How Big Is Your Prison?

I’ve long been fascinated with Foucault’s theoretical application of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, the model prison in which a centrally positioned tower allows for the constant surveillance of those who are incarcerated. As technology continues to develop, the methods of surveillance are endless, ranging from red-light cameras on roads to internally installed webcams on computers. (Side note: If you’re not already doing so, please consider covering up that webcam.)

The central premise of Foucault’s analysis is that panopticism is indeed endless in its ability to regulate our behavior and to discipline those whose conduct fails to conform to the rules of the dominant power structures. In the digital age, even a home can become a space for surveillance, and those who are unhoused encounter social regulation of every aspect of their existence, from where and how they sleep to where they are allowed to perform natural bodily functions.  The criminalization of essential aspects of human survival is one of the many ways that the state attempts to control and coerce individuals into conforming with societal norms.

But what happens psychologically when we become aware of the potential for constant surveillance? Foucault concluded that we begin to regulate ourselves, even when we are moving about supposedly freely in the world. With or without anyone being present in that metaphorical prison tower, we become our own prison guards.

This model of panopticism focuses on turning our gaze inward to ourselves. At the same time, though, the way that we see the world can also shift. Technology has allowed for the creation of bigger and bigger prisons, with probation being perhaps the most common manifestation of a prison without walls. Probationers must check in regularly with a supervisor who monitors employment and educational activities, substances that are ingested into the body, and travel beyond the boundaries of the probationer’s state of residency. Ankle bracelets and other forms of home incarceration can be imposed for even stricter surveillance. Even those who have not been convicted of a crime, including those accused but not convicted of low-level non-violent misdemeanors, can face intense supervision and restrictions on their liberty through pretrial services programs that are run by public or privately-owned probation departments.

The trauma and anxiety caused by this ever-expanding prison industrial complex can make anywhere feel like a prison cell. The question that keeps surfacing in my mind is: “How big is your prison?” As long as we live in a society where surveillance mechanisms are pervasive and ever-present, freedom will remain an out-of-reach aspiration that we are reaching toward, rather than a reality.

With this in mind, I have created a series of photographs that superimpose prison bars onto scenic landscapes. These first photographs were captured at various locations in Colorado, and subsequent photos will feature places that I have traveled around the world. My hope is that those who view these photos will start to examine the ways in which we all impose (or don’t impose) prison bars upon ourselves, and ultimately, to start to release ourselves from the self-created prisons.

As this is a work-in-progress, I would love to hear feedback from you and to create a dialogue around this project. My standard “rules of conduct” apply here, as always, regarding how we address each other: respect, humility, compassion, and inclusiveness. In other words, this is not a space for racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, etc., remarks. Oh, and as a small disclaimer, I’m not a professional photographer, so the quality of these photos will vary. I felt that it was important to use my own photos nonetheless, not only because I want to respect others’ creative and intellectual property, but also because this project represents my own personal perspective, for whatever that is worth.


Flatirons from Chautauqua park in Boulder, Colorado

This first photo was taken at Chautauqua park, of the iconic Flatirons that define the landscape in Boulder, Colorado. Foucault noted: “The ideal point of penality today would be an indefinite discipline: an interrogation without end, an investigation that would be extended without limit to a meticulous and ever more analytical observation, a judgement that would at the same time be the constitution of a file that was never closed, the calculated leniency of a penalty that would be interlaced with the ruthless curiosity of an examination, a procedure that would be at the same time the permanent measure of a gap in relation to an inaccessible norm and the asymptotic movement that strives to meet in infinity.”

How Big Is Your Prison Rocky Mountain National Park2.jpg

Rocky Mountain National Park

The Rocky Mountain National Park offers a contrast between snowcapped mountains and forest greenery during the transitional seasons.


San Juan Mountains

This was taken during a hike in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado.

Maroon Bells 2014 Massimo

Maroon Bells

I created this HDR image of the Maroon Bells near Aspen and Snowmass during a photography workshop that I took a couple of summers ago.


Near Lyons, Colorado

This photo was taken near Lyons as the leaves were turning colors on a crisp fall day.


Boulder Creek

The most experimental photo of this initial series was taken along Boulder Creek, also on a fall day. I’m not sure how convincing it is to position the bars so close to the creek, but the juxtaposition challenges me to stretch my imagination. An observation from Foucault seems fitting for this final photo: “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.”

Vocabulary that fires together wires together

There’s a neurological concept called Hebb’s Law that’s basically summarized as “neurons that fire together wire together.”  This principle explains why it is that, when we hear an old song on the radio, we might immediately be flooded with memories and emotions that remind us of our first loves, best friends from high school, or educational topics that we learned in childhood. All sorts of associations can surface when we encounter something from our past, even if it’s been years since we’ve thought about those past remembrances.

I find that the same is true with languages. I studied French in high school, college, and grad school, and I’ve also picked up a few other languages through friends and travels. I can speak at least a few phrases (if not more) in Spanish, German, Thai, Khmer (the language spoken in Cambodia), Ewe (an indigenous language in Ghana), Czech, Italian, and Japanese.

The thing that amuses me is that sometimes these phrases emerge randomly, out of nowhere and there are certain phrases that I associate with one particular language over the others. In a few instances, there are idiomatic expressions that I automatically think of in foreign languages before they come to me in English.

Recently, I was in a situation where I had to engage in a conversation with someone who doesn’t speak a word of English. While I spend most of my time thinking in English…and I’m aware of how my brain operates when it comes to other languages…I was still amazed at how quickly my “foreign” vocabulary came back to me.

Words that hadn’t crossed through my conscious mind in years suddenly popped into my head, and some words that I’d never even encountered managed to come out of my mouth. I was able to get through a technically complex conversation much better than I had anticipated, which really shouldn’t have surprised me, given that I’ve done this numerous times over the years.

This got me to thinking about how languages work in our heads. It’s similar to how my fingers remember how to play scales, arpeggios, and chord progressions on my flute or the piano, even when I haven’t really practiced these instruments in months. My fingers seem to go into autopilot and play things without me consciously thinking about what to do.

Just like language (which some people would argue includes the “language of music”), our brains have the capacity to come up with all sorts of associations without us making the conscious effort to cultivate those connections. This can include memories from childhood that have long since disappeared into the crevices of ancient memory.

While many of these associations can be beneficial, sometimes our mind’s ability to “connect the dots” can cause internal conflict or pain. Anyone who has ever heard a song that reminds them of a painful breakup or romantic rejection can relate to this.

We don’t always notice when our minds are making these connections, though. An example that I often use for illustration is the way my own brain responds when it hears loud, sudden noises. As an infant, I had a traumatic experience when a 4th of July performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (complete with booming canons to replicate battlefield explosions–check out the link for a recording) occurred on the same day that I fell onto the pavement and injured myself. As a result, for most of my life, I would be startled whenever I encountered an abruptly loud sound, even though my training as a musician had encouraged me to embrace those sounds. Just the sound of a balloon popping was enough to make me jump.

Meditation can help us to change our neurological wiring because, through that practice, we’re able to calm the fight-or-flight center before attempting to rewrite the narratives that hold us back.

So if there’s a particular belief or old story that is getting in the way of our ability to move forward, we can start to uncouple the associations that have been built up in our brains, including those unconscious connections. Hebb’s Law can be a beneficial thing, in the case of language recollection and communication.

But when we’re trapped under the weight of traumatic memories (such as my early childhood trauma due to the loud noise that I encountered at a 4th of July festival), it’s possible to rewire our brains so that the neurons that were previously firing together will no longer wire together.

Meanwhile, I’ll try to keep my language neurons firing and wiring in such a way that my French vocabulary sticks together, somewhat compartmentalized from my Spanish vocabulary. The alternative (which has happened on occasion) is that I start out in one language and then transition into another language. Given the strange looks that I’ve received when that happens, I try to keep the blending of languages to a minimum.

Come on people now, smile on your brother

I contemplated about whether to write about this, but decided to in spite of my trepidation. My hesitation is because I want to avoid this coming across as a “look at how open-minded/tolerant/fill-in-the-blank I am” story. That’s not what this is about. It’s a reflection on how we interact with the people around us on any given day, and what we gain from those encounters.

This evening after I had finished hanging out at a coffee shop getting some stuff done, I decided to stop by one of my favorite restaurants for takeout. (I’m traveling at the moment, so I find myself dining out more frequently than normal.)

As I was walking back to my car, a man asked me if he could have my leftovers. It’s pretty common around here for people to give their leftovers away, so this didn’t catch me off-guard. I explained to him, though, that I hadn’t actually eaten any of it yet, and that my vegan meal might not be particularly appealing to him.


Then I asked him if I could buy him dinner. He looked at me with surprise and said that I didn’t have to do that. I told him that I would be glad to if he wanted something to eat, but that if he just needed some money, I could do that instead–and that I didn’t want him to feel like I didn’t trust him to make his own decisions about what to do with whatever I gave him. He took me up on the dinner offer, and after asking his friend/traveling companion to watch his stuff, we walked a couple of blocks to another restaurant.

We looked at the menu, and I asked him if any of it looked good. He responded that it had been so long since he’d been to a nice sit-down restaurant that he couldn’t really process the number of menu selections. I pointed out a few popular options, and he settled on a burger and fries. Not a low-quality fast food burger, but real, actual meat.

When we walked in to the restaurant and up to the bar, he was surprised that no one told him that he had to leave. He wasn’t used to being accepted in such an environment. I asked him if he felt uncomfortable, and he said that he was fine.

It took about 20 minutes for the order to be prepared (in the middle of happy hour), and we visited at the bar while we waited. He told me about all the states he has visited (he travels by train), and I found myself fascinated by his adventures. No one gave him a hard time, and I didn’t even notice if anyone stared at us.

Then when the food was ready, I asked the bartender if we could have some ketchup for the fries. The bartender came back with a full bottle of ketchup and told us that he’d like for us to have it. I’m not quite sure whether this man really wants to carry around a bottle of ketchup everywhere he goes, but it was a nice gesture nonetheless. And I’m sure it will be passed along to someone who will use it.

We hugged, wished each other well on our journeys, and parted ways. As I continued on my walk to my car, I thought about how our encounter is such a rare occurrence. Even for me, this seemed different. I’m usually in a hurry when I’m approached by someone who asks for money or food, and while I might spend a few minutes visiting, part of my brain is still caught up in my own little world. This evening I wasn’t on my way to an appointment or event, and it was nice to have a lengthier, more meaningful conversation.

Back to my lead-in to this blog post, I don’t want to make this story all about me, and yet in a way it *is* about me…and all of us. The man I met today isn’t a prop or accessory. So many times, those in poverty are used and exploited for having homeless people wear a brand

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It’s not all relative

Back in the summer of 2001, I spent a month studying African drumming and culture in Ghana. My mother met me in London afterward, and when she asked me about Ghana, I found that I didn’t have the language to talk about it. This scared her. She worried that something awful had happened to me, or perhaps she worried that I might have converted to the indigenous religion.

My time in Ghana was wonderful and transformational, and I still look back on it as a pivotal moment in the formation of my adult value system. I needed time to process what I had experienced, and in a way, that process continues to this day.

The lack of words had to do with my own concerns that I would somehow exoticize the culture, and I didn’t want to say anything that would make my new friends sound strange. Since then, I’ve developed a set of tools for talking about other cultures, and I strive to do so in a way that is respectful and honors the amazing breadth and depth of humanity.

This doesn’t mean that I agree with everything I encounter. For that matter, I don’t even always agree with myself…ideas, belief systems, and ways-of-knowing in this world can be complex and seemingly contradictory at times. It’s in the recognition of fluid “in between” spaces that we can begin to connect with one another on a deeper level.

As I move forward with my posts about Cuba, I’d like to request that readers keep this framework in mind. This is something of a generalization, but I find that we in US-American society tend to look at other cultures through a lens of superiority, or alternatively that we might over-romanticize the “Other” outside of our own heritage and traditions.

The more I travel, the more I realize that everyone I encounter has something of value to  offer in terms of how I view myself and larger communities. Rather than reduce other cultures to some sort of comparative “We’re better” or “they’re better,” perhaps we can begin to delve into the situations and conditions that give rise to both differences and shared humanity.

There will be times that I might say, “Hey, this is cool! I wish we could do things that way,” and then there are other instances where I might provide an analytical critique of what may or may not be working. In the midst of that, it’s important to understand that different cultures are not always relative. Some things don’t translate. And some comparative interpretations are subjective, depending on one’s perspective.

The challenge is to try not to fall back on the crutches of superiority and exceptionalism (or the inverse inferiority and relativism). I might push you a bit to consider new ideas, but it’s not intended to put anyone in a defensive mode. Let’s stretch together!