Welcome to Panoptica

In this Friday, May 6, 2016 photo, Iranian migrant Reda Ehsan, 25, lies on a table at the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Friday, May 6, 2016 photo, Iranian migrant Reda Ehsan, 25, lies on a table
at the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Photographs are just abstract marks, distortions of tone and colour. But our ability to recognise things in these patterns is remarkable, as is the ability these recognitions have to mould and shape the ways we think about certain things, and act on them. I’ve never been fully convinced by the idea of image fatigue or the dearth of compassion which is sometimes said to result from such images. I remain unconvinced by the popular claim that exposure to photographs can’t change us, and in process perhaps also change the world in however slight a way. In the context of Europe’s recent refugee crisis it seems that regardless of how many thousands of images I see I still find these events distressing, exhaustingly so, but not yet to the extent of fatigue, and not yet to the point that these images instead of fueling my sense of anger instead extinguish it. Something always gets me, there always remains that capacity for some small detail to penetrate whatever emotional or intellectual armour I might have constructed, and manages to stop me dead. When that happens the moment and source is always unexpected as it was last week when I saw the photography above by Muhammed Muheisen from a wider series which can be seen here.

Muheisen’s photograph shows an asylum seeker named Reda Ehsan recumbent on a table in the middle of a cavernous space. His pose is one I’ve seen a thousand times before in western paintings, where it most often used with a nude female subject to transmits an air of exotic passivity and it seems apt that Ehsan is from Iran, source of many an orientalist fantasy. The tone here is quite a different one though, although related. Muheisen’s photograph has an air of exhausted lethargy, of inertia and uncertanity, the same feelings conveyed in many of the massive number of press photographs taken of the recent European refugee crisis. An air of profound exhaustion is evident for example in this year’s World Press Photo winning image by Warren Richardson even at the same time as being a dramatically dynamic image. The repetition of this set of emotional tropes in the context of the crisis and whether it is intended to speak to the physical exhaustion of refugees or the alleged psychic exhaustion of European audiences could be the subject of an article in its own right, but that is not my focus here (and I think it is important to note that other images in Muheisen’s series do not play to these tendencies). No, what hit me about this particular image though was less the subject and his pose and the messages those things are calculated to send but rather the distinctive space that Ehsan occupies. The tiered walkways and identical doorways behind him makes clear this is an institution, specifically a prison and by no means a modern one. The photograph it transpires is part of a series on asylum seekers housed in prisons which thanks to Holland’s falling crime rate are no longer needed for their original purpose. Twelve institutions in the country have reportedly been turned to this purpose, and according to the article which accompanies the photographs they are ‘so transformed that they are barely recognizable as former places of involuntary detention’.

But this is not just any prison. For anyone even moderately versed in the architecture of incarceration or theories of surveillance the gently curving walls behind Ehsan’s recumbent form speak deafeningly of an architectural technology which continues to loom large, two centuries after it’s rather stuttering entry into the world. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon or ‘Inspection House’ was a concieved as a radical new model of control, a building constructed with total surveillance in mind, and which employed the unique sensation of being surveiled to modify behaviour in ways which only violence and physical restraint had previously seemed able to. The Pantopticon didn’t see realisation in the English philosopher’s lifetime despite Bentham’s considerable efforts, and no true Panopticon was ever built in Britain, but in the two centuries since his death Bentham’s notion of an architectural technology which permits total observation of it’s occupants has come (usefully and not) to inform almost all conversations about surveillance and control. The prison pictured in Muheisen’s photographs is Koepel in Harlem, designed by the prison architect WC Metzelaar and constructed from 1899 to 1901, it was the final of three such Koepelgevangenis or ‘dome prisons’ built in Holland during the period and was clearly inspired by some of Bentham’s ideas. Today the prison is no longer a true Panopticon, if indeed it ever was by Bentham’s quite specific definition of the term. The inspection tower shown in early photographs standing in the centre of the space is gone, although the red inner circle of the sports court directly above Ehsan’s recumbent form mark the spot where it might well have stood, an unintended architectural fingerprint lingering in the present. In any case, and as many post-Panopticonism have argued, the moderating sight of the inspection tower is no longer needed by many of us in the societies and spaces for which it was originally conceived. It has been internalised and replaced as it has been by persistent and pervasive forms of social and electronic surveillance, forms of observation which far better meet Bentham’s original description of the Panopticon as way ‘of obtaining power of mind over mind’.

The act of housing asylum seekers in a disused Panopticon is undoubtedly a pragmatic one by the Dutch government, with different accommodations reportedly being made for anyone who might find it traumatic to have escaped one set of cells in their homeland only to find themselves housed in another set in Europe. But the unintended, unspoken message of employing such a building for such a purpose also seems inescapable, as much a gesture of European feeling towards refugees as the sight of Germans cheering their arrival. In so much recent discourse Muslim refugees and asylum seekers, and in some cases Muslim communities as a whole, are described in terms which characterise them as potential fifth columns of extremist ideology and violence. Even moderate commentators across the continent are buying into these troublesome notions of guilt by association, with the logic that however innocent most in these communities might be, hidden amongst their number might lurk infiltrators from ISIS or other groups, intent on carrying out attacks like those in Paris and Brussels (it is perhaps here worth reminding ourselves that both attacks were perpetrated in the most by EU citizens and long term residents of the continent, not newly arrived refugees). One of the many arguments in the British debate about whether to leave the EU stems from whether European rules on immigration make us vulnerable to such attacks, and in recent months the British government has also ramped up it’s ridiculous Prevent program, which asks teachers and others to report on students they suspect of harbouring radical sympathies in what which some academics have compared to the enforced collaborations between East German university lecturers and the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi. Housing asylum seekers in a structure like this seems to me like a form of atmospheric acclimatisation or adjustment for these new arrivals, a setting of the tone for things to come. The message it seems so perfectly to send is that we think we know what you are, or what you might be. Know that you are suspected, that you are being watched, and should we allow you to stay here, and however well you integrate, so it will remain. Welcome to free Europe, welcome to Panoptica.

2 thoughts on “Welcome to Panoptica

  1. Another thought-provoking set of observations Lewis.

    What struck me (strikes me every time I look at it) is the ‘centre-line’ on the floor behind which through some strange visual alchemy is no longer anchored to the games court it divides, but resembles a pin skewering the recumbent figure to the table as it were some exotic butterfly.

    It’s a remarkable image, and works on so many levels.

  2. Fascinating post.

    I think that while the rows of doors may speak to us of imprisonment, to those who have endured hardship to get to Western Europe they might represent security – the ability to feel safe behind a closed door is something we rather take for granted

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