Jamie Murray – Folly

Incarceration, one of our great social taboos. Out of sight and out of mind is enough for the majority of society, unaware that in the UK, some reoffending rates are over 50%, costing society £18bn a year. The current system is at the very least creaking, if not fundamentally flawed and failing those who, whilst paying a price for their misdemeanours, are being left without much attention paid to their reformation or reintegration. To embark on a project engaging with those who have recently been released is a wonderful thing, and for this alone Jamie Murray must be commended. The simplicity of inviting the conversation and being a listening ear carries a wealth of strength and not only encourages social cohesion but through his photographic work invites us as the viewer into the experience of those he met, whose voices often go unheard.

Folly (Photo Editions, 2023) is a beautifully designed and presented book, filled with sublime yet quiet photographs that, with their warm and shadowy tones, create an atmosphere of unease. The execution is reminiscent of Robbie Lawrence or Jamie Hawkesworth and leans toward a highly contemporary artistic approach to image making, largely influenced by the warmth of old film stocks to generate a subdued tonal approach. Through this process and Murray’s artistic freedom, the work removes itself from a more traditional documentary approach made by many photographers who engage with prisoners, producing co-authored work through socially engaged workshops with restrictions on concealing identities and locations.

The portraits dotted throughout, potentially of former inmates, are captured without any attention paid to the camera by the sitter, their gaze set away from the viewer and often cast in shadow. They are beautiful in their execution and hold so much of the weight of the book in its attempt to represent those who are removed and unseen by society. Many of the landscape and still life images also do well to portray some of what we might perceive incarceration to be like. A great abyss amidst a vast rock formation invites us to look down into the unending darkness whilst at the top of the frame, well out of reach from the viewer, holiday makers enjoy time on the beach, an allusion to the memory or hope of freedom and play. A freshly caught fish is held, caught and struggling to survive in its new unwelcome surroundings. The recurring icon of corvid birds, initially represented in a pair (cellmates perhaps?), is concluded singularly near the close of the book aided by a caring human hand gesturing with warmth and attention, perhaps a nod to freedom or an attempt at resolution.

Some of the images feel perhaps too loaded with metaphor, influenced by the conversations which likely offered subject matter that is represented in the photographs too directly. These are amplified by the text which appears in the photographs, phrases on signs such as ‘Access required at all times’ and ‘Beware of the dog’, which feel a bit clichéd in their representation of high security environments.

There is an underlying atmosphere of uncertainty throughout the book, brooding images which, although very well executed, can often feel somewhat singular, hence the edit feels overly loose as you move from one image to the next. The portraits offer a semblance of continuity and there are moments where it works: the ring of barbed wire hanging on a fence (to be read as a crown of thorns) is carefully sequenced prior to a young man clutching his head. Though the sense of anguish and pain is made evident, I wish the sequence continued to develop along those lines. Instead, the tension is reduced as we read on to find an unending road leading us out, away.

Conceptually, Folly offers a counterpoint to Bryan Schutmaat’s project ‘Good God Damn’ (Trespasser, 2017), in which Schutmaat documented an individual in his last few days of freedom before going to prison. As Murray explores life on the other side of incarceration the images carry that sense of subdued emotional darkness, and perhaps my understanding of the concept draws me to wanting the sequence to work harder in building a more formidable sense of unease. However, considered as a collection of artistic images, Folly is a beautifully made book. There is certainly a case to be made for more artists and photographers to engage with those currently and previously incarcerated, whether as a means to share their experiences and stories, as a form of art therapy, or simply to invite personal expression. It is my hope that Jamie will continue his conversations, not necessarily with the expectation of more photographs (although that would be a wonderful outcome), but with a view to inviting greater and deeper listening and the potential to offer those who are now on the outside the opportunity to capture their interior and exterior worlds with a camera.

Jamie Murray


Photo Editions, 2023

(All Rights Reserved. Text © Simon Bray. Images © Jamie Murray.)

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