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Virginia Hines | United States

Alcatraz Island

A rexamination of Alcatraz, the notorious former prison island in San Francisco Bay, began as a straightforward documentary project that arose from pandemic-era restrictions, but soon began evolving into a deeper exploration of ways in which confinement and social isolation both challenge and reinforce our core sense of humanity. To heighten the connection with Alcatraz's prison years, the project was shot natively in black and white (not converted) using vintage lenses from the time when the island served as a federal penitentiary.

For over a year I’ve been visiting Alcatraz, the former prison island in San Francisco Bay, to reflect on pandemic-era themes of isolation, confinement and social control. Said to be escape-proof, Alcatraz had a fearsome reputation cultivated to deter crime. Prisoners’ lives were monastic and rule-bound. The main contact with the free world was glimpses of the bustling city shimmering on the horizon, beyond reach.

Alcatraz is Spanish for a type of bird. We say “free as a bird,” but some birds live in cages. Sometimes they are jailbirds. No less than Chartres, the cavernous cellblock subjugates light in ways that evoke strong emotions. In this cathedral of confinement, sunlight projects the spectre of bars and other obstructions across the walls and floor, amplifying the sense of entrapment.

When I first came to Alcatraz I planned to document what remains of the old penitentiary 60 years after the convicts departed. I used a monochrome camera and vintage lenses from when the prison was active to enhance the vérité. But the more I shot, the more ambiguous the images became. They refused to depict subjects frozen in a moment of time. Instead, past and present, history and myth, subject and object, all intertwined to record not what I saw, but how I felt on the island. Standing at a large window I shoot my shadow on the floor­; the result is not a portrait, but a prisoner in a cage. A bracelet becomes handcuffs. Reflections are ghostly emanations. Not photographic sleight of hand, but transformations alchemized by creative interactions between the viewed and the viewer. Then and now cohabit space in ways that are hard to untangle. I thought my lens was a window; it’s just a mirror.

Some are incarcerated for breaking society’s rules; others live in prisons of our own design, made of habit, fear, comfort, passion, ambition, apathy. And all of us are captives in the ultimate escape-proof prison: time itself. On Alcatraz or not, everyone “does time” on life’s one-way street.


IG: @vhines_photos

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