Pete Brook on Useless Flair and Stuff That Works


1. What are you wearing and how did you decide to put it on this morning?

Blue and grey threads, mainly. Smartwool socks. Dark blue straight-leg Levi’s. Blue button down shirt underneath a grey sweater.

It’s a super safe wardrobe choice. I’m wearing it because it’s the same thing I’ve worn for the past five days. My wardrobe is limited. I only have three pairs of trousers I wear with regularity and I don’t even like two of those that much.

I wear the blue shirt because it is a dress shirt. I don’t wear cuff links with it so let the unfolded cuffs poke from the ends of my grey sweater. I’ve got long limbs so it’s nice to have a shirt whose function I can ignore and shape modify to cover my narrow wrists.

It is the shirt I got married in. I am no longer married. Many people have seen me in this shirt. I’ve worn it a lot. It has paint stains from art shows and holes from bike wrecks but I still wear it. It fits very well at the neck. The shirt is functional. It is oxford-weft and sturdy in its construction. Some people think it’s weird that I wear a shirt I got married in (whether I was still married or not). I think it’d be weirder to throw out an adequately functioning shirt.

2. What are you doing in Philadelphia next month?

I’m going to be showing many strangers lots of images and trying to convince them that they should care about how and why the images were made. I’m going further and asking how images might empower us in battling not-so-good-forces in our society.

All the images are about prisons in America. The exhibition is called Prison Obscura. One of my first tasks is to explain that images of prisons do exist and then prepare people to see them. I’ve done the leg work, so the exhibition audience just needs to show up really … with open minds. Next, I need to help people in the gallery sidestep all the cliches and stereotypes that recur in representations of prisoners that they’ve digested over their lifetimes. If I can do that then they might be ready to wonder why we lock up 2.3 million people at a cost of $75 billion per year. And get sad, angry or revved up.

If we are routinely taught that prisoners are not like us and that the justice system is neutral (i.e. unaffected by money and metes out fair punishment) then we end up saying that all those people in prison are there for good reason, that they are significantly different from us, AND that we needn’t care. That, of course, is so so wrong. Photographs are often very good at confirming viewers' bias and reinforcing consciously and unconsciously differences to other groups. In other words, sometimes photographs don’t just depict "the Other”; they can define it. I want to challenge that.

I’ve got some pretty surprising images. Some are colorful. They’re all narrative-rich. Some of them are hopeful. I don’t want to guilt-trip anyone. Oh, also I’m going to lead some workshops in prisons and ask prisoners what uses photographs have for them. I’ll hopefully learn some things about emotional landscapes, memory and share those things with a wider audience. I expect the prisoner-students I work with will have important things to say about the photograph as a material object, which is interesting given in the “free world” most of the images we exchange are bytes and pixels. But, that’s a guess at this point; I’ve gone into prison workshops before and been proven totally wrong in what I expected to hear in discussion.

Also, some prisoners are painting a mural for the gallery.

3. How does it relate to free baby dolphins?

I watched a TV program last week made by the BBC. It had dolphins of all ages in it. They found out that dolphins give bouquets of kelp as gifts and that dolphins have evolved specific hunting tactics in the world depending on the seabed, food, etc. They teach each other. The program also had the first footage of a megapod when more than 3,000 dolphins come together. Dolphins are intelligent and crave stimulation and difference. They are one of the few species that spends their time playing. There’s a type of dolphin called a Spinner and it leaps from the water and twists its body up to 7 or 8 times before hitting the water. Brill.

The program was marketed as one with wicked footage made by cameras disguised as other sea animals (squid, tuna, turtle), but it was a bit of a gimmick — too much time was spend filming the filming; the footage that the “spy cams” got was never as good as just traditional stuff from shore or boat; and it detracted from what were some great stories.

Dolphins have to play! They get depressed if they don’t. That’s the message not the cameras. In Prison Obscura I am saying that prisons are bad; they’re abusive, expensive, foolhardy, ineffective and we need to rethink them. That is the story. The photographs are an aid that let us see (and hear) the message. This is not an art show (I include anonymous images aplenty) and I don’t care about beauty. I think the show challenges the so-called prestige of the white cube gallery and I hope I succeed in demanding different things of the audience. The photography world can be precious sometimes and it can be defensive too. Prisons are only problematic if you’re invested in the unequal society that creates them to such a degree that you feel you’ve got something to lose. If that’s the case, then you got a problem.

Baby dolphins should be where we are heading. We should all want a world in which we can all just play. Unfortunately, power, greed, misunderstanding and hate make crap things like prisons persist.

Posted on September 30, 2014 .