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Thursday, 3 March 2011

Steve Davis's Collaborative project

Steve Davis works with prisoners in the United States. One of his projects featured pinhole photography taken by the girls of Remann Hall, in Tacoma, Washington

What is your day job?

I'm the Coordinator of Photography and adjunct faculty member at the Evergreen State College, in Olympia, WA

How did you get involved in this collaborative project?

I had been working with a nonprofit group called The Experimental Gallery that brought artists into juvenile sites of incarceration.  This work came from working with incarcerated girls to construct a museum installation, which was to contain some of their photography.  It was more difficult than other similar projects, because this place was not a long term facility, so the participants changed almost weekly.

How did you gain access to the people in the project?

I was asked by the coordinator of the Experimental Gallery to both document the arts project and lead a group into their own photographic work, which were the pinhole images.  So, the girls were basically screened and selected by people other than myself.

Is there anything you could not gain access to?

Faces, for the most part.  They were off limits for this project.  This limitation had a lot to do with me wanting to give them pinhole cameras.  The long exposures and lack of detail pretty much eliminated any possibility of identification.

What were the problems with photographing this subject?

Shooting and giving cameras to the incarcerated is generally  full of problems.  Cameras are confiscated, seemingly benign subjects are off limits, things like that.  And as I mentioned, my group was a revolving door, so the mission had to be simple.

What did you hope to achieve by doing this project?

In addition to my own portraiture, I was excited about this work because the girls were not asked to "document" life behind bars.  As their camera exposures would be as high as 15 minutes, the kids had to plan, conceptualize, and essentially perform for the cameras.  It was more theatrical, emotional, and far less literal.  Previously, I worked with incarcerated boys who were given relatively decent 35mm cameras, and they created fairly literal snapshots.   The cheap pinhole cameras that the girls used freed them from the clich├ęs, I think.

Were there any assumptions you had made before the project that you realised did not apply?

I assumed I would have a tighter group to work with.  Working with a new set of kids every visit made "teaching" a different experience from what I'm used to.  Other than that, I pretty much knew what to expect, based on my previous experiences with photography and incarcerated youth.

Were there any assumptions you made before starting the project that you realised did apply?

I assumed they would be very hungry for attention, and very willing to express themselves visually.  That was certainly true.

How did you fund this project?

I didn't.  Money came from grants and museum support, through the Experimental Gallery.

What constituted success for this project?

The larger project-- the museum installation was extraordinary, but the photographs that were transferred to the wall surfaces were almost invisible.  So in that respect the photography didn't see much of an audience.  I think it was successful to the girls to create and express themselves.  Eventually, Pete Brook of Prison Photography noticed them, and I think they have since received a fairly large audience.

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