Nigel Poor on teaching a photography class in America’s oldest and largest prison

The artist and educator has been working with incarcerated people since 2011. At Nicer Tuesdays, she talked about the culmination of that collaboration: The San Quentin Project.

13 July 2021


Based in San Francisco’s Bay Area, Nigel Poor is an artist and educator who joined us at Nicer Tuesdays to chat about her recently-released book The San Quentin Project. It uncovers a largely unseen archive of daily life inside one of America’s oldest and largest prisons (San Quentin State Prison). She’s collaborated with those incarcerated at the institution since 2011, teaching a series of photography classes and workshops, while using the medium as a bridge for conversations and as a means of rehabilitation.

The focus of Nigel’s talk was therefore on the power of photography – a story she told through several examples of her students’ work. The primary means that Nigel used to teach her class, as books nor cameras were allowed inside the prison, was an exercise she created called “mapping”. Starting with images by famous photographers, she asked her class to make notes on everything they saw happening in the photograph, on the photograph itself. Then they were asked to create a fictional tale, elaborating on what they believed to be happening in the scene. They then repeated both tasks on images taken from an archive of San Quentin, which Nigel discovered serendipitously after a few years of teaching the class.

Unconventional and engaging, the mapping exercise allowed her students to engage with photography without ever picking up a camera, but it also provided means for them to reflect on their own experiences of incarceration, sharing their stories while doing so.

Find out more details in the above video, or in a feature we published on the work back in May.

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