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.

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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.”

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Rocky Mountain National Park

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

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San Juan Mountains

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

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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.

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Near Lyons, Colorado

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

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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.”

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