In the late 1990s, when I was a student of political science at the University of Turin, I visited prisons throughout Europe to create the documentary photographic project Portraits in Prisons. With my photographic work I sought to overcome the media representation of inmates and try instead to represent each of them as an individual. By involving them in the project, I hoped also to give them a voice.
Like many social science students interested in qualitative research, I was impressed by Howard Becker’s ‘classic’ publications. Digging deeper in his work I ‘discovered’ different papers that helped me connect my photographic practice with my theoretical and empirical interests. In particular, I was influenced by Exploring Society Photographically, a photographic catalogue of an exhibition held in the United States at Northwestern University. This book included the works of social scientists and artists using photography to ‘comprehend society.’ In that catalogue I found, among others, the visual quasi-ethnographic work of Bruce Jackson’s Killing Time: Life in the Arkansas Penitentiary and Good Company: A Tramp Life by Doug Harper, which introduced a new reflexive use of images in the sociological ethnographic field. These are some of the reasons why I started to think of using photography as a tool to study prisoners' perceptions of their life inside for my thesis.
Trying for the first time to obtain access as a researcher
In the end, after two other slightly less formal meetings, I heard no news for about five months until, one day, I received a fax at home from the Italian Prison Service. I had been permitted to start the research, but participant observation was not allowed (although I was allowed to take pictures and to use the pictures I had already). I was also forbidden from inviting inmates to take images using the method of photovoice. I was really upset and wondered whether or not to accept these constraints. I interpreted their prohibition as censorship and I was really tempted to leave the field without getting into it. I was not new to prisons, therefore curiosity was not an incentive for me at all. In the end, however, like others before me, I accepted to work in a constrained position.
As a consequence of this episode, I was ‘locked out’ from prison and everything had to be renegotiated. The pressure of public opinion and all the journalists waiting outside the prison wall made things difficult. I still remember the wrath and anxiety I experienced when the prison officer at the gate of the prison laughed at me when I told him I had permission to start my research and I was there, ready to begin. The officer knew my face and hilariously asked me if I had read the newspapers in recent days. I did notunderstand his comment nor why everything seemed to be so slow and complicated. Then the officer simply told me something like: all visitors must renegotiate all their access and that’s it. This renegotiation took around another seven months. When I finally entered my first time in prison as visual researcher, it was 2000 (see images: 1, 2 and 3). I was already exhausted. The lead up made it clear that formal access should not be taken for granted. Once I was inside, I learned that informal access had to be negotiated and renegotiated on a day-to-day basis with participants on the wing.
Although in criminology ‘the visual turn’ has only recently entered the academic debate, a significant literature on representations of prisons and punishment has already been published. What it is mostly missing, however, is an effective use of visual methods in ethnographic prison research. What I hope you will take away from this short testimony is threefold. First, visual methods can be a good tool to give a voice (and sometimes a face) to prisoners; whenever possible, we could start to introduce images and sounds in our ethnographies. Second, we need to avoid a naïve approach to the ‘visual turn.’ That is, we should enhance visual competence by investing some time exploring the large literatures regarding photography, film, media, and visual methods.
We need more methodologically reflexive studies on the impact of visual methods in the field: both of the visual observer effect on participants, and of the process of gaining access. In particular, we should try to understand the issue of gaining access for three different groups of actors using images: photographers, ethnographers, and visual ethnographers. Lastly, we should consider whether it makes any sense that representations of immigration detentions centres, forensic hospitals, and prisons are delegated to film directors, movie stars, photographers, and journalists. The obvious answer is no.
It is time to produce a participatory academic visual ethnography that can illuminate a whole host of custodial centres. We need to show (and not only to tell) prisoners families, colleagues, stakeholders, policy makers, and the public what these institutions are like. In so doing, we can contribute a sound and multifaceted understanding of the complexities and difficulties in which both staff and inmates interact on a daily basis.
- Becker HS (1995) Visual Sociology, Documentary Photography and Photojournalism: It’s (Almost) All a Matter of Context, Visual Sociology 10(1-2): 5-15.
- Becker HS (1974) Photography and Sociology, Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication 1: 3-26.
- Gariglio L (2010) I visual studies e gli usi sociali della fotografia, Rassegna Italiana di Sociologia 1: 117-140 (abstract in English).
- Harper DA (2012) Visual Sociology. Abingdon: Routledge.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):
Gariglio L (2014). Gaining Access to Prison: Authority, Negotiations, and Flexibility in the Field. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/gaining-access-to-prison (accessed [date]).