Silent stories from inside Kingston Penitentiary

Queen's Journal
23 September 2014

“Never snitch on nobody period, sometimes blood and money is the only mix, when against fire use water if fire does not work.”

These are words that Toronto-born photographer Geoffrey James found on an administrative segregation cell in Kingston Penitentiary, that now sit on the wall of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (AEAC).

Both investigative and moving, James shows us a glimpse of life inside Kingston Penitentiary with his photography series entitled Inside Kingston Penitentiary.

The exhibition, which is housed temporarily at AEAC, includes two full rooms of photographs showing various parts of the life of an inmate at Kingston Pen, or sometimes a photo of the inmate themselves.

At first, the mostly black-and-white photos don’t seem exceptionally eye-catching, and from far away the effectiveness of the photographs is lost and essentially void. But moving closer, the viewer starts to see why James’ photography is so compelling.

With James’ work, the magic is in the details — whether it’s angry carvings on the wall of an inmate’s cell, the eerie abandoned prison yard or a detail as small as scribbling on a bathroom mirror. Up close, the viewer begins to feel awe-struck and invested in the lives of the prisoners who once lived at Kingston Pen.

The viewer is presented with these small details and little explanation, forcing them to use their imaginative mind and investigate the meaning for themselves.

Looking at a picture of an inmate and wondering what their life story is and how they ended up at Kingston Pen gives the work both a personal and impersonal feeling.

The work is personal in the sense that the viewer is putting themselves into the setting and creating an inner dialogue to explain the imagery being presented.

It’s also impersonal in that the work depicts life entirely unrelatable to the viewer.

The images exist independently from the viewer and their life experiences.

What many don’t realize is what kind of life a prisoner actually leads. Momentarily putting oneself into the shoes of an inmate is an experience that is both terrifying and eye opening.

Inside Kingston Penitentiary will be running at Agnes Etherington until December 7.

– Olivia Loncar-Bartolini, Arts Editor
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