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The man behind the lens

In his new photography exhibition, Inside Kingston Penitentiary, photographer Geoffrey James showcases images from the final months of the Kingston prison. The exhibit, featured at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, memorializes the institution that operated from 1835-2013. Mr. James’ first photography exhibition took place 30 years ago in 1984 at the Agnes. Communications Officer Andrew Stokes chatted with Mr. James about his work.

Andrew Stokes: What led you to take on this project?

Geoffrey James: Everyone is curious about prisoners and prisons as they’re very mysterious places. The prison has a limited visual record and I felt like if I didn’t photograph it then nobody would — there would be no one who was able to walk through the space and capture a sense of how it feels before it closed.

Photographer Geoffrey James when he received the Governor General's award in Film and Media in 2012.

AS: Your shots cover a wide range of time and throughout the series it’s evident the seasons are changing. Why did you make that choice?

GJ: I shot the photos from May to September because I usually work in that mode. Getting to shoot a number of different times is a luxury because you get to review your photos and see what you’ve captured and what you’re missing. When photographing the Pen I couldn’t really take being in there for more than three days at a time because it was too difficult for me.

AS: Many of the photos in the exhibition show vacant cells and empty spaces. Why did you make that decision?

GJ: I photographed most of the cells the day they were vacated when there was nobody in them because I didn’t want to pry or intrude into people’s space. What I captured instead was what people left behind. What the inmates left drawn or gouged on the walls was a significant part of the story and I feel like it spoke very eloquently.

AS: Many of the photos that do feature people come from an Aboriginal changing of the seasons ceremony you photographed. Is there a particular reason for that?

GJ: When I was walking around taking photos, group shots were very difficult. Most groups didn’t want anything to do with me, but with the Aboriginal group it was different. I found it very moving, and it was a situation where they weren’t like inmates anymore. They cooked their own food and so were able to eat elk stew and bannock. When I gathered them for a group photo, they were very proud to be together, and the warden even allowed me to produce a copy of the shot for each of them.

AS: This collection of photos exists somewhere between documentary photography and art photography. How do you negotiate the two genres?

GJ: I don’t really differentiate the two, and I really try to avoid making “art” photos. I avoid dressing like a photographer and never carry a camera bag or anything — the camera I do use looks rather quaint I think. My hope is to make intelligent photographs that do justice to their subjects and that are affecting in a simple way.