I had wanted to write about Folly, the debut book by Jamie Murray, since I first quickly flipped through its pages. Jamie showed me one of his advance copies as he was hand printing the special edition prints in the darkroom. I had many questions. Some I asked – what were the motives behind the work? why the animals? – but most I kept to myself, hoping the book would answer them for me.
The work arose as a progression of sorts from a previous project, Albatross, made in the confines of a navy warship returning from a nine month deployment. Folly came into being through a series of conversations Murray had with individuals who have been incarcerated; the animals relate, in part, to Murray’s continued fascination with the human condition and the fact that we are, in essence, animals ourselves.
Folly opens with an image of its namesake, an ornamental structure looming from the shadows of a garden setting. Seemingly, this extravagant building serves little purpose, its castle-like facade acting as mere decoration, laden with the pomp and pageantry that follies so often display. In Murray’s photograph, however, the opposite is true. As the tower emerges from the thick silhouettes of the surrounding trees, so does the metaphor of the panopticon, an 18th century prison design. The French philosopher Michel Foucault linked the prison’s design – jail cells built around a central tower allowing the prison’s wardens to observe the inmates without being seen – to the sense of constant observation that characterises modern structures of power. In his 1975 book, Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that the panopticon is an example of how modern prison systems and modern governments enforce power through discipline, via the concept of the ‘un-equal gaze’.
Metaphor is an integral aspect of this book, and is what makes it so pertinent and intelligent.
Metaphor is an integral aspect of this book, and is what makes it so pertinent and intelligent. Each image is seemingly laden with a multitude of meanings, as if the ebb and flow of the conversations were embedded in every one of them. Each time you return to the book you can choose a new strand of detail to follow, a new conversation to have between yourself and the images: second chances, sorrow, wasted time, fragility, masculinity, rebirth, zoomorphism… The sequencing of the images is open and free flowing – no one image presides over the others – allowing the metaphorical connections entwined within and between the pages to spill outwards.
We see the sculpture of a minotaur, the imprisoned mythical creature who has an insatiable hunger for human life, gazing outward towards the viewer. To its right are the jutting horns of a rhino, to its left, the watchful eyes of a young stag. Beyond, high on a pedestal watching over these beasts is a towering sculpture of a man. How are we any different, Murray seems to be asking, than these taxidermy puppets? Are we not more like the beastly minotaur than this model picture of man? Are we being asked to question the monster that is lurking in the labyrinth of the human psyche, and the reason we have a penal system at all?
Are we being asked to question the monster that is lurking in the labyrinth of the human psyche, and the reason we have a penal system at all?
There are photographs of windswept coastal plants surviving in extreme conditions. They have a hardened quality to them as they take centre stage in the image, as if nothing can disturb their obstinate existence. I wonder about the inured ideal of masculinity that we have in society, the toughness and the virility, and its inherent connection to the carceral system.
Another image – of some vibrant what-look-like red crab apples precariously sat beneath an excavators’ imposing metal weight – has a similar effect. The umbra of the metal and dirt overwhelms and obtrudes, suggesting power and force. For this writer though, both of these images also have a delicate reverse side; one where beneath and between these tough veneers sits a fragile beauty and tenderness. The reward of looking at Murrays’ work is a wealth of such apparent contradictions.
Throughout the book are several portraits of men, all of whom are avoiding the camera’s lens. Each one of them carries a deep sense of sorrow and regret. These must be the individuals who Murray talked with, and the reason that this project came to be. As they are slowly introduced one by one, between crowns of barbed wire, rain sodden roads that lead to nowhere, and vacant pool tables, we begin to sense the effects of the system they’ve been through. The metaphors multiply, and the images encourage reflection on the harsh realities of a system we hear and see so little of – a sequestered, almost remote concept of society that lingers in its background.
The metaphors multiply, and the images encourage reflection on the harsh realities of a system we hear and see so little of – a sequestered, almost remote concept of society that lingers in its background.
As I am writing this, I look at the many different statistics relating to the British penal system. I look at the reoffending rates of previously incarcerated individuals; according to Statista, 24.3 percent of those who have committed offences released from custody, between January-March 2021 in England and Wales, went on to reoffend within one year. As of January 2023, England and Wales had the highest incarceration rate per capita in Western Europe. Almost a quarter of individuals who are pushed through our penal system end up back there in no time at all. Coupled with this burgeoning incarcerated population are countless reports of the deaths of inmates, of self harm, assaults, drug use and understaffing. If prisons are meant to encourage reform, why do we have such a high reoffending rate so soon after the prisoner’s release? And why are prisoners living in conditions that lead to physical harm and even death? Folly doesn’t ask these questions directly, but with the help of the deeply rooted metaphorical images, they still come to the fore.
If prisons are meant to encourage reform, why do we have such a high reoffending rate so soon after the prisoner’s release? And why are prisoners living in conditions that lead to physical harm and even death?
Folly is a book that makes you think. The final image before the books’ epilogue is of a man holding a Lightwriter, a text-to-speech device for individuals with communication difficulties. On the glowing blue digital screen which faces the camera, a short sentence reads “it speaks as well”. This poignant metaphoric conclusion leaves us with much to contemplate and question – who are the people who go through our penal institutions, and why do they end up there? What can be done for those who are pushed back out into the world so they don’t end up jailed again? Why does society cast away people who are in need of help and care?
Why does society cast away people who are in need of help and care?
My resounding thought is that Folly does speak; it speaks of many important issues, it speaks of society, individuals, spirituality, philosophy… But most of all it speaks for the people who put their trust in Murray to tell an honest story about incarceration and life.