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From the Field

Photographing Prison

The photographs presented here were taken by Andrea Eichenberger at the former men’s and women’s prison in Beauvais, in northern France, during its final year of operation and after its closure. Located in the heart of the city, the prison was originally run by the local bishopric under the Ancien Régime. It was briefly transformed into a hospital between 1813 and 1819, before becoming a prison départementale (county prison) in 1858. It closed in 2015, replaced by a new prison on the outskirts of the city.

The photographs presented here are the result of a project [1] initiated by Isabelle Marseille, a psychologist with the French National Association for Prevention in Alcohol and Addiction Treatment (Association Nationale de Prévention en Alcoologie et Addictologie, ANPAA), who has been working with inmates in Beauvais for more than 10 years. The aim of the project was to leave a trace of the life experiences of inmates and the work experiences of staff, beyond the closure of the site. The initial objective was to produce a series of portraits of this varied group of users of the site; however, as quickly becomes evident when looking at the photographs, no faces appear in these pictures. A ban on photographing inmates’ faces was imposed by the local prison administration, despite the agreement of the individuals concerned. This constraint in itself testifies to the multiple privations contained within a contemporary prison sentence, which is no longer limited solely to the deprivation of liberty.

Showing the lived spaces of prison

This series of photographs shows and is sensitive to the relationship to time and space, which plays a key role in forging the experience of prison. The aim is not to strive for an exhaustive description of places, things, and living conditions, but rather to constitute an object that is able to stand in its own right. The approach adopted is not didactic, but deliberately minimalist: there are no captions to guide the reader or explain what he or she should see or perceive. This economy of information seeks to place the emphasis on atmospheres and sensations. These images allow us to perceive aspects of the experience and materiality of prison that differ from, and in some respects complement, the accounts offered by the social sciences.

Photographic approach and relationship to subjects photographed

Inspired by the approach developed by the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University, which “encourages attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with words,” [2] these photos therefore cannot simply be considered a documentary work, in the classical sense of the term.

While this project does indeed involve participating in the constitution of a memory (and thus falls within the documentary genre), the intention is to question both the carceral condition and the production of images itself. This approach echoes that described by Philippe Bazin, in an article devoted to photographs of migrants. [3] For Bazin, questions of meaning must take precedence over questions of form. Instead of trying to answer the question of how to photograph, he first and foremost invites us to ask why we photograph and what the purpose of photography is. It is probably a good idea to ask the same kinds of questions when a photographic project focuses on inmates and the carceral condition. Do these images make sense to the people photographed? What might these pictures do for them? It is a question of trying to show with the people concerned what the reality of prison is like, and not simply to show places and the reification of their inhabitants that they tend to produce. This implies blurring if not boundaries then at least some of the certainties regarding the photographer’s authority.

About the selection of photographs presented here

Every one of the photographs taken explores the presence of people in places, even when their bodies are absent: the walls and the handwritten height scale, inmates and staff (without faces), places of incarceration and places of work. Everything is deliberately intertwined. The absence of captions invites readers to work out where they are for themselves. Sometimes this is obvious; sometimes attention must be paid to small details in order to deduce the location.

The images chosen—selected by the photographer and the coordinators of the series of articles in French (on Métropolitiques) on prison architecture and the meaning of punishment—aim to reflect the diversity of the corpus compiled. We see inhabited spaces, empty spaces, work spaces, bodies in space, appropriations of space, and even potential means of escape. There are also staged scenes of the prison experience, where the people photographed, inspired by everyday poses and gestures, participate in the choice of the framing of the reality they wish to show. The ban on showing faces becomes one of the rules of a game which, in the words of the people photographed, brings them a sense of escape from these places of imprisonment. The staging itself ultimately results in images “where the artificial presence of bodies constantly evokes the impossibility of fitting into such places.” [4]

Avenues to be explored

While these photographs have an intrinsic artistic and expressive value, they are of interest to us here for the issues they raise from a sociological standpoint, some of which we shall discuss here. First, the very conditions in which the photographs were taken tell us a number of things: access to inmates’ quarters and the ability to talk with inmates themselves were “freer” in the women’s section of the prison: it was possible to move around without being followed by an officer, and to enter cells and talk to their occupants without being subjected to the scrutiny of warders. This flexible approach adopted in the women’s section, which may also be due to its small size, was not replicated in the men’s section. This suggests that gendered representations of inmates’ personalities (and/or dangerousness) condition not only incarceration rates but also inmates’ experience of prison—with important differences in the margins of freedom granted to different groups.

Another question raised by these photographs concerns the materiality of the prison system and characteristics specific to prison spaces. The spatial configuration of penal institutions influences living and working conditions and the relationships that can develop there. These photographs of Beauvais prison, for example, reflect the realities of “old prisons” in France, which are often decried for their insalubrity but where conditions are also often described—by inmates and staff alike—as more “humane” than in new prisons. This is undoubtedly one of the paradoxes of prison renovation: respect for prisoners’ rights and the improvement of prison conditions are very often considered exclusively in terms of the issue of “comfort” during incarceration.

Finally, the photographs reflect the place of inmates and prisons within our local and national territories: the distancing of prisons from city centers and the “banishment” of new prisons from urban areas mark the gradual disappearance of prisons’ roles as places of public punishment. Today, within prisons’ walls, we can also observe forms of material euphemization of the afflictive dimension of punishment: the sanitized images that show new prisons evoke a growing desire on the part of prison authorities to erase anything that might remind us that prisons are places of coercion and restraint. From this perspective, the photographs also represent a tool to fight against the growing invisibility of inmates and their living conditions. They help to call into question the meaning of a prison sentence and of the institution of prison itself.

All photos © Andrea Eichenberger.

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To cite this article:

Andrea Eichenberger & Carole Gayet-Viaud & Valérie Icard & translated by Oliver Waine, “Photographing Prison”, Metropolitics, 2 October 2020. URL :

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Journal supported by the Institut des Sciences Humaines et Sociales (Institute of Human and Social Sciences) of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)