Transmissions, Vol. 5: The Ways in Which to Reach You | Varyer

Transmissions, Vol. 5: The Ways in Which to Reach You

Se Young Au explores and transcends the dehumanizing limitations of incarceration


I came across artist Alyse Emdur’s seminal photobook simply titled Prison Landscapes a few years back while I was compiling my own research in order to make work about this specific visual device. Prison landscapes describe a genre of artwork that encompasses common themes of nature, cityscapes, and even aspirational symbols of success and masculinity (i.e. cars). They are commonly used as a backdrop in the visiting room where people visit their loved ones and can have their photos taken together (for a fee). Some families use these images for their holiday cards. Two copies can be purchased so each party can take a photo with them back to their respective worlds: those on the inside, and those on the outside.

Edmur began this project in 2005 after unearthing Polaroid photographs of herself and her sister taken while visiting their brother in prison. She poignantly notes, “‘We posed in front of this painting of a beach and it made us feel more comfortable showing our friends the picture. We could say, “‘This is our brother,’” instead of saying, “‘this is our brother in prison. From the picture, no one knew he was incarcerated.’”

Initially, she wanted permission to photograph these painted backdrops, but after her first request was denied Edmur decided on a different approach. She began reaching out to incarcerated folks through pen pal sites and cultivating relationships. From there, she was able to explain the project and request they send her their photographs, breaking a boundary between what is typically only exchanged between relatives and friends.

Reflection of the individual self is purposely obfuscated. Dehumanization is at work on various levels.

In 2008, she sent out letters en masse to incarcerated people throughout the country, communicating her vision to ultimately produce a book. It’s quite a gesture of good faith for these people to send and share their most prized images (with the option of having them returned) that connected them to people in the outside world. Alyse also considered that sharing imagery of themselves was especially poignant because of the little agency the prison system usually grants individuals. When you are incarcerated, you get a number by which you are identified by the state. Reflection of the individual self is purposely obfuscated. Dehumanization is at work on various levels.

The final work as a book and living archive is profoundly affecting, as Edmur includes scans of selected written correspondence which gives insight into the personhood of those serving time. She was able to illuminate their desire to be seen beyond their struggle for basic dignity and legibility amidst being labeled by society. Both the photographs and letters presented together elucidate the multi-faceted stories of complex human life leaving room for both the tragic and joyous and much lived between.

this gulf of separation ⬬ this gulf of separation ⬬

Like Alyse, my own family has been impacted by the industrial prison complex and similarly, we found this specific artistic phenomenon to be complex and compelling. These artworks are most always painted or drawn by someone who is incarcerated, it’s considered a position of high honor and distinguished responsibility since creativity and self-expression are not just discouraged but are actively suppressed by the prison system. The interactions between incarcerated people and their community can be limited due to factors such as distance and socioeconomic status, so these visits are usually treasured and sacred times. Prison landscapes are a significant backdrop for these interactions because they require the imagination and will of both parties to momentarily suspend their concept of reality. In this way, art serves as a portal of possibility and can transport people beyond the limitations of the built environment. They are powerful because they challenge the notion of freedom serving as a liminal space within the physical confines of prison. The photos taken in front of these backdrops serve as unique ephemera that transcend a fixed state and uniquely hold space for these tensions within bodies, space, and time.

Prisons take many precautions to maintain a lack of transparency surrounding the conditions of the lives of the incarcerated. Photography outside of these visiting rooms is not permitted as it is pertinent that the authority of the industrial prison complex remains in control of its own image, especially with the public. Ultimately, if more people were made aware of the inhumanity within these circumstances (both the material and the psychological), there would be greater public criticism and movement for changing these systems.

There are painfully acute memories I carry surrounding the visits made to my brother in various prisons which spanned years of his short life. There was usually a suffocating mix of anxiousness and melancholy that permeated all corners of my mom’s silver sedan before our arrival. All visitors must remove coats, jewelry, cell phones, and empty their pockets to walk through the metal detector after entering the building. A distinct atmosphere of intimidation is emitted from the guards who like to remind you that you’re also being punished for your adjacency to the incarcerated.

I remember one particular visit when my mom, her best friend, and I went to see my brother around the holidays. He always loved Christmas, so that time of year was particularly difficult for our family to be separated. After buying him a Dr. Pepper at the vending machine, we sat around the modest wooden table in the visiting room which was reminiscent of a school cafeteria as we exchanged stories and filled some awkward pauses with laughter. My brother had the most radiant smile and deeply kind eyes that often masked his pain. After much reflection, it is only now that I realize how much energy he expended trying to make us comfortable and lift our moods despite his position.

The cruelty of time is that it always seems to wildly accelerate in the moments you want to draw out as long as possible. Our visit was quickly coming to an end, and we all stood up and made our way towards the holiday-themed backdrop. We assumed our positions in front of an expertly painted tree, adorned with ornaments and lights complete with packages arranged neatly around the base. I winced and tried my best to fight the relentless gravity on the corners of my smile. We purchased our photographs for $4.00 each and waited quietly to have them printed (nearly every service in prison that can be privatized is). My brother approached me and gave one copy to me, while the other remained carefully cradled in his hand. As we hugged goodbye I tried not to let him see the tears escaping the corners of my eyes.

The relationality of our bodies transformed both time and space because they were buoyed by the power of imagined.

When we arrived back at the house, I made my way to our dining room table and ceremoniously propped up the photo against a vase of fresh flowers. The grief of having to leave my brother behind back in a place that felt worlds away from ours was infinitely overwhelming to navigate. Curtailed phone calls, visits, and letters were more tangible facets we could remain connected through. We lived in two divergent realities, existing on different planes of being, yet actively trying our best to circumvent that by finding each other outside of the metaphysical.

The moments my family had together in front of the painted backdrop symbolized our dreams of being finally reunited, free from the pain of this gulf of separation. The relationality of our bodies transformed both time and space because they were buoyed by the power of imagined possibility. We extended our memory-making into the past, present, and future for survival. Intersecting temporalities and spatial understandings collapsed momentarily. Being able to locate our previous togetherness in a collective consciousness helped us construct a subsequent map where we could locate each other in our grief.

Prison Landscapes is a vital representation of how we reimagine connection and the confines of material conditions in a manner that is often hidden from the outside world. As 1.8 million people are currently incarcerated in the US, (the highest global rate 1) we must envision a world where this is not the accepted norm. We often look at the initial act, followed by punishment, consequences, and are content with believing it is a just and linear system that works toward the greater safety of society. What is often not considered is how families become collateral damage to the greater industrial prison project— a devastation that has had a disproportionate and lasting effect on Black and Brown communities. Where is the value of punitive punishment if it only produces a cycle of pain? How can we work towards an alternative model that weaves together personal culpability and a commitment to deep restorative justice work?

These are not easily answered questions to confront but refusing to engage in the possibility of an alternative feels like it’s to our detriment as a society. There is an immense amount of grey area suspended in the chasm between innocence and guilt. The lack of acknowledgment around what exists beyond this binary may be rendered as a portrait of our unwillingness to look at our whole humanity fully.

"We must learn to trust the history that exists within our bodies."


Understanding of our fundamental humanness can be distilled by how we perceive the world through our senses. Scent can be used as a portal for time travel and an implement to access loved ones beyond the hindrance of physical borderlines. It’s a powerful tool we can call on that defies the tangible rigidity of borders and fixed states. Oddly, something that appears amorphous and ephemeral can help create contours and bring clarification. The intangible is not something that is given much credence in our culture where the visual is continually prioritized. The immersive nature of an olfactory experience allows us to explore an environment in an exponential manner. We must learn to trust the history that exists within our bodies.

When we connect to our sense of smell, it feels like our most visceral connection to our memory and yet is the least scientifically understood to date. Think of the lineages of people that are tied to our personal stories, and how associations are formed, cherished, and carried with us throughout time and space. Specific spices in a favorite meal shared, a signature perfume or personal care product, the warm woody smell of cedar floors in a house are all examples of touchpoints that exist in our wellspring of scent memories. They are constellations we connect when assembling part of a person’s essence in our mind’s eye.

My morning ritual centers around burning a single stick of Chikuseiko charcoal incense. This type of Japanese incense is often used in meditation and other ceremonies. I favor charcoal incense because despite my deep love for all things scented, I am fairly sensitive to the intensity of scent that can accumulate in my environment. The resinous materials are covered in charcoal, which helps the incense burn more evenly without interfering with the scent and it emits far less smoke than regular incense. This results in a sheer effect and delicate sensory encounter.

I reach for an onyx stick to place into the makeshift holder made from a striated rock found on a nearby beach. It is during this intentional time that I acknowledge my ongoing grief for my brother who has passed on from earthly life. There’s anticipation found in giving way to the power of scent to connect us to others and therefore back to ourselves. Actively engaging with the atmosphere with this heightened awareness enables me to feel present amidst the omnipresence of a distraction-fueled world.

Shedding these layers reveals a measurement of perspective.

As my fire source meets the top of the incense, the initial pulsing orange glow of the burning material signifies the commencement of this ritual. The plum scent begins to unfurl slowly, confidently cascading out towards infinity. It has a foundation of earthy, grounding woody notes. There’s also a powdery, transparent sweetness that gives way to a lush, crisp green candied tartness. The vibratory persistence of the smoke transports me, as I imagine my body ascending above a sun-soaked open orchard.

There’s comfort in the practice of this act and understanding that bridging of realms is indeed possible. It’s the externalization of the awareness of multiple levels of reality in which we continue to exist. Acknowledging these tenets is what distinguishes the mundane from the habitual and transforms the sacredness of ritual for me. Ephemeral, lingering smoke of what once was can quickly enter our consciousness again and we are forced to confront it; unlike physical objects, scent cannot be necessarily confined and kept out of sight.

There’s a particular memory that strongly communicates the ability of scent to transform suffering that my mind often turns to during the stillness of morning. One summer, my brother was locked down for two weeks, unable to leave his cell for more than twenty-three hours daily due to a routine intake procedure. Isolated and alone the thick humid air became oppressively stale and acted as his only contact personified, smothering everything in his cell. This is a picture of conditions that will forever haunt me.

He recounted to my mom that during this time he succumbed to feelings of such hopelessness but one day solace came unexpectedly in a form of sensory relief. A narrow slit-style window gave way to the smell of freshly cut grass—wet, herbaceous, and earthy. This conjured a core memory of our large, teeming childhood yard but also, in essence, gave him a respite - a place to escape into the expansiveness of nature and momentary liberation, if only within reach by virtue of his own mind’s recollections.

It takes roughly eight minutes for me to burn through an entire stick of Chikuseiko incense. In this time, the scent fully envelopes me and I find myself surrendering to the blurring of linear perception. The ash collects at the top of the stick until it succumbs to gravity and plummets down to the surface below; particle by particle. Even accumulating ash and the disposal of it is physical proof of time passing proves to be fortifying. Shedding these layers reveals a measurement of perspective.

I close my eyes and am met by a familiar vision. As I ascend to the top of a clearing, my brother greets me with his infectious, full-faced smile in a verdant and lush landscape. We meet eyes, and I can sense a deep comfort and ease that he never fully could arrive at when he was living here. The beautiful slowness in this movement reminds me of crystallized honey.

This is now our meeting place. The last bit of ash makes a rhythmic descent, as it cascades and spins downward onto the small mound that has already formed. A testament to this act of preserving his memory. It will have to be enough for me in this lifetime.