This past Monday, Creative Writing welcomed a very special guest, photography writer Pete Brook. In Brook’s own words: “I am not a photographer. I stick to looking and commenting. I work as a freelance writer.” Brook, an avid blogger and curator of photographic images, came to speak about his work with images taken in and of the prison system. Originally from Lancashire, England, and now living in Portland, Oregon, Brook works for Wired Magazine on their ‘Raw File’ photography blog as well as actively maintaining his own blog, prisonphotography.org. He showed Creative Writing an inspiring slide show of photos taken within prison walls, and shared with us his thoughts on why prisons, prisoners, and images thereof can be an important and uniquely revealing look into this group of American citizens.
Brook first became interested in the prison system back in 2004, when he was, in his words, looking for an excuse to stay in California. At the time, he was finishing up a master’s course in museum studies at the University of Manchester in England. He wanted to stay and do research in California, but what would be his subject? Brook discovered that the San Quentin Prison had a prison museum, which became the center-point of his thesis. The 2.3 million people in the prison system fascinated him as well as the human rights abuses they suffered. Brook started prisonphotography.org six years ago, after moving to Seattle. He did it to show people a different side of prison photography. As he states in an interview with the New York Times in 2011, “When you deal with prisons, you’re dealing with closed systems. These are effectively disciplined spaces. And that discipline attends to the imagery that is released.”
One of the first slides in Brook’s presentation was a compilation of prison clip art, the kind of stereotypical pictures a simple Google search produces. I thought this laid a good foundation because he started with the most basic, simple, unrealistic pictures of prison and then delved into emotional photography, which depicted prisons from all kinds of angles, even the outside. For me, the clip art symbolized the media’s portrayal of prisons. This got me to thinking that I never question prisons or what goes on inside of them. I always assumed that the people handling criminals weren’t criminals themselves. This is one reason I appreciated Brook’s presentation, because it offered a fresh perspective on a topic I am not familiar with and have not thought a lot about. As writers, we always need new experiences and new ideas to inspire our writing.
Brook showed us many different photographers that have either spent time volunteering in prisons and taking pictures, or have fixated their photography on prisons. Two that interested me the most were Stephen Tourlentes and Cheryl Hanna-Truscott. Tourlentes photographs the outsides of prisons. One of his pictures was of a large penitentiary at night, all lit up. Brook told us a story of how Tourlentes was driving along the road at night in the middle of nowhere and saw these bright lights, as if there were a city in the far distance. When he went to investigate, Tourlentes found that it was in fact a bright prison, and he took a picture. I thought about the architecture of prisons and how so simple they are yet in a sense they are their own cities: A complex jungle of cell blocks and lights.
Cheryl Hanna-Truscott took pictures of incarcerated mothers with their newborn babies. Brook talked about how if the mother is stable, charged with a non-violent crime and has good behavior then some prisons let them stay with their babies up until they are seven years old. The picture Brook showed us was of a prison mid-wife holding a newborn baby in a prison cell. Brook shared with us that he thought more prisons should have programs where mothers are allowed to stay with their babies. I found myself conflicted on this topic, which made it so intriguing. Is it fair to keep babies in a cell for the first years of their life? How will that affect them emotionally? How will that change their upbringing? On the other hand, Brook said that research has shown that it is crucial for a baby’s development to be with her/his mother in those early stages. These questions, and the profound photograph, inspired me to write. This got me thinking that inspiration for a Creative Writer’s writing does not only come from a prompt, but the ability to go beyond the prompt and look at it from every view point. Brook’s presentation has me thinking still, and I continue to analyze my own thoughts on the prison system through my writing.
Although he describes himself as not an activist, Brook has inspired me to use my writing, and my camera, as a tool for activism and reform. He said that during the Vietnam War, newscasters and politicians were telling the people their version of what was happening in Vietnam. Photographers who went there and took pictures of what was really going on were showing the people something completely different. I want to use my writing to show the world something new. I want to be truthful in my writing and show all perspectives. I want my writing to inspire reform. I attribute these recent revelations to Pete Brook and his insightful presentation.
For more information, visit Pete Brook’s blog: http://prisonphotography.org/pete-brook/ and check out his twitter account, @Brookpete (All Pete’s tweets are written, very proudly, by him) Also, check out Wired Magazine’s ‘Raw File’ blog: http://www.wired.com/rawfile/ And, lastly, Pete’s interview with the New York Times (which can be found on his blog): http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/19/focusing-on-prison-photography/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1