Honest Portraits: In Search of Representational Proper rights

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A new publication explores issues surrounding the portrayal of incarcerated individuals in the United States’ justice program

“Prisons systematically dehumanise the imprisoned, ” writes Hatty Nestor in her new book Ethical Portraits – Looking for Representational Justice . The publication explores how the incarcerated in the United States’ justice system are portrayed. Through a series of interviews and creative nonfiction, which cover mugshots, monitoring recording, court sketches, DNA profiling, and the media depictions of the likes of Chelsea Manning, Nestor deconstructs the various roles of prison portraiture and the invisible forms of strength in the American prison system.

Here, Laura Havlin speaks to Nestor about the search for justice in both portraits and other representations of the incarcerated.

Hatty Nestor © Sophie Davidson.

Laura Havlin

Laura Havlin: The book’s name explains that this is a look for ‘representational justice’. What are the primary ways you have found which the representation of prisoners dehumanises them?  

Hatty Nestor: Their education to which prisons both conceal and misrepresent the individuals they detain is, naturally , ethically and politically complex and bound to a carceral history of subordination. For instance, considering that their conception shortly after the particular invention of photography in 1840, mugshots became a form of representation employed solely just for identification purposes within the legal system. This form of portrait-making––which was standardised in 1888 by the French police officer Alphonse Bertillon–– strips prisoners of the individuality. It is inherently dehumanising because the subjects of mugshots have their representational liberty eliminated. The widespread distribution associated with mugshots in the media perpetuates the racial bias associated with attributing certain groups to criminal behaviour. This open public circulation of mugshots generates a punitive representation of shaming and arrest.

The process of dehumanisation extends beyond the confinement of prisons to all sectors of the criminal justice system, too. In today’s media, mugshots usually come in reference to prisoners who has been incarcerated for sensationalised crimes or a prison scandal. Similarly, drawn and painted pictures — from trial through to incarceration — CCTV footage, courtroom sketches and unlawful e-fits, all suspend the particular subject’s agency. All these types of identification are inhumane because they purposefully dehumanise the images’ subjects by stripping all of them of all personality, individuality plus agency.

LH: The incarcerated population is often referred to as ‘invisible’, with a lack of conversation with the outside. Who are the particular mediators responsible for constructing the particular images of incarcerated people?  

HN: Representation is filled with ethical quandaries and injustices; it is not always liberatory in and of itself. As well as the same goes for complete invisibility. Invisibility also ties in to prison architecture and area. Prisons often sit beyond towns, in unpopulated areas, which reinforces the unsupported claims of ‘out of view out of mind’.  

Many photographers have captured prisoners through photojournalism. Carl sobre Keyzer photographed the gulags and prison camps within Zona: Siberian Prison Camps (2000-2002) . And Mikhael Subotzky’s series Die Vier Hoeke: The Four Corners   (2004-2006) captured the particular conditions of South African Prisons. Both photographers pictured inhumane realities that might possess otherwise remained unseen.  

The project Taken , which I explore in section four, utilises the creative abilities of prisoners to draw ‘who should be within their place’. The portraits also include Garrett Rushing, CEO of Citigroup, and were entrusted to make a political commentary for the invisibility of prisoners and how the US justice system prosecutes people in society for that most minimal transgressions. What exactly is interesting about Captured is that the mediators are the inmates. Therefore , the prisoners gain some visibility through the portraits they produce. However , the pictures further compound an over-representation of privileged individuals who are not held accountable, all of which already have widespread representation.

James Brown, Usa Stated Penitentiary. Marion, The state of illinois. Courtesy of Alyse Emdur.

Lynette Newson, Correctional Institute for females. Corona, California. Courtesy of Alyse Emdur

LH: You write this lack of interaction “minimises the chance for empathetic encounters with those who are most marginalised”. About what ways can more equitable and empathetic depictions be fostered?  

HN: Empathy, and it is relationship to sympathy plus ethics, were things We often considered while composing Ethical Portraits . The question of integrity is intrinsic to depicting or representing others, just as the power relations between the sitter and the artist steep the history of portraiture.  

I found one quote in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Examinations (2004) particularly useful in thinking about these issues. She writes, “empathy isn’t just something that occurs us––a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain––it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves”. Jamison proposes that we have a selection about whom and what we all feel empathy for. By extension, the images produced of prisons and inmates were made out of choice. And exactly how they are produced, framed, plus disseminated all influence the broader societal perception of incarceration.  

In terms of the pictures I engage with, in Honest Portraits , it often wasn’t the pictures themselves that could foster empathy or function equitably, however the context of their production and intentionality. I was also implicated in this, and I considered the way i could present the interviews I conducted as a kind of portrait-making. When considering this question of intent, I always came back to Susan Sontag’s philosophy of photography, particularly the girl observation: “to photograph individuals is to violate them, simply by seeing them as they certainly not see themselves, by having understanding of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. ” There is a cautionary lesson here: it is almost impossible to create empathy with a person reduced to an object. Empathetic or equitable portraiture is only feasible when the photographer intends to humanise, not objectify, the topic.

LH: After listening to This particular American Life Lock-Up series, where you heard a prisoner describing the lack of variety they’re exposed to, you write: “What struck me most about his comments was just how starkly prison-industrial complexes break the agency of those they detain, limiting prisoners’ ability to connect with each other and the outdoors world, and most of all, denying any assertion of person identity. ” In what ways can more representational proper rights help to give incarcerated people back some autonomy over their identity?  

HN: The limitations of visibility talked about in the show resonated using the research I was undertaking concerning the Chelsea Manning case. Whilst in solitary confinement, Manning’s support commissioned the illustrator Alicia Neal to draw an alternative solution portrait of her––as the media had continued making use of her military photograph. Here, a representational justice has been achieved because the media could instead circulate an image aligned to Manning’s gender identity. The alternative portrait was required due to a misrepresentation, not an lack of imagery.

Yet with Alyse Emdur’s project Prison Landscapes – the subject of chapter five [and images from which also feature above]––the opposite is true. The project brings together one hundred photographs collected between 2005 and 2013 of inmates standing in front of painted backdrops in prison visitation rooms. Vivid colours can be used to create each landscape, plus they are utopian in composition and tone, offering an alternative towards the architectural and psychic restrictions of prison. The circulation of these images is often personal: most are sent to the detainee’s loved ones––to supplement or even override, the only other image of them produced while in prison. The landscapes thereby endure against a lack of visibility. But also resist the participants getting coded only as inmates — so the pursuit of representational justice, and a sense of autonomy, in opposition to an institutionalised portrait that offers no substitute representation.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Chelsea E. Manning, Probably Chelsea.
2017. Genetic materials, custom software program, 3D prints; 30 pictures, each
portrait 8 by 6 x 8 in ., overall dimensions variable. Courtesy of the
artists and Fridman Gallery.

LH: How is this increased with transgender prisoners being able to assert their identities? You do have a section in your book on Chelsea Manning, where this really is explored in relation to a particularly well-known example. Could you talk about your own exploration of Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s task with Chelsea Manning, and maybe how the issues explored lengthen to more marginalised plus ‘invisible’ people?

HN: Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s work with Manning — the artworks Probably Chelsea (2017) [above] and Radical Love (2015) [below] — are convincing for two reasons relating to sex representation. Firstly, they both allowed Manning to assert her identity as a trans woman and as an artistic manifestation of gender oppression societally. Manning’s DNA was delivered to Dewey-Hagborg from within prison (via cheek swabs and hair), from which Dewey-Hagborg algorithmically generated 30 gender-neutral portraits. Dewey-Hagborg subverted this technology in order to re-orientate Manning’s identity and demonstrated that these forms of identification are both an invasion associated with privacy while demonstrating that law enforcement abides by a rigid outdated gender binary.  

In Chelsea Manning’s case, the subject of chapter one, her initial representation while incarcerated was her military picture. What Chelsea Manning’s situation communicates, beyond the politics implications of whistleblowing, is that the treatment of trans inmates is likely to the dehumanising violence of the state and deeply entrenched in this system. This is where the pursuit of prison abolition is essential to dismantle state assault within incarceration. Transgender activist Reina Gossett speaks widely about the prerequisite for jail abolition when she says, “without prisons, nobody will be disposable in the series. ” The Cece McDonald situation also demonstrates how Black, transgender women are prosecuted for acts that are self-defence for hate crimes and how the police state is discriminatory and prejudiced. Wider culture already compounds the ability to assert transgender identity, and so prison––an institution where selfhood is stiped––only exaggerates this.  

Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Radical Appreciate. 2016. Genetic materials, custom made software, 3D prints, paperwork; each portrait 8 x 6 x 6 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Fridman Gallery.

Honest Portraits is available to purchase here .  

Laura Havlin

Laura Havlin is a writer and editor specialising in visible culture. She is Head of Content at D& ADVERTISEMENT and previously was Mature Digital Editor at Magnum Photos.

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