Marc Steinmetz' Prison Break


Written by Tshepo Mokoena
Photos and illustrations by Marc Steinmetz
10 Saturday 10th September 2011

Whether it's radio transmitters hidden in books, decoy guns to use in attempted prison breaks or devices for cooking drugs, you'd be surprised there isn't some sort of invention committee at work in jails. Or maybe you wouldn't, depending on your thoughts on the purpose of incarceration. We chat to Marc Steinmetz about sourcing the pieces to shoot and his background in photojournalism. We also enjoy his shameless plug (hey, guy's gotta eat).

Double-Barrelled Pistol
Double Barrelled Pistol made in the prison's metal workshop, Celle prison
How long have you been immersing yourself in photographic reportage?
I started to work as a photographer in 1996 after a career in graphic design and magazine layout. In my first story I explored the German Museum in Munich, a humongous science and technology museum. I spent three months there, maybe more. That was, of course, an independent photo project. The days when somebody told you to ’take two years and do India‘ are long gone. But the story opened a few doors for me and established me as a photographer with an understanding of science.
Do you consider yourself to be more of a journalist or artist? What makes you sway towards one over the other?
I’m both, but my artistic work is seldom published, nor does it pay the rent. Yet. (Hey folks, buy prints!) But gradually, art filters into my journalistic work, though. And then there is this large format art project I’ve been working on over the last few years which explores certain types of neglected spaces in our cities. I can’t tell you its title because my favourite only works in German and I’m still looking for an international one. A selection of images will be on once the project is finished.
Immersion Heater
Immersion Heater, 'Santa Fu' jail. Used to distill fruit & liquid into alcohol
Your Escape Tools series on the creativity of prisoners in Germany is fascinating. How did you gain access to the objects, or gain entry to the prisons to document the series?
Most of these artifacts are kept in rather informal collections inside the prisons. I made lots of phone calls, sent a few faxes, and got the respective states’ justice departments to greenlight my request. After that, the prison officials on location were surprisingly friendly and cooperative. Well, most of them...
Were you given the opportunity to directly interact with any of the prisoners? If not, what story do you think their items told about them?
No, there was no contact whatsoever. I don’t remember even having seen an inmate in any of these institutions, if only from afar. That tells you a lot about the work that is being put into isolating those people. I didn’t dwell much on the prisoners’ individual stories. I collected as much information as I could about the history of the artifacts, but sometimes that didn’t amount to much. You have to keep in mind what prisons are for. They are not places of remembrance. They are not museums. They are not halls of record. They are for putting people away. Jailers are not curators. Therefore whatever artifacts they find – either by chance or during a cell search – is stored in some depot or other without much fuss and with no scientifically valid documentation.
Chess Ladder
Rope Ladder, Wolfenbüttel prison
In many cases the artifacts, though, did tell me a lot about their maker’s intelligence. I took me a while to figure out the purpose of a number of iron rods which could be joined to form a long pole with a hook and a long leather rope attached to the top end. That was a particularly well thought-out piece of engineering (Ed - and resulted in a successful prison break in 1987). But those identical chess pieces which utterly failed to disguise their true purpose as rungs for a rope ladder (above)? Come on, how could you possibly get away with something as clumsy as that!
What catalysed the project? How did you hear about some of the amazing tools and items people in prison can get up to making?
The key was the key! I had read a magazine article which mentioned a picklock that an inmate of a prison in Berlin had whittled from a plastic toilet seat. The rest was research - hours and hours on the phone with prison personnel. Ironically, that key was easy to locate but turned out to be the one piece I wasn’t allowed to see, let alone photograph, alas! Oddly enough, the warden apparently feared his prison’s security might be compromised if pictures of that key went public... (What does that tell us about prison security?)
Radio Transmitter
Radio Transmitter/Bug, Wolfenbüttel prison
Throughout the project which items stunned or impressed you most?
Certainly the rod and hook mentioned above. But the radio bug is probably my favourite (above). It’s a small homemade cardboard circuit board with a microphone, and it could be hidden in guard-rooms so inmates would know beforehand of upcoming cell searches. A standard radio – or an improvised radio receiver like the one nesting inside a book (main image) – serves as a receiver. Prisoners wiretapping the jailers, how cool is that?
What have you been working on most recently? Which projects are you looking forward to working on now?
There is an archaeological site in Syria which captivates me and where they have found undisturbed tombs from the Bronze Age. I was sent there on assignment in 2009. I landed on the day they found the second tomb! In 2010 I returned for the duration of the whole campaign, 11 weeks, this time without an assignment. Unfortunately, in 2011 all excavations are suspended due to the uprising in Syria, but I’m hoping we’ll all be able to return next summer. What started out as a two-week magazine assignment has grown into a long-term project with historic relevance. It’s a photographer’s dream come true!
Shiv, Wolfenbüttel prison. Disguised as wooden crucifix
Keep up to date with Marc's new projects, and check out his past work on his site

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