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Behind the Photo – Jim West

March 13, 2009

The Story Behind the Photo – Prison Pictures – Jim West

In a series of forthcoming interviews with photographers, Behind the Photo aims to explore the often unheard stories that go along with some of PhotoEdit’s best multi-ethnic photos. Our first interviewee, Jim West, has been with PhotoEdit for two years and specializes in images of social issues. Here he discusses some of his most intriguing and sociopolitical prison pictures, as well as his experiences as a stock photographer.

What made you want to shoot photos of prisoners?

I was in Arizona for two weeks, working mostly on immigration issues. One of the issues I was following was a new Arizona law that threatened to run employers out of business if they hired undocumented workers. As a result, there was a shortage of agricultural labor and the state prison system was helping by using prisoners as farm labor. I asked to photograph that, but the state prison system was uncooperative, so I called Maricopa County. There was less of an immigration issue in the photos I ended up with, but they still fit into my general specialty of social issues.

Sheriffs guarding multiethnic female prisoners

How were you able to get into the prison to take the photos?

I find that in shooting stock, you do a lot of asking and often get turned down, as I did with the state prison system. In this case, the Maricopa County sheriff is something of a publicity hound, so he has public relations people you can work with. I still had to call back five or six times over a period of several weeks to get it set up.

What was it like once you were in the prison?

Inmates are required to wear pink underwear and live in tents where it can get quite hot in the summer, though the guard said they could go indoors whenever they wanted. I was not able to spend that much time there, so I cannot judge conditions for myself, but the county has had to pay more than $30 million in prisoners’ legal claims during the last five years on issues such as inadequate food and health care, excessive force and death in custody.

Multiethnic female prisoners pose inside jail

What made you want to capture both male and female prisoners?

It makes good sense, because often a publisher will want picture of only men, or women, and if you only have the opposite then you can’t fill the request.

Is there anything that surprised you about the prisoners?

They did not seem dangerous or threatening. They did not seem all that different from non-prisoners. You could just imagine them being in prison because of some kind of tough ircumstance that could affect us all. When I photographed the women’s chain gang, they were cleaning up the remnants of a camp where homeless people had lived. (It was in a dry riverbed near some high-priced homes and I imagine the neighbors had complained.) One of the inmates remarked that not long before, she had been living in a homeless camp like the one they were cleaning up.

Hispanic male prisoner speaks on the phone outside

Were the prisoners receptive to being photographed?

Yes. I asked permission from everyone, and nobody refused. Some of the women wanted to pose for a group picture, and one contacted me later after she had been released to ask for a print of it, and was very grateful when I sent it.

What was the mood of the prisoners? Did that affect your photography?

They seemed pretty relaxed. The men did not pay a whole lot of attention to me, but some of the women were much more into getting their picture taken. That meant that the mood in some of the women’s pictures was much more upbeat than you would expect in a jail, but I had decided to shoot what was in front of me and not try to make it fit some pre-conceived notion.

Male prisoners play cards on a bunk bed

Your images portray a wide variety of ethnicities in the prisons. There are often news reports of ethnic tensions in prisons. What was your sense of the way that prisoners from different ethnicities interacted?

On the surface, there did not seem to be very high tensions. But I was in the jail only about half an hour, and spent only a few minutes with any one group—not nearly enough time to make a judgment. I would certainly expect that there are ethnic tensions to some degree.

What was the relationship like between the inmates and the guards?

Again, I wasn’t there long enough to make a real determination. I didn’t see any overt hostility. On the women’s chain gang, the guards joked with the inmates and seemed friendly, but they were still carrying rifles.

Female African American prisoner styles her fellow inmate's hair

This concludes the very first edition of Behind the Photo, featuring Jim West and his prison pictures. If you would like to see more collections of prison photos, please use the links below:

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