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Jane Evelyn Atwood – Women in Jail, 1997

Jane Evelyn Atwood – Women in Jail, 1997

Jane Evelyn Atwood won the 1997 Leica Oskar Barnack Award for her provocative, long-term project about prisons for women and female inmates. The award presentation took place during the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, and came with prize money amounting to 10,000 German marks. This support contributed significantly to enabling the photographer to continue with the series and publish the work a few years later.

The time and preparation involved in the series represented a major effort for the photographer: Atwood worked on the project for over nine years; she had to overcome countless bureaucratic and administrative hurdles, before she received permission to portray the female inmates and accompany them in their daily lives. She spent at least one week in each prison, covering a total of 40 facilities in nine countries, including the USA, France, Russia, India and the Czech Republic. With precise research and intensive preparation, the photographer explored the women’s prison systems, photographing and interviewing both the inmates and their wardens. The outcome of this effort is a striking series in which the photographer, with great personal involvement, reveals a world that seems unimaginable for most viewers. The photographs illustrate the inhuman conditions of captivity, as well as often hopeless situations, with all the hardships and depressions suffered by the abandoned women. One of the disheartening things that came to light is the fact that prisons for women are generally worse equipped than prisons for men. Since 1990, the number of women in jails in the USA has multiplied by ten; the statistics for the other countries chosen by Atwood are similar.

“Curiosity was the initial spur. Surprise, shock and bewilderment soon took over. Rage propelled me along to the end.”

For the photographer, receiving the LOBA in 1997 not only provided financial support, but also brought her work to broader attention. “The money involved would have been important to me at the time. It costs money to do the projects we do and a prize or grant is what enables us to continue working,” Atwood explains. “The recognition was especially important. Recognition validates the work and makes people, who otherwise might not have looked at the work, take it more seriously. It can open doors and put us in contact with new people; but most of all, the recognition I got from winning the award made me feel good about what I’d been working so hard on, and for so long.” The photographer first used an M6 for the series, but later favoured an M7.

“I listened to their stories and left with one thought: I have to tell people about this.”

The photographer published the project in the year 2000 in a photo book titled “Too Much Time”. The book explores in more depth prison conditions and the inequities between men and women, as well as reporting on the relationship between male violence and female crime. As a result of the many-layered combination of text and images, Atwood gave the women portrayed greater voice, strength and notice.

The series has lost very little of its relevance and reality, even today – on the contrary. “In my view, and from what I’ve gathered by keeping up with what’s happening, things are only worse, for the most part,” the photographer commented in a recent interview. “There are more and more women locked up; prisons are more and more crowded; there is less and less work for female inmates inside prisons; and sentences are longer and longer. Women still don’t receive appropriate care, education and counseling, while in prison. These are all things that might keep them from going back to prison and, especially, from continuing to make bad choices – the first of which is to follow a man who is already in crime and who doesn’t have the woman’s best interest at heart.”

“A photographer must have something to say! And then, he or she must work like crazy, many years, to establish a body of work for which he or she is known.”

Jane Evelyn Atwood

Born in New York in 1947, Atwood has been living and working in Paris, since 1971. Her work always reflects her deep connection with her subjects, over long periods of time. She has published various books, including “Too Much Time” (Phaidon Press, 2000). Her work has appeared in many international magazines. In addition to the LOBA, she has received numerous awards, including the W. Eugene Smith Award (1980) and the Grand Prix Paris Match (1990).

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