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A 1916 American Mug Shot
For anyone who thinks photography has only recently been abducted by state and corporate power for the purposes of control, think again. For anyone who thinks that high-tech-surveillance was the birth of photography being used to discipline and order humans, think again. Cyborgology recently had a great piece by Liam French lecturer in the Journalism and Media Department at the University of St. Mark & St. John, about the historical connects between image-making and criminal justice. French writes:
The relationship between visual technologies and the criminal justice system can be traced back to the emergence of photography and the invention of the camera as a tool for documenting ‘reality’ in the nineteenth century. The camera was widely believed, even more so than today, to be able to objectively and truthfully record social reality. A photograph was perceived to be like a window on the world – a mechanically produced, impartial and literal representation of the real world.
One such photographic taxonomy was produced by the Italian physician Cesare Lombroso who drew ink portraits depicting ‘criminal types’. Lombroso’s work is an exemplary case of the rise of positivist criminology in the nineteenth century. He argued that criminals possessed more ‘atavistic’ features and shared more characteristics with our evolutionary ancestors than more law-abiding citizens.
Most Wanted: Cameras, Criminal Justice and the Persistence of Vision argues that the breadth of surveilling techniques and technologies has extended to the Internet.
Still and moving ‘visual evidence’ is stored in state archives, used in courtrooms as evidence, and disseminated across almost every major media platform: from the printed press to the World Wide Web.
French references both a 2006 article about Mark Michaelson’s book and collection of mugshots and last years viral pic of Jeremy Meeks‘ mugshot to raise the idea that law enforcement photography (mugshots included) have transcended their forensic roots.
Take, for example, the posting of the police mug-shot of criminal Jeremy Meeks on Stockton Police Force Facebook page resulted in his image going viral and concluding with the offer of a quite lucrative modelling contract. What is interesting about the Jeremy Meeks mug-shot story is that once his photograph was displayed outside of the authoritative domain of the police archive and publicly circulated across different social media platforms and networks it accrued different sets of meanings (sexy, hot, good-looking) along the way despite the attempt to officially encode (or fix) the meaning (criminal, dangerous, wanted by the police) of the photograph.
Furthermore, French argues, that John Fiske’s theory that dominant power uses system to segregate and dominate apply here. Fiske says that authority will rely upon systems and “improve” them all the while facing resistance from the lesser power. Crucially, the lesser power uses the same systems to subvert and counter dominate. Sometimes the lesser power is successful and sometimes the larger power replaces old systems with new ones of greater efficiency or new tactics. In any case there is always a push and pull.
Booking photo of Jeremy Meeks, 30. (June 18, 2014). Credit: Stockton Police Department
So in the case of mugshots, there has always been inherent control attached to state-dominate manufacture and exchange of mugshots. Until social media found a way to interrupt that exchange.
Even Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s mugshot of the day website and the countless mugshot magazines like Busted were examples of larger authorities using the mugshot to their own ends. Arpaio’s use served not the general fraternity of law enforcement but his own ego. Busted wanted to bend the use of mugshots to its own profitable ends but interestingly did so without inconveniencing the state’s power; to the contrary dollar-mugshot magazines enhance the states criminalisation of individuals.
Fiske’s theory was formulated in the late 1980s and so pre-dates the emergence of web 2.0 and social media but his model of culture (and popular culture) does have a resonance with the ways in which social media tools and platforms further open up the terrain of culture for struggles over meaning, semiotic productivity and popular resistance. Imposing official (or dominant) meanings is now much more difficult because there are so many opportunities for contestation.
It would be naïve to cite the Jeremy Meeks example as some kind of paradigm changing moment or as the empowerment of the masses but it does offer an insight into the ways in which the potential for popular resistance is always possible and can surface in the most unlikely of places.
From dusty archives, to venerable vernacular objects, to art-world comedy-fetish, to online consumable, we need to consider deeply our relationship to mugshots. And to the criminal justice systems from which they emerge. Especially as one week we’re approaching them as shallow entertainment and the next we’re demanding a right to them in order to confirm or dispel controversy and conspiracy surrounding in-custody death.
Read French’s full piece Most Wanted: Cameras, Criminal Justice and the Persistence of Vision here
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
A small, unbreakable tin wall mirror in a solitary cell. Reflection is of a slatted window. Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo for New York Magazine.
The suicide of Kalief Browder was the latest, most tragic reminder of how much of a hell hole Rikers Island is. It was the combined effects of broken bail and juvenile prison systems that killed Kalief.
Take your pick of the coverage from The Guardian and the New York Times, to New York Magazine. What has been consistent in the coverage of Rikers as information about conditions and treatment is that visuals have been limited and it has relied on the progression of lawsuits and news FOIA requests. Whistleblowers have been few and far between and prisoners’ testimonies are notoriously difficult to verify.
An August 2013 fight in the George R. Vierno Center, caught on surveillance tape.
That makes the recent feature Rikers Island, Population 9,790, a joint effort between The Marshall Project and New York Magazine noteworthy. In the expansive effort involving more than half a dozen journalists, we hear from a couple who both went to Rikers in the same year (she was pregnant); a teacher on Rikers; a couple of recent prisoners; an officer, the commissioner of the department of corrections; a girlfriend of a slain prisoner; a former volunteer-librarian; various visitors; a mental health professional; and others.
The selection of imagery (as well as an overview map) is one of the most diverse visual presentations of Rikers that I have seen online. It includes Ashley Gilbertson‘s straight shots from common areas, wings and solitary cells, Ruth Fremson‘s work from the kitchen, surveillance video stills, photos of prisoners by Clara Vannucci and Julie Jacobson, Instagram images found under the hashtag #Rikers, environmental studies by Librado Romero, and archival photos by my friend and former correctional officer Lorenzo Steele Jr.
Bravo to the photo editors of The Marshall Project and New York Magazine.
The recreation center at the bing. Photo: Officer Lorenzo Steele Jr.
Contraband, including jail-made weapons and drugs. Photo: New York City Department of Correction via AP.
The view from Instagram, #Rikers: Clockwise from left: The bridge to Rikers; bathroom graffiti inside the vistors center; the new maximum-security wing; the entrace to a chapel; a correction officer at an adolescent unit; an exercise and recreation area. Photo: Kelsey Jorgenson/Edgar Sandoval/JB Nicholas/Bryan R. Smith/JR/Gee Force.
Prisoners at “Rosie’s” the women’s unit. Photo: Clara Vannucci.
Inside a solitary-confinement cell. Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo for New York Magazine.
A toilet in an occupied cell on G wing.
Blood stained, scum-stained, litter-strewn, dirty as all hell, hell-hole of a prison. That’s an accurate description HMP Pentonville based upon 8 images included in a recent report on the infamous Victorian prison in North London.
I’m intrigued by evidentiary photos; I reckon they can often tell us more than an exposé-chasing photographer can. All we know is that employees of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate Of Prisons made these images. They exist for the record and I can only show them here because HMIP puts out its reports online in PDF format and I took a few grabs. Even then, I only came across them because Charlotte Bilby flagged them for me.
Bilby, Reader in Criminology and Faculty Director of Research Ethics Department at Northumbria University, says that she knows not of previous inclusions of photographs in HMIP reports. I don’t either, but UK prisons are not something I’m particularly knowledgeable about.
Let’s say for now that these photos are a new discover, if not a new departure.
The C wing showers.
Area outside J wing.
An empty G wing cell.
I wonder what other government-employee-made and , technically, publicly-available images exist? I wonder if a broader selection of pics would give the British public a deeper understanding of Her Majesty’s prisons and jails?
Also, I hope other prisons aren’t as bad as Pentonville.
Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons said his team found during an unannounced inspection that consditions at HMP Pentonville had deteriorated since its last inspection (2013) when things were bad already. With 1,200 men and young offenders, HMP Pentonville is overcrowded.
“It continues to hold some of the most demanding and needy prisoners and this, combined with a rapid turnover and over 100 new prisoners a week, presents some enormous challenges,” says a report summary. “Continuing high levels of staff sickness and ongoing recruitment problems meant the prison was running below its agreed staffing level and this was having an impact on many areas.”
The changing area in the C wing shower.
A food trolley.
Blood on a bunk bed.
In response, staffing levels have increased and the authorities remain confident in the warden and the leadership of the institution. While, they believe things can improve quickly, they identified many areas for vast improvement.
- most prisoners felt unsafe as levels of violence were much higher than in similar prisons and had almost doubled since the last inspection;
- prisoners struggled to gain daily access to showers and to obtain enough clean clothing, cleaning materials and eating utensils;
- prisoners said drugs were easily available and the positive drug testing rate was high even though too few prisoners were tested;
- the prison remained very overcrowded and the poor physical environment was intensified by some extremely dirty conditions;
- some prisoners spoke about very helpful staff, but most described distant relationships with staff and were frustrated by their inability to get things done;
- too little was being done to meet the needs of the large black and minority ethnic population, disabled prisoners and older prisoners;
- prisoners had little time unlocked with the majority experiencing under six hours out of their cells each day and some as little as one hour;
- the delivery of learning and skills was inadequate and there were not enough education, training or work places for the population;
- acute staff shortages had undermined the delivery of offender management, which was very poor; and
- the quality of resettlement services was very mixed.
The UK’s use of an independent inspectorate for prisons is a very effective check-and-balance for a hard-edged system that can easily corrupt itself behind closed doors. The fact that prisoners feel unsafe in the transportation vans and cell tiers is the biggest red flag for me here.
It’s worth noting, then, that these photos only reflect the visible messy disfunctions of HMP Pentonville. The uptick in violence and drug use was learnt through prisoner questionnaires.
Read the full report here.
Piles of clothing on ridges outside D wing.
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.
I was interviewed by ACLU recently: Prisons Are Man-Made … They Can Be Unmade.
The Q&A focuses around the exhibition Prison Obscura and you’ll notice a return to many of my favourite talking points. Still, the work never ends, and I know that ACLU will push out — to an expanded audience — my argument that we should all be more active and conscientious consumers of prison imagery. My thanks to Matthew Harwood for the questions.