If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be in jail, then a new exhibition of photographs by inmates at Wandsworth Prison might give you an inkling.
Part of a temporary exhibition at Wandsworth Museum to celebrate the prison's 160th anniversary, the collection came about after a group of photographers got together to convince the governor to let them teach photography to prisoners as a means of creative expression and documentation.
Inspired by the story of Judith Ward who wrongly spent 18 years behind bars and afterwards gave vivid descriptions of prison conditions and the boredom those under lock and key endure, professional photographer Jason Shenai approached the prison service in 1992.
Shenai advertised in Image, the journal of the Association of Photographers, for another photographer to share the project. He was overwhelmed by the interest and was soon joined by Jaap Oepkes, Derrick Santini and Marc Schlossman, and later Adri Berger, Mark McEvoy and Jagtar Semplay.
In May 1993 they went into Wandsworth to interview prisoners and chose eight students. The photographers decided not to concern themselves with the crimes committed by the inmates and adopted a non-discriminatory attitude in order establish mutual trust.
As they worked with the students it became natural for some of them to talk about what they had done, about whether prison was an effective punishment and how they were coping with things in general.
Every Monday two photographers went into the prison and spent the whole day with the inmates. The first couple of hours would be a seminar session where they would study and discuss the work of a well-known photographer or a topic within photography such as Surrealism.
They would split into two groups, one would go 'on location' ie on the wing or when permission was granted into the exercise yard or into one of the workshops. Then they would swap and the ones that were on location would go into the dark room and vice versa. In May 1994, 83 photographs were shown at the Photographers Gallery in London for a period of three weeks.
The very same images are on show once again this week as part of a wider exhibition which gives insight into the harsh corrective measures used on prisoners in the Twentieth Century. Ghoulish items on display include a hangman’s noose and an execution box which dates from the 1920s and contained ropes, straps, a measuring rod, chalk, copper wire and a cap.
The display also offers insight into the lives of famous inmates such as Oscar Wilde and Ronnie Biggs and includes paintings and drawings by prisoners.
Jason Shenai and Marc Schlossman will be giving a talk about their experience and the Inside Eye project at the museum on Thursday 22 September.
Separation and Silence: Wandsworth Prison is at the Wandsworth Museum from 16 September until 31 December 2011, www. wandsworthmuseum.co.ukReuse content