Have you ever considered the power of creativity in the lives of prisoners? In her photobook Tools of Disobedience, Swiss photographer Melanie Veuillet (b. 1989) explores this question by looking at the objects produced through the creativity of prisoners who are under surveillance and in confined spaces. Specifically, Veuillet photographs the makeshift items of prison life, ranging from pipes to telephones to hot plates. The items are made using a chaotic mix of found materials, including wood, cans, ropes, socks, pens, toothbrushes, silver-wear and old shoes.
Veuillet presents these items in archival form, showing single items against a pale grey background, creating an imaginary resistance museum of the incarcerated condition. There are no captions or text alongside the image, allowing the viewer to imagine the object’s purpose and construction, though there is an index at the end of the book stating what each item is. She groups together objects that represent the same ideal utilitarian use. For example, she has four photographs of socks, which function as yo-yos, and she shows a series of radios, one of which is made from a book and another from a wooden block.
In addition to the items created for everyday or playful needs, Veuillet’s book also includes images of improvised weapons. These include simulated guns and grenades, carved from wood and painted black with threatening authenticity, and various kinds of shivs.
The objects that Veuillet photographs, these ‘tools of disobedience’, are emblematic of the extent to which prisoners’ lives are controlled, and their desire to break free of that control. The desire to rebel against this force comes to light most noticeably in two photographs of escape plans.
In addition to demonstrating the human capacity for creativity, Veuillet’s photographs testify to the high level of skill and determination to create these intricate objects with cheap materials and difficult conditions. The tools also illuminate the prisoners’ ability to, at least temporarily, escape the control of the system, hinting toward a secret existence inside the prison, an existence in which they are still able to access their human capacity to build and create.
Beyond calling our attention to the creative skills and desires of the prisoners, Veuillet’s collection has the capacity to make us call into question the very nature of punishment through the prison system. As we finish the photobook, thoughts linger about the experience of confinement, filled with boredom and threats of violence, and defined by its lack of access to the everyday items of the world outside.