A telephone chat between Alec Soth and prisoner C.Fausto Cabrera

A member of the AoP f22 group wrote to me about this and thought I would be interested. Yes! I was. I bought the book “The Parameters of Our Cage” which is an edited version of the letters which they wrote to one another, initiated by CFC.

The recorded telephone conversation between Alec Soth and his prisoner friend, Chris Fausto Cabrera serves to illustrate / punctuate / advertise (harsh?) the exchange of letters which led to the book “The parameters of our cage” a phrase created by CFC in one of his letters.

A screen grab early on in the 45 min chat:

Prison tours: that’s the main difference between USA and UK prisons: we don’t have a gallery where tourists can gape at those in cages. Will this last past the USA – UK honeymoon post USA elections? The shanks – an intimation of latent violence? It had to come in early in the conversation with a prisoner, didn’t it? Even if that prisoner has made it so clear that he is reaching out to an artist in order to develop his own artistic voice.
My notes from the chat:

  1. What prompted AS to reply to CFC was that he (CFC) had used snail mail, and that he AS had always wanted to do an item on prisons. AS came into it with a bias (don’t we all?) because he didn’t think he & CFC would have such a high level discussion.
  2. Definition of creativity which CFC quotes in the book: connecting threads. In prison with its high levels of sensory deprivation you have to focus on what little you have. With today’s internet and other stimuli, it’s very easy to get distracted – in prison that’s not the case. He has to find threads in nothing – it’s a gift attached to the curse of being there in the first place.
  3. Art’s relationship to escapism: AS would love to have the freedom to write a novel as his form of escapism but he has to go out into the world to photograph. CFC: prison comes with so many built-in assumptions. he sees prison as his alma mater, where he was formed artistically but prison defines him, he can’t be one without the other. He longs for the day when he can deal with others as artist to artist. He is trying to be an artist but his prison will always be part of it. If prison is his Trojan horse to get him into a room, he will use it. This to me sounded a little double-edged= the horse was used as a deception to destroy. Hmmm …
  4. The question of nostalgia was skated over – CFC has pre- and post- incarceration. A particular poet, Jim Moore, triggered CFC’s poetry & the poet is a friend of AS & his wife JoAnn VerBurg (b 1950) is a famous photographer working in diptychs and triptychs of almond trees & olive trees and landscapes. Works in Minnesota & Spoleto. Post-incarceration has to do with the shock of moving into prison which was traumatic.
  5. What’s the single most important thing that affected your creativity? AS: the first successful project – walking along the Mississippi. It had taken AS 10 years to develop his voice & then he let go & relaxed. The lesson he has to relearn is to let go & not worry about what people think. For CFC it was the audacity to believe in himself and to invest in his creativity & not to have a myopic view of his art.
  6. What’s the most important thing you have learned from each other? CFC: let things go & stop thinking that you are so different. He sees himself as a bridge between cultures but the people in the cultures are very similar & it’s important to find bonds that bind us. AS: If you are only digesting media portrayals of people which is what is happening under lockdown, you lose those similarities and bonds, you see muslims and Mormons as so different.
  7. Art is finding a way to not being alone.

I have not seen AS address people before but he looked very uncomfortable sitting in front of the camera. It all sounds like a rush to print exercise – trying to publish a scoop for positive publicity. From my experience in 2016, it took me a while to realise I had something that nobody else had. I did not trade photos with Ian over the 9 months we corresponded which equates to AS’s time. His book is an edited version of his correspondence together with the photos they exchanged, but it feels sort of tainted by the money that is obviously exchanging hands – whether or not it is being sugar-coated by all proceeds going to charity – it seems undigested, and the rush to publicise a little hasty. It’s publishing an exchange of letters between two artists, started by the inmate who wants to repay forward to a time when he is out of prison and helping other artists on the outside.

Mercifully, there are no prison genre images so that’s great. AS has kept it all very personal and CFC dictates his own humanity, frailty and vulnerability through his letters.

I was surprised that AS admits his bias – but it is a subject in their correspondence. He intimates that he had not ascribed any sensitivities or erudition to CFC. This echoes one of the responses in the write-up of one of the visitors to my exhibition in 2019 – that we don’t see prisoners as educated or sensitive or able to express themselves intelligently. For this AS is to be praised.

I really sound condescending here. That might be because I really think that this is a rushed output, that in times of lockdown when particularly photographers have a limited output there is a desperation to produce something. I know that the book is called “The Parameters of Our Cage’ Book 1. How many more books are there going to be? Is this a throwback to the Dickensian pamphlets, the 21st century serialised novel? Is AS going to have his dream of writing a novel come true? So far, none of his own photographs has hit the page. Will it all be digested by Book 24? How will we see CFC emerge? Am I being myopic?

2 thoughts on “A telephone chat between Alec Soth and prisoner C.Fausto Cabrera

  1. That’s all quite amazing. I looked-up Cabrera and he’s achieved so much creatively since he’s been imprisoned. I think the Discourse series that Mack do are such a good initiative too – fairly slim books at reasonable prices.

    Why can’t both write a novel? I don’t understand that; in some respects his photographic series are visual novels at the images provide the narration. He can also write too.

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    1. Cabrera comes across both in his writing and in the telephone conversation, as a very strong and driven character. I have absolutely no doubt that he is going to take the art world by storm once he gets out in 2030. Mack has jumped in very quickly – I got the ebook of the letters but, as usual, I would love to see what has been edited out.

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