Small Crimes is part of an ongoing portrait series inspired by photographs of criminals incarcerated at the BC Penitentiary from 1935 to 1948. These mugshots and other documents were discarded after the BC Pen closed its doors in 1980. I purchased them in a Vancouver junk shop in 1995.
Initially, I was struck by the images themselves—they had a tremendous poignancy. On reading the files I found the “crimes” were insignificant by today’s standards. They ranged from vagrancy, petty theft, and drug addiction to minor fraud. The sentences, however, were draconian: long prison terms, some accompanied by lashes (corporal punishments commonplace until 1970).
Though these documents are a chilling reflection of injustice in the judicial system of the time, the criminal profile is not much different today than it was seventy-five years ago. The poor still make up the overwhelming majority of incarcerated prisoners.
This body of work has taken many forms, often playing with photography’s ability to blur truth and fiction. The mugshot itself, it must be noted, was more than a way to document prisoners. It was also a form of shaming—this was a part of the punishment process.
In earlier work, I reinvented the 3″ x 5″ black-and-white mugshots, making giant colour portraits, piecing together narratives in an attempt to “rehumanize” these images. My recent series takes the form of miniatures, the scale being similar to that of the original mugshots. I am using discarded vintage photography equipment as framing devices.
These small works are in some ways more intimate but they are also more complicated to look at. They anchor the images more directly to the events.