The Prison As Opera House


David Leventi photographed world famous opera houses and Dutch roundhouse prisons, “a study in contrasts between beauty and squalor, opulence and poverty, serenity and cacophony”. And yet the domed structures have some eerie similarities as well:

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From an interview with the photographer:

Domed prisons are the closest examples of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon model of mass surveillance prison design – a central guard tower with a complete view of surrounding prison cells. This concept was designed so a central observer could monitor all of the prisoners at once, without any particular prisoner being able to feel under inspection. The domed prisons have the same architectural structure as an opera house (without the opulence), but the difference is in who is observing whom. In an opera house, the audience of many is observing a few. In these domed prisons, it’s the reverse.

He was struck by the relative barbarism of US prisons compared with those in Holland:

Prisoners in Stateville prison [in Illinois] are treated like animals… It is loud. The warden at Stateville gave me assurances. But he also told me not to show any fear. One prisoners was running against the bars the entire time I was there. Bang. Bang. Bang. Endlessly. It was shocking. Everything at Stateville was the complete opposite to what I experienced in the Netherlands…  I have always had stage fright. Photographing from the center of a round prison causes anxiety. The inmates are all yelling, jeering, talking, in cacophony. You become the center of attention, and taking the photograph becomes a performance in itself. At first I was intimidated, but then I blanked everything out and focused on photographing. It must be the same for the performer.

(Photo: Haarlem Prison, Netherlands, and the Bolshoi Opera House, Moscow, by David Leventi)