Alabama 1984 – James Nachtwey

Another shot from James Nachtwey, this time, not from a war zone, but from a prison in Alabama.

A powerfully built African American convict leans against a steel fence, his head bowed.  The design elements in this image are also telling- the shot, taken from a birds eye view perspective seems designed to display the prisoner’s impressive physique, and this component of the image in isolation would not be out of place in a Mapplethorpe image. Almost completely surrounded by concrete, the man’s rich skin tones provide a visually appealing contrast.

Even though the literal interpretation of the image is relevant and journalistically strong, there are some telling symbolic elements which add weight to its message.

As mentioned, it is shot from a birds eye perspective; this makes the man appear subjugated (in stark contrast with his physical appearance). The man’s face is not visible, he has no identity and becomes, to the viewer, a homogenised, black inmate in America;s deep south. His adversity becomes the adversity of his people, and the problem presented in the image becomes a societal one.

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