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Exhibition: Picture Justice 2015


Exhibition: Picture Justice 2015

Willhemina Wahlin

Every exhibition project that I'm working on at the moment is going towards examining whether the CHaSSMM Model I'm developing for my PhD will be effective in practice. At the moment, we (at PROOF) have been in the planning stages of this year's Picture Justice exhibition. This exhibition is the culmination of an education program, run once a year with the United Nations International School (UNIS) to teach young people about photojournalism as a tool for human rights advocacy.

This year is the second year the project has run. In 2014, the theme was human rights in New York City. "I Don't Feel Safe: Human Rights in New York City" was opened in September last year at UNIS, and contained the photographs taken by the students and their research into the most pressing issues that affect human rights in the city.

Broken: Stories from Inside the Criminal Injustice System

This year's PJ exhibition centres around the issue of mass incarceration. The content has 10 sections, as well as an introduction panel. The sections include:

"15 Days to Social Death"

Te use of solitary confinement is widespread within the criminal justice system, but what are its true effects?

"The psychological effects of solitary are devastating. Just fifteen days can have permanent psychological consequences, including chronic depression, anxiety, paranoia, and insomnia. Psychologists liken these effects to “social death" as people lose their ability to relate to others. Approximately 50% of prison suicides occur in solitary, despite the fact that prisoners in solitary comprise 8% of the United States’ prison population."

"34,000 Beds"

Immigration detention is one of the most under-represented areas of the justice system.

"Being deported is a civil proceeding, not a criminal one. But immigrants can be treated more harshly than accused criminals, while denied the basic rights ensured to a person in a criminal case. Immigrants do not have the right to a free lawyer and can be transferred between states without warning. 58% of detainees who appear in court are denied the right to representation, and the majority of those who represent themselves lose their cases."

"Bail Trap"

The bail system highlights the inequalities of the criminal justice system. An inability to make the bail payment can see the accused lose their jobs, and much more.

"Sit in jail for weeks, months or even years awaiting a trial to plead your innocence or accept a plea bargain and get out of jail? This is the dilemma faced by countless numbers of Americans who have been arrested and cannot afford to pay the bail requirements."

"Fast Track to Adulthood"

We all make mistakes in our youth, but for young offenders in New York, these mistakes can mark you for life.

“New York is one of only two states where 16 and 17-year olds are prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system. The other is North Carolina. In New York State, 30,000 youth are subjected annually to adult prosecution and to the possibility of adult incarceration and the lifelong consequences of a criminal record.”

"Guilty of Being Poor"

An inability to make bail can have devastating consequences on the lives of minor offenders, and many feel compelled to go for plea deals.

“The consequences of an inability to make bail can be devastating. Other than personal safety, there is the risk of losing a job, custody of children and public housing. Faced with all of these prospects, as well as the threat of harsh mandatory minimum sentences for minor and nonviolent offenses, tens of thousands of people accept plea deals. They plead guilty in exchange for some type of leniency. Most do so without any form of legal representation. In fact, without plea deals, the criminal justice would not be able to function. But the sad reality is that it is not guilt that leads many to accept plea deals, but poverty.”

"The New Jim Crow"

"The New Jim Crow" refers to the the Jim Crow Laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern States of the US.

"After completing the terms of their prison sentence, formerly incarcerated people are prevented from productively re-entering society. Through stigma and laws, 5.85 million formerly incarcerated Americans are denied the right to vote and experience legal discrimination in employment, housing, welfare benefits and federal aid for food and education. Upon release from prison, many find themselves jobless, homeless, and with few support systems. Many resume criminal activity and continue to cycle in and out of the criminal justice system. The result is what many refer to as the "new Jim Crow." Like Jim Crow laws and slavery before it, mass incarceration operates like a caste system. It uses the law to discriminate and stigmatize a certain group of people, defined largely by race and class, and locks them into a permanent second-class status."

"People Don't Go to Prison. Families Do."

"More families in the US are impacted by incarceration than ever before. Nationwide, 1 out of every 28 children has a parent behind bars. In New York State alone, 105,000 minors have an incarcerated mother or father. The problem is so widespread that Sesame Street, a popular children’s television program, introduced a new muppet whose father is in prison. There are currently 1.1 million incarcerated fathers and 120,000 mothers of minors. Women make up the fastest growing population in prison. Since the beginning of the War on Drugs, the number of female prisoners increased over 800%."

"Punishment or Repair?"

What are the alternatives to mass incarceration?

"Restorative justice works toward repair, not punishment. It aims to rehabilitate offenders and to reconcile and rebuild relationships between offenders, victims and communities. It asks: Who has been harmed? What needs have arisen because of the harm? And what can be done to heal? Restorative justice programs, in the forms of mediation, dialogues and talking circles, have been hugely successful in lowering the recidivism rates among juvenile offenders and offer practical alternatives to incarceration."

"War on Drugs"

The War on Drugs has had a fundamental effect on the US community, but it hasn't been in the reduction of drugs.

"Launched in the 1970s, and expanded in the following decades, the goal of the War on Drugs was to reduce illegal drug use in the US. The result has not been a reduction in drug use, but rather an explosion in the prison population. Over 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the War on Drugs began and today there are more people in prison for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980.

An overwhelming proportion of these are men of color. In fact, there are more young men of color in prisons in the US than in college. And if current trends continue, one in three black males in the US can expect to be incarcerated in his lifetime. Compare that to one in six Latino males and one in seventeen white males."


In 2014, the exhibition was produced on core flute and placed in a framing system (as seen in the photos above). This year, it will be printed on fabric (40" x 70") and hung with wire. Although I would prefer the exhibition to be hung with rods at the top and bottom (the bottom to weight it down), it has been a bit difficult to pin down exact production specs from the production company and the curator. However, I really do think this is one of those areas where this research can help - I need to find ways to ensure other team members see the importance of these decisions, and what they depend upon: what we go ahead with needs to be practical, can actually be produced, and function well. I'm feeling a little uneasy about the exhibition being hung by wire and grommet holes, and without being weighted on the bottom, and really think that this kind of detail needs to be discussed thoroughly between the curator, the production contact and designer before any design work begins.

This of one of the downfalls of not being in the same country as the rest of the exhibition team. It's not a deal breaker, but I am about 99% sure that this issue will come to a head when all of the final design files go to the printer!

Design Ideas

There are some things that the curator and I have already discussed in terms of what NOT to include in the design - barbed wire being number 1.

However, the rest is pretty much open-ended, so I've been thinking about what to include. There is a LOT more text to include in this exhibition, so I will have to see what happens with the text layout, but what I have been thinking of is including a series of vector-based graphics of birds in the bright orange that inmates are forced to wear within the prison system. I'll gather some of these, create a colour swatch and also do some preliminary investigations of artifacts used by the system to document people.

Although this exhibition will not be included within the exegesis of my PhD, I am already finding it a really useful testing ground for aspects of the design stages. What i have noticed is that by framing the project within the CHaSSMM Method, it has provided my an avenue for thinking about the project in a certain way: it has encouraged me to take a step back from the design in order to first take in all of the content - the issues, the images of the people, and the overall goals of the exhibition. What's starling to me are the issues that ordinary people face when dealing with this system. In Australia, we have similar problems with mandatory sentencing laws, the high incarceration rate of Indigenous Australians, the inequality of the system in terms of the wealthy and the poor, and the detention of assylum seekers.

This is an exhibition that could be a really useful model for bringing to Australia and adapting it to our own social justice issues around incarceration.