What Photography & Incarceration Have In Common With An Empty Vase

A collaboration between artist Edgar Martins and prison inmates in the West Midlands, their families and several other individuals and community groups in the region.

What Photography and Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase' exhibition shots View 1The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

 It is a multifaceted body of work, commissioned by GRAIN Projects, where Edgar Martins uses the social context of incarceration as a starting point. Martins explores the philosophical concept of absence.

He also addresses a broader consideration of the status of the photograph when questions of visibility, ethics, aesthetics and documentation intersect. 

The word is Bast**d, Bast**d is the word from the series What Photography & Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase The word is Bast**d, Bast**d is the word - Full ViewThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

By using image and text, new and historical photography, evidence and fiction, Martins’ work proposes to scrutinise how one deals with the absence of a loved one, brought on by enforced separation through incarceration and lockdown. 

The word is Bast**d, Bast**d is the word from the series What Photography & Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase Image 1 of Sometimes the right stuff is in fact the wring stuff, From the collection of: The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum
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The word is Bast**d, Bast**d is the word from the series What Photography & Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase Image 2 of Sometimes the right stuff is in fact the wring stuff, From the collection of: The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum
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What Photography and Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase' exhibition shots View 8The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

The exhibition seeks to answer:


How does one represent a subject that is absent or hidden from view? How can documentary photography, in an era of fake news, best acknowledge the imaginative and fictional dimension of our relation to photographs?    

What Photography and Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase' exhibition shots View 7The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

By giving a voice to inmates and their families and addressing prison as a set of social relations rather than a physical space, Martins’ work aims to rethink and counter the sort of imagery normally associated with incarceration and confinement.   

I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Winson Green!, from the series What Photography & Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase (2019) by Edgar MartinsThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

The project intentionally circumvents images whose sole purpose, Martins argues, is to confirm the already held opinions within dominant ideology about crime and punishment: violence, drugs, criminality and race.  


One of Martins’ priorities, while engaging with prisoners and their families, was to tell the stories and narratives that seldom get told, while also protecting them from the gaze of the public.   

What Photography and Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase' exhibition shots View 4The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

These images represent a selection of knives and other bladed weapons analysed by the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, which were used in serious crimes over a period of two years. 

Ya pop-eyed runt with a tiny knife from the series What Photography & Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase (2019) by Edgar MartinsThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

However, for Martins these blades do not necessarily just talk of violence and crime. They are not mere still-lives. They are portraits, stand-ins for the individuals that once held them. They depict different individual dispositions, body shapes and temperaments

I need you more than you need me from the series What Photography & Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase I need you more than you need me - View 1The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

 This installation comprises a mixture of historical archive photographs as well as personal photographs donated by the inmates and families Martins interacted with. The book that supports the visual work is a facsimile copy of an inmate’s diary, which was written especially for this project.  

I need you more than you need me from the series What Photography & Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase I need you more than you need me - View 3The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Martins forged a close friendship with the inmate that wrote this journal, visiting him over two years.

HMP Birmingham enabled the artist to spend one-on-one time with the inmate in question, allowing the artist to share the work he was producing with him and edit the diary.  

What Photography and Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase' exhibition shots View 9The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

It became apparent to Martins early on in the project that many of the individuals he had connected with were highly vulnerable, particularly the family members. According to Martins this strategy enabled him to disrupt the power relations and the voyeurism inherent in the consumption of this type of imagery. 

What Photography and Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase' exhibition shots View 3The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Martins went to great lengths to invert the role of the sitter. The people one might imagine to play a specific role, may not actually have this role in real life.       

Credits: Story

Find out more about the exhibitions and Martins' works here: Culture Space Coventry


Follow Edgar Martins on his website, Instagram, and Facebook

The digital exhibition has been curated by Joy Corcec. 

© Edgar Martins (www.edgarmartins.com) | All works are part of a temporary exhibition (19 February - 18 April 2021)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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