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“Supermax: Structures of Confinement and Rationales of Punishment” is a film project consisting of aerial footage of multiple maximum-security prison facilities shot from above. Projected at a large scale at varying degrees of extreme slow motion with an original soundscape, the video will be featured at the center of a traveling exhibition that includes interviews with experts from the fields of criminal justice and architecture, as well as additional behind-the-scenes footage documenting the shoot. By presenting the need to address the ideological shift in today’s incarceration praxis as unavoidable and urgent, this project is working toward prison reform by focusing on prison architectural design.



The supermax phenomenon is emblematic of trends toward perpetual punishment - it represents an ideological “end station”.

Few besides prisoners, prison staff and the architects who designed them have any concrete experience of these facilities. Accordingly, the video will consider them from one of the few vantage points actually available to outsiders - the airspace above.

Being confronted with images of America’s most guarded and clandestine prison sites at a vast scale is going to have a visceral impact on viewers. The video will be presented in conjunction with live discussions with architects, who will address more cost-effective design solutions tailored to local communities and to rehabilitation as viable answers to long-term solitary confinement. The true costs of keeping a substantial portion of the U.S. population incarcerated in solitary confinement need to be much better understood. Building on studies that have demonstrated the positive effects of improved environments on inmates as alternatives to solitary confinement, these talks will aim to foster the development of facilities that are more humanely built and run—both increasing the potential for prisoner reintegration into society and reducing the rates of recidivism—as well as the acceptance of a reduced need for prisons per se.

Providing a closer view of what maximum security actually looks like and exposing the general public to this one-of-a-kind investigation at a time when we are approaching a potential turning point in attitudes toward incarceration will help trigger the public tide toward reform. Iconic images once galvanized the American public against war in Vietnam – equally potent material is now needed to make the use of solitary confinement conspicuous and concrete.

"Supermax" is in its launch phase. The project has already picked up cross-disciplinary support from leading voices in architecture and criminology, as well as commitments for publication from several news outlets in the U.S. and a book publisher in Germany.


 “[Christoph Gielen’s] project is important, vital and timely. It complements national and local campaigns working to abolish the practice of solitary confinement – but it also opens up the culture itself for deeper examination. As such, it has resonance for today and tomorrow.

When I first saw Christoph’s aerial images of American “super-max” prisons I was frankly stunned. (…) When we view a supermax prison from above it is strangely beautiful and even mesmerizing. But its purpose of maximum control and containment is clearly evidenced in a way that viewing a cinder block building behind a fence of barbed wire can never communicate.”                            

 – Amy Fettig Director, Stop Solitary Campaign  American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)


Gielen (born in Bonn, Germany) specializes in video and photographic aerial studies of urban development in its relation to land use, exploring the intersection of art and environmental politics. He is the author of Ciphers (Jovis Verlag, 2013) – nominated for the Deutscher Fotobuchpreis.

Gielen is the recipient of an Aaron Siskind Foundation award, and grants from various organizations, including the Fund for Investigative Journalism. His pictures were also nominated for The Prix Pictet global award in photography and sustainability, and for the REAL Photography Award (ING Bank Initiative). He studied photography at Parsons School of Design in New York, where he also lives and works.