Worldwide, prisons are ‘home’ to more than 9 million people, and their numbers will only increase over the coming decades. But what do our various societies seek to accomplish by locking up such massive numbers of offenders? From 18 February through 8 April, in Cruel and Unusual, Noorderlicht Photogallery presents revealing, and quite unexpected photography dealing with life behind bars. For this exhibition the guest curators Hester Keijser and Pete Brook have brought together work by eleven women photographers, most of which has never before been shown in Europe.
Cruel and Unusual looks at how the prison system is presented in images, and how these images are created, distributed and consumed. How do citizens – tax payers and empathetic humans – come to an understanding of life in prisons on the basis of the information – politicized or not – which they receive? Cruel and Unusual takes a startling and sometimes disconcerting look behind various prison walls around the world. Each photographer confronts her viewers in her own way with the following question : how do current practices of mass incarceration reflect our changing sense of decency and justice ?
Cruel and Unusual Punishment
The title of the exhibition refers to the English Bill of Rights from 1689 and the Eighth Amendment to the America constitution, which stipulates that citizens must not be subject to ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. But when is punishment cruel and unusual? To assist in the public discussion of this issue, photography helps by providing insight into the various facets play a role in the question.
The photographers selected, Alyse Emdur, Amy Elkins, Araminta de Clermont, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Christiane Feser, Jane Lindsay, Natalie Mohadjer, Deborah Luster, Lizzie Sadin, Yana Payusova and Lori Waselchuk, each use their own strategies, materials and techniques. Given the extent of access to prisons, they work with amateur photography, alternative processes, texts, painted images, digital manipulation or traditional black and white documentary photography. Much of the work is being shown in The Netherlands and Europe for the first time.
Cruel and Unusual is accompanied by a special catalogue in the form of a newspaper. In addition to visual material from the main exhibition, the publication includes articles, blogs, interviews, sketches and supplemental material from photographers Pete Brook has encountered during Prison Photography on the Road.
Prison Photography on the Road
Alongside the presentation of the main photographers, Cruel and Unusual aims to capture the chaos, interactions and visual excitement Pete Brook saw in photographers’ studios, contact-sheets and home-towns while on the road. Photographers included in the seperate section Prison Photography on the Road are Jenn Ackerman, Jeff Barnett-Winsby, Steve Davis, Lloyd Degrane, Harvey Finkle, Tim Gruber, Scott Houston, Sean Kernan, Jon Lowenstein, Tim Matsui, Frank McMains, Ara Oshagan, Joseph Rodriguez, Richard Ross, Adam Shemper, Marilyn Suriani, Stephen Tourlentes, and Sye Williams. These photographers are also included in the unique catalogue Noorderlicht publishes alongside the exhibition.