December 10th, 2011

With an eye toward prison reform, writer and academic Pete Brook analyzes prison photography from behind his desk. After three years, he decided it was time to get out, on the road, and meet the people he’d written about. Especially the prisoners.

Pete is clear that he isn’t a photographer. Instead, he writes for’s RAW File and runs his own blog where he dissects photography about the prison system in America. I knew him peripherally through the photo community and through introduction several years ago by a mutual friend. I like what he does, so when he put out an ask to help make a Kickstarter video, I offered to shoot it and Seattle Times staffer Erica Schultz edited it with Pete in an 11 hour binge.

Prison Photography has built a community over the years. There’s no money involved, so for Pete to get on the road, he had to ask for help. The Kickstarter campaign began. By using social media and crowd-sourced funding, he successfully raised more than he thought it would cost to make the grand American tour, meeting photographers in person, visiting prisons, and seeing education programs at work.

Click here or below to read more and see a scene cut from the video.

I thought it would be a nice story to tell, and I thought I could help Pete reach an even broader audience by creating a multimedia piece about his journey and the important issues he’s investigating. Apparently, we’ve got the highest rate of incarceration of any developed country, with 2.3 million people behind bars which comes down to one in one hundred adults are in jail. There are ways to decrease this tax-payer expense that are constructive and help prisoners re-integrate with society. But I’ll let Pete tell you about that. (read his blog)

While Pete has traversed the continent on this trip, he and I agreed that the New York / Rhode Island area would be a good place to meet up for a few days. I lined up a couple things in Manhattan, a couple of couches (thanks guys!), and got my itinerary in sync with Pete’s schedule.

This is a brief chronicle of that journey and some of the people he met along the way. We managed to get into the maximum security Sing Sing Prison on extremely short notice, although they limited the photography and video. Outside, I was even yelled at by the guard tower as I tried to capture some additional footage (it’s legal to shoot from public property). Prisons. Are. Rigidly. Controlled.

Pete doesn’t sleep much either; we had early morning wake-ups and late night sessions at the bar or in people’s homes. Talking. Learning. I gleaned a lot (as did Pete) from the discussions with the inmates, both at Sing Sing Prison and the Rhode Island Training School, youth detention center, about prison photos journalists and documentarians have taken over the years. The “visiting room portraits” kept coming up; I am fortunate that Elyse Emdur was willing to contribute one of those images to this project.

And, for any of you into youth education, outreach, and media, is amazing. We were treated with incredible hospitality, Pete like a visiting celebrity, and had a darn good time. They even had a metal band in their performance space that night. Right next to the bar. That was also the restaurant. Downstairs from the Youth Center. Where I shot a rap artist laying down a track. Cool place.

With stories there are a lot of little moments that don’t make the final cut, like this of 18 year-old rap artist Jamale Fisher recording a track at AS220.

I recorded his rap using a lav mic, but he was actually recording at the time and this is his version of the rap, produced by AS220’s Anjel Newman:

Link to download “What If” by Jamale Fisher produced by Anjel Newman (mp3)

I was having trouble fitting this into the multimedia piece cut like this and asked around if anyone could make a beat for him. It’s hard to find a beat that matches the rhythm of another beat. This producer, Romeal, the nephew of a good friend of mine here in Seattle, was able to whip one up in a day, While I couldn’t fit this in either, I had to share his work because I was impressed (he’s 14). Here’s his cut:

Link to “What If” by Jamale Fisher produced by Romeal (web page)

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  1. Pete Brook says:

    Tim. You were right. More people understand what it is I do now. Thanks a bunch for being directed, patient and expert. I’m proud to share this piece with anyone and everyone … and it’s going to be shown in Europe next year!

  2. […] Tim Matsui (who helped film the PPOTR Kickstarter video) thought my PPOTR trip was unusual enough that he was willing to put his time and money behind a week-long commitment to follow me over the mid-point of the PPOTR trip. Read Tim’s summary of the experience. […]

  3. Tim Matsui says:


    I appreciate the comment. It was good to spend time with you and see, first hand, what you do. I’m strong in my belief that you’re doing good stuff, and I wanted more people to see it. Thanks for working with me during the creative process. Means a lot that you’re proud to share the piece!


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