New Criticals

Prison Obscura, curated by Prison Photography editor Peter Brook, is an exhibit about dark chambers and the relationship of the prison to the camera. Artists explore the dynamic between inside and outside, emancipation and incarceration, light and dark, visibility and invisibility, uprightness and inversion. The camera peers into those dark chambers, not merely as a passive receptor of light, but as an illuminating beacon. The camera does not simply capture these subjects and render them objects (which is the function of the prison), but through propagating these inverted objects, allows others to see/hear/feel, perhaps rendering these objects a standing, a subjectivity, helping them, however incrementally, to express their voice, their dignity, their life.

These are not simply photographs of prisoners and prisons. Indeed, there already are many “images” of the criminal and the prison propagated by popular media: the mugshot, the prison drama, the case study. How we “see” the incarcerated is something shaped by the camera through a sensationalized lens. These images, however, amount to forms of voyeurism, rendering such “criminals” even more objectified and passive. Ultimately, they are propaganda, either inciting fear or developing an entertaining caricature that, in the end, does not reflect reality, but remains only an inverted and blurred obscurity that deflects any meaningful reflection, personal or societal, on the horror that is the U.S. penal system.