The sound of silence in Sharon Daniel’s work is multi-toned. A woman details her life in a California prison sewing American flags for 55 cents an hour. A recovered addict turns the back streets of East Oakland into a photographic portrait of rutted asphalt and benign blue skies. The silence in Daniel’s decade’s worth of interrelated projects—Need X-Change, Blood Sugar, Undoing Time, and Golden Rule—is that of voices muffled. The silencers are poverty, abuse, discrimination, lack of education—and also public policy.
Daniel describes her role as that of ”context provider.” While using traditional documentary methods like filmed and printed interviews, she distributes tools—software, disposable cameras, walkmen, one-one-one instruction—she hopes will widen the public domain. Her aim is an internet that publishes the stories and perspectives of all members of society—as told by themselves.
One topic, closely examined, often leads to new perspectives on another. Need X-Change began with a demonstrated cause and effect: Disposable needles could significantly lessen an injected-drug user’s risk of catching or transmitting HIV. Working with participants in Casa Segura’s needle exchange program to record their thoughts and experiences, Daniel hoped to ensure the program’s continuance despite neighborhood fears and political resistance.
Their stories, however, pointed to a wider web of cause and consequence, including the revolving door by which addicts become inmates and inmates become addicts (explored in Blood Sugar), and the economic usefulness of an incarcerated population examined in Undoing Time (formerly titled Capitalist Punishment) and the upcoming Golden Rule.
In an introduction to Public Secrets–a work which like Undoing Time looks at the corporate use of prison labor—Daniel distinguishes between “secrets that are kept from the public,” and so called public secrets, those “secrets that the public chooses to keep safe from itself.” One such open secret is the widespread use of prisons to provide a cheap domestic labor force.
Offering inmates a chance to earn money while learning marketable skills sounds like a reasonable idea. Closer investigation reveals what Daniels calls an mushrooming, exploitative “security economy” in which, she writes, “private companies receive substantial tax incentives from state and local governments to establish facilities on prison sites and hire prison laborers who often work for less than a dollar a day.” It’s a powerful incentive, Daniel suggests, for acquiring ever more prisoners through harsher sentencing laws.
Recording inmates’ stories required another kind of secrecy. California has a media ban which makes it illegal for reporters to conduct face to face interviews with prisoners that are not monitored by prison officials. Daniel’s solution was to go undercover. Posing as a legal advocate, she spent five years interviewing women at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, the largest female correctional facility in the United States.
Among the video portrait that emerge from the interviews, one—from Undoing Time—gives the phrase ‘draped in the flag’ a chilling twist. A sixty-one year old African-American woman sits half covered by one of the large American flags she spends much of her time sewing and lists the labels by which she has been systematically dismissed: “black girl,” “lesbian,” “drug addict,” “HIV positive.” As she talks, it becomes harder to connect the symbolic flag that’s so vigorously waved over political debates with the stiff, painstakingly stitched fabric that engulfs her. The labels too begin to seem insubstantial in the presence of this thoughtful, articulate person, sentenced to fifteen years for possession of 20 dollars worth of heroin, who works for a tiny fraction of America’s minimum wage.
It’s shocking when the woman first rips a star off the flag in her lap. Then a hopeful thought occurs. Perhaps, just as stitches can be undone, the tightly woven networks of abuse can begin to be dismantled.
San Pedro, CA