20 January, 2015

Photo Op

You can snap a selfie and post it to your social media site of choice, no sweat. I’m not so fortunate. Never mind that I’ve never held a phone with a color screen, I haven’t even touched a camera since my job as the prison’s visiting room photographer ended — in early 2005. To get a picture of myself, as I was asked to do around the holidays, the process is a tad more nuanced than choosing whether or not to do a duck face in my bathroom mirror. And if I want to share one, that involves an envelope, a first-class USPS stamp, and three to five business days.

I could’ve refused or ignored the request for a recent photo, I suppose, but it was really the least I could do. I decided to take the picture.

To start, I needed to buy a ticket. The canteen sells them for $1.50 apiece — little pink receipts spit out with the purchasers’ names and DOC numbers printed along the bottom. They also declare themselves NON REFUNDABLE, as though everything from the canteen isn’t sold as-is.

The week after entering the UPC on my canteen list, I had my picture ticket in hand. All that was left was to figure out when I could do the deed.

Photos are taken in the gym three days a week, exclusively during morning and evening recreation periods. Rec days are staggered, and my work schedule leaves few opportunities for photo sessions. The next Monday I had free looked promising, but that ended up being canceled by an institution-wide lockdown. The lockdown lasted seven days, after which I planned for a Tuesday morning. That was foiled by a surprise appointment to see the nurse at exactly the time I’d intended to be in the gym, cheesing it up. Making some copies in the library precluded anything else the week after that, and the week after that I had an important phone call to place immediately after the call to recreation went out. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Finally, though, the stars aligned. I crossed the yard, headed gymward, the frigid arctic wind whipping over the Midwestern plains, rosying my cheeks (I hoped) handsomely.

There are several reasons I avoid the gym. Noise is one. The smell — or smells — is another. Also, there’s the fact that whenever our prison writers conferences are interrupted by an urge to use the restroom, my friend Lefty follows me past the weight piles, across the basketball court, to the wall of urinals. This may sound creepy, but the fact is, the gym’s restroom is tucked away, out of view of staff or cameras, and as such is sometimes the site of hurried sexual rendezvous and beef-settling throwdowns, and Lefty’s just playing his role in the buddy system. Besides all this, I have no interest in sports or weight training. Staying out of the gym isn’t exactly a challenge for me.

The gym doors are opened for a few minutes every half hour, so I brought a book. I wandered in search of the man with the camera, his trademark red and black jacket, owned-since the days when prisoners could mail order clothes. He was playing cards on a four-top in the game room when I found him. A table tennis ball pinged against my shoe and I ponged it back to the players. The photographer pocketed my ticket and we walked to the designated wall. In years gone by, the whole institution could’ve been our studio — out on the handball courts, beside the textured tan wall of a housing unit, on the grass of the softball field, at the outdoor picnic tables — but now the administration quite literally has us with our backs to the wall. It’s the same ugly gray concrete wall every time.

“Can I hold my book, or is that against the rules?”

“Uh, no, you gotta set it down someplace.”

“Can I sit?”

“No, you have to stand.”

“I can’t crouch, even?”


“If I wanted to send a picture where I’m staring dead ahead into the lens, I’d just forward my mugshot from the DOC website. How about this?” I tried a couple of poses, alternately silly and serious.

The photographer was game for anything that wasn’t explicitly against the rules, but he couldn’t frame a shot to save his life. When I mentioned the rule of thirds his response was a blank stare. Not that I expected Annie Leibovitz, but I didn’t anticipate the top of my head getting lopped off in every single image, either.

Fifteen minutes, many shutter snaps, and one minor tension headache later, I had a couple of photographs of myself that weren’t too bad — or didn’t seem that way. The camera has a three-inch screen but finished prints never have quite the same values as you remember okaying. I would know for certain four days later, after the flash card went to the printer and the photos, in physical form, made their way to the gym for distribution. It felt a little like the anxiety I recall surrounding school photos. Maybe the process is less harrowing for students these days, but when I was in middle school in the early ’90s you wore your winningest smile and hoped for the best.

I’ve done all of this many times — buying the tickets, finding the time, running up against draconian rules, waiting eagerly for the final product. Somehow it’s always so anticlimactic. The expression printed on that glossy paper never resembles the person I think I am.

1 comment:

  1. >references new photo >new photo not posted

    Very Byron, the selective and secretive narrator.


Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.