art, photography, prison

Alyse Emdur: Fantasy Behind Bars

(This interview first appeared on Art in America on 02/19/2013.)

By Sabine Heinlein

When L.A.-based photographer Alyse Emdur was a little girl she would accompany her mother and sister to prison to visit her older brother, who was serving time for car theft and drug possession. In 2005 she came across a picture of herself and her brother posing in front of a romantic tropical beach scene. Other photos show her brother with and without family members in front of a bucolic stream, a cozy cottage and lush greenery. The hand-painted murals in prison classrooms and portrait studios record fantasies of freedom. To the prisoners and their families these scenes keep at bay the intense feelings of powerlessness, shame and loss caused by crime and incarceration.

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For the images compiled in her new book Prison Landscapes (Four Corners, January 2013), Emdur revisited this childhood experience. She contacted prisoners via pen pal websites and asked them for existing photographs of them and their families posing in front of idyllic backdrops. Prison Landscapes combines this collection with Emdur’s own photographs. She gained access to ten correctional facilities in Pennsylvania, New York and Florida to create new pictures of hand-painted backdrops in their “natural” prison environment. (One should add that gaining access to prisons has become increasingly difficult for journalists and documentarians. Tough-on-crime policies, mass incarceration, prison overcrowding and accusations of human rights violations have caused administrators to tighten the lid.)

The book, which also includes her correspondence with the prisoners and an interview with one of the inmates who paints the photo backdrops, sheds light on an oppressive environment that takes incredible pains to remain unseen.

SABINE HEINLEIN What did it feel like to return to prison and re-create scenes from your childhood visits?

ALYSE EMDUR My experience with the backdrops as a child was very visceral and very emotional. I thought, “Why would I be standing in front of such a happy backdrop in such a sad place?” For my book, I was going in the visiting rooms when they were empty, with a prison administrator and a prison guard. Observing these backdrops led me to imagine all the people and the stories that had played out in front of the backdrops.

HEINLEIN What role does the administration play? Who decides what goes on those walls and into the pictures?

EMDUR Nearly all the backdrops are landscapes-which is a pretty big restriction in itself. The mural artists have the freedom to choose whatever landscape they want, but there’ll definitely be requests by the inmates. There are certain rules: You can’t use gang colors or offensive imagery. So the backdrops reveal the control that prisons have on the representation of prisoners and prisons. Inmate photographers are given explicit instructions to not show the visiting room, to only show the backdrop.

HEINLEIN Did you see any subversive elements in the paintings?

EMDUR They don’t put intentionally subversive messages in the backdrops, but the prisoners posing in front of the backdrops use humor, like they’ll hold up a plastic fish or use props like a backpack. There was a painting of a casino in Las Vegas. One prisoner is touching the backdrop with his hand to acknowledge that it is an illusion. One painting had a blinged-out car with gold rims. But in general, the visiting room is a sacred place where the prisoners have an opportunity to spend time with their loved ones. For the painters, the backdrops are a way to contribute to that special space.

HEINLEIN Yet your pictures emphasize the tragedy of America’s mass incarceration and how little we know about what goes on behind bars. What kind of responses have you gotten from people?

EMDUR About half of the prisoners that I invited to contribute accepted my invitation. But some people weren’t comfortable having their images published because they aren’t proud of the fact that they are in prison. (Not that those who participated are proud of that fact.) While photographing in prisons, some of the staff expressed that they didn’t see value in the paintings. To them they are an amateur’s attempt at painting. However, some of the administrators were very proud of the backdrops, almost like a school principal is proud of his or her students. They recognize art’s potential to uplift the spirit. In terms of outside viewers, for so many Americans these images have been unknown because although there are millions of them circulating amongst families, only people who personally know prisoners have seen them. Many family members really appreciate these backdrops as a humane gesture. Others don’t even notice the backdrops. The backdrops are an ordinary part of prison life; murals are everywhere in prisons—in hallways and in classrooms.

And then, of course, some viewers find the images uncomfortable. We are culturally ingrained to look at prisoners in a [one-dimensional] way. This book is an affirmation of the humanity of prisoners, which is taboo, and for some, uncomfortable.

HEINLEIN What makes your photographs different from the prisoners’ photographs?

EMDUR My intention was to document the portrait studios and to show what is just beyond the frame of the prisoners’ photographs. I pulled my large-format camera back to reveal the security cameras and windows and bars and the institutional furniture to show the contrast between the hand-painted backdrops and the institutional architecture.

At the State Correctional Institution in Muncy, Penn., I arrived for the photo shoot twenty minutes early and I snapped a few photographs of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections sign from inside my car across the street. A prison guard stopped me and started interrogating me. When I went in for my appointment, they had absolutely no trust in me because I had photographed the sign without permission. So in that prison I had a difficult time and ended up not getting the image I wanted. At the time, I simply didn’t realize that you are not allowed to photograph the entrance of a prison from the street!

HEINLEIN It’s a hidden and inverted world.

EMDUR Yup, and this series shows how hidden it is. It’s so hidden that all you see is the person in front of a backdrop. In one prison in Pennsylvania, the administrator who was taking me on the tour told me that I was the first photographer in the prison in over ten years. To me that’s just mind-blowing. There’s a public institution and a photographer has not been inside in ten years!

HEINLEIN You say in your book that the portraits are seen through the eyes of inmates’ loved ones. There’s something voyeuristic about your work; you get to see moments in people’s lives that are meant to be very intimate. What does your work tell us about power relationships?

EMDUR I think that the aspect of voyeurism is what makes some viewers uncomfortable. It’s problematic for certain audiences. But I firmly believe that the contributors in the book are aware of that voyeurism and agree to be part of it because they would rather be seen than not be seen by the outside world. If the images are intimate, that is because they chose to send me intimate images and because they wanted the viewers of the book to see them in an intimate way.

The portraits contributed by the inmates were taken by fellow inmate photographers within the power structure of the prison. So my intention is to reveal the power relationship between the prisoner and the prison. As a free person I am in a position of power. As an artist and a free person, I have the privilege to make these images visible to a larger audience. You could also say that since the incarcerated contributors do not have their own agency to be seen or acknowledged by a larger audience, they are taking advantage of my power to do this for them.

HEINLEIN Was there one experience that really stuck out, that you will carry with you for the rest of your life?

EMDUR In Muncy, I was, to my surprise, prohibited from photographing the visiting room backdrop because it was not hand-painted and the guard’s orders were to only allow me to photograph hand-painted murals. This misunderstanding was a big disappointment because this portrait studio was unlike any that I have seen in a prison. It was literally a photo booth like one that you would see in a mall. It had a curtain for privacy and worked with the push of a button. I was instead escorted to an academic classroom to photograph a mural of World War II fighter jets. On our way out, the guard briefly stopped at another classroom to chat with a teacher. As we peeked in the room, my eyes locked with a woman seated at a round table with other women working on pastel artworks. She was methodically drawing a picture of ponies in a sunny grassy field.

HEINLEIN Are you still in touch with some of the prisoners?

EMDUR Yeah, actually this month I’m confirming their current addresses because Four Corners, who published the book, and I are sending them all copies. I’m really looking forward to their responses once they receive the finished book.

HEINLEIN Prisoners are not allowed to receive books directly from personal addresses.

EMDUR No they are not. We are sending the books through our distributor, DAP. The book is a softcover because most prisons do not allow prisoners to receive hardcover books.