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I’m taking a break from grading papers to post this.

The papers are about cameras, photographic equipment, imaging systems and networks and written by my 28 students in History Of Photography at San Quentin State Prison. Many of the papers are remarkable, others require further work. They are the second assignment papers of four, over the semester. We’re into Week 9 of fifteen.

For their third assignment, I just handed the students a grip of images by Joseph Rodriguez, Anastasia Taylor-Lind, Katy Grannan, Philip Montgomery, Robert Frank, Paccarik Orue, Garry Winogrand, Spencer Platt, Carrie Mae Weems, Lee Miller, Endia Beal, Richard Renaldi, Richard Misrach and Gordon Parks for them to go at. Eventually, the papers will be published through national and international outlets.

 

 

I am coordinating this course as a guest instructor with the Prison University Project (PUP), the largest prison college education program in the country. PUP’s accommodation and administrative support is deeply, deeply appreciated. I am helped financially in this work by a couple of grants; one from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and the other from the W. Eugene Smith Fund. A couple of weeks ago, I visited New York to pick up the Smith Fund Howard Chapnick Award. The Smith Fund just posted a video of me explaining the motives, goals and future outcomes of my History Of Photo course.

 

 

Beyond the institutionAL support, the support of my students is key. The classroom environment is a space of discovery and conversation … and fun! A lot of our time is spent looking, really looking, at images … and then sussing out how to write about them with clarity and meaningful argument.

Before I collected the Chapnick Award, I had written my acceptance speech on my phone. It’ll be the first and last time I do that; as I took the stage, a brush of a finger sent the text to the trash. I took a deep breath and had to wing it. I got lucky, I hit the key points, notably thanking each of my student-collaborators by name. For the public record, here’s that speech which I later found in the ‘Recently Deleted’ folder in the iPhone Notes.

ACCEPTANCE SPEECH

There are 28 men 3,000 miles away in California who can’t be here tonight. I wish to acknowledge them. It is only because of their thirst for knowledge, their generosity, and the kind welcome they have extended to me to join them in their classroom that I’m here tonight. My work is indebted to their work.

Tomorrow, I’m speaking to New York high schoolers about our class in San Quentin Prison, and last Monday I asked my incarcerated students what they wanted to say to New York teenagers. They instructed me to begin with this statistic: cumulatively, the 28 men have served 501 years. They will serve many more, and a good number of them will never get out.

If you could meet my students you would be as baffled as I with this figure. They’re committed to improving one another as a group and fiercely curious about the world. They’re accountable, changed and wish to foment change wherever hearts and eyes are open enough.

On behalf of them, I would like to thank the board of the Smith Fund, and the jurors of the Howard Chapnick Grant specifically, for helping us add to the urgent conversation about mass incarceration in the United States.

 

 

Howard Chapnick once wrote, “Getting close to the action with the camera does not automatically produce great pictures. Developing a relationship with subjects and an understanding of their lives is perhaps more important than the distance from which you photograph. In order to show what life is like for people in prison, for example, the photojournalist has to know and feel what it’s like to have one’s freedom curtailed and be confined to one room with bars. The photojournalist can only find out by gaining the confidence of the prisoner or prisoners, by drawing out the prisoners thoughts, by getting ‘close’.”

I think the same can be said of writers, teachers, curators and editors who all understand the role that photography has in changing the debate and changing society.

These prisons in the land of the free are ours. Prisons failings and abuses are ours. Let us see them.

I want to personal thank my students: Joshua, CJ, Mesro, Troy, Randy, Greg, Shawn, Andrew, Eddie, Caine, Jerry, Gene, Matt, Lawrence, Ray Jr., Lennie, Vah, L.A., Mark, Achilles, Wakil, D, Michael, Sal and Antwan. I’m proud to call them collaborators.

In summarizing his thoughts about prisoners, Howard Chapnick said, “Getting close is not easy, but it is worth the effort.”

Thank you.

 

Please stay tuned in 2019 for the published writings of the students.

 

 

Thanks to Tim Matsui for the filming and editing of the above video. Thanks to Daniel Berman for use of the studio space.

All images were made in 2016 (before my time at San Quentin) by RJ Lozada, who’s documentary short Laps is very much worth 16-minutes of your time.

 

 

 

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