A year ago, living in California, I headed to the infamous Alcatraz island — a rite of passage for all bay area Californians locals and tourists alike. And thankfully, sunny (for once!) San Francisco did not disappoint in providing a good experience.
We think of Alcatraz as it is portrayed culturally — black and white, bleak. We think of the inside of the prison walls, of the stories which have been passed through oral tradition by way of campfire stories and through the big-name Hollywood media machine. We think of the cell block, of sensory deprivation and stark interiors, and of the stories of the haunted pasts of the people whose lives often ended on the island (sometimes, of the stories in which these haunted pasts surpass the limitations of the grave). We think of the “ghost hunting” shows with artificially-tanned, muscle-bound hosts, castigating the dead for their perceived inadequacies in life and jumping at the slightest indication of something which could evidence their own black-and-white, apocryphally-informed opinions. Often, we think of the tourists as perhaps the most colourful addition to the site.
Our imagination captures the idea that our experience in visiting such a place will be the same as our inner vision so permanently that anything which suggests the contrary can come as a shock — and sometimes, a cultural faux-pas, perhaps seen as “glossing over” the darker side of its representative means. For how can a place beset with memories of such pain, darkness, and sometimes, the worst examples of humanity and best examples of poor choices, be anything but what we have heard?
When I visited Alcatraz, I had been grappling for weeks with the decision to buy my first professional camera (beyond my prized, pink, first camera given to me by my father at age fifteen). I had just finished my undergraduate course in art, and was struggling with which direction my heart wanted to take it. While I was fortunate enough to be in a financial position to make the investment, the final push to press “buy” was still off-putting.
In the past, I had been told by people I was close to that I photographed “too much”, that it consumed me, and retrospectively, they were right. I stopped the pursuit of my earliest endeavours into the photographic arts for this reason, and picking it up again carried with it the fear of being chastised. But everywhere I went, my eye would reel for a camera in my hands, and ultimately, providing myself a momentary lapse in self control to snap a photo here or there was simply not working. As a young child, I had prayed for a lens in my cornea which would close the shutter when I blinked a certain way — a prayer which had turned into a lamentation at that point. I knew I could not wait another month, but the final push came from my Alcatraz photo series, however small and comparably low-resolution they may have been — for finding colour in a place I had, perhaps ignorantly, viewed as purely black and white.
I took the guided tour. I stood inside the cells. I shuffled along the halls with tourists wandering aimlessly in every direction. I had read intensely in weeks prior of the island’s acquisition by Native activists in the late 1960s, and of its tribal significance as a place of evil and malcontented spirits prior to its acquisition for correctional purposes for the United States. History abounds from every angle over this tiny rock of land in the San Francisco harbour. The tour of the interior seemed not bleak, desolate, or illustrative of an inmate experience, but like a side show at a carnival.
But as I walked around the grounds of Alcatraz, among the gardens which, previously maintained by inmates enabled to do so on the basis of good behaviour, were as much a testament to the island’s heritage as anything.
On the outside looking in, and in viewing the outside in portals and windows from the inside, a more authentic experience emerged — yes, life on the inside was bleak, desolate, and at many critical junctures, probably an affront to human rights.
But to portray it in this light alone — through the lens or otherwise — devalues the fact that an ‘outsider’s perspective’ is all most visitors will ever have, and lessens our ability to empathise with those who did, in fact experience life on the block — sometimes with a temptingly technicolor view of the world they were cast away from.
My eye was drawn, increasingly, to these more colourful aspects of the Island for that reason — the rusting keyhole, the blue ocean viewed through a broken window with white sailboats drifting ever out of view, the irises lining the steep steps to an observation point, staring back at my own and imploring the pursuit of one of my most natural inclinations. It was windswept, it was heartbreaking, but it was beautiful, and it was in full colour. I bought my camera the next day, I have stopped every five minutes since to shoot, wherever I am, and I haven’t looked back since. I never will again.