Prison Pictures

I’ve several times photographed protests outside one of Britain’s immigration prisons – though we don’t officially call them that, and those detained inside have some freedoms denied to prisoners in our other jails. So when the protesters arrived outside the buildings they were able to contact some of the prisoners inside over mobile phones.

In the picture above, two prisoners are speaking to the protesters outside over the phone. One of the protesters holds a mobile phone up to the microphone so that his message is relayed to the protesters, while the man holding the microphone is also on the phone to another man inside the detention centre who will be heard later.

As well as trying to show this, I also wanted to show that the protest was being watched by police, standing back against the tall fence surrounding the prison. Above the 10ft or so of metal sheet is another 10 ft of stout wire mesh, topped by razor wire, ant through this mesh you can see the windows of the detention centre.

The protest had begun on the main Bath Road – the Harmondsworth and Colnbrook immigration prisons are just on the north edge of Heathrow. The local MP, John McDonnell, had come to express his support for the campaign to end ‘fast-track’ deportations – a method designed solely with the aim of deporting asylum claimants before they have time to put a case together to be allowed to remain – before leaving to speak at an event in central London.

Police had come and asked the protesters what they intended to do, and although there was considerable reluctance to talk to the police – or for anyone to say they were organising the protest – had made it clear that so long as the protesters simply walked around an made a noise they would “facilitate their protest.”  And at least for the hour or so I was there they simply followed, watched and wrote in their notebooks.

And the people – around thirty of them – certainly did make a lot of noise, shouting, whistling, banging pots and pans and using the megaphone – and the response came back from inside, with men in both Colnbrook and Harmondsworth centres (the two are separated only by a roadway the protesters walked down) obviously very pleased that someone in the world outside their prison cared about what was happening to them.

D700, 70-300mm at 190mm (cropped) ISO 800, 1.800 f7.1

Some were able to come to the upper window and press their faces and hands to them. Some held up their prison ID cards, others wrote messages including their phone numbers so those outside could contact them. The windows were high up and some way away, only visible through the wire mesh, and it was difficult to photograph them.

Autofocus failed dismally, focussing on the mesh fence or simply hunting. I tried the 18-105mm DX on the D800E (27-157mm equiv) and the 70-300mm , mainly on the D700. Working with manual focus isn’t too great on either lens – they and the cameras are designed for autofocus and it was actually very hard to tell the exact point of focus. Most of the pictures I made were at least slightly unsharp, but I’d realised this was likely to be the case and had taken far more frames than I usually would. The images after post-processing are far clearer than when I was taking them.

D700, 70-300mm at 300mm (cropped) ISO800 1/320 f7.1

When the protesters went around to the west side of Harmondsworth things were a little easier, as by moving to the back of the car park I could see the upper windows over the top of the razor wire. But these are from quite a distance, severely cropped from the original images. The strongest images were still I think some I made through the wire, with one of the men inside making a ‘V for Victory’ sign.

D700, 70-300mm at 300mm (cropped) ISO800 1/400 f8

The post-processing needed to get these images was extensive, including a large increase in contrast – not least because the windows are not very clean. Quite a lot of work with Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush was needed. The colour is certainly not very accurate, and in My London Diary you can see some fairly similar images from these window pictures where I’ve done more or less work and ended up with some quite different-looking colour.

I wasn’t entirely clear about my legal position in making these pictures, but I had no doubts about the moral position. These men clearly wanted to be seen and to be recorded, and there is a clear public interest in what is happening inside these centres – which you can read more about in Support Detainees in Harmondsworth.


My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

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