Thursday, August 6, 2009



Attica Prison 1972


Attica always had the potential for tragedy. Its 30-foot walls held some of the toughest convicts in New York State. Most of the 2,254 inmates, like a majority of the U.S. prison population, were black or Hispanic, street-hardened products of city ghettos. The revolt, slowly fueled by harsh treatment inmates received inside Attica’s cold walls, could have come at any time, but the match that ignited it was the California killing of Black Panther leader George Jackson in what authorities claimed was an attempted prison escape.


When the violence erupted after breakfast and before work detail on a Thursday morning, inmates used shovels, bats and sheer numbers to take 38 hostages and possession of a large part of the prison.  In the dramatic days of face-to-face negotiating that followed, prison officials consented to nearly all inmates’ demands, but on Saturday a guard who had been injured in the first outbreak died. After that, neither Russell Oswald, New York’s Commissioner of Corrections, nor his boss, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, would yield to the prisoners’ demand for total amnesty. 


It rained the Monday morning of the state assault. It had been four sleepless days since my arrival at the prison, and I had worked my way inside Cell Block D. I was standing next to inmates and hostages alike. Twenty hours had passed and I was down to my last 15 rolls of film. Suddenly, the sound of helicopters shook the ground and a voice rang out over the prison PA telling the inmates to put down their weapons and set the hostages free. The prisoners didn’t respond.


Moments later a fine mist of CS gas rained down from the circling helicopters, filling the prison courtyard and making it difficult to see more that five or six feet in any direction. Then the shooting started. The horror in the eyes of inmates and hostages when state police snipers opened fire is still with me, locked in a psychic file that even I cannot delete. In all, 41 men were killed – nine of them hostages.


The image that I feel captures the sprit of Attica best is the image I made of the officer’s helmet. That one image sums up all the things that I saw and felt, the loss of life, the inmate’s frustrations, the inaction of the state. In taking pictures it is often important to find a way to make your images symbols that tell a larger story. The thing to keep in mind is that visual symbols are always simple, devoid of distracting elements. They are pictures that can be read from a distance. Think stop sign. Now go shoot some. You might not make truly symbolic images at first but the exercise of simplifying your pictures will make them stronger.


If you would like to subscribe to my blog click - Subscribe to: post

No comments:

Post a Comment