Pete Brook is the editor of Prison Photography and the man behind an amazing project that saw him interview American prisoners about their photography. His amazing photo blog has sparked a lot of attention since it began and The New York Times took it upon themselves to find out more.
What is your interest in prisons? How did that happen?
I don’t think I would have cared about prisons had I not moved to America. In the summer of 2004, I was finishing up a year-long master’s in museum studies at the University of Manchester, in England. I was looking for an excuse to come to California. I had a girlfriend at the time, and I wanted to be in California with her whilst I was doing research.
So I was looking for a subject. I found out that San Quentin Prison had a small prison museum and it became the subject of my thesis. In order to give analysis to the narrative at that very small, volunteer-run prison museum, I had to learn quickly what the politics and the realities of prisons in California were. I realized that what existed in this museum and what existed in reality were two completely different things. It occurred to me that this was a human rights abuse. Here and in plain sight. Financially, it doesn’t make sense; morally it doesn’t make sense. It fascinates me that there is a prison system with 2.3 million people in it and no one seems to see that as a problem. At what point was that normalized? After the prison population was quadrupled in 30 years, when did everyone accept that as O.K.? At what point did the alternatives not matter and not get to the table?
Why did you start the prison photography blog?
When I first arrived in the States I was working as a photo researcher. I just started bookmarking prison projects. And then when I moved to Seattle three years ago, I decided it was about time I bit the bullet. I wasn’t sure if there was something meaningful to be said. I wanted to challenge some of the statements that are made about photography — that it can change things, or show us things we wouldn’t otherwise know.
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. Prison photography tests a lot of the claims made by photographers — or certainly claims that were made in past decades. I think it might be changing. I think people might have lower expectations of photography’s power these days.
Read the full interview at The New York Times.