In 2008, Jen Ackerman spent a month at Kentucky State Reformatory to document images of mentally ill people being taken care of by guards and administrators inside. The images are extremely brutal, showing people be denied basic human contact in their most vulnerable moments, showing mutilated, destroyed bodies in inhumane conditions. And yet, the images are remarkably aestheticized and they appear in the “Personal” section of Ackerman’s website, which also includes photo series from her work with ESPN, the Miss Universe Pageants, Fortune 500, and Spam. I do not believe the photographs are actually meant to document life inside as a mentally ill person — we don’t learn anything, really, about that experience. Instead, what we learn is Ackerman’s adept photographic skill. And indeed, Ackerman described it as “the most rewarding project” she had ever worked on. What makes this project “rewarding,” what it means to spend a month with some of the most marginalized among us and to take a personal reward from that, is a question worth investigating.
And Spivak’s piece speaks to this set of issues, examining the ways in which postcolonial theorists have attempted to speak for the colonized, for the subaltern. Spivak posits that this is impossible, that these theorists’ logics and arguments are logocentric, based exorbitantly upon the words of the subaltern and not sufficiently upon their direct, lived experiences.
I do not think it’s possible for somebody like Ackerman — that is to say, a photographer from the outside world — to “accurately” portray life inside, just as I don’t think it’s possible for a privileged, college-educated post-colonial theorist to describe the living conditions in war-torn, resource-deprived places around the world. And yet, this should not be the case: there should not be undocumentable experiences. The subaltern ought to always have outlets to express themselves, to tell their own stories. I think one way in which we might gauge whether a system is broken or obsolete (to remind us of Angela Davis’s seminal text, Are Prisons Obsolete?) would be to see whether its most marginal players are being given the right and the platform to speak for themselves. Everyone deserves this chance. And as Davis articulates in her text, people inside are forcibly, often fatally denied this opportunity. So we must abolish the prison. We must abolish all systems which render people’s experiences only communicable through somebody — a corporate photographer, a post-colonial theorist — who has not actually experienced that which she, the subaltern, describes.