Tag Archive: prison photography

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?


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.


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.


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!
Read on »

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.

Balazs Gardi / Basetrack.org

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

Meet Your Favorite Photobloggers

Last week our good friend Pete Brook, creator of the must-read Prison Photography blog and now lead photo blogger himself at Wired Magazine’s Raw File, published a post for Wired: “Get to Know Our Favorite Photobloggers”. Scott and I are excited to be included in their list, which includes a series of small interviews and portraits of some of the best and most important reads on the photoblog scene. So in case you were ever curious what we (the “Wide-Eyed Young Photojournalists”) looked like (or Joerg Colberg or Rachel Hulin for that matter) or how we all got started writing on the internet, have a look at the post.

Matt Lutton (l) and M Scott Brauer (r)

Matt Lutton (l) and M Scott Brauer (r)

The best part is that I’ve been introduced to a number of great websites and writers that I honestly hadn’t encountered before. Brook reports that this is the same for other people featured. I can only hope this helps to spur more communication and innovation in this “community of photobloggers”. I’m enjoying what I’ve seen from all of these sites this week and I’m sure you’ll see us mention their work in the future as we follow their writing and posts.

We don’t think much about where dvafoto fits in to any scene nor do we cater our content to any strict dimensions, but to be included amongst the websites that we read often for inspiration and balance is an honor. Don’t expect any radical changes as dvafoto grows (it has been an exciting year) but keep watching, we’ll continue to push.

The Wired post is worth reading for all of the interviews and info from all the people involved, but I thought I’d put a cheat-sheet of all the sites they list for your convenience:

Of course, you can always find our curated list of the great blogs and websites we follow over on the sidebar or in our visual presentation of “The Talent”.

Donald Weber’s Interrogations

Donald Weber thinks more deeply about his projects than any photographer I know. Thus it has been no surprise to see his intelligent and thoughtful responses to criticism about his fascinating new project “Interrogations”. The series shows Ukrainians under interrogation by police and at its heart is a story about the infliction of power. Weber writes, “Interrogation is all about manipulation and desperation, very violent psychological torture regardless where it’s practiced.”

Colin Pantall was the first I saw to ask Weber some questions about the project (be sure to read down through the comments too), and then Pete Brook of Prison Photography posted about the project and had an interesting response from Weber. Important issues are brought up at nearly every turn: Is the photographer, and/or viewer, complicit in these interrogations? What about the context of a Ukranian police station (and system of governance and justice) versus any other in the West? And can we compare this work in any way to the Abu Ghraib pictures, in terms of history, access and role of photography in documenting ugly things? I don’t have any answers for you, but I think reading these posts and looking closely at Weber’s work will provide much food for thought.

Prostitute and Drug Dealer. (c) Donald Weber

Prostitute and Drug Dealer. (c) Donald Weber

If you’re not familiar with Weber’s work you should definitely go back and read the Dvafoto Interview we did in 2008: Donald Weber: Inside the Imperium.

Update (by ML, 11/14): Colberg at Conscientious Redux links to this post in his post “About Being Complicit”. It made me think that I needed to expand my thought about why Weber’s project is so interesting to me. He says, “Let’s talk about Guantanamo Bay or Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, legal black holes, in which interrogations happened (and probably still happen, I don’t think anyone believes in Obama’s promises to fix things any longer) that make those depicted by Don Weber look like child’s play.”

I think that this is exactly why Weber’s project is so interesting and important. He draws the connection himself between what is happening in these limited scenes in Ukraine to the “psychological torture” in the nature of all interrogations. Thus this complictity question, if it means anything to me, is not so much to think about our role in these limited police actions when there is so much worse happening in the world. By showing us a little bit of what this form of human contact is about, Weber makes us think about all of it. I recently watched Taxi to the Dark Side, I can’t help but overlap the extractions of confession from petty criminals in a domestic legal situation to the same process in illegal and secret prisons. Because up until this moment, when Weber opens this world to us a little bit, they were equally hidden and both done in our name and for our security.

Worth a Look: Daniel Shea and “Removing Mountains”

Friend of dvafoto Andrew Spear directed my attention to the work of Daniel Shea last month, specifically his project Removing Mountains.

Coal, the number one energy-based resource domestically, is often extracted through a process of mountaintop removal mining. Through this process, mountains are literally blown apart to efficiently access coal seams. The physical overburden is pushed into the valleys and streams below, leveling a once dynamic landscape. Through this violent process, coal is eventually extracted, processed, shipped, burned and then distributed through electric grids to much of the United States. Simply turning on the lights suggests a complex matrix of ecological, industrial, and human implications. (link)

Shea is also funding the travel for a related (and also terrific) project called “Plume” entirely though a print sale on his blog, and still has some prints available at great prices to help fund the exhibition of the work later this year in Kentucky.

But don’t stop with just having a look at this project; Shea has a number of other impressive works on his website. And see Pete Brook’s post and interview about Shea’s Baltimore Project over on Prison Photography. Also cool: Shea did a terrific interview with Alec Soth for Too Much Chocolate last year.

Matt Lutton’s June Update

Pause in our normal programming for a bit of an update on what I have been up to here in the Balkans. Lots has been going on and it seems like it will be continuing through the summer. And Scott and I have plenty of interesting things planned for dvafoto so keep tuned.

My long-term project about the relocation of Belgrade Roma “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” is currently featured in Lens Culture magazine. This project was also shortlisted by Anthropographia and was included in the exhibition at the New York Photography Festival and will continue to tour worldwide (a cool picture of the exhibition, snapped by a NY friend, is in the gallery above).

I’ve also published “Chapter Two” of this project on my Photoshelter Archive and included some images in the gallery above, so you can catch up on the project since my last post about the project on dva. I am continuing to photograph this story, following the families of the Gazela camp as they resettle around Serbia following the destruction of their community.

Lastly, thanks to friend Pete Brook at Prison Photography for writing about my work on this project in a post titled The Roma People: Matt Lutton building upon a legacy of wandering photographers.

I also have published on my archive a new gallery of work from Bosnia in an ongoing project called “This Time Tomorrow”. I will be following events in Bosnia closely as political and economic stagnation continues to slowly suffocate the country. Some tectonic shift will and must come to solve one of the world’s most entrenched political crises. Maybe tomorrow, but probably not.

I am currently focused on completing my book about Serbia in the aftermath of the Milosevic decade, titled “Only Unity”. My project was recently announced as one of seven nominees for the POYi Emerging Vision Incentive, a $10,000 grant for an emerging photographer. See some of the work and my (full) proposal at the POYi website. Congrats to the winner of the grant, James Chance and the other nominees.

I am also announcing for the first time publicly the existence of an tumblr sketchbook for this project: onlyunity.tumblr.com. Have a look if you want to follow me feel my way through this work. The latest news is that I’ve finished the first book dummy, which will serve as my university thesis, enabling me to finally graduate this year.

It has been a busy couple of months with a few interesting assignments, taking me from Budapest on a corporate job to a British international school in Belgrade for a UK newspaper. There is much to come this summer, including a trip to a Serbian winery connected to the royal family and projects to be featured in well known online publications. And of course focus on Dvafoto. I look forward to sharing this all soon, and I hope you are enjoying your summer (or winter, if you happen to be south of the equator).

More Perspectives on Haiti and Crisis Journalism

As we get a little further away from the initial shock of Haiti I’m finding more perspectives on the tragedy and the media’s role in reporting on it. Here are a few links I can recommend that have kept us thinking.

(c) Jan Grarup / NOOR

First, a few days ago our friend Scott Strazzante published a beautifully honest post on his blog about his feelings of being a newspaper photographer in Chicago looking out on a world of “big stories”. It reflects the inner thoughts almost all photographers have about their place in the industry, the world and the importance of the work they’re producing.

This was echoed by another talented and thoughtful friend on his blog: Chip Litherland lays out his view on the situation and the importance of the photography emerging from this and other events to his relationship to the world. He has one passage that speaks to his optimism on the importance of the still photographs being produced in Haiti right now:

Soon, headlines will start creeping back to normal type and smaller fonts. Photos will run smaller. Media agencies will pull out of the country. One thing I haven’t felt in a while, though, is a renewed sense of the importance of photojournalism and what we do. I had that thought this morning when I realized I never wanted to watch a television news broadcast again. It’s so watered down, so filtered, so crafted and manufactured it makes me sick. I seek refuge in the glowing screen of my computer and photo galleries, newspapers, magazines and blogs which are putting these photos everywhere. The photos are what people are sharing. Twitter posts about journalists’ posts from the ground. Facebook postings with links to photo galleries. Photos. Not video. Not multimedia. Not a talking head in front of rubble waxing poetic about what a producer saw earlier in the day. Not showing up to the airport, setting up a live shot, saying you’re there covering the story and leaving. Photos. Photos that need no text. Just space to breathe and be seen.

This segues to my rant about American television media and a Washington Post article about the rise of reporter-doctors. Many of us have grown increasingly frustrated with the tactics and presentation of the broadcast media and a situation like this brings out the worst in that institution, insofar as them featuring these acts (performances?) in their broadcasts. I’ve been glancing at CNN’s website a few times since the disaster began and I’m almost certain that there has always been at least one self-congratulatory article or link about the good work (“Anderson Cooper saves injured boy”, “CNN vehicle drafted in rescue”) the broadcast team is doing down there. Are they trying to justify their presence? Are they (subconsciously?) covering their backs from criticism of their presence? Or does their viewership hunger for stories of their pretty reporters helping out, thus feeding ratings… and is this then entertainment (are they actors?)? Of course TV News is in the ratings/entertainment business but are they really playing this out with peoples’ lives in such a crisis? I guess so.

Of course, as with the article above, I am quite happy to see journalists helping out whenever they can (see for instance Christopher Anderson in Lebanon), just keep it the hell out of your ledes and headlines. You are not the story. But it seems this exactly is what the broadcast media is aiming for and it is not a good thing. Especially when so many people get their “news” from these sources, perhaps exclusively.

There are also harder questions to ask, for starters whether or not it is appropriate to arrange a workshop on crisis photography in Haiti. 100eyes founder Andy Levin posted on Sunday his plans to arrange a February workshop in Haiti that will in part “transport food and medicine” and “also offer our services to NGOs who are in need of photographs”. duckrabbit beat us to print with a smart and fair post expressing their outrage and bewilderment at the timing and tact of this proposal. Levin responded to the post with some clarifications, but I am with the majority of commentators on duckrabbit that think this is a bad idea presented even more poorly. They also picked up a metafilter post about burden of enthusiastic but untrained volunteers in Sarajevo that Scott linked to in our first commentary on Haiti (“Like moths to a flame – so many cameras in Haiti”). It is an important and informed counter-point (along with many others brought up by duckrabbits’ commentators) to the idea of sending even more photographers, especially untrained and potentially vulnerable ones, to Haiti’s disaster zone.

Our friend Pete Brook at Prison Photography takes up this issue with Levin and many many more topics in the exhaustive post “Staring at Death: Photographing Haiti”. Catch up on the humanitarian and media situation in Haiti, the galleries of images being assembled and the section titled “How many photographers does it take to photograph a humanitarian disaster?” (which runs down the known photographers working there now).

Seriously, visit Brook’s site for the best up-to-date set of links around. We’re indebted.

Update: conversation on race, diversity, and photography

There have been two prevailing attitudes toward the proposed conference/symposium dealing with issues of race and diversity in photography:

a) That it is absolutely necessary & b) It is a terrifying prospect.

The first point speaks for itself, and the second point becomes clear when one considers the kerfuffles, misunderstanding and (dare I say it) vitriol that has accompanied much online discussion.” -Prison Photography

Following up on earlier talk of a conference on race and photography, Pete Brook has spearheaded the effort to create an online symposium covering the subject, and the momentum is building. A great mix of potential contributors have already responded positively to the idea, and the work behind the scenes is moving quickly. Read about what we have up our sleeves over at Prison Photography. And get involved!

Melania Comoretto’s Women Prisoners

Pete Brook has been on a roll with great posts at his blog Prison Photography lately, and I wanted to point out one in particular: “It was like being in front of a mirror” features very interesting photos and words by Melania Comoretto.

(c) Melania Comoretto

(c) Melania Comoretto

I wanted to investigate and understand how women could express their femininity and take care of their body in a situation of extreme marginalization.

The starting idea was to reflect the mental and psychological labyrinths and internal prisons that prevent human beings from living their lives freely. I asked myself, “What could be the extreme expression of this idea?” The answer; Prison.

You are well worth the time to bookmark Brooks’ site, it has absolutely one of my new favorite blogs. And if you’re up on this whole twitter thing, follow Pete Brook for the loads of interesting links that he often posts.