University Of Tasmania
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'Through a glass, darkly' : the camera, the convict and the criminal life

posted on 2023-05-27, 10:45 authored by Clark, JC
A unique series of convict portraits was created at Tasmania's Port Arthur penal station in 1873 and 1874. While these photographs are often reproduced, their author remained unidentified, their purpose unknown. The lives of their subjects also remained unexamined. This study used government records, contemporary newspaper reportage, convict memoirs, historical research and modern criminological theory to identify the photographer, to discover the purpose and use of his work, and to develop an understanding of the criminal careers of these men. The photographer was probably the penultimate commandant of Port Arthur, Adolarius Humphrey Boyd. Rather than representing the entire inmate population at the time of the station's closure, the project photographed only the men who were probably regarded as a risk to the community. The purpose of these photographs was assumed to be associated with policing but, unlike the practice in Britain and Europe, this turned out not to be the case. Instead, these images were adhered to each man's Hobart Gaol record. Tasmanian police refused to adopt the practice of circulating images of offenders, claiming that their local knowledge was sufficient. This confidence was misplaced. Most of these men were arrested by members of their own community, exploding the myth of mateship. In asking why these men continually reoffended, I developed criteria based on modern theories of recidivism, and tested the life experience of these men against them. I found that this group of men met all the pre-conditions developed by criminologists for recidivism. In Britain and Tasmania they were chronically disadvantaged. In Tasmania they were brutalised as convicts, tainted forever by their time at Port Arthur and, as a result, rejected by society as emancipists. The criminal sub-culture, defiantly opposed to conventional standards of respectability, offered them acceptance. These photographs played their part in a society and a regime fated to create recidivists. They proved to their subjects, and to the world, that the subjects were outcasts. Almost 150 years later, they continue to affirm the criminal identity of these former Port Arthur inmates.


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Copyright 2015 the author

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