In 2010, Jan Banning made a trip to Uganda to photograph prisons. A Dutch photographer, Banning had spent much of the previous decade traveling between eight different countries to document the lives of civil servants. Backgrounding that project was a more difficult subject that Banning found increasingly impossible to ignore: the criminal justice system.
Banning’s arrival in Uganda marked the beginning of his latest work, Law & Order: The World of Criminal Justice, which he completed in 2015 and recently published as a book. In it, he details the criminal justice systems in Uganda, France, Colombia, and the United States—countries selected to illustrate the varied codes of law and forms of government. Throughout the book, Banning’s photographs are punctuated by his personal reflections and information on the legal landscape of each country, provided by the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in Freiburg, Germany.
In some ways, Uganda was a soft introduction to Banning’s project: while Ugandan prisons suffer from overcrowding and inconsistent amenities, the treatment of prisoners, Banning says, is generally humane; the system itself is transparent.
Through a contact at the Dutch embassy, Banning received permission to take photographs in ten prisons throughout the country. In his book, Banning details the experience. He writes:
“When I walked through the overcrowded penitentiaries, an unarmed warden or his assistant tagged along, reaching out left and right to pat someone on the head or strike up a conversation, without putting the slightest obstacle in my way when I was taking photographs or having a chat with the prisoners.”
His experience in Uganda, Banning says, stands in marked contrast to what he witnessed in the United States, whose incarceration rate is the highest in the world. There, it took him a year and a half of negotiations to secure access to five prisons in Georgia. Once inside, his ability to photograph was limited, and three guards, armed with machine guns and wearing bullet-proof vests, walked him through steel doors and whitewashed halls.
Law & Order avoids placing value judgments on the countries’ systems; the closest Banning comes to outright condemnation is a full-page spread of text overlaying an image of a Colombian prison. In it, he details efforts by the Colombian penal administration (INPEC) to prevent him from documenting the more horrific aspects of the high-security prisons, and instead focus only on the sports fields and gardens. “In the other countries dealt with in this book—France, Uganda, and the U.S.—I was able to produce a more or less fair and balanced series of photos,” Banning writes. “In the case of Colombia, I have to clearly admit that I have fallen victim to INPEC’s censorship.” Banning was unable to capture the interiors of Colombia’s high-security prisons.
Taken together, the photographs present a thought-provoking meditation on the state of incarceration, and challenge prejudices and preconceptions about the various countries. Some of Banning’s photographs are explicit about their location: earth-toned walls and mats on the floor signify Uganda, and a small wall-mounted TV projecting an image of the Capitol Building denotes America. But other scenes are deliberately ambiguous, and leave space to consider the universal experience of incarceration.
Through Law & Order, Banning says, “I wanted to raise questions such as: How do we deal with crime? Is prison the best sanction, and if so, what is it we are trying to achieve through it?” Citing the work of the Dutch criminologist Marieke Liem, whose new book, After Life Imprisonment: Reentry in the Era of Mass Incarceration, was published around the same time as Law & Order, Banning says that research demonstrates that lengthy prison sentences have little corrective sway; often, they result in an eventual return to prison.
In the book, Banning writes:
Being locked up in such densely populated fortresses of concrete and stainless steel often causes long-term psychological damage, which can impede integration…it is hard to imagine that doing time in such a place will have much of a cathartic effect.
While the U.S. has moved to close federal private prisons, Banning’s work illustrates the need for more sustained public debate about incarceration, and its effect on the people within it. Paraphrasing Dostoyevsky, Banning says: “Show me your prisons, and I’ll show you the state of your civilization. Can we be proud of what we see?”
Law & Order, $45 at janbanning.com