It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones. – Nelson Mandela
One of the nicest things about owning a great camera like the Olympus OMD EM 1 Mkii is being part of what is increasingly becoming a large family of like minded enthusiasts. Five of us travelled up to Gloucester on a cold January morning. We were not sure what to expect from the day, but knew we would receive a warm welcome from the Olympus team and some fun photographic experiences with Gavin Hoey, an Olympus ambassador.
Designed by William Blackburn, Gloucester prison opened in 1792. It was substantially rebuilt in 1840 with flanking brick wings by Thomas Fuljames. A young offenders wing was built in 1971. Further improvements were made in 1987, including a new gate and an administration block. In April, 2003, Gloucester was named in a survey as “among the 20 most overcrowded jails” in the United Kingdom. The following day, the prison was the scene of a three-and-a-half-hour siege when two prisoners protested over visiting rights by barricading themselves in a cell. In 2007 Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons described the lack of meaningful activities as ‘woeful’.
Prior to 1792 executions had taken place at the nearby village of Over and the condemned were conveyed to the gallows in carts, sitting on their own coffins. After this date hangings were carried out using a “New Drop” style gallows erected on the roof of the prison gatehouse and continued on the new gatehouse roof when it was built in 1826. The next and last public execution at Gloucester was carried out on the 27th of August 1864 when 55 year old Lewis Gough was to die for the murder of Mary Curtis. A further 17 people (16 men and one woman) were hanged within the prison between 1872 and 1939. Prisoners were always buried within the walls of the prison. Before it’s closure in 2013 Gloucester Prison was a male category B prison.
Recently sold to be developed as a hotel complex, building has ceased since the remains of an old Norman castle were found during the initial ground works. The prison is currently open for daily tours and night time ghost hunts. https://www.gloucesterprison.com/prison-tours
Any building unoccupied for five years will be cold and will show signs of deterioration but the real chill emanating from this huge building was unexpected. With our coats, hats and gloves on, we began ‘taking in’ the atmosphere. It was bleak, primitive almost and my imagination took off in overdrive. I imagined being incarcerated in the tiny dark, colourless cells, lying alone with the clanging and banging of doors whilst watching the muted and faded light move around the dirty walls and across the narrow bed. It was most certainly a colourless and joyless place to end up.
Initially we worked with two models both dressed in grey prison track suits. PJ and Brian were quick to assume the required characters. We had just enough time to set them in a desired pose, take a few pictures before the next photographer took their turn. It was fast paced and required quick thinking and an even quicker finger on the shutter! For a photographer who enjoys colour as much as I do, it was strange and very challenging to be taking photographs in such a desaturated world.
Although I had seen photographs of the inside of prisons before, I was surprised by the hugeness of a whole wing and the weird beauty of the symmetry created by bars and nets. The rows of cell doors, the parallel landings and wrought iron decorations provided a stark contrast to the claustrophobic, dank and very tiny cells. I wasn’t prepared for the odours of the past either. It was obvious that some cell walls had been the target of prisoners’ ‘dirty protests’ at some point in the past.
In the second half of the afternoon we were given a guided tour by an ex prison officer Julian. He knew the prison well and told us about some of its secrets. He was entertaining despite the bleak nature of the environment. I became fascinated by a graffiti wall where I found signatures dating back hundreds of years. The exercise yards must have provided some much needed air, but even they felt claustrophobic with the tall fences and the rolls of barbed wire framing them. It must have been depressing to stare up through the wire and see the clouds and birds so free and forever on the move. I stood for a while and imagined.
Despite the primitive conditions and my over active imagination, our photography experiences were brilliant. It is experiences that take you out of your comfort zone that get the creative ‘juices’ going and I came away, as did my friends, with some photographs I really like. I learned how to use a fisheye lens more effectively too, but most of all I came away being able to visualise a much more desaturated and mono world than I had previously been able to grasp through my lens. A big thank you to team Olympus I am already looking forward to the next event!