Cartes postales du bagne

Adventures in Instagram #2

Having recently completed a month of fieldwork in French Guiana, it seems like a good moment to take first stock of how Instagram has accompanied other forms of photography and the presentation of images so far.
There are a few things worth commenting on briefly:
1. Photography is a key aspect of the project and Claire’s role has involved extensive photographic documentation of the various penal heritage sites we have explored. One of the things we intend to analyse via these images, their cataloguing, storage and presentation is how these enable us to reconstruct our visits as well as allow a certain degree of reflexivity on how we ‘frame’ and ‘capture’ objects, landscapes etc at these former sites of incarceration and forced labour. Another aim of the project is to explore how these images might be re-presented as part of an artistic project (again led by Claire) that emphasize the various layers of colonial and penal history at the sites together with the different infrastructures and networks that link these sites physically and virtually. What this had meant during site visits is that I have spent less time taking photographs which has allowed me a different engagement and experience of the spaces to previous visits to other prison museums and penal heritage sites. At the same time this has given me more time to use my Instax camera (more on this to follow) to varying degrees of success and also take and upload images to Instagram using my mobile phone. Switching between devices is less easy when using a larger camera.
2. Phone and data coverage has generally been good in French Guiana. Added to which as a French overseas department, it is a part of the EU which means no extra data roaming costs. That said, we have avoided providing an incessant commentary of our visits on Twitter and Instagram usually bookending our visits with an update on our way to or from a site. However, it is often on longer journeys to more remote sites that phone coverage is more sporadic. Instead I have found these journeys a useful time to prepare blog posts using the notes app on my phone. There is a fine line it seems between a post or upload which emphasizes the present moment and one which risks substituting that moment.
3. In relation to the previous point, we have been attentive to the fact that our project involves visits to a number of sites promoted as tourist destinations. In exploring the different stakes of penal tourism and other forms of heritage, any so-called ‘live’ commentary risks simply reproducing a tourist narrative and aesthetics. This is particularly true in French Guiana given the luscious beauty of its forests and its traditional Creole architecture. This will also be an issue in New Caledonia. A simple google image search for ‘New Caledonia’ reveals a dominant aesthetic of white sandy beaches and turquoise waters. It is difficult not to be seduced into reproducing this aesthetic uncritically. As we both have personal Instagram accounts, we have an outlet for sharing this type of image.
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Palm tree aesthetics
4. Our main concern around using Instagram to document the project is the generally positive aesthetics of Instagram as a celebration of the visual. While there are Instagram accounts and projects such as Blue Bag Life (@bluebaglife) which use the platform to provide a critical look at contemporary images of incarceration and addiction, these tend to include longer commentaries. As we are producing a project blog where images play a more illustrative role and are carefully contextualised, Instagram seems to offer an opportunity to do something different more in line with more widespread uses of the platform. As a result, the practice of not presenting images directly associated with the penal colony – cells, manacles, mug shots etc has emerged over the course of the project so far. Instead a set of different images are presented which hopefully provide a different appreciation of the spaces we are exploring. One particular example here is the image I took of the broken shells that make up the beach on Île Saint Joseph. Île Saint Joseph was the island where convicts were placed in solitary confinement. To get sent to the Îles du Salut [Salvation Islands] was usually punishment for attempted escape. To get sent to Île Saint Joseph usually meant further punishment. The island was, in a sense, the prison within a prison within a prison.
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Broken shell beach on Île Saint Joseph
Where many of the buildings belonging to the penal administration have been restored on Île Royale, those on Île Saint Joseph have been maintained as ruins. The relationship between the former buildings and the natural environment, the trees, moss, spider webs, agoutis, iguanas which have reclaimed the space, has been captured in various photography projects including Rodolphe Hammadi’s images produced as part of his collaboration with Patrick Chamoiseau in 1994.
I chose the shell image instead as a way of presenting the island differently avoiding both the aesthetic of ruins and the prolific palm trees that frame all views from the island. Regardless of how visitors opt to explore the island during the short time they have (tours usually drop visitors by dinghy after lunch with the catamaran returning to Kourou around 3.30/4pm), most end up on the shell beach. The beach is next to the cemetery where guards and their families were buried. The broken shells seem to tell a comparable story to the forgotten, and irreparably broken lives washed up on the island during its time as a penal colony. The image, I feel, is also inspired by some of the work featured in Edmund Clark’s In Place of Hate exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham earlier this year which I wrote about here. Clark eschewed a traditional aesthetic of incarceration in the exhibition and strikingly the first things one sees are films of a fish tank and a glass display of pressed flowers arranged around a space the size of a cell.
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The broken shell beach. Île Saint Joseph
It is important to look for ways to challenge an oversimplified depiction of incarceration which relies too heavily on traditional prison architecture and the mug shots of those sentenced. However, what purpose does a series of alternative images play? Do these risk becoming too abstract? Or allow for a romanticisation that fills the gap of the fetishisation of the prison cell both past and present?
References
Chamoiseau, Patrick and Rodolphe Hammadi, Guyane: Traces-Mémoires du Bagne (Paris: CNMHS, 1994).

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