Lee Grant – Photography Blog

Godforsaken: Photography, prisons and incarceration

with 4 comments

After  recently photographing the now empty Belconnen Remand Centre as part of my Belco Pride series, I came across a rather interesting blog called Prison Photography: the practice of photography in sites of incarceration when doing some further research into the culture of incarceration.  I’ve been wanting to photograph in Belco Remand for a while now but never had any luck. Now that they’ve shut down and moved their tenants to the new Alexander Maconochie Centre, I was able to get a pretty good tour of the place thanks to an open day… billed, believe it or not, as a family event. And the families were out in force – kinda weird and I dare say a bit of a joke for the parents showing their kids where home could be if they were naughty (my kids intuitively refused to come!). Seemed a strange PR excercise – if indeed that’s what it was – as it really reinforced how appalling conditions can be in such a place. Perhaps the popularity of the occasion simply boiled down to a case of schadenfreude, wanting to see how law-breakers can live alongside our shopping malls, schools and suburban homes. In any case, I was suitably dismayed and (I admit) aesthetically delighted with the original interiors and fittings.

Somewhat disturbingly, visitors were greeted with the following German quote “Arbeit Macht Frei” (which is a slogan known for being placed at the entrances of a number of Nazi concentration camps during WWII. It translates roughly as “Work makes one free”).  “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” was also scrawled in English below it. Overall quite a surreal, confronting and sad experience.

Anyway, here are just a few pics from the sojourn:




belco_remand_4Belco Remand Centre, 2009 (Belco Pride Series)

Of course there is a long tradition of photographers telling stories about prisons and exploring the culture and brutality of incarceration. How they gain access is a mystery to me. Here are some images from just a few photographers who have made some jaw-dropping images in prisons. For more insightful ruminations on prison photography go check out Prison Photography:

CP_02James Nachtwey, Prisoner on the chain gang, Alabama 1994 (Crime and Punishment series)

mikhaelsubotzky305Mikhael Subotsky (Beaufort West series)

8Yana Payusova Eye of Faith, 2005 (Russian Prison series)

4 Responses

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  1. Lee. Your images are great.

    But I am preoccupied with the note you made about ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ “welcoming visitors”.

    I can’t imagine in what frame of mind this inclusion would seem like a good idea? What are the prison authorities thinking?

    There is no correlation between Nazi concentration camps and modern Australian prisons. The inclusion of the phrase is confusing and offensive.

    It seems like they’ve made use of the phrase to amp up emotions and create some kind of sinister atmosphere playing of the infamy of the holocaust.

    Very, very ill-advised.

    Many prisons will have community days before opening and I am not opposed to this. I think any opportunity the public has to experience the infrastructure of incarceration (paid for by their taxes) is worthwhile. But this should be done with serious presentation and dialogue on why we have prisons and how we use them.

    It seems like Manonochie Center has reduced itself to a carnival for a day? Which is counter intuitive given its mandate as a prison built along principles of human rights.

    Maybe, I have it all wrong and misunderstood (in some regard, I hope I am wrong). Can you calrify this for me and your readers?


    June 22, 2009 at 6:27 am

  2. Hi Pete,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments and I agree with everything you have said. The remand centre in question however is not actually the Alexander Maconochie Centre (the new facility which has been designed with human rights principles in mind – though many remandees there might disagree with this as recently reported in local papers) but rather the Belconnen Remand Centre, which was the old facility ‘purpose’ built in 1978 and recently closed this year.

    From my research I learned that the facility was built to hold about 17 people but by the time it closed there were in excess of 70 detainees – some of whom were held for as long as 3 years! Frightening given that this was a remand centre, which then also gives you an idea of how much energy we, as a society, give to the legal processing and rehabilitation of low-security criminals. Having said this however, I don’t like to judge those who work in Corrective Services as I can’t imagine how difficult and challenging some of their jobs must be.

    Also to clarify, I photographed inside the old facility (Belconnen Remand Centre) and not the new one (AMC). Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to chase up on the quotes with Corrective Services as yet and why they thought this was appropriate or even OK. It may well be possible that the quote was already there from when detainees were being held (it was one of the first things you see on a whiteboard as you walk into the processing area of the facility). Though this is no excuse, it may partially explain why it wasn’t removed and as you stated, it is to some extent an indictment of the culture and thinking of some people who work in the prison system.

    Interestingly I vaguely remember the local paper referring to the quote though I don’t recall the reporter making any association to Nazi concentration camps. I shall let you know if I find any more answers but I hope this helps a little bit.

    Lee Grant

    June 22, 2009 at 10:32 pm

  3. […] I was happy to see Lee post a few of his images from the ongoing series. I particularly liked these two pairings which are a […]

  4. Thanks for the info Lee. It helps a lot. A whiteboard is less permanent … does this make the issue more or less of an oversight by the prison administration?

    Either way it seems like a PR FAIL!



    June 24, 2009 at 6:26 pm

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