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Book Review by Claire Ogden
Chantal Zakari, "Pictures from the Outside," published by Eighteen Publications in Watertown, MA, 2023. 136 pp., 5¾" x 8¼". Photo courtesy of Chantal Zakari.
Often, the most powerful thing can be what’s not there. This is true in art and in life: how negative space can define an entire composition, how a rest note can define a song. Or how a missed opportunity can change the course of a life. In her new documentary photography book, Pictures from the Outside, professor Chantal Zakari leverages powerful ideas even in the absence of human subjects. The book conjures so many raw emotions—nostalgia, grief, the precarity of memory—in a powerful yet understated way.
The book came from a class she taught with the Tufts University Prison Initiative. For the class assignment, Zakari asked her incarcerated student coauthors to give her places to photograph in the outside world. The only requirement was that they be no more than a two-or-three-hour drive away from Greater Boston. Guided by their instructions—complete with drawings and specific descriptions, angles to capture—she’d then drive to the location and “make” the photographs. The students would look through a contact sheet to select their favorite images, and to write their critiques of Zakari’s work as well as their emotional reactions: what it felt like, after years of incarceration, to finally see these nostalgic or potentially painful places again. Marked by decades of gentrification or simply misremembered, these places had in many cases changed drastically.
Chantal Zakari, Pictures from the Outside, published by Eighteen Publications in Watertown, MA, 2023. 136 pp., 5¾” x 8¼”. Photo courtesy of Chantal Zakari.
The result feels like an artist book, scrapbook, and diary all at once. It’s subtle and has a humble aesthetic: the cover is made from chipboard, with messages and drawings scribbled with pen. Portraits are few and far between in the book, a choice presumably made both to preserve the subjects’ privacy and to emphasize the buildings as sites of psychic and symbolic significance. Most of the images intentionally have no people in them or they blur the subjects’ movements. Despite this, the intimacy of the photographic exchange is palpable. There’s somehow still a human presence in the photos—often lonely or tragic, but sometimes hopeful. In the way that the best books trigger the imagination, you can’t help but reach for the vivid memories and feelings that these places hold.
With a construct that could have so easily been mishandled, Zakari is tasteful at each turn. A key point is that not all of her students have made it into the book. On page 69, a man known by the initials “T.B.” declines her offer for pictures of the outside. According to Zakari, “He has a large stack of family snapshots and says he has all the photos he needs.” In a place that takes all choices away, this assignment is opt-in; it respects and produces agency.
The book’s sole portrait forms its crux. Finally released after almost seventeen years in prison, the subject of the image, M.O., says that the worst part of incarceration is when family members pass away. While incarcerated, two of his grandparents died, along with aunts and uncles and his brother, too. The day-to-day monotony of prison is manageable, he says. But “When you should really be there and you can’t…. those are the hardest times.”
In these final pages, Zakari references redemption. The course’s goal, after all, was to teach incarcerated students the principles of photography and of image as symbol. Several images do reference redemption, such as in M.O.’s shot of the stairs. But what I felt while reading Pictures from the Outside was instead the tragedy of a life lived in confinement, of childhoods snatched away, of important life events missed. It is a deep injustice, and in spite of the book’s subtlety, every photograph is bursting with it.
Ultimately, the project is a small example of what the opportunity for redemption and agency can mean. (We do see M.O. get released, after all.) One of my favorite images to that end is a full spread photograph of the night sky. Surrounded by the prison’s light pollution, “N.M.” hadn’t seen the dark night sky in years. But with these photographs, at least, he can once again see the stars.
Pictures from the Outside is on sale at Printed Matter and Chantal Zakari’s artist shop. Proceeds will go to the Tufts Prison Initiative.
Claire Ogden is an arts writer, documentary producer, and film and video curator based in Somerville.