On the 28th of January, 2020, Christopher Fausto Cabrera took a chance. Writing from his cell in the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Rush City to photographer Alec Soth, he asked quite simply for ‘a professional dialogue’.
He couldn’t have known what would come; Soth’s positive response, the unprecedented events of the ensuing year, nor the tentative friendship that would blossom amidst this turmoil. And Soth, likewise, had little reason to think that this year would be any different. What followed their first tentative exchanges was a generous exchange of thoughts, feelings, and photographs that takes a place in the long history of prison diaries and epistolary literature. It’s an unusual insight, rarely do you have a record of artists conversing for the first time. Their ongoing exchange has been collected, edited, and published by MACK, as The Parameters of Our Cage, the third in a series of Discourses.
Writing under the pen name Fausto, his introduction is formal to the point of feeling stilted, “please forgive the audacity of this letter, I reach out in great admiration and respect.” Later, during an interview conducted with Soth over prison payphone and broadcast online, Fausto admitted that he knew precisely what he doing – that sending the letter, with its distinctive prison envelope, would catch Soth’s eye; Soth readily admits this unusual post sparked his intrigue. I see it in his first response; concise, but not perfunctory. Soth sets out a few questions for Fausto, asking of his conditions; what materials does he have available? Where do his interests lie? Soth takes a quote from the Czechoslovakian photographer Libuše Jarcovjákovái, who describes the claustrophobic atmosphere of Soviet Prague driving her to literature and art.
Fausto’s replies in detail about the constraints of his own prison life. He was incarcerated in 2003, aged 22, and is due to be released in 2030, at the very earliest. At his first prison, Stillwater, he had ample space and materials to engage in an arts programme. Later he was transferred to Rush City, where he found his materials restricted to ten books and whatever else he could cram into a small locker, 2ft square, along with his few other possessions. The guards, punitive and petty, only complicate matters further. In the face of this, Fausto remains philosophical. “Whether enforced by nature — biologic or social, tangible or abstract, we all confront the parameters of our cage eventually. What we do when we reach those bars helps define us, huh.”
Their early discussions circle around these restrictions; how could they not? Soth nor anyone he knows has been incarcerated – the product of an admittedly privileged upbringing in Chanhassen, Minnesota. In these early letters I sense a hesitancy, entirely understandable, after all, how do you talk to someone whose interests, references, and aesthetics may not match your own, let alone someone who has spent seventeen years, nearly half their life, locked behind bars, and who yet faces another decade in these same institutions. Reflecting, later on, Soth admits that he started with preconceptions, you might say prejudices, regarding prison life. Over the course of time and letters, Fausto’s eloquence and literary mind deftly undoes these hesitancies, as week by week their letters warm.
Fausto’s writing develops a vivid picture of prison life. I read his descriptions as Polaroid snapshots – vivid aestheticised vignettes of those most memorable moments. The fraternal atmosphere of a bunch of misguided 20-somethings, of the logistics of hooch brewing, of the small pleasure of a small bag of weed lit by sparking plugs and smoked, furtively, through an apple. But he is under no illusions, “Surviving a terrible place isn’t justice; it’s a waste of resources. Prison is a terrible place by design with a dark purpose. But just like foxholes, they become places that mold relationships and character through the resiliency of those that find ways to make it through the wars.”
Fausto soon finds it within himself to explicate his circumstances. Straddling social worlds, a light-skinned Black Cuban, “token minority around upper-middle-class white kids or cousin Chris from the suburbs who enunciated his words like an outsider”. He writes of an amalgamation of cultures, of good influences who “through all of my bullshit, still believe in me”. He writes of the death of his mother from cancer. He was aged just twelve. Of roofing houses and playing basketball; of depression and debt; of troubled romances and of the ‘necessity’ of carrying a gun. In Fausto’s case, a bar fight led to a shooting, which led to fleeing, and, once he handed himself in, four counts of first-degree attempted murder, and one count of second-degree murder.
“I now take on the responsibility of owning my past fully. I know that my incarceration in and of itself has done little to solve any of the issues of crime, but it has molded me into the person I should have been all along. I believe the greatest thing we have to offer humanity is ourselves, our perceptions, our stories — our art. And I hope all of my failures qualify me to pay something forward on an insurmountable debt.”
Soth’s reply – dated two weeks later – talks of what he describes to his students as ‘the sentence’, the literal phrase and metaphorical judgement that becomes appended to our names and marks us. Everyone has one: “the tall guy”, “the one with glasses”, “the Jewish poet who killed herself”. We cannot define it, but we can nudge it in different directions, Soth says, changing the emphasis. It may be a cliche, but this admission redefines the relationship. If just for the fact that they begin to sign their letters, from formal ‘best’ and to ‘much love’.
But what does their ongoing dialogue say of photography? The text avoids strict classification. It’s neither prescriptive nor definitive, it’s not a philosophical or theoretical dialogue (in the strict sense), nor is it self-consciously historical or academic, such as Nicole R. Fleetwood’s recent work, Prison Portraits.
A few interesting things stand out. Firstly, that Fausto’s interest in photography coincides with his incarceration. He writes that he overlooked photography, valuing personal photographs of friends and family, but seeing little value in artistic practice. He eventually came around to it through the appreciation of landscape painting and the realisation that the absence of human subjects afforded the viewer a place within the image. Despite only recently coming to the medium, he’s well aware of its power. He remarks on how the prison uses denial of photographs as a tool of control. The ‘petty enforcements and frivolous control’ of the guards means he’s had to send pictures of loved ones home to his relatives’ house, lest they be confiscated, and that in the early 2000s the prison introduced a ‘no nudity’ rule regarding photographs. ‘When women are treated as objects to be take away, we are taught to objectify them.’
Its main role is to underlie the discussion, a touchstone for two people of very different circumstances to come together in mutual appreciation, it’s the icebreaker and it papers over the gaps in the conversation. In some respects, photography becomes tangential to a wider conversation. A prompt by Soth to discuss the background of one photograph opens up the opportunity to talk of Fausto’s family life. You hear from Soth the details of a professional photographer’s life: anecdotes from his travels, the absurdity and boredom of commercial work, why Soth doesn’t take pictures of his family, “Photography is a tool for me to explore the world while always preserving a certain amount of distance.” Soth’s travels across the US open up discussions about the ongoing spectre of COVID-19, the resurgent movement in the USA for civil rights and racial justice, and the upcoming presidential election. Soth writes of his changing ethics with regards to covering protests – how he recently turned down a magazine commission and offered a list of Black photographers.
Across all the letters, if there’s one aspect that stands out it’s the unbridled optimism that Fausto holds in their discussion and in forming an empathetic connection with Soth. At times Soth holds back, saying their experiences are nothing alike, yet Fausto remains constantly at pains to find points of commonality, and not to deny the possibility of empathy. Of course, some specificities make this particular exchange perhaps easier than most. Fausto is deft, sensitive, and literate. Soth is older, wiser, and professionally-respected. That’s not to say that conversation is easy at all times. It’s an attempt to converse that remains riven by the bureaucracy and idiosyncrasies of the prisons. There are stumbling blocks across all paths, books and images censored, temporal delays, every word surveilled and subject to censure. Yet, as prison abolition and defunding the police join the demands for justice on the lips and banners of thousands across the world, there are difficult conversations to be had. These are the kinds of conversations that must be had.
All proceeds from The Parameters of Our Cage will be donated to the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.