Shadow and light

avoiding all the trappings, photographer Maxence Rifflet presents, in the form of a book and an exhibition, work carried out over many years in seven French prisons, in the company of inmates.

Our prisons is a double experience, that of a book and an exhibition, the results of the work carried out by the artist Maxence Rifflet for several years in seven French prisons: the Cherbourg prison, the central prison of Cond-sur-Sarthe, the detention center of Caen , the Rouen detention center, the Mauzac detention center, the Val-de-Reuil detention center, the Villepinte detention center. The exhibition takes place in Cherbourg, at the Le Point du Jour art center, until November 27, 2022, and follows three other exhibitions of this work (at the Rouen Normandie Photographic Center, at the Gwinzegal Guingamp Art Center, at Bleu du Ciel Lyon). The book was published last spring by Point du Jour.

Photographing in prison

Henri Meyer, Photography in prisons – Le Journal illustr, n°5, January 31, 1875, colored engraving.

Two introductory images introduce one and the other. On the one hand, the reproduction of the identity photograph forcibly snatched an opponent from being recorded by two guards during her incarceration in 2014. On the other hand, that of an engraving by the French illustrator Henri Meyer (1841-1899) showing the special service of photography instituted in prisons by the Paris police chief Lon Renault in 1875, in which an inmate grimaces and struggles in the hands of the guards responsible for keeping him in front of the camera.

This historical link between photography and incarceration is a reminder of how to produce images in prison? The invitation from an association to conduct a photographic workshop in a prison led Maxence Rifflet, initially perplexed, to confront this problem. Is it possible that the photographic image and its frame do not redouble the confinement, the social assignment, the constraint exerted on bodies?? The other pitfalls are numerous: avoid a documentary vein which would seek the effect of revelation and risk flattering voyeurism; avoid the pseudo-distraction workshop or, worse, complicit in the distribution of good points (as the author explains, in certain prisons, taking part in an activity can have consequences on sentence adjustments). To the already complex relationship between photography and surveillance is added a third term: the ban, by the prison administration, on photographing the architecture of prisons, on disseminating photos containing information considered too precise on the location of control posts, towers, etc. From this equation three terms prison, photography, architecture is born a guide, if not a program for the workshops: photographing, with the people detained there, the spaces of prisons. The initial intuition photograph of the prisons rather than, abstractly, there prison finally took this path: photographing in prison.

Document the places and get out

Behind the mirror
2019. Photographic print combining earth zodiacs by Emile F. and some of the images taken by him at the central house of Cond-sur-Sarthe on Tuesday May 3, 2016.

We learn a lot in this book. On the seven penitentiary establishments where the workshops took place, on the people locked up there, on the institutional and architectural history of French prisons. But the survey data is transformed into plastic problems. The questions shared from the first chapter, what is a place of prison for the prison administration? Does it correspond to the number of cells? The number of beds that can be put there? – thus move quickly on the terrain of forms: frame, format, use of light, position of the body in space and in the image. This shift is manifest in the iconographic confrontations organized in the book. We come across a lot of documents there: a file photo, it is said, but also postcards, a report promoting French prisons, photographs taken by the prison administration after a mob, etc. All these images are archival documents. The photographs from the workshops are also documents, but the documents of an activity in which the participants appropriated the cameras, tested the effects of light or the relationships between bodies and the spaces occupied or crossed, collectively moved the objects from certain rooms then photographed these objects, introduced into certain shots the deformable plastic mirrors brought by Maxence Rifflet. The constraints of photography, its edges, its format open up, in its relationship with the places of activity, the space of a game, and nothing is further from this experience than the demonstration. Our prisons is a test of the accuracy of photography in specific work situations.

The book and the exhibition show to what extent the history of forms can, when the artist intelligently puts it to work in the present, produce effects. Here she provides solutions to problems encountered during the workshops. The tradition of marginal remarks, which comes from engraving, is for example used by Maxence Rifflet to reflect the difficult to photograph space of the worship room of the central house of Cond-sur-Sarthe. That of photomontage allows images taken by an inmate to be superimposed on the drawings of earth zodiacs which he also traces by examining satellite views of the Earth. The superposition of negatives accommodates another's wish to be photographed on the treadmill in the gym, but not in his cell.

First attempt
A morning of shooting in a courtyard with Nicholas T. and Maximilien L. Cherbourg, Tuesday April 5, 2016.

One work occupies a central place in all the work: the Carceri of invention of Piranse. One of the engravings from the series is in the middle of the book, and another is on display at Point du Jour. Their presence is not illustrative, thematic. We understand in fact why the Carceri of invention could have been a guide: these are the prodigious demonstration that descriptive concreteness, reinforced by the technique of engraving, is not incompatible with the fantastical transformation of a place. Even though photography deals with the real world, with specific places, how can we ensure that it is the space for a mental shift, or even a wandering?? In the Cherbourg exhibition, a device placed very aptly in the middle of the second room, the largest, indicates in an almost didactic way this possible double regime of the photographic image. Two blocks of concrete reflect four images back to back, in pairs: on each of the blocks, one shows the interior architecture of the Caen detention center and the other produces, through colorful abstract shapes which seem to move, a very strange visual experience close to the images hypnagogic. This dual regime of writing and documenting on the one hand, producing wandering on the other can obviously play a role in the same image.

Activity and art

A perpetual movement
Cond-sur-Sarthe, Tuesday May 31, 2016

Regarding the exhibition, we must emphasize the fact that we see photographs with a real presence in space: some float, some are hung or protrude from their support, one is extended in its four corners by metal attachments, another, showing a young inmate pacing his cell while measuring its width, is held on the ground in two wooden cleats suggesting both movement and the measured width. Object images, therefore, which through this material presence indicate that they were thought of, used, manipulated as such in the workshops: in their relationships with a space.

One of the greatest achievements of the work is to have produced images for the detainees And for the spectators: for both, they testify to the artist's confidence in the capacity of plastic forms to produce an experience. The collective activity of photography articulates a very high requirement for forms, which, because of this requirement, participate in it by creating the possibility of qualifying, plastically, the spaces experienced by the participants. For those interested in current events in the visual arts, we are delighted to find in the book and in the exhibition everything that may be missing for the visitor to the fifteenth edition of the Documenta in Kassel, led this year by the Indonesian collective Ruangrupa which nevertheless gave itself the subject activity and working together. Documenta 15 testifies, with a few exceptions (the film by Pnar renci, At, is a remarkable one) of a global absence of thought about the form, plastic form and form of the exhibition. Above all, we see traces of collective activities (chairs, tables, books, but also feedback loops and directional arrows drawn on the walls or on the labels), of which we have difficulty understanding who the protagonists were, and how they were involved. consisted exactly, as these activities are drowned in the managerial language of the project applied to art, of production of shared knowledge Lagency collective passing through the opportunities to use knowledge and skillsTHE local ecosystems And capacity assessment. The visitor jumps from one collective to another and from one continent to another, without activity, thought of form and thought of space (geographic and exhibition).

As the crow flies
2019. Photographic montage superimposing two images of Franois R. miming the flight of a kite on a detail of one of his photographs of the sky (Mauzac, April 2017).

A publishing coincidence meant that Maxence Rifflet's book appeared shortly after the French translation of the story of the prison experience by the great Brazilian playwright and director Augusto Boal (1931-2009), a major figure in forum theater , inventor of theater of the oppressed and political prisoner during the military dictatorship. It is fascinating to read or reread his Games for actors and non-actors the light of this autobiography, because in Boal, the reversal of social situations takes place in the minimal space of a scene brings back a room, a village square or any other place of ordinary life, and with a few objects. So the great power game: a table, chairs, and from them, a discussion on power relations concretized by the collective movement of these objects and the common decision to stop a sculpture. The transformation of social relationships is tested in Boal in the theatrical shaping of concrete situations, in these minimal spaces, and in the action of bodies. Here again, a wonderful meeting between art and activity.