Workshop: The Empty Space of Holloway Prison

The workshop ‘The Empty Space of Holloway Prison’ was run by sociologist Carly Guest and criminologist Rachel Seoighe of Middlesex University. Carly and Rachel recap the experience of leading the session:

We have been researching the lived experience of Holloway and the impact of its closure since 2016, and have been involved in various ways in the ‘Echoes of Holloway’ exhibition. This workshop was an opportunity to share some of our ideas on research methodology, lived experience, emotion and photography, and to engage in collective analysis of photographs of the empty space in the now-closed Holloway Prison.

When the prison closed in the summer of 2016, Islington Museum’s curator, Roz Currie, managed to gain access to the empty building. She took more than a thousand photographs, comprehensively documenting the space and creating a visual archive for the museum, the community and for researchers. The images are striking, moving and informative: they show us the colour scheme of the prison, the facilities and fixtures, the lighting, and the contours of the space. Working with these photographs in our academic work, we have explored the potential of photographs to tell us what living in the prison was like for the women. We have also thought about the limitations of the photographs: Holloway was emptied of women and their belongings by the time the photographs were taken. We can’t know from these images what the lived space looked like, when the prison was occupied.

However, the women left traces on the physical space – in graffiti, for example, and in modifications to the fixtures and the lighting – that can tell us something about what life was like in the prison.

In the workshop, we presented a methodological framework for analysing these photographs, drawing on the work of Jennifer Mason (2011). Mason argues for the importance of ‘flashes of insight’ in research and sets out an approach called ‘facet methodology’ that values researcher intuition, creativity and imagination. This approach recognises that we all experience the world in multiple ways and that we can best understand lived experience by exploring various facets of experience and their connection to each other. Mason’s approach calls on the researcher to pay attention to insight – moments that unsettle, excite, move or provoke. This is an emotional methodology. We asked the participants in the workshop to analyse a set of photographs from the empty space of Holloway, paying attention to their emotional responses to the photographs.

The photographs included images of the cells in Holloway, the toilet facilities, graffiti, and examples of how women modified the space, including a photograph showing sanitary towels stuck to an air vent. Participants worked together in small groups to describe the photographs, to share their thoughts and feelings in response to the images, and to imagine living in the space. They discussed whether the photographs could give us a sense of what it was like to live in Holloway, and the limitations of this approach.

The discussions around the methodological approach were lively and perceptive and the engagement with images was empathetic and insightful. Participants who had been in the building while it was a functioning prison spoke about how different it looked in the photographs, prompting reflections on how much women invested in the bare space to make it liveable. The workshop discussions centred on how the photographs illustrate women’s creativity, innovation and humour – in the graffiti, the modification of lighting and fixtures, and in cell decorations. The austere environment of the prison is undeniable, but the photographs show us traces of how women tried to create comfort in the space.

The conversations were moving and poignant, getting right to the heart of why and how we imprison women, how Holloway should be remembered, and public detachment from conditions in prisons.

Mason J (2011) Facet methodology: The case for an inventive research orientation. Methodological Innovations Online, 6(3):75-92.

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