Ethical Portraits: In Search of Representational Justice
Last autumn I listened to an episode from the 1999 ‘Lock Up’ series of This American Life, which explored the way prisoners represent their identities visually once they have been released. During the podcast, an ex-detainee explained that during incarceration he and his fellow convicts ‘had very little to see or look at, in terms of variety, in terms of what one had become used to. Seeing people come and go, different distances, different colours, different lives, all just one vague big grey soup.’ What struck me most about his comments was how starkly prison-industrial complexes violate the agency of those they detain, limiting prisoners’ ability to connect with each other and the outside world, and most of all, denying any assertion of individual identity. I began to wonder how writing and visual art could help represent prisoners deemed invisible by wider society. Interviews, such as the one in the podcast, contribute to building a biographical narrative of a subject – but what about photographs, portraits and paintings? What might an ethical portrait of a prisoner look like? Could art be used as a tool to give agency back to those on the inside? Or rather, who do prisoners rely on to construct images of them from the outside, in the face of a system which seeks to siphon off all humanity?
The dehumanisation of transgender prisoners is by no means unfamiliar, but the trial, prosecution and release of Chelsea Manning has shifted the rhetoric of both media and personal representation into a different realm. During her incarceration I knew of Manning as someone both famous and infamous, whose identity as a trans woman and committer of treason has been widely sensationalised. A United States Army soldier, Manning was convicted under the Espionage Act and for a number of other offences in 2013 after she ‘leaked’ over 700,000 sensitive diplomatic documents to the secret sharing site Wikileaks. The files contained war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, diplomatic cables from the state department and documents on Guantanamo Bay. After pleading guilty to ten of the twenty-two charges of which she was accused, Manning was sentenced to thirty-five years imprisonment at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Several years before her sentencing, she had also spent three years in detention centres such as Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, alongside prisons in Virginia, Kansas and Maryland, where she waited to hear the length of her sentence. There, Manning was held for twenty-three hours a day in solitary confinement, with no sunlight.
As Manning’s case unfolded, I kept many jottings, notes and screenshots of news reports. What grips me about her case is the complexity of its legality in relation to war and surveillance, intensified by the complex ethical questions produced by her gender transition. Who was this woman, who appeared to be so integral to, yet so mistreated by, the state? In the margins of a printed-out TIME article from 2015 entitled ‘Chelsea Manning Can No Longer Be Called “He” by the Military, Court Rules’, I wrote: ‘How does the prison-industrial complex monitor, represent and treat transgender inmates?’ A simple question, but I soon discovered that the attention given to Manning’s case was symptomatic of the widespread brutality of the American justice system. Transgender inmates can arouse confusion and rage in society at large, making them more vulnerable to mistreatment and violence. They are sanctioned, ignored and deemed unworthy of protection. Throughout my research I found that it is usual for transgender inmates to be admitted to the incorrectly gendered prison. Activist group Black & Pink’s 2015 national LGBTQ prisoner survey ‘Coming Out of Concrete Closets’ reported that ‘23 per cent of transgender, nonbinary gender, and Two-Spirit respondents are currently taking hormones in prison, while an overwhelming 44 per cent report being denied access to hormones they requested.’ Manning was refused hormone treatment, rejected for psychological help and relentlessly placed in solitary confinement as a penal strategy. Her detention – her isolation and torture – is the story of many; it is by no means exceptional.
It fascinated me to consider how empathy could materialise as visual art. I wanted to meet Manning, I wanted to talk to her personally and understand her own desire for representation. In retrospect, collecting these articles was a way for me to reappropriate news reports – to uncover alternative narratives surrounding Manning’s case, avenues through which to interpret her mistreatment. The headlines were painful reminders of Manning’s suffering. I began to wonder what would have happened if Manning’s sentence hadn’t been commuted by Barack Obama in 2017: how much longer would she have been kept in solitary confinement? [...]