What Photography & Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase : by Edgar Martins

What Photography & Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase

In 2016 GRAIN commissioned artist Edgar Martins to respond to HMP Birmingham, the site and community.  Over a number of years Martins created a significant, multifaceted body of work developed from many visits with prisoners, staff and their families.

HMP Birmingham, on starting the project, was the largest privately run, category B prison in the UK.  During the duration of the project, and in response to various crises, the government took back control of the prison.  Using the social context of incarceration as a starting point, Martins explored the philosophical concept of absence and addressed a broader consideration of the status of the photograph when questions of visibility, ethics, aesthetics and documentation intersect.

From a humanist perspective the work seeks to reflect on how one deals with the absence of a loved one, brought on by enforced separation.  From an ontological perspective it seeks answers to the following questions: how does one represent a subject that eludes visualisation, that is absent or hidden from view? And what does it mean for photography, in an epistemological, ontological, aesthetic and ethical sense, if it does not identify with the photographic subject but the absence of it’s subject?

The work shifts between image and information, between fiction and evidence, strategically deploying visual and textual details in tandem so that the viewer becomes aware of what exists outside the confines of the frame.

Across this complex and radical body of work, Martins worked with archives from renowned European institutions, leading Portuguese physicist João Seixas, inmates and their families connected to HMP Birmingham as well as a variety of other individual and organisations such as colleges, community centres, charities, fire departments and young people’s groups.

The work was exhibited during Covid at The Herbert Museum & Art Gallery, during UK City of Culture, at FORMAT International Photography Festival and has toured to numerous major galleries in Europe as well as being shown in the context of art fairs, including Photo London and Paris Photo.

The work has featured in numerous events and symposia hosted by GRAIN, Birmingham City University and the University of South Wales.

The project was published as a photobook by The Moth House and is available here.

Artist exhibition tour:

See the online version of the exhibition here .

Photograph by Garry Jones

Copyright 2016 GRAIN.