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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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(Untitled) © Petey, 2016. From the Humanize the Numbers Workshop.

 

In the Exposure Magazine interview It’s Time to Talk Social Justice, Isaac Wingfield lays out the strategies, challenges and successes of facilitating a joint prisoner/college student photography workshop in prison.

Through the support of the University of Michigan, Wingfield coordinates the Humanize the Numbers project, which began its work in late 2015 at the Thumb Correctional Facility and has since moved to another prison after a leadership change at Thumb.

Humanize the Numbers began from a conversation with the incarcerated men about what they wanted their photography to do. Suspecting that many representations of prisoners dehumanize, they wanted to change the script; they wanted to take the unfathomable and depressing statistics that dominate commentary about prisons, locate their position in relation, and then go beyond mere numbers. The men wanted to focus on the personal and the individual. They wanted to be accountable and to represent to themselves.

There’s a lot of common sense in the article. Wingfield covers everything from diligent planning, to acknowledging that the department of corrections is a key partner. From understanding that any in-prison program is vulnerable to abrupt changes of rules by prison administrators, to an honesty that Michigan students gain as much through the program than the men on the inside.

Critically, Wingfield and his collaborators discussed who their audience was. They decided to get the work into the hands of lawmakers in Michigan. Having that intention can direct and galvanize art making. Below, in italics, I’ve pulled what I believe to be the article‘s most important talking points and points of departure for further discussion.

“Skill building with cameras was popular among a group that was mostly preparing for reentry, but telling personal stories was more important among a group of lifers.”

“I wanted to avoid the traditional service-learning dynamic with students coming in to serve a needy population by providing something that well intentioned outsiders (professors or students) thinks the community needs. Power relationships are often neglected in these traditional service-learning courses…”

“This project is ultimately about humanizing people, acknowledging their individual stories and skills. If that doesn’t happen in the workshop itself, how will it ever happen when the resulting photographs make their way beyond the workshop?”

“It is helpful to recognize the lurking collaborator in the project: the MDOC is often silent participant but still an essential partner.”

 

In-process workshop, courtesy Humanize the Numbers.

(Untitled) © Jamal Biggs, 2016. “Me along with my brothers and cousins when we were younger. Half of them have since passed away at young ages. Of the others still living, only one of them has remained in contact with me since my incarceration. The pain and blessing of prisonseverely straining and often severing family relationships, but also giving me time to grow up and saving me from the same fate of dying young which has befallen my other family members.” From the Humanize the Numbers Workshop

In-process workshop, courtesy Humanize the Numbers.

 

“After discussion in one workshop about the intended audience for their photographs, we mailed photographs to two Michigan advocacy organizations, the MDOC Director and to every Law and Justice Committee member in the Michigan state House and every member of the Judiciary Committees in the Michigan state House and Senate. […] we never saw any responses from the policymakers who received images, [but] simply getting the images in front of them and sharing the perspective and the stories of the incarcerated men from the workshop made it a success.”

Despite only positive feedback “the new warden unexpectedly denied our request for a third workshop […] a few weeks before we were scheduled to start I was on the search for a new facility to host the workshop/course.”

“For those students (and there are many) who have never seriously considered the criminal justice system, getting to know the men inside the system is perhaps the most transformative part of the course.”

 

Read and see more: It’s Time to Talk Social Justice: Isaac Wingfield & the Humanize the Numbers Prison Photography Workshop

Visit the Humanize the Numbers website.

 

For the purposes of social media, I highlighted these same main talking points in a Twitter thread too.

 

 

 

…I’ll be delivering a lecture How We See Prisons on Wednesday, November 8th, in the Kresge Auditorium, Bowdoin College at 7:15pm.

It’s free and open to the public.

College Guild has organised the event.

College Guild is a non-profit org that provides education to prisoners across America through non-traditional correspondence courses. It pairs volunteers on the outside with prisoners on the inside in a one-to-one mail correspondence that provides feedback to prisoners on their work on established coursework units. It’s all-volunteer while maintaining consistent standards. It by the people, for the people.

College Guild is currently partnered with Bates College and Bowdoin College and has more than 50 volunteer-readers on campus. The pedagogy is such that its limit is primarily only the number of man hours available from folks on the outside. The pedagogy is such that people inside and out educate one another. Why am I talking about this though, when the teaser video below describes the benefits of the program in the prisoners’ own words?

 

 

 

 

 

Click for a larger version

PRISON EDUCATION AND REFORM

“Our situation is peculiar in that the students here are adults and prisoners […] Students have no defined parent. […] Unlike in the mainstream, we provide our students with everything [as a parent would]. We appeal to the government to take over this parental role.”

– – Mr Anatoli Biryomumaisho, head teacher of the Luzira Prison School, quoted in the Daily Monitor, Uganda, March 1st 2012.

From the tone of this article and the situation described by Biryomumaisho it seems Ugandan prison reformers have similar difficulties as their American counterparts in convincing wider society to invest in education for prisoners.

The activity described at the Luzira School is small, unhyped and vital; just one small victory among billions that play out every hour of every day. Quite different in scale to the crusade of Invisible Children.

Andrea Stultiens

Dutch photographer and critic, Andrea Stultiens sent the above article to me yesterday.

Stultiens has spent a lot of time in Uganda. If you want to be exposed to truly novel (and vernacular) photography from Uganda, you should explore her archival project History In Progress Uganda (Facebook group) and pick up a copy of her book The Kaddu Wasswa Archive.

KONY 2012 CONTROVERSY

Elsewhere, Uganda – or a version of Uganda – has been all over the internet. I’ve not much to add to the debate about the viral and controversial KONY2012/Invisible Children campaign, except to advise you to read these five pieces:

Invisible Children founders posing with guns: an interview with the photographer (Washington Post)

In Uganda, Few Can See Kony Video (NYT)

More Perspective on KONY2012 (Rosebell Kagumire’s blog)

Guest post: Joseph Kony is not in Uganda (and other complicated things) (Foreign Policy)

Why Invisible Children Can’t Explain Away This Photo (Scarlett Lion/Glenna Gordon)

And also, follow Glenna Gordon, John Edwin Mason and Rosebell Kagumire on Twitter. They’ve got reasonable things to say often.

EMAIL

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@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

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