Occasionally, Atwood’s descriptions stand in direct contrast to the photograph she’s taken. One violent image depicts officers holding down a naked woman. Two male guards stand in the foreground—one is just a shadowy profile looming over the frame. Only the woman’s breasts are in focus. Her face is obscured, but a nipple appears in stark relief against the white arm another officer is holding down. The description reads, “Corrections officers strip a newly arrested woman who tried to commit suicide by swallowing her own clothes. Male corrections officers were called only when women guards proved incapable of handling the situation.” The description suggests that the image can’t stand alone—that even Atwood is troubled by its violence.
I long for deeper descriptions of other provocative images. “Newly booked woman in a holding cell” hardly explains a photograph of a naked woman sprawled, belly down, on the floor. She has something stuffed in her mouth. Is she the woman who swallowed clothes? A dark stain on the floor—blood? vomit? peeling paint?—is a queasy reminder that something is missing from this picture. The right third of the frame is obstructed by a dark blur, presumably a door frame, echoing my frustration. Although it’s one of the few photos that show an entire body, it offers only a snippet of meaning.
After seeing these images, taking a photograph seems less metaphorical. Atwood’s point of view—from tenderness to terror—operates like a study in voyeurism and rarely portrays a prisoner’s point of view. But the problematic perspective makes the collection’s troubling beauty even more palpable, if not entirely palatable.