Public Gallery 2014

Joshua Bilton


The work looks at various prison establishments throughout the United Kingdom ranging from category A (high security) to D (low security). The work was carried out over a period of three years from 2006 - 2009. All the subjects are male and dressed in either a standard work or prison uniform or in some cases clothing they own.

My initial thoughts of prison were fused with fascination and curiosity but also frustration that I could not transcend the image of prison. It was a space that I could not touch, enter or explore with my own eyes but had always to see through the view of another. This look appeared linear and somewhat closed often presenting images or descriptions that confirmed my ideas of prison, or simply stated information that brought me no closer to the complexities of this protected area. I wanted to penetrate this space to shatter what myself and others had made it into.

The first time I walked through the prison gates I searched for the drama, the dramatic locations, the interesting characters but what I was faced with was a kind of mundane functionality, people being escorted to work and back to their cells, going for food, some in tracksuits others wearing their own clothes.

The second prison I visited the Governor selected for me to photograph a small, slightly chubby boy with a round face wearing a baggy blue Nike top and trousers that looked two sizes too big for him. I set up the lights and the camera feeling a surprised sense of disappointment that the subject did not look ‘prisoner enough’. I asked him to stand in the middle of the location, made a Polaroid then exposed four sheets of film quickly as it began to rain; I drove home that day with the impression that the portrait had not worked. It’s a strange conflict that I produced wanting to enter this space to shatter its image but I couldn’t encounter either interior nor inhabitant without blocking what they were with how I expected them to be, I was not searching for them but the image I already had of them. Later this portrait became one of my favourites and marked the point that I managed to transcend the countless stereotypes that shaped how I perceived and what initially I was drawn too. For this reason from this moment on I always asked the Governors of each prison to select the subject to be photographed.

Assuming that many people will never enter prison or meet a prisoner the image thus becomes dominant over the actual encounter, for this reason the prison persona exists in a fictitious fantasy, a sought of world of myth open to the lucidity of the imagination. That is not to say that my images present reality, they are simply another myth that performs amongst all the others. But they do illustrate little truths: blossom trees, swans that fly into the prison every night to be fed with brown bread in water with the crusts cut off, Peacock sculptures draped in flowers, huge industrial washing machines, painted murals, vegetable gardens, simulated cleaning workshops, chapels, cycle workshops, trained pigeons and farming that all accumulate to form a fully functioning world. The world outside these walls is full of these familiar spaces but in some sense incarceration magnifies the ordinary, it makes one extremely sensitive to the smallest gestures that are often drowned in the everydayness of being in the world.

Although the architectural shell of prison emphasises the mere size of the body against its vast structure, I was always amazed how people subtly define their difference amongst routine sameness. This easily goes unnoticed but when you put all the collected photographs together small details such as a watch, a hat, a pair of Reebok trainers, a red top, an Adidas top become monuments of intervention that represent a little irregularity in the regulated.

But these are not portraits, close and detailed of each individual, they are distant and regulated in there distance. They present instead the bodies tie to architecture and the point that they become inseparable from one another and a longing for purpose; protecting and confining, educating and regimenting, punishing and reforming. In turn they present my sight, my obvious intervention in this space and with this intervention the constant negotiation between the images that were in my head, the images that are in your head, the image that was there and the image that myself, and the subjects created.