Some of the best thoughts on photography I've read all year have been written by an inmate in a correctional facility in Rush City, Minnesota. C. Fausto Cabrera, who has been studying writing and photography while incarcerated, began corresponding with Alec Soth, a well-known photographer who is a part of Magnum Photo agency, just before the pandemic was declared.
"I've always loved this idea of making something that is just for someone else, just this pure form of communication, and you can address things in a different way. I'm the one pushing it to talk about photography — but of course he’s bringing in all sorts of other topics, which enlivens the conversation, as I’m waking up to other issues in the world," Soth said.
At one point, Soth asked Cabrera about which images he would take to a desert island, a simple question in civilian life that has different layers of meaning to Cabrera, who does not have ready access to photographs in his current setting. He described images both real and imagined: of his family, of women, and, notably, of his cell in Stillwater, Minnesota, where he had spent a lot of time before being relocated to Rush City.
"Art as pure escapism is valuable, but there is a point where it becomes delusion," Cabrera explained.
Their letters and emails have been turned into a book, The Parameters of Our Cage, that reflects on the criminal justice system, the strengths and limits of perspective, and Demi Lovato, among other things. It is not a traditional photo book full of images and context, instead, it offers a powerful meditation on photography and society.
"The book to me is more about dialogue and restriction. I think all art is all about communication, and the struggle of being an artist is figuring out how to communicate with people," Soth said.
BuzzFeed News spoke with Soth about this experience and sent questions through him to Cabrera. Both men were eloquent about the books meaning and production; for clarity’s sake, BuzzFeed News has chosen to focus on Cabrera's responses.
What was the most surprising thing that you learned from this project?
The most surprising thing was that something as simple and straightforward as a dialogue between artists could resonate with the times like it did. My appreciation really goes out to Alec and Michael Mack for seeing the broader implications and amplifying these words. I mean, I knew Alec had a wealth of experiences to share, and that was a prime motivation to write to him; I just never imagined we'd format our exchange and present it.
Reaching out came from a very personal need to connect with an artistic community beyond these walls, but it wasn't arbitrary at all. I wasn't playing a numbers game to a bunch of photographers. I've kept a list of artists who've inspired and influenced me for years as a way to understand how to cultivate my own artistic voice. There was just something serendipitous about the timing of it all that emboldened me to follow the impulse to write Alec. I had my people look him up online. I read an article about [Soth's] first book along the Mississippi, his experience on the beach in Helsinki, [and I] saw that he was local, then decided to roll the dice.
You talk a lot about justice and about how the prison system is not built for rehabilitation. What are a few things you'd like people outside the prison system to understand about it?
I don't think people who are not personally attached to the prison system understand how much is wasted in its current format. A waste of resources, taxpayer dollars, human equity, [and] property — there is a long list. Because "crime" is an emotional charged topic based on pain, fear, and anger, it is extremely easy to zero in on any one atrocious act in order to justify the whole system without question. But "crime" is complicated and based on the brokenness of citizens who fell off the rails at some point. If we are who we proclaim to be as a nation, we must confront our responsibility in the lives of our people before it's "too late." This is where systemic failures meet personal accountability.
Look, I could write a book to this question; more than anything, people should know that inmates want to be part of the solution to the problems. Of course I can't speak for a whole population, but we enter the system under a social compact to serve our "debt to society." That can be seen in the fact that damn near every prison in the country could be taken over by inmates at any time due to sheer volume and numbers. It's why prisons are shrouded in mystery, and anything positive is seldom seen in the media. Institutions that operate in the shadows of public scrutiny should be red-flagged immediately. But since we are the "undesirables" condemned by our own actions, we are expendables — but at what expense?
Alec can attest to the stark contrast of his perception of inmates pre- and post-correspondence. This book in its entirety speaks to a need to break down the barriers that create "others." There is a reason why prison culture seems "otherworldly" to the general public. Our complicated stories are told through a tainted lens. We are presented at our worst and kept suspended by a sentence, much like anyone dealing with their own personal cage of misperception. An insane dissociation is at play, perpetuating this idea that "corrections" means retributively keeping people in cages while expecting them to stop acting like animals. We are entering a period of unprecedented paradigm shifts. One of them is in deciding who is allowed to tell the story of the marginalized.
I often think about the premise of that old Seinfeld joke about how "some of my best friends are Black." I believe this speaks to the realities of our divisiveness. How many people know an inmate or communicate with someone incarcerated? Those that do instantly understand that the system is either broken or misdirected. Either way, there should be an incarcerated voice at the table when criminal justice reform is discussed. Just as the recovering/recovered addict plays an invaluable role in confronting treatment protocol, so should the true experts of incarceration be included moving forward. There are many people who've spent decades refining their character in the harshest of environments. This isn't about absolving responsibility. Quite the opposite. It's about purpose, value, and the role of each shareholder in restoring justice.
Is there an image or two that stood out to you from this year that you can describe?
An image that affected me profoundly from the news this year was the burning of the 3rd Precinct in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd. I was glad nobody got hurt, but witnessing that very distinct symbol targeted felt like something different — a newfound hope that people were waking up to this domestic "war on drugs" that was manifest as an occupation of Black and brown cities. That rippled hope to me. Corporations and professional sports leagues stepped up to at least acknowledge systematic oppression while putting resources toward the cause. People of affluence took notice, and I still believe that a monumental shift occurred despite the pushback.
Then those police officers hijacked the narrative to claim victimhood, saying that they were counting bullets in fear of being ripped apart by a mob. And going so far as filing for disability due to post-traumatic stress disorder after one of their own just kneeled on the neck of a man for 8 minutes and 46 seconds! I was saddened and dismayed to know that they couldn't connect that same fear and anxiety to the feeling we experience every time we see a flashing light in the rearview mirror, or every time we are approached by a blue uniform with a hand on their gun. Where is our disability for that same proven trauma we are protesting? I know this might be off-topic, and there is a chance none of this translates coming from a "criminal" like me, but these are the images that stick to my ribs as I teeter between hope and despair. Art has restored my dignity, and I intend to use it to pay forward on an insurmountable debt.
Are there other elements that you connect with while in prison?
In terms of subject or theme, I'm most drawn to portraits, namely women. It's no stretch of imagination to understand that women might mean a lot to an incarcerated man. Being deprived of intimate connection, not just physically, but emotionally as well, has had a profound effect on me through the decades. There is a disruption of natural maturity, and that latent effect has a damaging result that I must be conscious of. "Maslow's needs" in consideration, the subtraction of an appropriate female presence perpetuates many problems that exist within the prison system, which in turn reverberates into how we relate to people post-incarceration. Most of my visual art attempts to address this issue. I struggle with the allure of a neglected sexuality while attempting to examine the parameters of objectification. Because I am unable to deal with my own subjects, I've had to rely on the photography of other artists as reference material throughout the years.
What would freedom look like as a picture?
Freedom is an abstraction, right? Everyone must define it for themselves accordingly. That is the premise of The Parameters of Our Cage — no matter our circumstance, there is always a possibility that our personal limitations can become a sort of prison. Which is a thread everyone can relate to. Yet, prison is a very real place for me, concrete in the most literal term.
I was just reading an essay, "When a Person Goes Missing," where Dawn Lundy Martin contemplates the question of freedom and plays with zeroing in on a definition: an inner freedom or sort of peace not divorced from a feeling of political or physical freedom, and how they inform each other within body and belief.
Jean-Paul Sartre said, "Being free is not wanting to do what one wants, but wanting to do what one can." My life has been defined by these terms, wasted as the ignorance of brokenness in youth. Yet I am no victim and I am responsible to control my own aperture. Settling on one way to see anything will never suit me. Freedom as a picture for me is the day I set foot out of this place, and I hope Alec is there to photograph it.