Ethical Portraits: In Search of Representational Justice

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A new publication explores issues surrounding the portrayal of incarcerated individuals in the United States’ justice system

“Prisons systematically dehumanise the imprisoned,” writes Hatty Nestor in her new book Ethical Portraits – In Search of Representational Justice. The publication explores how the incarcerated in the United States’ justice system are portrayed. Through a series of interviews and creative nonfiction, which cover mugshots, surveillance recording, court sketches, DNA profiling, and the media depictions of the likes of Chelsea Manning, Nestor deconstructs the different roles of prison portraiture and the invisible forms of power in the American prison system.

Here, Laura Havlin speaks to Nestor about the search for justice in both portraits and other representations of the incarcerated.

Hatty Nestor © Sophie Davidson.
Laura Havlin

Laura Havlin: The book’s title explains that this is a search for ‘representational justice’. What are the main ways you have found that the representation of prisoners dehumanises them? 

Hatty Nestor: The degree to which prisons both conceal and misrepresent the individuals they detain is, of course, ethically and politically complex and bound to a carceral history of subordination. For instance, since their conception shortly after the invention of photography in 1840, mugshots became a form of representation employed solely for identification purposes within the legal system. This form of portrait-making––which was standardised in 1888 by the French police officer Alphonse Bertillon–– strips prisoners of their individuality. It is inherently dehumanising because the subjects of mugshots have their representational liberty removed. The widespread distribution of mugshots in the media perpetuates the racial bias of attributing certain groups to criminal behaviour. This public circulation of mugshots generates a punitive representation of shaming and arrest.

The process of dehumanisation extends beyond the confinement of prisons to all sectors of the criminal justice system, too. In today’s media, mugshots usually appear in reference to prisoners who might have been incarcerated for sensationalised crimes or a prison scandal. Similarly, drawn and painted portraits — from trial through to incarceration — CCTV footage, courtroom sketches and criminal e-fits, all suspend the subject’s agency. All these forms of identification are inhumane as they purposefully dehumanise the images’ subjects by stripping them of all personality, individuality and agency.

LH: The incarcerated population is often described as ‘invisible’, with a lack of interaction with the outside. Who are the mediators responsible for constructing the images of incarcerated individuals? 

HN: Representation is fraught with ethical quandaries and injustices; it is not always liberatory in and of itself. And the same goes for complete invisibility. Invisibility also ties into prison architecture and location. Prisons often sit outside of towns, in unpopulated areas, which reinforces the rhetoric of ‘out of sight out of mind’. 

Several photographers have captured prisoners through photojournalism. Carl de Keyzer photographed the gulags and prison camps in Zona: Siberian Prison Camps (2000-2002). And Mikhael Subotzky’s series Die Vier Hoeke: The Four Corners  (2004-2006) captured the conditions of South African Prisons. Both photographers portrayed inhumane realities that might have otherwise remained unseen. 

The project Captured, which I explore in chapter four, utilises the artistic abilities of prisoners to draw ‘who should be in their place’. The portraits also include Garrett Rushing, CEO of Citigroup, and were commissioned to make a political commentary on the invisibility of prisoners and how the US justice system prosecutes people in society for the most minimal transgressions. What is interesting about Captured is that the mediators are the inmates. Therefore, the prisoners gain some visibility through the portraits they produce. However, the images further compound an over-representation of privileged individuals who are not held accountable, all of who already have widespread representation.

James Brown, United Stated Penitentiary. Marion, Illinois. Courtesy of Alyse Emdur.
Lynette Newson, Correctional Institute for Women. Corona, California. Courtesy of Alyse Emdur

LH: You write that this lack of interaction “minimises the possibility for empathetic encounters with those who are most marginalised”. In what ways can more equitable and empathetic depictions be fostered? 

HN: Empathy, and its relationship to sympathy and ethics, were things I often considered while writing Ethical Portraits. The question of ethics is intrinsic to depicting or representing others, just as the power relations between the sitter and the artist steep the history of portraiture. 

I found one quote in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams (2004) particularly useful in thinking about these issues. She writes, “empathy isn’t just something that happens to us––a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain––it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves”. Jamison proposes that we have a choice about whom and what we feel empathy for. By extension, the images produced of prisons and inmates were made out of choice. And how they are produced, framed, and disseminated all influence a broader societal perception of incarceration. 

In terms of the portraits I engage with, in Ethical Portraits, it often wasn’t the images themselves that could foster empathy or function equitably, but the context of their production and intentionality. I was also implicated in this, and I considered how I could present the interviews I conducted as a form of portrait-making. When considering this question of intent, I always returned to Susan Sontag’s philosophy of photography, particularly her observation: “to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” There is a cautionary lesson here: it is almost impossible to foster empathy with a person reduced to an object. Empathetic or equitable portraiture is only possible when the photographer intends to humanise, not objectify, the subject.

LH: After listening to This American Life Lock-Up series, where you heard a prisoner describing the lack of variety they’re exposed to, you write: “What struck me most about his comments was how starkly prison-industrial complexes violate the agency of those they detain, limiting prisoners’ ability to connect with each other and the outside world, and most of all, denying any assertion of individual identity.” In what ways can more representational justice help to give incarcerated people back some autonomy over their identity? 

HN: The limitations of visibility discussed in the show resonated with the research I was undertaking about the Chelsea Manning case. While in solitary confinement, Manning’s support network commissioned the illustrator Alicia Neal to draw an alternative portrait of her––as the media had continued using her military photograph. Here, a representational justice was achieved because the media could instead circulate an image aligned to Manning’s gender identity. The alternative portrait was necessary due to a misrepresentation, not an absence of imagery.

Yet with Alyse Emdur’s project Prison Landscapes – the subject of chapter five [and images from which also feature above]––the opposite is true. The project brings together 100 photographs collected between 2005 and 2013 of inmates standing in front of painted backdrops in prison visitation rooms. Vivid colours are often used to create each landscape, and they are utopian in composition and tone, offering an alternative to the architectural and psychic constraints of prison. The circulation of these images is often intimate: most are sent to the detainee’s loved ones––to supplement or override, the only other image of them produced while in prison. The landscapes thereby stand against a lack of visibility. But also resist the participants being coded only as inmates — so the pursuit of representational justice, and a sense of autonomy, in opposition to an institutionalised portrait that offers no alternative representation.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Chelsea E. Manning, Probably Chelsea. 2017. Genetic materials, custom software, 3D prints; 30 portraits, each portrait 8 x 6 x 8 inches, overall dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artists and Fridman Gallery.

LH: How is this intensified with transgender prisoners being able to assert their identities? You have a section in your book on Chelsea Manning, where this is explored in relation to a particularly famous example. Could you talk about your exploration of Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s project with Chelsea Manning, and perhaps how the issues explored extend to more marginalised and ‘invisible’ people?

HN: Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s work with Manning — the artworks Probably Chelsea (2017) [above] and Radical Love (2015) [below] — are compelling for two reasons relating to gender representation. Firstly, they both allowed Manning to assert her identity as a trans woman and as an artistic expression of gender oppression societally. Manning’s DNA was sent to Dewey-Hagborg from within prison (via cheek swabs and hair), from which Dewey-Hagborg algorithmically generated 30 gender-neutral portraits. Dewey-Hagborg subverted this technology to re-orientate Manning’s identity and demonstrated that these forms of identification are both an invasion of privacy while demonstrating that law enforcement abides by a strict outdated gender binary. 

In Chelsea Manning’s case, the subject of chapter one, her initial representation while incarcerated was her military photograph. What Chelsea Manning’s case communicates, beyond the political implications of whistleblowing, is that the treatment of trans inmates is bound to the dehumanising violence of the state and deeply entrenched in this system. This is where the pursuit of prison abolition is necessary to dismantle state violence within incarceration. Transgender activist Reina Gossett speaks widely about the prerequisite for prison abolition when she says, “without prisons, nobody would be disposable in the series.” The Cece McDonald case also demonstrates how Black, transgender women are prosecuted for acts that are self-defence for hate crimes and how the police state is discriminatory and prejudiced. Wider society already compounds the ability to assert transgender identity, and so prison––an institution where selfhood is stiped––only exaggerates this. 

Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Radical Love. 2016. Genetic materials, custom software, 3D prints, documentation; each portrait 8 x 6 x 6 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Fridman Gallery.

Ethical Portraits is available to purchase here

Laura Havlin

Laura Havlin is a writer and editor specialising in visual culture. She is Head of Content at D&AD and previously was Senior Digital Editor at Magnum Photos.