It could so easily not have happened. Just before we were due to go into the prison to photograph some of the men’s tattoos a rumour spread that we were really there to collect intelligence on those who had gang affiliations. Tattoos often bring up ideas of bravado and posturing particularly in a prison setting but Body of Writing aimed to understand and show how we form narratives about ourselves. Tattoos can be a part of that. We’d known it would be tricky getting permission to photograph the men’s tattoos as part of the project on identity and memory: it’s not easy to get permission to bring a camera into a prison; it wouldn’t be easy deciding which tattoos are interesting but not so unique that they could be recognised.
Without tattoos the project would fail. This was the unique part of the project. An exhibition was to be held in Salisbury Cathedral, and it felt perfect to have tattoos alongside the men’s writings. An echo of the stained glass that filled the Cathedral. Originally the idea developed during Penned Up, the annual arts festival at the prison. The Cathedral was using the themes of identity and memory for its community projects throughout 2017 and was keen to have the prison represented. We visited the cloisters and had some ideas of how we could present the work so it wouldn’t be lost in the space; would draw attention and add to its meaning, but first we had to get our images.
As ever with prison projects it is best to push on with hope. Walking into the prison with Willie Robb, our chosen photographer, I spot a couple of men I know. ‘You’ve got tattoos, haven’t you? Get yourself to the classroom.’ (There is an obvious please in my voice). A moment’s hesitation, and then one agrees. In actual fact by the time we arrive at the classroom there is a queue of men waiting, and nobody mentions gangs.
In the classroom, one at a time, the tattoos are revealed and with them their stories, their origins, their meanings, and their history. There are jokes about the less successful and admiration for the many that are. As the photography continues it is impossible not to notice other marks on bodies, on arms, legs: scars and marks of hurt on the flesh.
For the exhibition the writing needed to be clear and tight; fragments of thought and story that hint at a greater whole. In the same way the tattoos were cropped and unmoored from their respective bodies. Sometimes we worked with the men we had photographed but often it was a different group.
Ink. Tall. Welsh. Helpful. Religious. Angry
The writing reflects our efforts to get under the skin. Prison writing is a tricky business. We aimed for responses that didn’t always fall easily into a redemptive narrative that is often expected. It’s not easy work: the men don’t always turn up for the workshops and don’t always see the point of the struggle to put private thoughts into words. As with the tattoos there are things that people want to show, what they don’t reveal, and what is inferred from what finds its way into print.
In the forgotten cell I will leave behind the noise of prison … the cacophony of despair … the idiocy of juvenile posturing
As important as the words and pictures is the way in which they are presented to the public. The 6 ft ‘light towers’ constructed by Standard 8 are glorious, lifting the words and images. During the day visitors move around the exhibition, drawn in by the stories. In the winter evenings the words are shadowed and only the images-on-skin remain floating in the dark.
Body of Writing was a collaboration by LLL productions with men from HMP Erlestoke, and the Learning and Outreach team at Salisbury Cathedral.
The exhibition took place at Salisbury Cathedral from 7 October to 5 November 2017.
Photos © willierobb.com 2017
David Kendall is Patron of Reading at HMP Erlestoke
Further reading in Inside Time – the National Newspaper for Prisoners and Detainees: https://insidetime.org/skin-deep/