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American Exile is a series of photographs and interviews documenting the stories of immigrants who have been ordered deported from the United States, as well as their family members – often, American citizens – who suffer the consequences of the harsh punishment and are sometimes forever separated from a parent or partner transported to foreign lands.
These are people who, ostensibly, have — just as you or I — lived, worked and paid taxes in the U.S. for extended periods. Bar fights that occurred 20 years ago, Visa paperwork deadlines missed, and other minor matters have sometimes led to deportation.
The tumorous growth America’s prison industrial complex goes back four decades whereas the focus of Graham and Susan’s work — the establishment of an extended archipelago of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities — is a much more recent, post 9/11 phenomenon. It is utterly contemporary and it meets the desperate need for journalism that probes ICE procedures.
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MacIndoe spent five months in immigration detention in 2010, facing deportation because of a misdemeanor conviction – despite living in the U.S. as a legal permanent resident since 1999. After winning his case, he and Susan began gathering stories of families caught up in deportation proceedings, including asylum seekers, green card holders, and immigrants trapped in the bureaucracy of adjusting a visa.
I love Graham and Susan. They have a very comfortable couch. We’ve been friends for several years. Susan has a keen sense of justice and nous for a story and the will to bend an industry to our needs, not its. Graham is an addict who got clean, a street shooter, an artist, a great teacher (by all accounts) and a bit of a curmudgeon for all the right reasons.
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Graham MacIndoe is a photographer and an adjunct professor of photography at Parsons The New School in New York City. Born in Scotland, he received a master’s degree in photography from the Royal College of Art in London and has shot editorial and advertising campaigns worldwide. He is represented by Little Big Man Gallery in Los Angeles, and his work is in many public and private collections. Follow Graham on Instagram and Twitter.
Susan Stellin has been a freelance reporter since 2000, contributing articles to The New York Times, New York, The Guardian, TheAtlantic.com and many other newspapers and magazines. She has worked as an editor at The New York Times and is a graduate of Stanford University.
In 2014, Susan and Graham were awarded a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation for their project, American Exile, and are collaborating on a joint memoir that will be published by Random House (Ballantine) in 2016.
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This weekend, the BBC ran a piece about a pinhole photography workshop in a women’s prison in Argentina. I greatly admire pinhole photography in prisons.
The images are atmospheric – retro, a little blurred and with almost fish-eye perspective in some. They look like stills from some 90s skate video or something (I don’t know why that matters). They are awash in color, not unlike every hipster’s favorite, the aura portrait (not sure why that matters either).
Maybe it was precisely because these images didn’t look like a prison that I was attracted to them. If they weren’t the feature of an article about prison and rehabilitation, they’d have scuttled right by during my day of contestant image flow. naturally, I wanted to know more about their production.
They were made during a workshop offered YoNoFui, a organization that provides teaching, community, skills, personal development to prisoners. The organization was founded by Maria Medrano who believes prisons can become productive places for women, cultivating their individuality, esteem and confidence. Currently, they offer nothing of the sort. Medrano has ben recognized as an esteemed Ashoka Fellow and upon the Ashoka website we can find out more about her and YoNoFui’s philosophy.
“Convinced that the prison is the last link in a chain of exclusion and disenfranchisement that ensnares poor women, Medrano pioneered a relationship-centered continuum of education and engagement for women prisoners and ex-convicts to create concrete opportunities for women out of prison and to change the mindsets of prisoners, their families and communities,” it reads.
YoNoFui (translated as “It wasn’t me) also offers courses in poetry, journalism, textiles, bookmaking and carpentry. It’s providing a “holistic approach to transform the way the criminal justice system conceives of and treats women prisoners, making it a productive and more nurturing place. […] Maria’s program deals with the root problems affecting the women, including their lack of labor skills, emotional marginalization and poor self-confidence.”
Some of this language is familiar to us, but a lot of it has not been implemented in Medrano’s home country.
“Women prisoners are the most marginalized segment of Argentine society,” writes Ashoka. “The vast majority are mothers and housewives from very low economic segments of society. 90% of them also come from broken and dysfunctional families, with abusive or drug-addicted husbands and children—whom they often bore while in prison. Many come from two or three generations of women who have been unemployed, and who lack formal education and the social customs that familiarized them with a culture of work. Most never learned the values a healthy workplace inculcates, such as personal responsibility and self-respect. The children of these women are often either neglected or abandoned outright, sent to live with a relative or put into state institutions. About 41% of these women are immigrants with few connections to the local society, having migrated on their own without official papers to seek a better fortune in Argentina, or who were victims of transnational trafficking rings.”
Women end up committing low-level crimes and misdemeanors in Buenos Aires, more out of desperation or necessity rather than from a pathological sense of criminality. However, once sentenced the path is predictable. Argentine prisons reflect upon the most disenfranchised exactly what they had experienced in free society – social exclusion, and permanent second class status. The effects of this exclusion are ben more pronounced upon immigrant women. The majority of people in Argentina are unsympathetic to female prisoners unaware of the complex web of causes to their situation.
Rehabilitation has not been the way.
“Prisons in Argentina function in a militarized way, due to a law passed in 1973 under the military dictatorship. They bear very little emphasis on policies and practices that help support reinsertion of men and women into the labor and social mainstream, leading to high rates of recidivism—although the public ministries do not even care to record the exact figures,” says Ashoka.
Until Medrano’s efforts, reform efforts were largely absent. Focuses first on building individual relationships, belonging and interdependence, Medrano hopes to break the cycle. It’s hard for us to believe but many women in prison have not been exposed to, shared in, or shown how to believe in themselves.
Medrano is going further than just offering classes; she is tying all education into self-improvement and cultivating buy-in from all constituents. Only with the support of the authorities is she implementing cultural change.
“Success for the effort requires a complex series of negotiations with multiple ministries whose support will be required,” says Ashoka. “Negotiations have already begun with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labor, where YoNoFui is holding workshops. By developing broad constituencies among multiple ministries, Medrano is beginning to overcome bureaucratic intransigence, while also shifting the program’s dependence on the penitentiary system, which is part of the Justice Ministry, to other ministries with less of a “law-and-order” stigma attached.”
YoNoFui is working in two of the five federal prisons in Argentina, both in Buenos Aires, with some 600 women prisoners each. Medrano plans to scale up and move into other facilities.
Financial support comes a number of governmental departments astutely identified by Medrano — subsidies for micro-enterprises through the Social Development Ministry; job training grants through the Ministry of Labor; seed capital from the Ministry of Industry. YoNoFui connects women with housing and jobs subsidies.
What they begin in the prison they continue outside. YoNoFui also works with agencies for Social Issues, Prisons, Migrants and Gender Issues, with the Secretariat for Children, Youth and Families — both of which have responsibilities related to the young people whose mothers are incarcerated.
Former prisoners return to the jails to work as teachers, and they are new positive role models to the women inside. Relationships are key. Skills ALONGSIDE psychological and emotional health. Arts and trades continue outside of the penal institutions — carpentry, bookbinding, textile design, textile machinery, weaving, graphic design, silkscreen, photography, poetry and journalism.
The organization is young but Medrano wants a permanent, staffed, full-time “School for Work” inside the prison. In the way, YoNoFui considers young people too in helping them re-establishing their bonds of family, re-adapt to society, YoNoFui can be though of as akin to The Harlem Childrens Zone. Targeting both the practical and the attitudinal is key, that is to build key skills but also to shift the mindset of an entire downtrodden group.
Inspiring stuff. Now, aren’t you glad you took a closer look? I am.
Verint Israel and NICE System Monitoring Center, Astana, Kazakhstan 2014.
Much of my weekend was spent putting a final editing-touches on the latest Vantage article Panopticon For Sale. The piece, details trade between authoritarian regimes (such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and others) and corporations that manufacture and maintain cyber-surveillance.
The author, Mari Bastashevski, spent 12 months researching this shady industry — trailing paper work, filing FOIA requests, interviewing and protecting sources, and corroborating statements. Many previously unreported (but commonly suspected) business relations uncovered by Bastashevski have been confirmed by information included in the July 5th hack of Hacking Team (a company that manufactures surveillance technologies) when the identities of its clients were posted online.
As Bastashevski writes in her closing statements:
Companies like NICE, Gamma Group, Verint, and Hacking Team, who sell this power to governments for which “watched a YouTube protests video” constitutes criminal behaviour become co-arbiters of what is and isn’t a “wrong act”. Yet for the companies, much like for their clients, their own secrecy remains absolute and proprietary: not something for press consumption, researchers, or advocates.
Private corporations are facilitating the unfettered surveillance of citizens by paranoid rulers.
NICE Systems HQ, Ra’anana, Israel 2014.
The comparatively unregulated republics in the post-Soviet region are proving grounds for the shit that the power hungry can get away with.
I’ll stop yelling now, encourage you to read Bastashevski’s #longread, and leave you with an my editor’s foreword to further convince you to take in Bastashevki’s text and images.
This is a narrative built upon information that’s incredibly difficult to verify. Outside of the community of privacy advocates and cyber-surveillance researchers, no-one really saw this story, or necessarily knew what it was or why it mattered. That’s because everything that Bastashevski was looking at — or looking for — is invisible, confidential or both.
When Hacking Team was itself hacked, Bastashevski felt vindicated. Not only did the hack confirm the presence of Hacking Team in countries she investigated, it also confirmed the presence of other companies she knew were providing surveillance to those countries. The lies and questionable dealings of a catastrophic industry were laid bare.
“To photograph or to look at what exists on the verge of catastrophe,” critic Ariella Azoulay once wrote, “the photographer must first assume she has a reason to be in the place of the nonevent or event that never was, which no one has designated as the arena of an event in any meaningful way. She, or those who dispatch her, must suspend the concerns of the owners of the mass media regarding the ratings of the finished product and with her camera begin to sketch a new outline capable of framing the nonevent. Photographing what exists the verge of catastrophe thus is an act that suspends the logic of newsworthiness.”
By virtue of hackers’ actions, and not the logic of the news industry, I find myself in a position to publish Bastashevski’s remarkable findings. A condensed version of this work was exhibited at Musee de Elysee and published in the Prix Elysee catalogue (Musee de Elysee, December 2014). It has since been expanded to include a review of targets and surveillance in Azerbaijan, and cross references of the recent evidence obtained through Hacking Team leak.
This is not a photo essay but rather an essay with photos. Bastashevki makes photographs, in many ways, to show her stories cannot be photographed. These images are way-markers along roads of discovery.
Read the full piece Panopticon For Sale and see more large images.
Ministry of Communication Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 2014.
SNB lunch spot, secure Gazalkent district, Tashkent Uzbekistan. 2014.
Monitoring centre (roof) -Tashkent, Uzbekistan. 2014. Location where data obtained with Hacking Team, Nice Systems, and Verint Technologies is analysed and processed.
PU-data collection point Kazakhtelecom-Almaty, Kazakhstan, 2014.
Presidential Palace and MNS HQ, Baku, Azerbaijan 2013.
Inside Verint Israel HQ, Herzliya Pituach, Israel 2014.
Transaction — Dedeman Silk Road Radisson Blu, Tashkent ,Uzbekistan. 2014.
All images: Mari Bastashevski
Statewide Coordinated Action to End Solitary Confinement, Oakland
Two years ago today, the largest prisoner hunger strike in California’s history was started by prisoners in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison. Within the first month of the strike, over 30,000 in California’s prisons had joined, raising the call for the five core demands in unified struggle. The strikers received overwhelming support, with prisoners from across the U.S., in Guantanamo Bay, and as far as Palestine sending statements of solidarity. Outside prison walls, families, loved ones, and organizers elevated the imprisoned voices to an international scale, sparking solidarity actions all over the world, and even prompting the U.N. to call on California to end the use of solitary.
However, the struggle continues. The prison regime has refused to meet the strikers’ demands in any meaningful way, opting to demonize and repress prisoners.
A class action lawsuit brought on behalf of Pelican Bay solitary prisoners in 2012 is ongoing despite numerous attempts by the state to weaken and halt it. Importantly, grassroots organizing has been reinvigorated, with the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition organizing statewide coordinated actions on the 23rd of each month since March of this year to continue raising awareness and building the movement to end solitary, with the actions growing larger across the state.
In the words of Todd Ashker, one of the hunger strike leaders, “I personally believe the prisoncrats’ efforts to turn the global support we have gained for our cause against us will fail […] CDCr rhetoric indicates desperation – a very concerning desperation in the sense that it is demonstrative of CDCr’s top administrators’ intent to continue their culture of dehumanization, torture and other types of abusive policies and practices […] Our key demands remain unresolved. The primary goal is abolishing indefinite SHU and Ad Seg confinement and related torturous conditions.”
Especially in the wake of Riker’s Island scandal and Kalief Browder’s death, the nation is aware of widespread torture — by means of solitary confinement — in U.S. prisons. But, a few years ago the issue was only just beginning to register on the national conscience. It cannot be overstated how vital California prisoners’ efforts (with support from families and allies outside) led the march against this abusive and invisible practice.
Two long and short years … depending on which side of the box you are.
Also, not to be missed is this extended, #longread analysis of the situation two years on by the indubitable Vikki Law at Truthout, Two Years After Pelican Bay Hunger Strike, What’s Changed for People Inside the Prison?
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continues to claim that “there is no ‘solitary confinement’ in California’s prisons and the SHU is not ‘solitary confinement,'” but people inside the Pelican Bay State Prison’s security housing unit say they remain locked in for at least 23 hours per day. Meanwhile, in June 2015, the CDCR released proposed new regulations around its use of the security housing unit and administrative segregation – regulations that may, in part, curb participation in future strikes and other prison protests. […] The regulations are currently going through the required public comment period in which any member of the public, incarcerated or otherwise, can submit written comments. A public hearing is scheduled for August 7, 2015.
Author Todd Ashker, who was locked in the security housing unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison, disagrees with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s assertion that its prisons do not have solitary confinement.
In a 13-page typed statement, Ashker describes how, along with over 1,000 other people, he is locked for 25 years of his life into 11-by-seven-foot cells for at least 22 hours a day. The security housing unit cells have no windows and their doors face a wall so that those inside cannot see each other through the door slot. Any time they are taken out of their cells – for a shower, a visit or an hour of recreation in an exercise cage – they are handcuffed and ankle chained.
“What would it be like to have one’s bodily contact with others reduced to the fastening and unfastening of restraints, punctuated with the most intimate probing of the surface and depths of one’s body?” Ashker writes in his statement.
Solitary still exists and for long as it does, and for as many years tick by, it must be opposed. By us. We.
Photo: Paul Rucker
When Obama went to Marc Maron’s garage to record a WTF episode, he was in a sober frame of mind. He was frank about our situation right now with gun control. After Sandy Hook, he said, his administration tried everything they could to change laws but the legislation was fought by the usual NRA suspects. The legislation was watered down and achieved little.
Astutely, Obama didn’t pin the blame solely on the NRA and the kowtowing politicians but also on us. Yes, us, we, you and me. Sweeping political changes will follow sweeping social pressure. But in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, in Obama’s estimation, there was lots of talk but ultimately not enough public will to ring in the massive changes we need.
This is a teachable moment of sorts. Here, POTUS is telling us that organising works; he is saying that politicians listen if the swell of opinion is unavoidable and undeniable. The wave of gun opposition wasn’t sustained or powerful enough it seems. Well, yes and no. Yes, in that political change didn’t result. But, no, in that the passions and intelligence of the gun law reformers shouldn’t be dismissed, or pegged as total failure. It is my belief that in gun reform, in prison reform, in education reform — in any movement that demands wide-scale change — the efforts of the activists must compensate for the inertia and fear of the politicians they wish to influence.
Even when it makes moral, social and economic sense to enact positive change, we have seen that politicians find it hard to filter out the sound of the waft of of checkbooks and the loud and persistent lobbyist’s din.
We have to work harder to see gun laws change. We have to work harder to reduce hate and homegrown terror acts.
Paul Rucker is one of the hardest working artists I know. He’s always stationed politics at the center of his practice but in recent years he has ventured fearlessly into America’s racial histories, current psyche and shortcomings. I curated Paul’s work in Prison Obscura. This morning, Paul sent out the following message to those on his email list. I think it is eloquent. It is from a point of knowledge. And I hope Paul doesn’t mind me sharing it.
I’ve been in South Carolina this week visiting my mother. The flags are at half staff at the library. The deeply ambivalent feelings I have for home are more real than ever. Growing up, I remember seeing Confederate flags on cars and bumper stickers stating “I should have picked my own damn cotton!” These were just part of the culture. An even deeper and unacknowledged part of the culture are the souls that built this state and this country. In 1860, there were more slaves living in South Carolina than free citizens. Cotton sales were worth $200 million then, the equivalent of $5 billion today. As we argue/discuss the flag, we must also add to our conversation the true and complete history of the South and America. Cotton was shipped all over the country and the world. The role of slave labor in the economic success of our country must be acknowledged, along with the cost of that success in millions of lives not deemed human. If we remove the flag, let us replace it with knowledge, and so honor the souls that brought us here to the prosperous land that we have today.
My condolences to the families of the nine people murdered a week ago. My heart goes out to them and their loved ones.
With a heavy heart,
Also well said.
In the conventional definition of the word, there are not many funny things about prison. In spite of that, those oppressed by the system are still leveraging humour in order to process and overcome America’s dehumanising and oppressive prison industrial complex.
The Poetic Justice Project (PJP) is a case in point.
“Poetic Justice Project is California’s only theatre company comprised of formerly incarcerated actors appearing in plays that examine crime, punishment and redemption,” explains PJP whose latest production is INSIDE/OUT: A Comedic Look At Prison and Re-Entry
Bay Area audiences will witness a unique marriage in June: the happy union of a 500-year-old art form with cutting edge social justice theatre. Poetic Justice Project will present its Commedia Dell’Arte play, INSIDE/OUT, at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland and on Alcatraz Island.
Commedia Dell’Arte is a style of masked, improvisational slapstick comedy that dates back to 16th Century Italy. INSIDE/OUT follows character Damian from prosecution to prison to parole as he wears whatever mask he needs to survive. Damian is saved by the love of a good woman, and by his determination to never return to prison.
The play is directed by Gale McNeeley, a graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre and Scuola Internazionale Dell’Attore Comico in Italy. INSIDE/OUT was co-created by McNeeley and actors Leonard Flippen, Jorge Manly Gil, Janet Guess, Nick Homick and Caroline Taylor-Hitch. The actors have all been incarcerated—in prison, jail or juvenile facilities. Most have no previous theatre experience when they come to Poetic Justice Project.
INSIDE/OUT shows Friday, June 19 at 6 p.m. at St. Mary’s Center, 925 Brockhurst St., Oakland. Tickets are $15 and available from Brown Paper Tickets, 800-838-3006, and at the door. On Saturday, June 20 at 2 p.m., there is a free performance on Alcatraz Island.
Based in Santa Maria, the project was founded by Artistic Director Deborah Tobola in 2009. Tobola and Poetic Justice Project recently received the the Santa Barbara County Action Network’s “Looking Forward” Award for Leadership and Vision.
Poetic Justice Project It is a program of the award-winning William James Association, which provides arts instruction to prisoners, people on parole and probation, and youth at risk of incarceration.
QUESTIONS? MEDIA CONTACT
Deborah Tobola, Artistic Director
tel: (805) 264-5463
P.O. Box 7196
In a necessarily generic statement about the project, San Francisco’s teen photography program First Exposures says its online exhibition Communication “explores how the photograph communicates meaning and the different ways in which that meaning can be interpreted based on context.” That’s a broad way of saying that their activities are rooted in developing visual literacy AND photography skills. The teenage image-makers have use antique processes, and made exquisite corpses, biographical images and studies of work and family.
In a city that is currently quite-very hard to love, I think it is absolutely essential to find things in San Francisco that are pure and you can admire. As a writer, I think it is important — everywhere and always — to recognise voices that emerge not out of market needs but out of community needs. These are the two reasons at the top of a long list as to why I am applauding both the First Exposures program and the products of its young participants.
Everything that the pros are doing these kids are doing.
– If you like A Piece Of Cake, First Exposures has its Exquisite Corpse.
– If you like Anna Atkins and Lochman & Ciurej, First Exposures has it’s own Cyanotypes.
– If you like the self exposition and exchange in work by Jeremy Deller or, say, Bayete Ross Smith and Hank Willis Thomas in Question Bridge, First Exposures has Letters To A Stranger.
– If you like Arnold Newman, you’ll dig First Exposures’ response to his work Zoomed In.
– If you like LaToya Ruby Frazier‘s depictions of family and Paul Graham‘s depictions of labour, then First Exposures has Work/Family for you.
– If you are into the collaborative portraiture of Anthony Luvera, Wendy Ewald or Eric Gottesman, you’ll love First Exposures’ Portrait/Self-Portrait.
The kids stay in the picture!
Recognition, too, to the unnamed staff and volunteers who facilitate these youth photography program. In San Francisco and elsewhere.
Literacy and personal development through photography is a familiar notion. Programs for youth include The In-Sight Photography Project, Vermont; Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE), Nova Scotia; Street Level Media, Chicago; Picture Me at the MoCP, Chicago; Youth in Focus, Seattle: Focus on Youth, Portland; Critical Exposure, Washington DC; Eye on the Third Ward, Houston; and AS220 Youth in Providence, Rhode Island.
Incredibly, Young New Yorkers (YNY) actually uses photography (as well as video, illustration and design) as intervention in the cogs of the youth justice system.
“The criminal court gives eligible defendants the option to participate in Young New Yorkers rather than do jail time, community service and have a lifelong criminal record. The curriculum is uniquely tailored to develop the emotional and behavioral skills of the young participants while facilitating responsible and creative self-expression,” says YNY.
Also in New York, is JustArts Photography Program (formerly the Red Hook Photo Project). The exhibition Perspectives featured the photographs of teens from Red Hook, Brooklyn. The JustArts Photography Program (more here and here) is run through the Red Hook Community Justice Center (RHCJC).
I encourage you to find programs in your local area and contribute.
Please feel free to name other programs in the comments that I’ve not included here.
At the back-end of 2011, I paid a visit to Nigel Poor and Doug Dertinger at the Design and Photography Department at Sacramento State University where they both teach. We talked about a history of photography course that Nigel and Doug co-taught at San Quentin Prison as part of the Prison University Project. At the time, there was no other college-level photo-history course other class like this in the United States. I have no reason to believe that that has changed (although I’d happily be proved wrong — get in touch!) We cover curriculum, student engagement, logistics, and the rewards of teaching in a prison environment.
Toward the end of the conversation we move on to discuss an essay by incarcerated student Michael Nelson. It was a comparative analysis between a Misrach photo and a Sugimoto photo. The highly respected TBW Books recently released Assignment No.2 which is a reissue of Michael’s essay. Packaged in a standard folder and printed on lined yellow office paper, Assignment #2 caught the photobook world a little off guard. Reviewers that dared to take it on admitted to being flummoxed a little. And then won over.
Back in 2011, TBW’s interest hadn’t yet been registered and Poor was still in production of the audio of Michael reading the work for public presentation. TBW Books publisher Paul Schiek has talked about the production of Assignment No.2, but Nigel Poor less so. This is the back-story to one of the most unique photo books of recent years — a book that combines fine art and fine design with an earnest recognition of a social justice need.
Scroll down for the Q&A.
Q & A
PP: How did you come to teach at San Quentin?
Nigel Poor (NP): I was always interested in teaching in a prison, and I just really never had the time to do it. While I was on a sabbatical [in 2011] I got an email from the Prison University Project saying they were looking for someone to teach art appreciation. I thought it would be a perfect time to teach there and form a class around the history of photography. I really wanted to do something with Doug so we got together to write this class.
PP: What do you look at?
NP: The history of contemporary photography — focusing on the 1970’s to the present. The course is 15 weeks like a regular semester. We met once a week for three hours. We started with early photographers — August Sander, Walker Evans and Robert Frank just to put some context and talk about how these photographers are often quoted and we move forward and show people like Sally Mann, Nan Goldin, Nick Nixon, Wendy Ewald.
Doug Dertinger (DD): Nigel tended to teach about the photographs that dealt with people, portraits, and social issues. My photographs tended to be the ones that dealt with land use and then also media. We struck a nice balance.
DD: The first two classes were strictly on aesthetic language, form, how to experience images, how to talk about them. The first assignment asked them to describe a photograph that doesn’t exist, that they wished they had that would describe a significant moment in their life. In that way they would create a little story for us and we would get to know something about them but they’d also have to use all the language about how you talk about a photograph. It was a really wonderful way to get them to think about making themselves part of the story of the photograph. Even if a photograph isn’t about you, you can bring your experience to it. It’s not solipsism; it is a way of entering photography. The exercise allowed them to take emotional chances with photographs.
In later classes, in 2012, Poor printed out famous photographs on card stock and asked her students to annotate directly upon the images. Click the William Eggleston analysed by Marvin B (top) to see a larger version of it. Kevin Tindall analysed Lee Friedlanders’ Canton, Ohio 1980 (middle), and Ruben Ramirez looked at David Hilliard’s tripychs (bottom).
PP: Were there any issues with your syllabus? Did you have to adapt it? Omit anything? Compared say to here at Sacramento State?
NP: I always tell my students, wherever we are, that it is an NC-17 rating. I naively thought I could just show the same images in San Quentin [as at Sac State] but when we started going through the process we were told that we couldn’t show any images that had to do with drugs, violence, sex, nudity, and children. Which is about 95% of photography!
At that point, I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to work but Jody Lewen [Director of the Prison University Project] is an incredible advocate and she didn’t want to presume censorship — Jody wanted the burden of explaation as to why we couldn’t show a particular image to be on the officials of the California Department of Corrections. She set up a meeting with the with Scott Kernan, the [then] Under-Secretary of the California Department of Corrections, and the [then] warden of San Quentin Prison, Michael Martell.
Kernan and Martell wanted me to show all the images that I was using for the class. I basically give them a mini-course in photography from 1970 to the present. We talked for close to two hours. I ended up getting permission to show everything except for four images.
PP: Not the worst case of censorship then?
NP: No. It was kind of a triumph. And, it must be said, without their help — especially Scott Kernan — I don’t think we would have gotten the class in.
PP: Can you describe the philosophy for the course?
NP: The central idea is to expose students to photography but really ask them to think about it quickly in an accessible and emotional way. Nor Doug or I teach from a theoretical or academic point of view. We argue that the images exist and they come to life because of the conversations we have around them. Students learn basic things about framing, form, content, but I really want them to explore all the areas of the photograph.
At the beginning, I describe the photograph as something akin to a crime scene; we are detectives trying to piece all the visual clues together to uncover subtext — perhaps, even secrets of the images that maybe the photographer isn’t even aware of.
In 2012, Poor was shown an archive of 4×5 negatives of photographs made by the prison administration in the 70s and 80s. The amount of information attached to the images is minimal. Poor broke the archive into 12 loose categories. One from the ‘Violence & Investigations’ category (top) and one from the ‘Ineffable’ category (bottom).
PP: Let’s come back to that. Because I want to bring Doug in here. Doug, what did you think when Nigel asked you to co-teach this program inside San Quentin Prison?
DD: I thought great. My parents are doctors and spent the last five years of their careers teaching at Federal Prison System. I taught in prison back in 1993 — one summer just general education stuff. So, when Nigel said that she was going to do this, well, I knew I wanted to partner with Nigel and thought it would be fun, in a way, to see what the what’s going on inside San Quentin.
PP: How do these students fair compared to your students in *free* society?
NP: They really understand the power of education and the importance of being present. I never had a student fall asleep at San Quentin or look at me with that blank expression! They were so hungry, open to conversation. It makes you worry about finding that same intensity outside of the prison setting.
DD: The men they already knew what they were about in a sense and so they came to the class with questions about photography and they understood that photography could reveal the world to them in ways that they were hungry for. A lot of students that I’ve had outside are still trying to figure out what they’re about and they haven’t yet come to their own necessity.
And, some of the men [in San Quentin] somehow understood that learning to talk about images, learning to see the world in a more complex way, could actually change them. I wish there was a way that didn’t sound trite to explain it but I could see transformations in them from the conversations that we had. Every Sunday when I left teaching there I would drive home in silence just contemplating the conversations that we had and how I felt I was becoming a better person for spending time with them. I would like to humbly think that they were too. It was a real back and forth.
Was it Wordsworth that said the imagination is the untraveled traveler? It seemed like when we went to class we all went on these journeys that were very significant for all of us. They were ready to travel.
In Nigel’s final class, she asked her students to annotate on print outs of photos from the newly discovered prison archive, in a manner similar to that they had with famous photographs from the art historical canon. Above are two examples.
PP: Earlier you mentioned Sally Mann. I presume a photographer that the authorities think is controversial, a photographer that wider society considers controversial and divides opinion. How did the discussion about Sally Mann’s work pan out?
NP: Some of them definitely had questions about the intent: Why would the mother want to photograph her three children romping around naked on their beautiful farm? But what I wanted to talk about how those images are highly staged and stylized. They’re not documentary images of how her children grew up. They are images about maybe desire about childhood, maybe the photographer inserting herself very clearly into these images. What is Sally Mann saying about the complexities of childhood or how children do have sexual feelings and act out in various ways? The images are about creating a tableau in a sense. It isn’t just about this mother who may have made images that made her children uncomfortable; it’s about creating stages to talk about emotional states of being.
PP: Well, I would think that many of the students are interested in notions of fact, truth, whether you can trust an image. Apart from the body, ones word is pretty much all you have when you’re incarcerated.
NP: We had a discussion very early on about the image always being a fabrication. It’s one person’s opinion putting a frame around the world and we always have to keep that in mind whether it’s documentary work or artist’s work. A lot of them got upset about that because I think they wanted to trust that something was reliable and truthful.
NP: And that may reflect a little bit on what happens to them, as people give evidence, or they want to assert their innocence, or not necessarily their innocence but how something unfolded in their life — this idea that everything is flexible and fluid was a little bit unnerving at times. They couldn’t look at the picture and think that’s exactly what the photographer meant and a few of them got prickly about it. It would come up off-and-on, you know. Can we use the word truth in reality when we’re talking about images and then by extension can you use those words when you’re talking about your own experience?
DD: That was a continuing topic throughout the whole semester. It was interesting too that they I don’t know how to describe it but they knew when they looked at a picture that there were all these elements in there. They explained it to us once: They get one picture from home once every 6 months, they pour over every detail of it and the desire is to create a narrative that they can fully believe and fully immerse themselves in. It was hard for them to understand that at first, at least, that there could be five different opinions about what a photograph was and each one kind of had equal weight.
Detail of Assignment No.2. Courtesy TBW Books.
NP: We don’t have a truth to give [the prisoners]. We’re going to give them our experience and talk about how we see the pictures but we’re going to learn something from them by the way they interpret images. I would see a photograph in a different light, often, after I heard what they had to say about it. I was the teacher in the classroom but it was very much about the power of group conversation. You have to outline what you want to discuss but you never quite know where the conversation’s going to go and I think that gave them a sense of power.
DD: I wonder if it was us not being, in a sense, “guards of meaning” that allowed them to say, ‘Oh, Nigel and Doug can be trusted to be privy to what we think, and they’re going to let us say things, and they’re going to correct themselves in relation to what we’re saying. We can participate, we have equal voice.’
PP: What do your students have to contribute to society?
NP: Before you have an experience in prison as a teacher or someone who’s going in as a civilian volunteer, prisoners are a group of invisible people. Even though I think I’m a thoughtful person, I had assumptions from what I read in the paper, in movies, in news.
PP: What you saw in photographs?
NP: Yeah! That these are going to be scary men, that if you turn your back are going to hurt you, that they’re animals they need to be separated from us and that they’re one-dimensional.
PP: Not so?
NP: When you go in there and you start talking and you see that these are complex, fascinating, thoughtful people; they’re citizens. They are part of our society. Yes, some of them have done terrible things but we have to think about reform and education, and the huge issues of, yes, redemption and forgiveness. How do we deal with those things? I think the only way you can thoughtfully talk about rehabilitation and forgiveness and make change is if you have a personal experience in there — you’re going to change your mind.
Details of Assignment No.2. Courtesy TBW Books.
NP: We need to find ways to use what’s in there to contribute to our society — to tap their experiences and thoughts. I became a better person by going in there and spending time. I learnt what it means to be human.
PP: That is similar to the feedback that I’ve got from other educators who’ve worked in prisons. Do you feel you are a conduit to the outside world. Do you have an added responsibility to share these stories, to share these men and their experiences with the wider public?
NP: I’m a pretty shy person and sometimes it’s difficult for me to talk at parties or whatever. But, now, I call myself the San Quentin bore. All I want to do is talk to people about this amazing experience, what these men are like. I feel very strongly about it, it’s not about me; it’s about this world that’s veiled and it’s about these men that are made invisible.
PP: You are not only a teacher, you are now an advocate. I hear you’re about to give a student the opportunity to “present” his work to the public?
NP: One of the assignments we had for the students was to give them two images from by two different artists and to ask them to analyse them. The only things the student knew about the works were the artists’ names, the dates, and the titles.
Richard Misrach. Drive-In Theatre, Las Vegas (1987), from the series American History Lessons.
Hiroshi Sugimoto. La Paloma, Encinitas (1993), from the series Theaters.
NP: While Michael was doing the assignment he was put in the hole, isolation, segregation for four weeks. He wrote an amazing paper talking about those two images. So beautiful that I wanted to get it to Richard Misrach which I was able to do and Richard was blown away by the piece.
Richard had been invited to be part of an event in San Francisco called Pop-Up Magazine which invites 20 to 30 different artists, once a year, to tell six minute stories. Richard’s idea was to read the paper that Michael wrote which was incredible. BUT! Then we started talking about it more, the organizer of Pop-Up decided he wanted Michael to read the paper. So, I went into San Quentin and recorded him reading his beautiful paper.
NP: It will be edited together. Richard will introduce it, show the two photographs and then play the recording of the student reading. It’s thrilling that this man who’s been in prison for more than half of his life is going to have the chance to be heard by 2,500 people.
PP: Nigel, Doug, Thanks so much.
NP/DD: Thank you.
ASSIGNMENT NO.2 (2014)
In an edition run of 1000, Assignment No. 2 will give many more people the opportunity to experience Michael’s words.
By Michael Nelson, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Richard Misrach.
12 x 9.5″ closed / 12 x 30″ open.
2 full color plates.
All proceeds go to the Prison University Project.