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Book of the Week: A Pick by Jess T. Dugan

Book of the Week Book of the Week: A Pick by Jess T. Dugan Jess T. Dugan selects Corrections by Zora J Murff as Book of the Week.
CorrectionsBy Zora J MurffAint-Bad Editions, 2015.
This week's Book of the Week pick comes from Jess T. Dugan who has selected Corrections by Zora J Murff from Aint-Bad Editions.

"The extreme cruelties and systematic failures of the United States’ brutal prisons are, at this point, well known. Far from being a solution, mass incarceration in America exacerbated profound social problems, widened the gap between haves and have-nots, and set generations back. —Pete Brook, from the introduction to Corrections

I first came across Zora J. Murff’s project Corrections a few years ago when I was working at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, IL, where part of my job was to manage incoming portfolio submissions for the museum. I was incredibly moved by Zora’s work; I vividly remember sitting at my desk, entranced by the project that had come across my computer screen. The project, while dealing with a difficult subject, was infused with a deep sense of humanity and compassion, and I wanted to know more about both Murff and the people he was photographing.

From 2012 to 2015, Murff worked as a Tracker for the Linn County Juvenile Detention Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he provided services to young adults who were convicted of crimes, adjudicated, and subsequently ordered to complete probation. Juveniles in his charge were asked to comply with a variety of services, including electronic monitoring, one of the key elements in Corrections. Presumed to be a better alternative to incarceration, its use is on the rise: the number of people wearing electronic monitoring bracelets rose from 120,000 in 2005 to 200,000 in 2012 (and we can assume the current number in 2016 is higher still).

Corrections is comprised of portraits of young adults, handwritten texts, and straightforward depictions of objects such as ankle bracelets, standard issue clothing, toothpaste, and hairbrushes. One image depicts a camera inside of a prison classroom and another depicts a jar of urine for urinalysis, both speaking to bodies under constant surveillance and referencing the psychological toll taken by a lack of freedom and autonomy, especially on young minds and bodies.

The portraits are particularly moving; they are simultaneously anonymous, due to a desire to protect the subjects, and deeply connected and intimate. Murff’s relationship with the young adults he photographs is an essential part of this work. They clearly trust him, and he has an empathy for them that translates into a very humanist depiction of individuals at the mercy of a complicated and unjust system. The texts are particularly heartbreaking, pointing to the larger failure of social and economic systems. One reads:

My past charge is assult on my motheragain nothing wrong.  
I’ve been to foundation two for five days. I’ve been to St. Luke 
S syc ward for five days. I’ve been to the U of I syc ward for 5 days. I’ve been to four oaks for 6 days.
I don’t do relationships.
I don’t care to remember my childhood.
I don’t have pleasant memories. 
I don’t care about anything. 

Yet Murff’s book is not without hope. Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to understanding the need for prison reform- and for larger societal reform — is that the struggles are often unseen, undocumented, and misunderstood. Murff’s Corrections is a powerful entry point into a much larger issue, depicting those who are affected most by societal inequality. It is also a call to action for those of us on the outside: we can, and we must, do better."—Jess T. Dugan

CorrectionsBy Zora J MurffAint-Bad Editions, 2015.
CorrectionsBy Zora J MurffAint-Bad Editions, 2015.

Jess T. Dugan is an artist whose work explores issues of gender, sexuality, identity, and community. She has been photographing within LGBTQ communities for the past decade and is deeply committed to the transformative power of photographic portraiture. Her work is regularly exhibited internationally and is in the permanent collections of several major museums.

Her first monograph, Every breath we drew, was published in September 2015 by Daylight Books and coincided with a solo museum exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. She is the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant and was selected by the White House as a 2015 Champion of Change.

Jess is represented by the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago, IL.

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