Edmund Clark is an award-winning artist, who links history, politics and representation through his work. His research-based art combines a range of references and forms including photography, video, documents, text and found images, bookmaking, installations and other material.

Through his art, Edmund Clark explores ‘how subjects are seen and engaging with state censorship to explore unseen experiences, spaces and processes of control and incarceration’.

Clark has published over six monographs and has been exhibited around the world including in major solo museum exhibitions at the International Center of Photography Museum, New York; the Imperial War Museum, London; and Zephyr Raum für Fotografie, Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Mannheim.

His work has been acquired for national and international collections including the National Portrait Gallery, ICP Museum and the George Eastman House Museum in America, the Imperial War Museum and the National Media Museum in Great Britain (for a full list of awards, exhibitions and contributions visit his website).

In this All Souls Seminar, Clark shared the work produced during his four-year residency at HMP Grendon, and the ensuing exhibitions, catalogues, and monographs. Clark drew on themes of visibility, representation, trauma and self-image in English prisons.

Artist-in-residence at HMP Grendon

HMP Grendon is the only prison in Europe operating exclusively as a therapeutic community. Inmates – who have usually committed serious violent and/or sexual crimes – are expected to reflect on their offences and accept responsibility for their past and present actions. Being part of the therapeutic community requires inmates to exercise a degree of control over their daily activities, commit to intensive group therapy, participate in democratic decision-making, and to hold themselves and others accountable.

As an artist-in-residence, Clark participated in weekly meetings amongst prisoners and staff members. Although he was encouraged to engage with prisoners, he was prohibited from taking identifiable photographs of people. Clark emphasized the tension between the prisoners’ constant exposure (through therapeutic activities) and lack of visibility (due to censorship and lack of interaction with the outside world).

Clark identified four key creative stages of the work he produced at HMP Grendon. In each stage, he employed different artistic methods to explore the themes of visibility, engagement, agency and routine.

"A bird standing on barbed wire in front of the sunset"

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

Stage One: Reacting to space

Clark presented a series of photographs of the multiple buildings and structures within the prison’s fence. The powerful images represented the segmented, strange, interrupted reality of the prison’s architecture. One photograph depicts a concrete pathway leading to a brick wall (14:45). This image reveals past versions of the prison’s architecture and prison life. In another photograph, we can see what appears to be a temporary extension of a building that became permanent without ever being replaced by brick walls (16:20). In this series of photographs, Clark illustrates the transformation of the prison in time and elicits emotions of discomfort through aggressive and confusing structures. For criminologists and perhaps qualitative researchers more broadly, Clark’s work illustrates how photographs are not merely still images, they are also visual representations of the history and biography, in this case, of HMP Grendon.

Stage Two: What grows

In this instalment, Clark inspired by a conversation with a colleague decided to observe what grows within the prison’s fence. He was equally interested in what is deliberate, planted and curated as well as in what is chaotic, unwanted and not cared for. He pressed the plants between paper towels with heavy art books, and finally, photographed the plants in front of a lightbox. As in the previous stage, Clark’s photographs illustrate transformation. Although the plants picked by Clark will continue transforming until they completely decompose and possibly beyond, his photographs immortalise ‘what grew’ within HMP Grendon at the time of his residency (16:43). The process of transformation the plants undergo in the artist’s care could be understood as a metaphor for the transformation inmates undergo in the therapeutic community.

Stage Three: Visual extension of the therapeutic process

The third stage of this body of work was what Clark described as a ‘visual extension of the therapeutic process’ (27:55). While interviewing inmates, he used a pinhole camera to record their stories. Instead of using video or sound to capture them, he took ‘impressions of conversation’ recorded by image (25:00). The images produced, appear like blurry portraits, like shadows of the people they represent.

In research terms, these photographs served both as photo-documentation and photo-elicitation. They serve as photo-documentation, in the sense that these photographs are the visual representations of the interviews conducted and the interviewees’ stories, whereas they serve as photo-elicitation, as they were brought into group meetings and elicited conversations on various topics including self-image, visibility and how they believe to be perceived by society.

 Clark described this process as a double exposure. Firstly, the participants were exposed and vulnerable sharing their stories in front of the pinhole camera and peers. The second exposure was the visual representation of the stories, the final portrait.

Stage Four: Psychodrama - Oresteia

For the fourth and final key stage, Clark observed and recorded a script-less performance of the Greek tragedy Oresteia by Aeschylus, performed by inmates and staff from the psychodrama department (28:52). As part of creative therapy, actors embodied characters who are perpetrators, victims or witnesses of violent crimes and were encouraged to respond to the violence in relation to what they had done and experienced through the therapeutic process. Clark was interested in exploring the relationship between narratives of violence on and off stage, in spaces where violence might be acceptable or unacceptable and the contrast between high art – Greek tragedy – and real life. In this instalment similarly to others, the inmates engaged with themes of identity, vulnerability and visibility. Edmund Clark recorded this performed and potentially genuine catharsis in one take and from three different angles which represent the multiplicity of narratives and perspectives.

Exhibition at the Ikon Gallery

The art produced in HMP Grendon was exhibited at the Ikon Gallery. In the exhibition, Clark curated the space using his art as well as materials collected from the prison including chairs from the wings and sheets used by prisoners. The materiality added to the visual and auditive representation of prison life and prisoners created an immersive experience for visitors. The inmates’ portraits and photographs of the prison were projected on the bedsheets (40:43). This created a chaotic and uncomfortable atmosphere as visitors’ shadows appeared on prison walls and among inmates.

Through his art, Clark aims to challenge the binary narrative of good versus bad, us versus them, a goal that is also at the core of qualitative criminological research. Clark’s All Souls Seminar sheds light on sensory methods of recording human interactions and experiences that are often omitted in mainstream criminology. His art engages with themes pertinent to criminology including, identity, visibility trauma, transformation, self-image and agency. Edmund Clark’s research-based art provides suggestions for criminologists and artists alike looking to broaden the way they approach their work. In his remarkable career, Clark has given an insight on how art and criminology can not only coexist but inform one another.