This article was published in issue #7889 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.
Edgar Martins set himself a challenge when he embarked on the project that would culminate in his two-book publication, What Photography and Incarceration Have in Common With an Empty Vase. Feeling that photography often sensationalises prisons and the lives of inmates, he vowed to tackle the subject differently.
His approach was twofold: to befriend a few inmates, and to take photographs outside the walls of the prison. He also appropriated newspaper imagery and used visual representations of violence and absence to allude to the condition of inmates, their feelings of emptiness, and relationships with their families. As the project developed, another stream of thought occurred – that of publishing one inmate’s diaries as a memoir, some pages overlaid with images, in order to provide a counterpoint to the photography book.
“All the imagery that we associate with prisons works to legitimise a certain idea that we have about incarceration,” Martins declares. “So I thought, ‘How do I overcome this?’ I thought it would be important for me to retain a connection with the inmates. Because my project is not necessarily about the problems that prisons face, but about how people in them deal with being inside, and how people outside deal with their loved ones being inside.”
Martins’ humanistic endeavour empathises with the separation between the prisoners and their families, and the emotional impact of incarceration. Although it steers clear of identifying the prison photographically, Martins informs that his project focused on HMP Birmingham. Also known as Winson Green, it was managed by the private security firm G4S from 2011 to August 2018, until it lost its contract permanently earlier this year.
The project could be interpreted as a critique on the privatisation of British prisons, but there was a practical reason for Martins choosing this jail. Given that the book was commissioned by Grain Projects, an arts organisation supported by Arts Council England and Birmingham City University, the work had to be produced in a prison in the Midlands.
“I decided to fictionalise these images so that you as the viewer aren’t necessarily sure whether you’re looking at someone who is beaten up or not”
The decision to treat the subject of incarceration in a non-direct, multilayered and metaphorical manner segues from Martins’ book, Soliloquies and Soliloquies on Death, Life and Other Interludes, which was produced following research carried out at the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences in Portugal.
Through images pertaining to forensic evidence, such as suicide letters and objects crucial to the work of pathologists, it explored the tension between revelation and concealment. Both projects deal with the ethical implications of representing and divulging sensitive material and how aesthetics can serve to obfuscate in order to protect identities. They are a departure from Martins’ earlier work – such as The Rehearsal of Space and the Poetic Impossibility to Manage the Infinite, shot at the European Space Agency, and 00:00.00, photographed at a BMW plant – which are more directly descriptive.
While directors at the ESA and BMW assisted Martins in his photographic quests, the photographer experienced a trickier time at HMP Birmingham. “The prison was very dysfunctional and had four different directors in the three years that I was working on the project,” he laments. “Unlike in previous projects, where I had a green light from the board of directors, it was difficult to get the project going through the governors. So I befriended the family liaison officers to find out which inmates might be interested in the project and might benefit from being involved in it.”
HMP Birmingham is primarily a remand prison holding inmates awaiting trial and sentencing. It also holds inmates serving sentences of 15 to 20 years, but not lifers. As Martins intended to pursue his project over a few years, he asked to be introduced to some prisoners who would be handed longer sentences.
In order to better understand their daily lives, he asked some of them to keep a diary – a decision that became instrumental in shaping the project. While a few were dyslexic and struggled with the writing or quickly lost interest, one inmate – a convicted drug trafficker who turned 50 behind bars – remained committed to the task. “He would give me diaries every two or three months, so I ended up collecting a few,” Martins says. As the man’s diaries revealed a capacity to express himself eloquently, Martins eventually asked him if he could publish them as a memoir. “Initially, I didn’t have an idea of reproducing them; I just thought that I’d read them and tell the story photographically,” Martins says. “It was only at the end that I decided that I needed to incorporate the writing itself.”
Titled What Incarceration Has in Common With an Empty Vase, the memoir is published in the form of a facsimile. Reproducing passages from the man’s earlier diaries and his last one, all written in cheap, lined notebooks, it opens with the inmate telling how his sentencing has been delayed and ends with him worrying about people forgetting about him. Martins left out the diaries in between, feeling they had been written too self-consciously. In order to protect the prisoner’s identity and that of his family, Martins asked him to cross out any identifying words in an act of self-censorship.
What emerges from the compelling, sometimes humorous extracts are the man’s concerns about how his situation is affecting his relationship with his two children and how much he misses them. We read about his anxiety for the future; his boredom and despondency behind bars, interspersed with moments of camaraderie; his frustration at having possessions confiscated under the Proceeds of Crime Act; his training with the Samaritans to be a listener; and reflections on other people’s self-harming. The journal informs how Martins once visited at the same time as the man’s daughter and son during a ‘family visit’, and once during a ‘legal visit’, normally reserved for prisoners’ meetings with their lawyers.
Beyond merely reproducing the passages, Martins has intervened artistically. He has superposed black-and-white photographs over some of the pages, especially the blank pages from days when the inmate felt unable to address his emotions verbally. The desolate landscapes, a powerless figure on a cliff attempting to push a boulder, a captive snake held by a man, and a bird feeding a chick all relate allegorically to the prisoner’s state of mind and his metaphorical use of language. A forlorn portrait of a man with downcast eyes, his hand over his mouth, appears repeatedly. Martins would discuss his ideas of which photographs to use with the inmate, who harboured an interest in photography; to Martins’ surprise, in his cell he even had a photography book which included some of Martins’ work.
The other book, What Photography Has in Common With an Empty Vase, continues in this allusive, referential and symbolic vein. It opens with a business card of an absent father that leads onto pictures of a bullfight, terraced streets of boarded-up houses, adverts of estate agents and criminal barristers, and a diversity of appropriated, painted archive imagery and original photography. Photographs of pencils with words on them, and of cigarette packets with messages over-layering the health warnings refer to how one prisoner sought to communicate with other inmates during his solitary confinement.
As in the first book, Martins has employed what he calls ‘surrogacy’: images that serve to stand in for the issues he wants to represent. Photographs of animals are frequently used as stand-ins for human beings. Two great egrets fighting are an example of violence; a lion walking on tightropes is an expression of captivity. Similarly, two safety pins – one of which is bent – denote how someone has been derailed in life. We see figures hanging from trees that suggest the desperation of suicide. Some photos are meant to convey the emotions felt by prisoners’ families, such as an archive image of a woman howling on her doorstep.
Meanwhile, images of solitary figures standing outside the prison’s walls capture the difficulty of dealing with a loved one’s incarceration and the notion of insuperable barriers. Some images are obviously staged, such as a clothes peg on a woman’s nose that alludes to mental health problems and self-harming as a coping mechanism. Portraits of children and young people with bloody noses and bruising on their faces seem performative and to reconstruct the after-effects of a fight. “I decided to fictionalise these images so that you as the viewer aren’t necessarily sure whether you’re looking at someone who is beaten up or not,” Martins explains. Indeed, these portraits are of prisoners’ families and of people who work in charities and community groups, yet Martins has deliberately made them ambiguous out of respect for people’s privacy or vulnerability.
“One of the things I’ve been interested in is trying to enable fictional and newer approaches to respond to the complex issues of war, incarceration, photographic ethics, bereavement, trauma and missing persons,” Martins says about the direction that his photographic work has been taking. “I’ve been trying to take photography theory away from its relationship to the real. It’s only by introducing these meta- narratives or meta-representational devices to documentary practice that we can consider a new form of visuality.” Occupying an interstitial realm of factual and fictional images, documentation and imagination, Martins’ latest project sees him subverting and reconfiguring visual methodology with sensitivity and intellect.
What Photography and Incarceration Have in Common With an Empty Vase is published by The Moth House. An exhibition of the work will be on show at Galeria Filomena Soares, Lisbon, from 14 November to 14 January. Further exhibitions are planned in San Francisco, Macau and Geneva.