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Pictures from the Outside: Reviewed by Meggan Gould

Book Review Pictures from the Outside By Chantal Zakari and 13 incarcerated men Reviewed by Meggan Gould "I have a folder, somewhere on my hard drive, of screenshots that I collected in a short-lived mad frenzy to wander Google Earth and find every house or apartment in which I had lived..."

By Chantal Zakari and 13 incarcerated men.
Pictures from the Outside
By Chantal Zakari and 13 incarcerated men

Eighteen Publications, 2023. 136 pp., 5¾x8¼".

I have a folder, somewhere on my hard drive, of screenshots that I collected in a short-lived mad frenzy to wander Google Earth and find every house or apartment in which I had lived. I moved a lot in my twenties — multiple cities on two continents — in short, a horrifying number of lease agreements. In Providence alone I count five apartments within a 2-mile radius. A few years back, yearning for more peripatetic days and armed with the easy familiarity of the shift-command-4 gesture, I traveled the world and captured each address, as frontally as possible (the joy of the selective screenshot capture: in-camera framing and cropping of screen landscape). Somewhere in my studio there is a small box with the tiny test cyanotypes I made of these screenshots. They are equal parts poignant (to me) and unremarkable.

It is worth noting that I had the privilege of access to this imagery when this flight of fancy overcame me. The privilege to sit at a computer and revisit sites of memory, to attempt to clutch them through an act of collection (followed, in my case, by a peculiar penchant for a chemical translation). Many (too many) do not share this privilege, this freedom of virtual or physical movement to explore the reliability — or friability — of memory. In Pictures from the Outside, Chantal Zakari engages in a collaborative photo-making process with a group of incarcerated men, acting as a visual conduit to memories of specific architecture that molded their pasts. The architecture in which they are currently housed is hinted at in the structure of the book itself: exposed board covers shelter the book in a heavy casing, and the open-spine binding is reminiscent, dare I say, of barred windows.

Zakari allowed the men a visual reprieve from the prison walls, in the form of external image-making on their behalf. She established parameters: no photographs of people, and within a driving radius of two to three hours. Reminiscent of a scavenger hunt, Zakari was asked to visit specific childhood houses, a bodega, multiple schools, a flight of stairs, a portentous courthouse door. She asked the men to tell her how to take the envisioned picture. What corner should she stand on, what direction should she aim her camera? Often they sketched the framing; one reproduced sketch asks the artist to stand at the starred intersection of Mead and Russle Streets, with a note to “please take photo approximately where star is. I trust your judgment.”

Judgment is a recurring theme throughout. That of the law, of course, but also one’s own judgments and their consequences. Multiple levels of text intersect with Zakari’s photographs: the initial prompts, the men’s jotted observations upon receiving the photographs, and longer reflection pieces that use the architectural structures visualized as launching points for broader narratives about childhood, education, love, parks, abuse, prayer, violence, and play. Zakari includes her own notes and observations as she looked to faithfully execute each requested image; the layered voices intermingle and form a rich tapestry of personal experiences of place, often spanning decades.

I am struck that the collaborative aspect of this project is as interesting, if not more so, than the resultant photographs. To be a stand-in for someone else’s vision, possibly warped with the weight of time and emotional baggage, and to channel vision through multiple lenses — optical and conceptual — is an extraordinary exercise in communication and trust. A banal street corner, ostensibly unremarkable, is rendered poignant through the way in which photography accesses it, holds it, and delivers it back to the eyes yearning to see it. Or, it is an extraordinary privilege to visit our past, and photography can be an exquisite gift.

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Meggan Gould is an artist living and working outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of New Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,, the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies, and Speos (Paris Photographic Institute), where she finally began her studies in photography. She received an MFA in photography from the University of Massachusetts — Dartmouth. She recently wrote a book, Sorry, No Pictures, about her own relationship to photography.