The issues of crime and punishment have never been more pressing in American society.
Prison Terms is a three-part exhibition at the Center for Creative Photography, exploring the meaning and experience of punishment everywhere from American prisons to a Japanese village traumatized by mercury poisoning. It consists of Lucinda Devlin's "The Omega Suites," Morrie Camhi's "The Prison Experience" and "Looking into the Permanent Collection: Punishment."
Camhi spent 18 months as a visitor at California's Vacaville Prison to photograph its inmates and staff for his series "The Prison Experience." Camhi asked everyone he photographed the same question: "What do you want people to know about prison experience?" Excerpts from their replies appear beside the portraits.
Like the outside world, Camhi's vision of prison seems a society unto itself although as prisoner Alberto Torres says, "The prison system is like being in Grand Central Station ... so overcrowded that it makes it hard for an individual to try and grasp the goal that he wants to reach." Perhaps Torres' aspirations are stronger biceps and triceps, but this text about personal goals combined with the portrait of a cool, tough guy working out in the prison gym does break the stereotype that all convicts are incorrigible criminals ready to resume their violent life of crime when released.
Considering the living conditions, it's not surprising that ex-cons can't adjust to life on the outside. Jesse L. Sanchez, who is squeezed into his bottom bunk bed, cup in one hand and cowboy hat in the other, says, "Prison does not rehabilitate. ... One is never the same after a long period of confinement in prison." On the other hand, Najee Abdullah Rahman Qawly talks about prison as a state of mind, and he manages to meditate while straddling a stool between sink and bed.
Including the texts of prisoners' words expands the photo essay. With them, the body of work does not rely solely on the strength of individual photographs, although there certainly are some striking images. Together, texts and images create a portrait of individuals in a segment of society that has been easily ignored. Camhi photographed Vacaville Prison in 1987-88, and it is outrageous that such conditions still exist in prisons across the country.
Devlin's "The Omega Suites" depict even worse places for convicts who have committed capital crimes: execution chambers. In the 1990s, Devlin traveled to 20 states to photograph execution chambers, prisoner waiting cells and viewing rooms for her series, which was exhibited in the prestigious Venice Biennale last year. At first, Devlin's photographs seem quite straightforward color images, mostly of rooms with electrocution chairs or padded tables for lethal injection, but keep walking slowly around the gallery and the images become more and more disconcerting.
The execution chambers are similar, but small differences make them seem less like sterile devices and more like the means to the last moments of someone's life. In Columbia, S.C., one of the three telephones is red, the last hope of reprieve. In Parchman, Miss., a microphone dangles just above the lethal-injection table, a last chance for apology, confession, denial or damnation.
The religious iconography is hard to miss in a couple of the images. The table in the lethal injection chamber in Canon City, Co. stands upright. Its extended horizontal sections for strapping in prisoners' arms make the device look like a cross. The three rows of seats in the electric-chair witness room in Jackson, Ga. look just like church pews.
The traditional Judeo-Christian "eye for an eye" concept of justice is still deeply embedded in American culture. Even though the United States is the only country in the Western world that has capital punishment, 46 percent of Americans favor the death penalty over a life sentence without parole.
The exhibition "Looking into the Collection: Punishment" features prints by 15 photographers and was curated from the Center's permanent collection by Sarah Lawrence, an MFA candidate in the photography program at the University of Arizona's School of Art. At first viewing, some photographs don't seem to deal with the theme of punishment at all. The reason is that the exhibition asks broader questions about what constitutes punishment and what its sources are.
The exhibition features the work of many noted 20th-century photographers, including Weegee's crime photographs, Danny Lyon's 1960s photographs of chain gangs and one of Ansel Adams' photographs of the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp. Tucsonan Cy Lehrer contributes two moving photographs from "Places of Ha-Shoah," his series of photographs about the Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz and Auschwitz II (Birkenau).
Two W. Eugene Smith photographs are powerful examples of his famous 1970s series "Minamata, Japan." These works called attention to the plight of a small Japanese fishing village that was poisoned by mercury from industrial pollution. "Tomoko Uemura in her Bath" is a beautiful black-and-white image of a woman half submerged in her bath while holding her son in her arms to bathe him. His hands are gnarled and his shins merely bone and flesh from birth defects, but she looks at him with such love and holds him with such compassion.
A number of the photographs in "Looking into the Collection" reveal that punishment is often inflicted on the innocent, sometimes by governments, sometimes by others. Photographs like those from "Minamata, Japan" are reminders that the innocent can be punished, not just intentionally, but also by carelessness, callousness and greed. As other photographs point out, even punishment intended to mete out justice can be inhumane. How a society can preserve order, advance justice and retain its humanity is one of its people's greatest challenges.