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Pete Brook: What Can Photography Do for Prison Reform?

From Contemporary Art and Photojournalism in Documentary Practice

"Our heads," the prison reform activist Peter Brook argues, in this brilliant discussion of photographic interventions into the profound injustice of the American prison system, "should be exploding with disgust." Correctly flagging the singular urgency of his endeavor, Brook, in his contribution to SFMOMA's recent symposium, "Bearing Witness," notes from the sad irony that while his own intervention as a blogger, lecturer, curator, and aggregator of information about prison photography, is web-based, the community of prisoners he seeks to address is prevented from accessing internet that is his platform.

Resisting the widespread rhetorical objectification of the prison population as an abstract and easily bracketed other, Brook emphasizes photography's potential as a transactional medium connecting the concerns of those on either side of the prison walls. Offering a lucid portrayal of America's current prison crisis, where some 2.3 million Americans are locked up on any given day, with the poor and people of color representing a wildly disproportionate majority of that population, Brook assesses the role of a clich├ęd visual culture of incarceration in the U.S. in sustaining widespread ignorance and misunderstanding. Brook offers an insightful and comprehensive survey of photographic projects that have worked to disturb this inherited and pernicious visual culture, extending particular interest to projects facilitating prisoners' own efforts to produce photographic mediations addressing their conditions or otherwise determining their own photographic frames of meaning.

Academic debates trading too easily in familiar cynical indictments of documentary photographic practice writ large falter when measured against the efforts discussed here, and Brook sensibly recognizes no photographic ontology as such, and is committed only to the question of whether photography can contribute to altering these devastatingly unjust conditions. "These are photographs," Brook insists of the projects he surveys, which "we must pay attention to."


Peter Brook is a writer and curator based in Portland, Oregon. His blog, Prison Photography, is an essential and unmatched clearinghouse for information concerning the role of photography in mitigating the devastating effects of the American system of incarceration.

August 1, 2014

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

Curated by

Jason Hill