“Empty prisons are eerie places where the walls do speak. Etched into the stone is the passing of successive generations of inmates all with their own stories. Each prison has its own history, character, and tales to tell and so too does every cell. But old prisons are not just a reminder of the past—they also help guide the future,” says Photographer Brett Leigh Dicks.
Opening on May 18, INSIDE: Photographs of Australian Decommissioned Prisons by Brett Leigh Dicks is an exhibition at the Architectural Foundation of Santa Barbara of compelling, black and white images documenting Australian prison facilities that have surpassed their use-by dates.
Dicks, a Santa Barbara-based writer/photographer has spent the past 30 years photographing various natural and urban landscapes etched with traces of human history.
His work has been exhibited in Australia, Europe and the United States and hung beside photographers as diverse as Ansel Adams, Jeff Bridges, Max Dupain, Lewis Morley, Yoko Ono and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Dicks’ prison photographs currently sees him as a finalist in the 2018 Sony World Photography Awards. He is also a prolific writer and his work has appeared in publications around the world, including in Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.
For the past five years he has turned his photographic scrutiny upon closed-down jails, prisons and penitentiaries throughout Australia, Europe and United States. He returned last year to his Australian homeland, where he undertook the first comprehensive documentation of decommissioned prisons and jails.
“I have been photographing abandoned prisons across the United States for the past decade,” Dicks explains. “In 2016 that work was exhibited at Fremantle Prison where I asked about Australian prisons. Nobody had previously done a comprehensive study of old Australian prisons so last summer I set off with my camera and photographed closed –down facilities all across Australia.”
He continues, “I was given access Parramatta Correctional Center where operations were suspended only a few years ago, traipsed around the infamous Port Arthur Historic Site in the midst of a bitter Tasmanian winter and even managed to talk my way into an old jail that’s now an outback police station.”
The exhibition includes both historic and contemporary Australian sites including Adelaide Gaol, Fremantle Prison, J Ward Ararat, Maitland Gaol, Old Melbourne Gaol, Parramatta Correctional Center, Port Arthur Historic Site, Trial Bay Gaol and the Wilcannia Police Station. The subject matter ranges from the empty quietness of once bustling cellblocks and common areas to more abstract contemplations of the interaction between barred windows with the morning light and the poetic twisting of coils of barbed wire.
While Port Arthur closed in 1877, Parramatta Correctional Center housed prisoners until 2011. Dicks says photographing the two locations offered two very contrasting experiences. “There were still books and televisions and personal items in the cells at Parramatta—the ins and out of prison life remained very apparent whereas Port Arthur featured the haunting remnants of rustic metal and stone. The prisoner experience was obviously very different at each of those locations and so too were the resulting photographs.
Regarding the role photography can play in the afterlife of prisons, Dicks says that every society’s approach to punishment and incarceration should be something that is constantly being reassessed. “As society changes so too does its values. Prisons used to be a place of punishment and repentance, but in the lifespan of some of these prisons they were transformed into places of reform and rehabilitation. Justice and the form it takes should be an ongoing conversation in every community and I think there is a place for photography to illuminate that.
INSIDE: Photographs of Australian Decommissioned Prisons by Brett Leigh Dicks is on view at the Architectural Foundation of Santa Barbara, 229 E. Victoria St., Santa Barbara, from May 18 – July 12, with an opening reception on May 18 from 5-7 p.m.
Regular gallery hours are Saturdays from 1-4 p.m. and by appointment (please contact Rocio Iribe at 805/965-6307).
Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons on May 15, 2018.