In collaboration with a British prison, this series of photographs explores the impact of imprisonment on inmates and raises questions about stigmatisation and mainstream representations. The work interprets ideas of confinement by considering the longing for freedom in the absence of small, everyday choices.
I was sitting in the library. For a place that doesn’t usually attract many people, it was exceptionally busy. Women in blue and green work uniforms were smiling, some chatting away, some peacefully reading newspapers. If I had been blindfolded on the way in, I wouldn’t have noticed the difference between this library and a regular one. But this was a prison library.
Last year I read about a project by the Polish photographer Zuza Krajewska entitled Imago. She photographed minor offenders in a juvenile institution in Poland and one comment stood out for me. While she was there, she wouldn’t drink anything she hadn’t seen being made. This vision of prison as an uncertain and dangerous place stayed with me. As time passed, I became more and more interested in seeing for myself what it was actually like. A year later I began researching British prisons and the possibility of gaining access to the prisoners themselves. After many false starts, I eventually received permission from a prison in the South of England.
On the morning of that first meeting - as I was walking towards the institution - I looked for clues that a prison was nearby. City life carried on as normal and the only hint I could find were road signs pointing me towards the prison. While passing a park, I came to a large, recently renovated building surrounded by a high fence.
I visited the women’s wing first. One of the residents, Emma, approached me first (although this isn’t her real name to protect her identity). She was in her early 30s and had been told in advance of my visit. She had done her make-up and hair. Her skin looked fresh. Only her wrinkled hands hinted at her age. This was my first time in a prison. I asked simple questions thinking I’d be able to predict the answer: What things, situations and people do you miss most? Without hesitation Emma mentioned technology - especially her iPhone - which she had used prior to being imprisoned, to generate mood boards.
These gave her ideas for makeup, clothing and hairstyles. She would then recreate the different styles on herself the next day. She said using social media platforms (in Emma’s case mostly Instagram) improved her sense of connection with the online and real world. She would frequently share beautiful photographs of herself and her family taken during a holiday abroad or simply drinking a glass of wine in a local beer garden.
Her family - husband, son and two daughters - visit Emma every week. During the visits she is required to sit specifically on a red chair while her family rests on blue ones. She can touch her husband and children but she is not allowed to leave the chair. Once a month during a family day she is allowed to leave the chair to play with her children. These visits are keenly awaited.
Emma described prison food as quite limited. If she didn’t feel like a particular menu option she would
go hungry, unlike the days of frequent restaurant visits on the outside, when she would eat whatever she wanted. These simple choices, or “small freedoms” as Emma put it, was something she was looking forward to on release. It seemed to me when she spoke about freedom that she was constantly evaluating her position and her understanding of what freedom meant. Emma told me to have a glass of wine when I got home as these small choices are forms of freedom to be valued.
While observing female prisoners in the library I noticed it was more of a social meeting; they seemed familiar with each other. I wasn’t looking for private details like the length of their prison sentences. For me, it was enough to know that they had broken the law in different ways. Strangely, or maybe not, if you met Emma on the street and spoke to her, you’d never know. Emma is just like you and me. A glass of wine in a pub or browsing through Instagram seem pretty ordinary for people who have never been imprisoned. These small everyday choices are what matter after freedom is taken away.