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. Continue reading