Extended critical reflection
Donovan Wylie, The Maze, Granta Books, 2004
The Maze is a photobook, which Wylie did over a period of a year. He spent 100 days photographing the inside of The Maze Prison. It was opened in 1976 during the Northern Ireland conflict and was a model of repetitive and systematic architecture. Its function was to hold political prisoners under maximum security. In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement had paved the way for release of the prisoners and the Maze was empty by September 2000.
In his introduction Wylie talks about how being inside The Maze has a certain effect on him. When he visited the site, he found it impossible to distinguish which H block he was in because they looked so similar. He reported that, “The result is a feeling of complete disorientation.” Because of this I feel that a reader should experience this disorientation when viewing his photographs. Having reviewed his photo book, I question whether he successfully executed what he set out to make the reader feel.
I will talk about the sequence that the photographs have been presented in, the famous hunger strikes that took place in The Maze and I will also be comparing his work to that of Andreas Zust’s photobook titled, ‘Roundabouts.’
Andreas Zust explores roundabouts, and he says, “Driving a circular route significantly reduces conflict points between vehicles turning at junctions.” However, Zust doesn’t focus on the aim of reducing conflict, instead he focuses on the fact that roundabouts provide spaces in which to pursue a purpose with artistic means.’ He has focused on the secondary function, which is a place to put art and is a “town’s calling card, like clean restrooms in a restaurant.”
Similarly The Maze’s architectural design is all about reducing conflict as well. The book contains an essay called, The Architecture of Containment by Louise Purbrick. It describes how The Maze is designed to contain the prisoners so that they don’t try to escape or cause conflict. Roundabouts and The Maze have a similar purpose of reducing conflict.
Both works are very uniform in structure, with the same size photographs and large photos taking up most of the pages. Many photographs look very similar with only minor changes. In Roundabouts, each photograph is from the same perspective with a roundabout in the middle of the page. In The Maze book, each chapter contains photographs which are taken from the same height, same lighting and same angle with the only variation coming from small changes in architecture and foliage.
The Maze book is arranged in chapters of photographs, with each chapter describing an architectural feature, which was designed to reduce escapes and hence conflict.
The first chapter is about Inertias, Steriles and Roads. Inertias are for detecting movements of the prisoners, whereas a Sterile is for immobilising the prisoner. These are both attempting to reduce conflict. The images are all difficult to tell apart with only minor differences between them and indeed Wylie says, “The pattern of such a journey is one of constant, relentless repetition on a vast scale.” The only element that changes is the number signpost.
The second chapter shows the H blocks and Communal yards. They were built so that they didn’t have to move the prisoners around. The shape of the H block is made to reduce conflict also. Wylie took an external photograph of the H shape and then presented it with two fold out pages, which helps to show the unique shape. However, it doesn’t help to explain how it reduces conflict. The only photograph in the book that does this is an internal shot given in the essay which shows the long corridors which make it easy for the guards to keep an eye on a lot of cell doors from the centre of the H.
The next chapter is called ’24 cells’. The prison is actually called The Maze (Cellular). The cells make it easy to keep the prisoners separate so there is less conflict.
The sequence of Wylie’s photographs is a poor choice because it’s from the viewpoint of someone going into The Maze, whereas the function of The Maze is to stop people getting out. So, in my view, it would be better to do it from a prisoners perspective which would be from the inside trying to get out.
The Maze was most known for the hunger strikers. Apart from the fact that the cells are from H block 5 which is where some of the hunger strikers were, there is nothing about the photographs that suggests the hunger strike. And the hunger strike makes it clear that the prison failed in its intent of reducing conflict. Not only did 10 men die during the hunger strike, but it is claimed in the Essay that as many as 50 prison service personnel committed suicide because lots hadn’t had much training and because they were ‘under constant pressure to resist the prisoner’s demands for special category status’ (Page 105).
Also there was a Blanket Protest, where prisoners refused to wear prison clothes so just wore a blanket and then refused to wash. Archbishop Tomas O’Fiaich wrote, “The stench and filth in some cells, with the remains of rotten food and human excreta scattered around the walls, was almost unbearable. In two of them I was unable to speak for fear of vomiting.” (Page 104)
However, there was not a hint of these protests in these photographs. The photographs of the cells were a neat and clean view, looking into the cell, all sanitised and nothing to hint the protests, whereas I would have expected an image from the prisoners’ point of view looking out of the cell towards the door and a feeling of being trapped. There were also no images of the hospital cell, it seems like Wylie is ignoring the hunger strike completely.
In conclusion, this book was not as successful as Wylie intended it to be. This is because he stated he was setting out to show how disorientated and confused The Maze made him feel whilst in it. However, the photographs do not leave the reader feeling disorientated but instead, intrigued. Also he left out the most important events that happened in The Maze; the Blanket Protest and the hunger strikes that caused deaths.
Donovan Wylie, The Maze, 2004, Granta Books.
Andreas Zust, Roundabouts, 2004, Thames and Hudson
What happened in the hunger strike?, BBC News, Northern Ireland
1981 Irish Hunger Strike, Wikipedia
HM Prison Maze, Wikipedia