Chantal Zakari, Pictures From The Outside

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2023 by Eighteen Publications (here). Hardcover book, 5.8 x 8.25 inches, with exposed boards and open-spine binding, and two double gatefolds, 136 pages, with numerous photographs and text passages by the author. Includes archival photographs, diagrams, and notes by thirteen anonymous contributors. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of photography’s special gifts is that it lets one person stand in the shoes of another. A photograph records what he or she—or, to be more precise, his or her camera—saw at a certain place and time. This momentary vantage might offer insight into the photographer’s thought process, methodology, and value systems, but let’s set aside those higher concerns for now. At a purely functional level, pictures transmit visual information that might be otherwise inaccessible. Photographers have smartly leveraged this capacity for centuries, from William Henry Jackson in Yellowstone to Gilles Peress in Iran to Siân Davey shooting friends in her private backyard. The prospect is especially tantalizing for captive inmates—a distressingly sizable portion of the U.S. population. 

Photography’s vicarious potential is the premise for Chantal Zakari’s Pictures From The Outside. The project grew out of a class she taught in a prison near her Boston home. Zakari offered to make pictures for her incarcerated students. They could direct her to any “special place” outside the prison within a few hours drive. There were to be no people photographed, but beyond that the scope was open. “It can be a building, a street corner, a store, a park, any place that is significant to them, a place they would like to see again,” she explained. 

The inmates became art directors. Using maps and notes, they could command Zakari to exact coordinates, tell her which way to face and what time of day to shoot. In effect, she was offering herself as a lensed vehicle for prisoners to step into her shoes beyond the prison walls. After making the requested photographs, Zakari returned with a handful of draft images. Prisoners selected their favorite, which was then printed for exhibition.

As shown in the book, Zakari’s final pictures hew closer to documentary than artifice. They record requested scenes faithfully with few visual bells and whistles. In aesthetic terms they’re roughly comparable to surveillance footage or Google Street View. Perhaps sensing their dry flavor, Zakari lends them a historical spin. “The work evolved to an exploration of urban spaces, a reflection on changes due to gentrification, and in general, the psychological effect that architecture has on shaping our lives.” 

Even with this additional context, Zakari’s photos feel relatively inert on their own. Fortunately they’re boosted by swarms of supporting material. Pictures From The Outside is multimedia and multi-authored, organized and interpreted from the perspective of the 13 participating inmates. Each collaborator is anonymized with a pair of initials and given his own chapter with 5-10 pages, all helpfully sequenced with initialed index down selected left margins. Each chapter includes prep photos and diagrams, and Zakari’s final photos. These materials are informative and entertaining, but the most reliable highlights are the reflections written by prisoners. They reflect on photographs, places, and related memories. Taken collectively, they’re a crash course in amateur photo theory, written from the heart and an uncommon perspective. Nigel Poor’s The San Quentin Project (reviewed here) tapped a similar authorship, but those photos took place within the prison walls. Zakari’s are Pictures From The Outside.

As might be expected, the prisoners’ art directions leaned on adolescent memories, nostalgia, and vestiges of former freedom. Within those parameters, requests varied widely. An inmate named C.V., for example, wanted a photo of his old childhood home, while K.W. longed for his old playground and bus station. When J.S. cited a hilltop vista too broad for a single frame, Zakari montaged a panoramic skyline across a double gatefold. A.I. was curious to revisit his home town’s main intersection and his former school, and also, by the way, could he please see the courthouse again? For R.G. it was his old bodega shot from a specific vantage. S.A.: his old mosque. And for J.P.? His former high school. 

Those were the simple cases. For other inmates, the project detoured down unexpected paths. There was M.O., for example, who wanted a photo of a local staircase called 40 Flights, his path to school every day as a free youth. Zakari made the photo for him, which is included in the book. He was released shortly afterward, and a year later they reconvened in person at 40 Flights. Another prisoner named N.M. wanted photos of a pizza joint and nightclub where he’d hung out. Those were mundane requests compared to his third. He wanted a photo of the night sky. “Since he has been incarcerated he has not been able to experience the darkness of the night,” noted Zakari. “The lights are on all the time. He can’t see the stars.” She dutifully complied, and her double spread sky photo might be a liberation manifesto of sorts. It is deep purple and sprinkled with distant evening stars. C.M. asked for a photo of his hometown courthouse. “Please take a photo of the back door. This is where inmates enter the building.” Unbeknownst to both of them, the courthouse had been rebuilt and relocated since his imprisonment. Zakari wound up photographing the new one by mistake, before eventually sorting out and shooting the proper site. Her goose chase might symbolize the justice system’s occasionally Kafka-esque legal hoops. 

As for C.Z.—Chantal Zakari—she seemed primarily interested in the lives of her students. This is where the project takes a novel twist. We’ve learned already how prisoners stepped into her shoes, but it turned out the photographic process let her step into theirs as well. By visiting and photographing sites from their past, Zakari gained some concrete understanding of their lives, of where and how they lived. Pictures are naturally dense with information, but also inherently limited. Where they occasionally fell short, personal ruminations filled in the backstories. “When you go to prison you have a lot of time to think,” explains M.O. “You think about all the bad decisions. How did I get here?” 

There’s no simple answer to that question for any prisoner, but Zakari’s project offers therapeutic potential. “One of the men tells me this is a difficult class because art assignments are open-ended with seemingly no right or wrong responses,” she writes, “and that I give them too many choices. He says, in prison you lose your ability to make choices.” Indeed, issues of personal agency, representation, and competing perspectives have been central to Zakari’s work throughout her career. Whether studying webcams, Walmart power plays, images of Covid, or Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in her native Turkey, her projects are multifarious and open-ended.

She sometimes collaborates with her husband Mike Mandel, who also knows a thing or two about reconceiving photography. Pictures From The Outside is the latest book from their joint self-publishing arm Eighteen Publications. It’s a view outside the prison walls, and a welcome step beyond the walls of photo world convention.

Collector’s POV: Chantal Zakari does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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