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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.

 

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Mesro Coles-El, Indian Pow Wow — 6.12.76, 2013. Courtesy of Nigel Poor and the San Quentin Prison Archive Project

Next week, I’ll be in Bristol with Gemma-Rose Turnbull leading the discussion Photography As A Social Practice. Together we’ll look at  socially engaged art production of contemporary photographers including Phoebe Davis, Nigel Poor and the San Quentin Archive Project (above), Mark Strandquist, Anthony Luvera and others.

Thanks to IC Visual Lab for inviting us down and to Arnolfini for hosting. Gemma is pro: she’s currently co-authoring a pioneering Masters program in Photography with a focus on collaborative practice at Coventry University. We both appreciate image-makers who surrender some control in the image-making process over to others in order to discover new relationships, possibilities, empowerments and photographs. For the talk, Gemma will focus on standout projects that have successfully applied participatory design. Then I will look at the handful of projects that have attempted the same while dealing with the issue of mass incarceration.

As we say in the blurb:

“Socially engaged photographers deal with questions around justice and representation, thereby often discussing practical and historic conventions of photography. Striving to stimulate political and social change, practitioners often document recent societal happenings with compassionate observation.”

We think it’s important territory to tread.

Gemma, I and five others are the PaaSP (Photography As A Social Practice) collective, a loose group that seeks space for discussions on contemporary photography, addressing topics such as ethics and power dynamics. We like to champion practitioners who are good people, good stewards and good image-makers.

In or near Bristol?

7pm. Thursday 18th May 2017

£6/4 CONCESSIONS. Free to ICVL Members

Dark Studio, 2nd floor, Arnolfini

BUY TICKETS

 

 

 

 

011_Animals _ People

It is every artist, collector or photographer’s dream; the discovery of an archive of thousands of negatives. For artist and professor Nigel Poor, it became a reality. In late 2012, she was making a routine visit to Lt. Sam Robinson’s office in San Quentin State Prison. She’d just finished teaching her class in photo-history and collaborating on image interpretation project with her incarcerated students. Knowing her life in the medium, Robinson pulled out a bankers box.

“He lifted the lid,” recalls Poor. “Inside were hundreds of yellow envelopes that I recognized instantly as those which hold 4×5 photo negatives.”

Poor’s heart “exploded.” More than three years on, Poor has only just finished going through all the negs: she estimates there’s more than 10,000.

Nigel Poor San Quentin

In the weeks, after the discovery, Poor took some negatives and scanned them. She showed the prints to Robinson to prove what she could do and he gave her permission to take the entire box. So far, she’s scanned about 600 of the 4×5 negs. There’s four or five other boxes still to scan and categorize.

I anticipate that there’s hundreds of similar archives gathering dust inside cupboards and administration buildings in prisons across the United States. Kudos to the San Quentin authority for empowering Poor to share the finds with a wider public. The archive ultimately belongs, in my opinion in a California State-run Museum.

Nigel Poor San Quentin

Nigel Poor San Quentin

Nigel Poor San Quentin

The other wonderful thing that has come out of this is that Poor is using the images as teaching aids. Just as she had done with iconic images from art history (see the William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander and David Hilliard images above), Poor asked her students to deconstruct, examine and interpret the newly-found images from the San Quentin archive. After she had scanned and printed them on card-stock with large white borders, Poor gave them to the men to interpret.

She has given the prisoners first go at interpreting San Quentin’s history. They are writing the latest stories of a very-storied institution.

Read my article about the archive discovery Rarely Seen Images of the Real San Quentin on the Marshall Project. The article was also cross-posted to The Atlantic — Unearthing San Quentin: Resurrected photos capture moments of daily life at the California prison.

Nigel Poor San Quentin

Nigel Poor San Quentin

Nigel Poor San Quentin

Nigel Poor San Quentin

03_Holidays _ Ceremonies

07_Work _ Leisure

04_Education, Food _ Health

01_Escape _ Confinement

09_Family Visits

oct23_openengagement_image

OPEN ENGAGEMENT 2016

If you’re not going to Oakland for the Open Engagement (OE) conference in April 2016, you’d better have a good excuse. It”ll be great. it’s on the theme of POWER, Angela Davis and Suzanne Lacy are the keynotes and a call for proposals is now open.

“Local, national, and international artists, activists, academics, cultural producers, administrators, curators, educators, writers, thinkers, doers, and makers of all ages are encouraged to propose programming,” says OE.

Proposal deadline: November 2, 2015.

OE is an annual conference about socially engaged art. I’ve been to a couple of past iterations and I recommend.

The Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) hosts OE 2016, April 29–May 1. Additional sites throughout the Bay Area will also be satellite venues.

“Power is the ability to make desired results happen,” says René de Guzman, OE 2016 curator. “We invite participants to explore this concept broadly and expansively. What is power in the present age? How do we effectively demand it—and how we create it for ourselves? What are the innovative strategies for empowerment before us? What are the mechanisms by which we ensure fair and equitable distribution of power for all? How do we conceive of ourselves and how do we share power with others?”

“Founded in 2007, OE is the only conference on this subject of this scale that operates on an inclusive open call model that supports emerging and established artists and collaborates closely with national institutions,” says OE.

They’re asking for proposals for presentations, panels, discussions, workshops, events and interventions. Logistical support projects and social gatherings are also welcome.

You also win points if your proposal is site specific or in some way reflexive. In plain language, get to know Oakland and Oaklanders. Better still, propose collaborations with some locals.

OE wants you to know that “OMCA brings together collections of art, history, and natural science under one roof, featuring indoor venues with capacities ranging from 6–260, including a hot tub lounge and a partial airplane, and outdoor spaces that can accommodate 50–500, including the garden and Peace Terrace.”

PHOTOGRAPHY + SOCIAL PRACTICE

A good resource to plug your photo-brain into the prerogatives of OE is Photography As A Social Practice. I am an occasional contributor. Also, check out the recent projects sponsored by the Magnum Foundation’s Photography Expanded program.

Please take a peek at my review of the exhibition Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration, curated by Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas.

Finally, you cannot miss the e-book Wide Angle: Photography As A Participatory Practice edited by Terry Kurgan and Tracy Murinik.

 

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