For nearly a decade, artist, professor and activist Ashley Hunt has traveled across America, taking photos of 250 prisons and jails from each of the country's 50 states and territories for his series Degrees of Visibility. Speaking to SFR from his home in Los Angeles, Hunt is both candid and eloquent. When I ask if he remembered taking shots of any New Mexico prisons, I didn't expect a lightning-fast response—after all, the guy's taken photos of hundreds of correctional institutions.
"One of the pictures that really matters to me was actually taken at Cibola," Hunt says, referring to the institution in "1,204 Men, Cibola County Correctional Center, Milan, New Mexico," a privately owned prison in the map-blip town near Grants. "I had pulled off the highway and was at a gas station, and right next to it was a DVD rental place," he pauses. "The weird thing was, this movie rental place looked like it went on forever, which made no sense. So I walked closer, and saw that what looked like part of the DVD place was actually a totally separate building behind it, with rows of tall, skinny windows. It was a prison, and it was practically invisible."
This image, along with a couple dozen more, are on view at Foto Forum Santa Fe, the newly launched photo-specific nonprofit art space near the Railyard. Each image in the series is shot from a publicly accessible view of the institution and named according to the number of prisoners the facility contains. For 20 years, Hunt, who also directs the photography and media arts program at California Institute of the Arts, has been focused on raising awareness about mass incarceration. There were multiple occurrences that spurred this interest—from watching loved ones whose drug addictions were responded to with jail time instead of treatment, to seeing friends get locked up for relatively innocuous nonviolent crimes.
"I started wondering what shapes our understanding of so-called 'criminal behavior,'" Hunt tells SFR. Since the inception of Degrees of Visibility in 2010, he's seen a sharp increase in imprisoned populations. "We had started to make some incremental progress during the Obama administration," he explains, "in terms of at least letting the words 'mass incarceration' become part of an acknowledged discourse." Under the current administration, with folks like private prison-happy US Attorney Jeff Sessions in power, progress has stalled, or even reversed.
If race isn't overtly addressed in these images, it's nevertheless a crucial aspect of the series. Incarceration, after all, has a disproportionate impact on people of color—African American men, for example, are six times as likely to face jail time as white men. Still, to what degree can race really be visible in a series with an emphasis on what—or who—we can't see?
The image "Numbers Unavailable, Ferguson City Police Jail, Ferguson, Missouri" offers a frank view of the facility, located just miles from where black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a cop in 2014. The photo of squat, beige-bricked buildings flanking a parking lot is initially bland, but knowing the context of where it's situated puts us on edge and, if we stay with that feeling, being in this nondescript parking lot is suddenly a lot like being deposited into a bad dream: disorienting, even frightening.
In accompanying exhibition texts, Hunt uses the word "hidden" to refer both to prisoners and the institutions that house them. As such, photographs are necessarily spare, free of even passing glimpses of the people cloistered behind the walls, free of narrative, free of visual guideposts. It's a testament to how methodically and ingeniously concealed many correctional facilities are; so insidiously disguised that we don't even realize they're there. "The erasure of punishment in our everyday lives is very different from the actual disappearance of punishment," Hunt points out. "Maybe the very invisibility of our penal system—the way we punish people by camouflaging them—maybe that's why incarceration in this country has grown so out of control."
Documentarian in approach, the images in Degrees of Visibility contain elements of landscape photography, intrinsic to works like "1,495 Men, Montana State Prison, Deer Lodge, Montana." It seems like a simple, albeit very pretty picture of a grassy dell in Anytown, USA. It's only after prolonged study that we notice the roof of a long, low building in the upper right corner. In works like "An Average Daily Population of 1,000, Dauphin County Prison, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania," we find ourselves in a far less idyllic setting: a sad sea of asphalt, anchored on the left by a Toys-R-Us, its neon sign providing color to the otherwise drab terrain. Inserted into such an impersonal context, the viewer feels isolated from possible storylines, seen or unseen. Like other images in the series, it's intentionally anonymous and hard to access. And Hunt wouldn't have it any other way.
Want to learn more about getting involved with prison advocacy locally? Get information from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, with chapters in Albuquerque and Las Cruces (aclu-nm.org) or, internationally, look into mass incarceration research and reform with Human Rights Watch (hrw.org).