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Ecce Homo: Photographic Existentialism and the 21st Century

It could almost be something by Banksy: A human figure drawn to challenge the politics of neglect that lies behind urban decay.

An inmate looks out from his cell in the Secure Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison in California

The man stands, entombed alive within the wall, and so we might ask what else remains locked up, and what voices reverberate in the air just beyond the range of normal hearing, and what demonic spirit would create such a place. Street art can make you realize that the street already is art, but not necessarily something made for those passing through.

But it’s only like a painting, and not on the street.  Modern prisons are designed to be far away from public awareness.  Places of internal surveillance, they nonetheless remain unseen and visually impenetrable.  Indeed, at least one of them is largely invisible in the midst of a downtown metropolis.  The only exception comes when a photographer is allowed inside, and the results are never reassuring.

Or perhaps they are.  Some certainly will say that bad guys should be locked up and that prisons shouldn’t be country clubs.  This photo is from the Secure Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison in Corcoran, California, and the inmates placed there have been determined to be highly dangerous to other people.  The criminal justice system is not infallible, but one would be unwise to disregard its judgment about the worst cases without considerable evidence to the contrary.  And if the old prison looks a wreck, liberals still probably would prefer to see California’s limited funds spent on schools.  So, what’s the problem?

The problem, if we want to call it that, is that this photograph is by far the most striking and profound I have seen this week.  Granted it’s been a slow week visually, and the slide shows have leaned on autumnal colors and the ongoing festival of everyday life.  Such images are a worthy celebration of small differences and simple pleasures in a common world, but they also are highly repetitive and therefore capable of reinforcing unreflective consensus and emotional complacency.  As one part of that effect, it becomes easy to ignore how much is at stake and which decisions really matter if people are to life together peacefully.

Prisons are monuments to bad decisions: those of the inmates and many more as well.  They also have a habit of reflecting the society that builds them.  The corroded metal and decayed surfaces above suggest a place that is more dungeon than modern institution, and with that, a society that is more feudal than it realizes.  And yet, in the midst of that, the man stands as if standing for the concept of individual human being, something that can only be realized if the individual is treated with dignity or, as in this case, insists on that right in spite of everything.

The philosophy of existentialism was rightly criticized for putting too much emphasis on the individual’s power of choice. One result, it seemed, was that victims could be blamed for their suffering; another was that an essentialist definition of human nature remained in place of more critical attention to specific social circumstances.  The photograph above could be faulted on both points: the man is responsible for his actions, which, given where he is, must have been horrible; his image nonetheless reveals an irreducible essence that belies a full account of how a society ends up with such a person in such a place.

That said, visual existentialism might not work in quite the same way as its more discursive counterpart. One difference will be the artistic allusions at work: e.g., the similarity to paintings by Francis Bacon; the pairing of the two door frames as they contrast figural representation and found object abstraction; the four frames that could come from a medieval alter piece depicting various stages of agony and illumination.  Prompts such as these can lead to questions about social organization and its signs and symptoms.

Another critical edge comes from the change in historical context.  There are more prisons today than in the 1950s, and more photographs.  In a time when the same technologies and ideologies are applied to both prisons and societies, the prisoner acquires representational power simply by become visible.  And when smiling people are brightly, repetitively present on every surface, placing a man behind a screen makes him appear more authentically human.

The fact that he might also be evil is not something that should disqualify him.  Have a nice day.

Photograph by Robert Galbraith/Reuters.  Regarding prisons, be sure to see the Prison Photography blog.

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Ecce Homo: Photographic Existentialism and the 21st Century

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