First of all, have you noticed that the New York Times Magazine has been killing it lately? The magazine has always done good features, but they seem extra good since Jake Silverstein took over as editor—although maybe that's just because it feels like the magazine is being edited for me. (Lotsa literary stuff, personal essays by Knausgaard, a poem in every issue, the elimination of those dumb Lives essays in the back [sorry Savage, I know you have a Lives column you wrote once framed in your office].)
The recent feature that really stands out, the one I keep thinking about in the dead of night, or when RuPaul has everyone do a prison-related challenge, or when I'm getting fro-yo and I see someone with facial tattoos, is that Mark Binelli piece from March 29 about the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, otherwise known as ADX. I don't want to give too much of the piece away, but it's all about solitary confinement and how it destroys prisoners' minds, to the extent that it may not be (an unprecedented new lawsuit alleges) constitutional. Without giving too much away, two representative sentences:
On any given day, there are 80,000 US prisoners in solitary confinement.
And, describing someone who'd been in solitary confinement for more than a decade:
He cut off both earlobes, chewed off a finger, sliced through his Achilles' tendon, pushed staples into his face and forehead, swallowed a toothbrush and then tried to cut open his abdomen to retrieve it, and injected what he considered a "pretty fair amount of bacteria-laden fluid" into his brain cavity after smashing a hole in his forehead.
It's important investigative journalism and you should go read it.
ADX did not want to be written about, obviously, and the magazine was working under other constrictions, too. According to a note about the cover photograph that appeared in the table of contents that week: "It's very difficult to take a photograph of the ADX. Media almost never get access; you can't just walk up and shoot a picture. That's part of what gave these aerial shots such power: You get the feeling that you're seeing something that you're not supposed to, something that we, as a society, would rather not look at."
But how did the aerial shots come to exist in the first place?
The table of contents didn't say. Did the magazine commission someone to fly over the prison—known as "the Alcatraz of the Rockies"? Or did they find someone who'd already flown over it before? Did they shoot it from a helicopter? Or a commercial airliner? Or what? I contacted the magazine, and they put me in touch with the photographer, Jamey Stillings, who told me, "Most of my aerial work over the past several years has been from a helicopter."
What kind of camera does Stillings use? Does the prison get a heads-up before a shoot like this? Stillings told me:
Technically, the airspace over the prisons is public airspace. Normal aviation rules apply. However, the federal prison authorities would prefer no one overflies the prison. To find a balance between my rights as a photo journalist / aerial photographer and their concerns about security, I informed the ADX public information officer in advance that I would be flying overhead on the morning of the shoot. I gave him the tail number of the helicopter. Then I informed him of the protocol I would follow, specifically that I did not intend to fly at low altitude directly over the prison.
As for the camera: "I currently use a Nikon D800e with Nikkor and Zeiss lenses mounted to a gyroscope for my aerial work."
What was the day of the shoot like? Stillings described it like this:
I needed to find an appropriate time for the assignment. There was a big snow storm in the area, which was to be followed by one day of sunshine before another storm came through. I drove up on the afternoon/evening of the storm, met with the helicopter pilot before dawn, and was up in crystal clear skies before the sunrise. Thus, I was able to use the fresh snow upon the landscape to help define and delineate the prison and surrounding lands.