A lot has been said about “Orange Is The New Black”, an original Netflix series created by Jenji Kohan and released on the 11th July, 2013. It tells the story of Piper Chapman, a high-middle class American woman in her thirties who has to leave her fiancé and her life of brunches and depurative diets after she’s convicted for transporting money, a crime she committed ten years ago for her ex-girlfriend, a drug dealer.
Less has been said about the wonderful opening credits:
Featuring a great song by Regina Spektor (You´ve Got Time), it´s a mosaic of eyes and mouths that barely move, alternating with static images of typical prison stuff: the orange uniform, the fingertips, the phones… What strikes me is how these credits update criminal photography, one of the most important traditions in the field. It´s amazing because it really works.
As most of you probably know, by “criminal photography” I refer to portraits of criminals made in the second half of the Nineteenth century as judicial or police records by people such as Alphonse Bertillon and Francis Galton. They both proposed scientific methods to define the features of the criminals, based on the study of their photographic portraits. But these were not the only ones. The use of this kind of photographs that focused on “neutral” faces (that is, free from any emotional expressions) extended from the judicial field to the medical and the anthropological one.
So, it makes sense that the credits of OITNB relate to this tradition, as the focus of the show is the life of the inmates. However, they do not just reproduce these traditional visual strategies, but they appropriate them to make new meanings. For example, they show faces, but just part of faces (eyes and mouths): just in one case the full face is shown. This fragmentation of the portraits serve to de-neutralize the pictures. The spectator is called to engage with expressive eyes and mouths by three means: first, because it has been revealed that the eyes and mouths belong to actual inmates, not to actresses, so we are supposed to readreal experiences in them. Second, because it´s not so clear that we´re seeing still images. There are slight movements in some frames, so maybe we´re looking at film stills, not photographs. This almost imperceptible movement allows us to imagine what this mouth is going to do (smile?). And third, this all is presented through the contemporary aesthetics of digital filters: it seems we´re looking at Instagram. The fact that we can easily recognize the pictures as some that we could do allow us to connect more easily to what is shown.
The most awesome part for me is that this update works because it´s not only a matter of images (contemporary images to which contemporary spectators can engage), but because the show recognizes a variety of women that in traditional criminal photography could not be represented. The focus of OITNB is progressively displaced from the blonde, white, middle-class woman to the rest of the inmates: black, latin, east european, lesbian, bisexual, transexual, heterosexual, addict, ex-addict, dealers, religious, spiritualists, skinny, fat, poor, rich, young and old women and girls. It´s not only that women are (finally!!!!) represented as a complex group of people with different values, interests and problems in which different categories intersect. OITNB shows that not only marginalized women end up there: it´s rather being there what marginalizes. These new facts had to be suggested by new means, such as the confusion between photography and video or the use of all kinds of bodies, including tattoos and piercings.
I really love when I find these historical roots in contemporary practices!