From the Field is Border Criminologies’ ‘mini-post’ series featuring news from researchers currently in the field. In this post, Mary Bosworth builds on Luigi Gariglio’s post earlier this week on the challenges in obtaining research access for including photographs in prisons research. Here, Mary discusses the challenges in integrating photographic work into criminological research based on recent experiences of photographing IRC Colnbrook.

IRC Colnbrook (Photo: M. Bosworth)
Here at Border Criminologies we are trying to integrate photographs into our various research projects on prison, immigration detention, and life after detention. In doing so, we are encountering a series of challenges. Most obviously, as Luigi described in his post, we need to obtain official permission. In the setting of the immigration removal system, this involves negotiations with the custodial companies and the Home Office. While some of the Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) appear to be quite happy to allow us to enter with cameras, others are a little less sure.

Those establishments which have allowed us to take photographs have varied in their oversight. All cite security concerns. Some have checked all the photos thoroughly accompanying us as we walked around, others have been content to let us get on with it. In all cases, so far, we have had limited time to take pictures. These are not ethnographic images, but documentary ones.

Housing unit, IRC Colnbrook (Photo: M. Bosworth)
We are also facing technical difficulties. We're not professional photographers. Other than holiday snaps, none of us has all that much experience around cameras. IRCs are awkwardly lit, simultaneously dark and sometimes too light. Flourescent lighting and sun streaming in from only one barred window can easily lead to an image appearing over-exposed. Equally, as the picture of the housing unit demonstrates, they can appear very dark. Corridors and small rooms (cells) pose other challenges as well. It's often difficult to capture enough in an image of them to make it interesting.

Then there are ethical questions. During my day at Colnbrook, a number of the detainees asked to have their photographs taken. While I had an official release form to permit such requests, I was concerned that over a brief visit like this, I could not be entirely confident that the detainees had understood what it could mean. What if, after I left, the men changed their mind? How would they feel if I selected an image with them in it and reproduced it widely? What about shots in which detainees or staff were in the background, present but not individually distinguishable? Did I need their written permission as well?

An image of the housing unit through the safety bars on the third floor (Photo: M. Bosworth)
Having taken the pictures, questions of interpretation arise. One of the reasons I was taking photographs in Colnbrook was to obtain photographs for a cover for my forthcoming book Inside Immigration Detention. When I conferred with others about which photo to select, many suggested I use images of segregation cells or the Colnbrook housing unit.

Though admittedly striking, I did not wish to use either of those photographs, since they do not reflect daily life in IRCs, where segregation is rarely used. To put a cell block on the front cover would suggest that IRCs are prisons. While many experience them as such, and notwithstanding the similarities between these institutions, they are not the same. There are many important political and intellectual reasons why we need to be mindful of their overlaps and differences.

Corridors decorated by detainees (Photo: M. Bosworth)
For a discipline like criminology, used to working in text, it takes new skills to produce and incorporate images into our analysis. On the one hand, images raise familiar questions about authenticity, accuracy and interpretation. They do not stand alone, and should always be considered in context. On the other hand, when they are taken of inherently hidden places, like custodial institutions, often that context is unclear.

Finally, we need to consider how the introduction of a camera might alter the research relationship. Before I went to Colnbrook with my camera and tripod I had anticipated that the men would be more keen to engage with me than they had been when I wandered around with just a notebook and pen. While some did eagerly approach, asking if I was from the BBC, in fact, the presence of a camera did not seem to attract many of them. Some asked explicitly that I did not photograph them, while others remained indifferent. To understand better the impact of a visual methodology, I would like to spend more time with a camera inside. I would also like to involve the men and women in producing images themselves. For now, I'm sorting through the hundreds of images we do have, considering what new perspective they shed on life in detention and the research process.

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