vernaschi’s work, which has previously been called in to question. This is an important discussion and it is well worth thinking about the issues at play with the photographer, our industry and the awards we look up to. “Faking it – how to win a World Press Award but get banned from a wildlife comp for life”

The new photojournalism crowd-funding project Emphas.is has just launched. We’ve written a bit about the site before, especially their interview series on their blog. One of the featured proposals is Aaron Huey’s ongoing work about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which was the subject of an influential TED Talk that Huey gave last year. Pete at Prison Photography writes more about Huey’s project and his emphas.is proposal: “Aaron Huey’s Pine Ridge Billboard Project and Prisoner of War Camp #344″. A great summation of the issues involved in the work, Huey’s commitment to the project and the possibilities that can come from his emphas.is project being funded.

I have been documenting the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for the past six years. Recently I have realized how inappropriate it is for this project to end with another book or a gallery show. […] Your involvement will help raise the visibility of these images by taking them straight to the public—to the sides of buses, subway tunnels, and billboards. I want people to think about prisoner of war camps in America on their commute to work. I want the message to be so loud that it cannot be ignored. – from Huey’s empha.is pitch