Prison Photography

An interview with Pete Brook of Prison Photography.

Girls of Remann Hall, WA

1) Can you tell us something about your website?
Prison Photography is about presenting opinion backed up by concern and fact. It functions in the same way as journals did for writers of the 19th and early 20th century – I am pursuing an idea without necessarily knowing the purpose or product of the inquiry. I think of Prison Photography as an open journal that the world is free to read.
Prison Photography began solely focused on photography within sites of incarceration but recently I have done some exhibit reviews, ethical inquiries and commentaries on photojournalism. I have diversified because it’s important to not to discuss photographic practice or theory in isolation. Fundamentally, still, I insist that the focus remains on analysis of visual narratives being created in prison and jail systems.

Melania Comoretto Photo by Melania Comoretto

2) When did you start to publish this information?
In October of 2008, but I’d been collecting information, noting names, bookmarking photographers and projects for over a year prior to that. It was clear that many photographers over past decades and in many countries had visited prisons and jails (some voluntarily, and some not) but these works were not collected, compared or, in some cases, even known. Since 2004, I have been invested in the politics of prisons. I recognize a desperate need for sentencing and prison reforms in the US – the current systems are economically and morally unsustainable.Prisons are tactically hidden by politicians and conveniently ignored by the public. Photography is often talked about as a medium of bringing sights unknown to a wider public. My inquiries test that notion.

Nathalie Mohadjer Photo by Nathalie Mohadjer

3) What about the content, can you tell something about the contributors?
I am aware of hundreds of photographers who have done very valuable work within prison walls. Sometimes I pay attention to documentary photographers:
Lori Waselchuk
Ara Oshagan ,
Jenn Ackerman & Tim Gruber

other times fine art photography
Bromberg and Chanarin
Paula Luttringer
Edmund Clark

In other cases photography is used as performance
Deborah Luster
Steve Davis

and elsewhere I on the site, I’ll look at photojournalism
Sarah Bones
Elyse Butler
Louie Palu,
Darcy Padilla

The photograph is a product of specific social and political conditions. I want to know how a photographer arrived at the moment at which they capture the image. Often a photographer’s access can be very difficult, entirely based on luck or sometimes mixture of the two – as in the case of Ken Light on Texas’ death row. I want to excavate the circumstances of production of images made by amateurs as much as by images made by professionals. Tourists can take tours of San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia. Why? Likewise, millions of Polaroids are taken in the visiting rooms of US prisons; they lie in the drawers, purses and front-room frames of millions of families – this is an important and large collection of vernacular imagery that has never been brought together or appreciated for its cultural significance. Why? There have been isolated cases of young men smuggling and using camera phones from within prisons and posting images to social networking sites. Is this significant? Does it need discussing? Photography conducted within a prison can never be without its own distinct and well-patrolled power relations. When I talk to contributors/photographers I want to know the nuts and bolts about how they got access, why they persisted, what their experience was and how they view the carceral system in which they operated.

Robert Gumpert
Robert Gumpert

4) What is the strongest story that you published?
That is an impossible question! I care a lot about all my work. May I offer a few examples for different reasons?
The most successful post in terms of interest wasn’t even by a professional photographer. A group of anonymous girls from Remann Hall detention centre here in Washington State took some long exposure pinhole photographs.
Legally their faces weren’t allowed to be identifiable hence the long exposure. The workshop led by Steve Davis became more about performance in front of the camera. The results were evocative, a little bit eerie and really captured people’s imagination. Steve was one the first interviewees I met for Prison Photography and I think what he said applies to those images. Steve said that one can never presume why another person would take interest in an image. Neither of us expected those images to be so readily consumed.

I am very eager to showcase work and always tried to accompany images with some background information from the photographer. My interviews with Yana Payusova
Sasha Maslov and Nathalie Mohadjer describe the prisons of Russia, Ukraine and Burundi respectively.

Sasha Maslov Photo by Sasha Maslov

Interviews with Steve Davis
Stephen Tourlentes Ilka Hartmann and Emiliano Granado deal with prisons in the United States. All are very thorough and connect the images to the context of their making.

I am also proud of my analyses of Jean Gaumy Cornell Capa Jane Evelyn Atwood
Jenn Ackerman and Patricia Aridjis

10, 11, 12 13 & 14, Green Hill, 2000 Photo By Steve Davis

Unrelated to prisons, I have recently completed a twelve-part analysis of the photographers’ behaviour and reactions to the death of Fabienne Cherisma in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. This is the twelfth and final part with links – at the foot of the post – to the previous eleven installments.

5) How can photographers submit their prison stories?
Photographers should email me. Details can be found at my Submissions page. I also contact photographers directly if I think something is important.

I am always open to submissions. In fact, when photographers contact me directly I pay particular attention. Some of the most impressive photography has been featured on the site this way – both Christiane Feser and Melania Comoretto emailed me and I really liked their work. They are both very intelligent photographers.

The work of Luca Ferrari was recommended to me by a friend of the photographer.

6) What are your future projects?
I have a white board in my office with dozens of names and projects to feature. Then I have hundreds of web-bookmarks so I am not short of material.

People always presume that I’ll run out of prison subject matter to discuss but, to the contrary, my options keep expanding. Such a realization only confirms my belief that prisons surround us but they are just made invisible and ignored. I am trying to do my bit to shed some light on different systems and hope my readers can judge if those systems are responsible or not. I am about to begin a series of articles looking at various photographers’ responses to the detention cells of the Dirty War, Argentina (1976-1983)

I conducted four interviews last summer that need transcribing, editing and publishing. Interviews are the most work so four seem quite daunting! The four photographers I met – Andrew Lichtenstein , Robert Gumpert Ken Light and Max Whittaker are all great photojournalists and said some really important things so I feel guilty that I haven’t shared those things with my audience yet!

As I said earlier, I have focused recently on broader issues in photography, ethics and photojournalism. This work is important but I don’t want to be distracted for too long from photographic projects as they apply to prisons. I want to find the right balance so my website lives up to it’s name; I want at least 75% of my material to be concerned with prisons and sites of incarceration.

Yana Payusova
Photo By Yana Payusova


In the near future, I am most excited about a collective online discussion that I am organizing with other photography bloggers. We are testing the website for Race, Diversity, Photography currently and will launch the blogging action in June. We want to forward the discussion of diversity as it relates to photography (particularly in the US) because we believe that some of the recent discussions in the photoblogosphere have fallen short – they haven’t been well-tempered or well-reasoned. We invite all writers, bloggers and critics to contribute written and image-based pieces about their observations or experiences in the photography world (industry, opportunity, representation). Contributors will first post their pieces on their own blog/website and we will then cross-post them to our website and maintain a permanent archive. It is an action specifically for the blogging community but hopefully it will have repercussions further afield. If we can replicate some of the success of the The Future of Photobooks crowd-sourced discussion then we’ll be very happy.

I guess my ultimate future goal is to prick people’s curiosity about the prison systems that exists within their own societies. How much do you know?

Comments 2
  1. Sounds like a great project. We’re flattered that you are using The Future of Photobooks as a kind of template. Getting other bloggers to think more grandly about how we can use the platform is exactly what we were going for. Let me know if you’d like any input/help 🙂

  2. Very nice and informative article. Thanks for the quality content and I hope you update your blog frequently as I`m interested in this topic. I`ve already bookmarked this article. Thanx!

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Chelsea Pfohl

Chelsea Pfohl


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