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- Lu Nan, ‘Prison Camps in Northern Myanmar’/ 吕楠,缅北牢狱。









Enchained. Running through the images like a leitmotif, as they run together the legs of the prison inmates, limiting all movement, no run of the place, the impossibility of running, are the leg-irons that all must wear. Appearing in almost every photograph. There to serve as a constant reminder of the restrictive nature of the institution that incarcerates them. Whatever the activity these chains are present – a chain running through the images, chaining them together… intertwining, like twisting snakes of forged metal, enchaining, the feet of men and the sequence of photographs, making of them a chain of images… Of images enchained.




Each image a link in the chain… a succession of portraits, tableaux, so many Stations of the Cross, links in the chain of misery.


Leg-irons, harsh and unforgiving, the clasp of iron on skin, embrace of metal, encircled flesh, narrowing the space of the prison down to the length of a human step. Circumference enchained.


The dance of the leg-irons: where two (or more) are chained together, their forced co-ordination must, perforce, resemble the performance of a dance. A tour-de-force. A dancing in chains.


Weight of addiction, guilt and sentence; limiting the movement of the soul as well as the body; made manifest in the presence of manacles – weight of iron; the persistence of chains.




If these photographs are also in black and white then they are nevertheless different in style and tone from the photographer’s previous black and white images: gone are the painterly forms, the shadow image or skiamorph, of European painting; gone also are the rich tones of sable and silver of which black and white photography is capable - instead the palette is grey, shades of, and grainer. Composed though the images are; they are, however, less fore-grounded in their approach to form – this usage (of form or texture) would not have been in accord with the content (the degree of presence of the form and means of expression must complement the content of expression).


For there are (intuitively felt) limits to the aestheticisation of the documentary image (in the West, on occasion, and occasionally in fashion, these limits of taste have been breached, bringing into question, as well as into disrepute, those who are responsible for their making). The pain of reality, as told in black and white - is grey.


Shades of grey – for degrees of beauty, none; for guilt (all shades) and redemption, little or none; hope, none…


Grey in succession, as the days, so the images, each a reminder of those forgotten by society as it seeks to seclude, sequester, those who will not live as they are told, or who may not bear the weight of normal life (if indeed this has ever been offered…). We do not know how many were violent; only that their addiction has placed them here… for a ‘cure’ which will slide off their souls as soon as they return to the world outside… a world for them dominated by the culture of addiction as well as the other sub-cultural forms which subtend it.




In the images of families in prison… the exposure of children to a culture which will later swallow them (statistically, almost the world over, those most likely to go to prison are those who have been to prison). A life in chains.


Drug use: chains of the mind, a release from life outside, or from the realities of life in prison, made more bearable by a chemical utopia, heaven in a glass phial, redemption in the glint of a steel needle. Release… but also means of continuance of a harsh life itself, as in prostitution, a profession whose discomforts are often supported by drug use - if not by eventual addiction. Recidivism in this light can be expected to be total.




Yet brute everydayness is the order of the day. Everyday life continues even here. Even in the most brutal of conditions. Even in chains. It is this continuance of life that shocks us in the squalor of the existences it presents, of the filth of the daily routine, the degradation of supervision and the absence of privacy. This simply-stated matter of factness (the true essence of a documentary image) disturbs beyond the reach of individual moments of suffering, disturbs through sheer facticity, and so appalls by its very normalcy; a dull routine compounded by the desire to live on… regardless of situation, the manner of the passing of days. (And it is just this, the everyday desire to live, to continue, which, just perhaps, constitutes the trace of hope in these images…).


If incarceration is a bad cure for a worse disease, the disease of violent crime, then for lesser crimes it is a guarantee of perpetuity, and for addiction an entirely unsuitable form of treatment. Removal from public sight, like the desire for revenge masquerading as justice, does not solve the problem, but perpetuates it.


Shades of grey in responsibility, in moral fault, in degrees of culpability or ‘moral hazard’… Shades imperceptible in the light of Kafka’s monumental Law.


Manacles: making movement manifestly minimal; mark of the immutability of manumission.





Civilization as barbarism…







Lu Nan, ‘Prison Camps in Northern Myanmar’/

吕楠,缅北牢狱 (InterGallery: Beijing, 2009).





Copyright, Peter Nesteruk, 2010.