THE FACE IS A PASSPORT
Essay by Gemma Goodale-Sussen
In one of her sporadically repeated and perennially ignored cultural admonishments, Susan Sontag warned photographers and their audiences against "the urge to appropriate an alien reality." Sontag worried about photography's potential to reinforce an aesthetic tourism as a by-product of its consumption. We consume images, and especially photographs, indiscriminately, more so now than ever. Ours is not necessarily a mindless consumption—we often look at pictures with the express purpose of arousing social conscience or learning more about zones of the world we can't personally experience. Photos have an incredible capacity to inspire compassion and concern, even in those not generally concerned or compassionate, even about lives and experiences utterly unlike our own. We collect experiences through photographs. We feel for “them.”
But Sontag warns us against collecting others’ realities. And that's hard for us; it feels good to care about other people. Photographers make it easy to mentally substitute viewing another for knowing another, through a simple strategy: they show us their faces. Let’s call it a sort of facial metonymy, a shorthand in our minds that tells us the look of sadness on a sharecropper mother’s face cracks open the world of her pain, a world we can now understand. We have this facile belief that what the face does, as the operative currency of (many kinds of) photography, is to “humanize” an other, to give access to a person separated from us by time, geography, experience, suffering. But in the case of many photographs whose subjects suffer, the face offers a false familiarity, an illegitimate passport into that alien reality. We trust our guts too much, too easily. We refuse to believe in alterity, in an experience viewed but not understood. On the emotional tourism of the photographic journey, we can own anything we can look at, including the experience of another person.
That Zora J Murff’s Corrections eschews the usual face of portraiture indicates on one level an entrée into this conversation surrounding visual representation and appropriation. But it also reveals elements of photography’s history, and specifically the use of photography as a tool in the criminal justice system. The relationship between photography and prisoners has always been one of appropriation, accumulation, collection, ordering, perusal. Beginning with rogues’ galleries and the Bertillon system right up to today’s inmates’ constantly clipped-on ID badges, the founding premise of prisoner photography is that to view a criminal is to know him, and to photograph him is to own him. His face becomes a mask merely soldered onto his crime.
Another notable cultural admonisher, Michel Foucault, adroitly observed that the tides of justice since the Middle Ages have been moving more and more toward punishing the criminal rather than the crime. In other words, the culture of punishment (or “correction,” to use our more occlusive twentieth-century term) treats the crime not as an act committed but as a manifestation of who that person is. The flattening of crime, criminal, and face had a heyday in the works of Alphonse Bertillon and Cesare Lombroso, criminologists whose philosophies of criminal anthropometry and facial analysis engendered a manic thrust toward documentation of criminals’ faces and bodies, as well as the frenzied search for the “criminal type.” Though these turn-of-the-century intellectual fads faded, the culture continues to obsessively “read” the faces of criminals. Think of the recent hubbub surrounding the mugshot of Jeremy Meeks a.k.a. “Prison Bae,” or the tragicomic parade of portraits on the nightly news. It’s as though we are constantly searching for a way to tie a person inextricably to their crime, through a photograph.
Awareness of and resistance to such narrative shortcuts permeate Corrections. The most striking collective feature of these photographs is the lack of faces—an imagistic trope as much as a legal requirement when photographing juveniles in the system. But the hiding of faces in this work transcends legal strictures and enmeshes itself in the creation of the images. At times, as in “Wendy at 14 and Sheila at 15”—with the inward commas of the girls’ bodies and the intimate or even secretive embrace—the images convey an intentionality in such hiding. There is a strength here, a sense of withholding one’s face rather than hiding it. “Earl at 15 (1:30pm Visit)” resonates with the girls’ curved-in portrait as well; his face obscured by a family member, “Earl” underscores the bonds that invite understanding and pointedly reserves the face for these familiars.
The most direct confrontation of photography’s purchase on the disciplinary subject comes in the sequence of “off paper” portraits, such as “Dillon at 18.” In these shots, we view the subject from behind, the possibility of facial reading replaced by a blank cranium or a mane of hair. These portraits depict juvenile subjects who have completed the correctional requirements set upon them and are no longer monitored by the system. Faces allow identification in multiple senses of the word: the photograph is how correctional officials will identify the criminal, and the photograph is how the viewer will identify with the criminal. These portraits offer no easy identification. They take back ownership of the face.
While the pointed and meaningful (lack of) faces in many of the portraits hint at collaboration between photographer and subject, conveying meaning through the act of obfuscation, the series also stokes anxieties about disciplinary surveillance. The sequence that uses fogged-over mugshots, primarily of “reoffenders,” tickles the urge to read and enter the face/life of the subject, frustrating a desire to name this person as “criminal.” This identity profile is reinforced in installation by the matrix of six uniformly presented portraits, revealing the institutional control that sees such young men as almost interchangeable. The viewer, in turn, must reflect on his own expectations and confront a desire to un-blur the pictures, potentially understanding his own complicity in the correctional matrix.
Perhaps one of the most innovative ways that Corrections deconstructs the traditional portrait and, specifically, the traditional “crime” portrait lies in its treatment of the crimes. Typically when people look at photographs of prisoners or criminals, we search the person’s face for traces of his crime. What are we looking for? The caption will often inform us what this person was accused of, and our eyes dart back up to align the face with the crime. Corrections adopts a unique approach to this issue, displacing the description of the crime from its usual locus, below or near the face of the accused. Instead, photographs of haunting yet quotidian crime scenes bear as their titles the charges: “Criminal Trespassing and Disorderly Conduct,” or “Attempted Murder, Going Armed with Intent, Intimidation with a Dangerous Weapon, Willful Injury Causing Serious Injury.” The series does not erase the crime, but neither does it locate it within the person. The heretofore ironclad link between the crime and the person is sundered.
Corrections takes an important step towards demythologizing the “criminal,” or the “juvenile delinquent.” The world these children inhabit is neither alien nor subject to appropriation. The kid-ness of these kids is apparent through exquisite details like a hair tie on a slim wrist, or beat-up sneakers poised on bike pedals. These images are familiar, and yet their lives and visages remain their own. This is an unlikely and admirable accomplishment in the most highly incarcerated, hyper-correctional nation in the world. The urge of both the corrections system and the general public to lay claim to these kids’ experiences through photographic identification of or with them makes the insistent complication of this desire all the more commendable.