What do photography and incarceration have in common with an empty vase?

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© Photo: Edgar Martins.

Currently on show at Belfast Photo Festival, Edgar Martins’ Portrait of Humanity 2021 winning series uses the context of a prison to explore the philosophical concept of absence, and the troubling impacts of state-enforced separation

In rhetoric, a ‘catachresis’ is a type of metaphor whereby a term is borrowed from another semantic field. Not as a poetic choice, per se, but because the ‘correct’ term doesn’t exist. For instance, when we refer to the ‘arm’ of a chair, or the ‘leg’ of a table, we’re appropriating the language of human physiology to describe a part of an inanimate object that has no other name. “It’s a trope that simultaneously registers language’s ability to adapt when under pressure,” remarks Portuguese artist Edgar Martins, “but also language’s own inadequacy. I feel the same way about the role of photography in [prison] environments. It’s just unable to respond to them adequately”.

What Photography & Incarceration Have in Common with an Empty Vase – a multifaceted body of work commissioned by GRAIN Projects, currently on show at Belfast Photo Festival as part of Portrait of Humanity 2021 – is less about prison than it is about representations of prisoners. At first glance, the images evade easy comprehension: a monochrome forest beneath a sky blue overlay; a pencil with “let it go” carved into its side; a young girl seemingly poised to consume a budgie with her mouth. But further study reveals they hint at covert narratives: intimately human anecdotes of separation, isolation, and loss, as gathered by the artist over several years of collaborating with HMP Birmingham, its inmates, and their families. 

© Edgar Martins.

“My intention from the start was to address prison as a set of social relations, rather than think about it as this rigid space,” Martins explains. “And in doing so, kind of rethinking, or even countering, the sort of imagery that we normally associate with incarceration — which, as we all know, revolves around themes of violence, drugs, criminality, race, and so on.” 

HMP Birmingham was managed by the private security firm G4S between 2011 and 2018, until its contract was permanently terminated after inspectors found the premises’ “appalling state” to be the “worst [they’d] come across.” Shooting between 2017 and 2020 (a chaotic period which saw the turnover of four different prison directors), Martins made regular visits to the prison, building relationships with inmates and their loved ones on ‘family days’ — but none of the images were taken inside its walls. Neither are we told where or when they were shot; who or what is depicted, or how they pertain to the prisoners’ lives. 

This choice was made in large part to counter the typical role of documentary-style storytelling in such contexts. The artist has often criticised the potential to misrepresent, exploit, or sensationalise the image of prisoners; meanwhile the crippling consequences of incarceration on inmates, and the trauma of their families, are issues that seldom see the light. Since “[traditional documentary] images alone can’t communicate the complexity of what it is to experience incarceration,” Martins’ mission became one of engaging in conversations about prison using a different kind of visual vocabulary: “photography as catachresis.” 

© Edgar Martins.

“Is showing something that is not showing, or not showing in its entirety, showing anything at all?”

The image of the forest is, in fact, a homage to an inmate who had his family smuggle in yellow and blue felt-tip pens over the course of a year, so that he could colour in his window to remind him of a sunny day. The pencil inscribed with “let it go” recalls the story of another prisoner who would communicate with fellow inmates by displaying messages on stationary and asking a guard to pass it along. The girl with the bird is a product of Martins sitting in on a psychoanalytic session with one inmate’s daughter; in the session, she was told her recurring dreams about eating birds represented her attempts to mentally reconstruct her father’s presence in his absence.

“From a conceptual or ontological perspective, I was really intrigued by questions like, is showing something that is not showing, or not showing in its entirety, showing anything at all?” he muses. “Photography, for so long, has been defined by a relationship with a subject that it purports to represent — so what does it mean for an image if it doesn’t identify with its subject, but instead its absence?”

© Edgar Martins.

While Martins never conceived of the series as a straightforward critique of the prison system, it inevitably reads as one. For all the project’s philosophical musings, it is, in equal part, a profoundly unsettling portrait of the impacts of state-enforced separation; the invisibility we impose on those convicted in the name of ‘moral good’, and the pain wrought on their families in the process.

“[The criminal justice system] doesn’t work for offenders. It certainly doesn’t work for families. It doesn’t work for rehabilitation. And I’m not convinced that it works for society at large,” Martins says, resolutely. “If we all had the experience that I’ve had – if a lot of politicians had the experience that I’ve had – I think we would all see prison and incarceration as an issue that demands urgent reform.”

What Photography & Incarceration Have in Common with an Empty Vase is on show at Belfast Photo Festival until 30 June as part of the Portrait of Humanity 2021 exhibition in Belfast’s Royal Botanic Gardens


© Edgar Martins.
© Edgar Martins.
Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.