How can photography be used to rehabilitate in prisons?
A new book, The San Quentin Project, addresses this. It features a largely unseen archive of daily life inside one of America’s oldest and largest prisons. Here, we chat to the book’s author Nigel Poor about why the archive proved to be the perfect “bridge for conversation” between her and her incarcerated students.
“Prison changes everything. This is what people who have done time understand,” writes Reginald Dwayne Betts, a poet, lawyer, memoirist and teacher in the foreword of The San Quentin Project, a new book published by Aperture. As a formally incarcerated person, Reginald is privy to the fact. He understands that any interaction with the prison system, be it positive or negative, leaves an imprint. It’s something artist and professor of photography Nigel Poor understands too, but from a different perspective, as collaborating with incarcerated people has been a large focus of her work since she first began volunteering at San Quentin State Prison in 2011.
Through a series of photography classes, a podcast called Ear Hustle which she co-hosts with Earlonne Woods and produces alongside a team inside the prison, and now through The San Quentin Project, Nigel opens a window into the lives of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, and their families, for those who are lucky enough to not have come into contact with the prison system.
“I really want people to understand what happens in prison,” Nigel says. “And the question there is, should they exist? And if they have to exist, how should they exist? I want people to care about those who are incarcerated. And the only way you can care about somebody is to see a connection to them, you have to have empathy.” She continues that, in the United States at least, prisons are paid for by taxes. “We are in some ways responsible for prisons because we pay for them every year.” Nigel therefore creates space for (mostly) men and (some) women (San Quentin is a men’s facility) to tell their stories and urges the rest of us to listen – including herself. Crucially, she does this using the arts – primarily photography – a medium she values as a “bridge for conversations”. She uses the art form to engage us all, to unveil the humanity behind strife and at times unimaginable crimes and, subtly, she uncovers the importance of arts education as a means of rehabilitation.
The story of how Nigel came to be working at San Quentin State Prison is the perfect convergence of three coincidences. The first occurred when she was working in her studio one day “and I heard this story [on National Public Radio] about this prison in Russia called Kresty Prison,” she recalls to me over a video call. It’s 5:30 AM for Nigel who’s based in the San Francisco Bay Area and is an early riser. “I had no experience in prisons at that point. And they talked about how it was really overcrowded and terrible, and that they were going to open it up for tourists to come in as a way to make money. I just thought that was appalling, but I was also curious about going to a country where they would do that.” So, when visiting her sister who lives in Sweden, the pair took a train to Saint Petersburg.
The trip was nearly a failure as, on arrival, no one seemed to know anything about the prison and Nigel was unable to locate it in the pre-mobile phone era, surrounded by Cyrillic signage. “And then on the last day, when I was leaving and got to the train station, I realised the prison was right there. So I walked over.” As any Ear Hustle listener will know, Nigel loves to collect things – unusual, found objects that fascinate her for their potential narrative and significance. “And so I have a predisposition to look on the ground,” she continues. “And on the ground were these cone-shaped objects that were about eight inches long, with this brown chewed-up substance at the bottom. There were dozens and dozens of them.” Without much time until her train departed, she picked one up and took it back to the States with her. Through research, Nigel discovered the brown substance was masticated bread, and that prisoners threw the objects out of the institution’s windows. She came to think of the object as a “communication cone”; an impotent attempt to convey a message to the outside world. It was a futile gesture that stuck with her.
Not long after she returned home, Nigel received a letter from San Quentin State Prison, addressed to someone else, at a different location. It was heavily decorated with drawings and, while she wanted to keep it, she delivered it to its intended recipient. “And this happened three times, which was so weird because the addresses were not similar at all, it was in a completely different neighbourhood,” she tells me of the events she calls her “second calling”. “These experiences spoke to something I am interested in: communication and how we share and understand, or misunderstand, personal, social, and experiential cues. I started thinking more about prisons and wondering about how to communicate with people inside,” she writes in the book. That chance arrived with the advent of the third coincidence – Nigel heard about the Prison University Project (now called Mount Tamalpais College), a nonprofit that offers men inside San Quentin the chance to earn an associate of arts degree that was looking for someone to teach an art history class. San Quentin is the only prison within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that offers the programme and, for Nigel, a professor of photography, the “calling” was too loud to ignore. “It seemed like the perfect opportunity. I could go into the prison with a purpose, meet the men inside in an academic context, and use the tool I knew best at the time – photography – to form a connection.”
For the first few years, she focussed on teaching a history of photography class, trying to figure out how she could replicate the process of image-making in a prison where she was not allowed to bring cameras. “I really wanted students to understand how they connect to the images and how they can find themselves within the image – it’s not just learning names and dates and stuff like that,” she explains. In turn, she developed an exercise called The Verbal Photograph, in which she prompted her students to pick a memory and distil it into a photograph in their mind, then express it in writing as if they were looking at that photograph. “The writing they used was so invitational,” she explains, “it was an invitation to an experience.”
Subsequently, she developed The San Quentin Mapping Exercise as a means to further this idea of placing yourself into an image, but this time with printouts of photographs by William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, David Hilliard, Joel Sternfeld, and Stephen Shore and more. She asked students to analyse the images and jot notations in the margin of the page to pull out anything they noticed: light and shadow, objects, framing etc. Then, they were asked to push that idea further – to create a fictional narrative, written from any perspective that tells the story of what is happening in the image. The results were astounding and very quickly, she began having “such amazing conversations about photography and about the mens’ experiences looking at the photographs” – it was clear there was an inherent interest in, and need for, the subject inside the prison.
For Nigel, the work she was doing inside San Quentin took on a whole new context in 2012 when Lieutenant Sam Robinson (yes, Ear Hustle fans, THE Lieutenant Sam Robinson) handed her a box. Nigel was stopping by his office as she always did on her way to class one day when Lieutenant Robinson fished it out from under his desk. “His office is chaos,” Nigel jokes. “There’s so much stuff in there, it’s unbelievable. His desk is literally piled with letters and stuff.” In the box were thousands of four by five, black and white negatives “and even telling you now, I’m getting emotional about it,” Nigel says, “I knew it was something amazing.” The images had been taken at San Quentin between, roughly, the 1930s and 1980s and, “I have no idea why he did”, but Lieutenant Robinson gave Nigel permission to take the whole box and work with them how she saw fit.
She began by scanning each negative, looking for some kind of organising principle by which to officially archive them. The images showed daily life inside the prison: men eating their lunch or getting a health check, the aftermath of suicides and murders, but also sports games, marriages and holidays. The archive showed the breadth of prison life and those who live it, demonstrating that whatever happens on the outside happens on the inside too. While the discovery alone was incredible, she quickly realised she needed to figure out a way that those currently incarcerated in San Quentin could work with the images. And the Mapping Exercise provided the perfect means. “For me, and for any outsider, looking at the archive is undoubtedly fascinating because it documents all aspects of life in prison,” Nigel says. “But I realised that there was no way for myself or other people to get the full story of the photographs.” The Mapping Exercise would “act like that Verbal Photograph, like an invitation for us to see what’s actually happening there, through the experience of somebody who’s actually lived in prison.” In turn, “you would realise that what you were seeing in these archived images was just surface and that you either had to really spend much longer looking at them, or you had to push yourself to think beyond your expectation of what was in the photograph.”
This certainly proved to be true, as the mappings completed by those who chose to take part in Nigel’s new, informal photography programme (one she set up as separate to the previous history of photography class) add depth and complexity to the images but also a lightheartedness and, at times, beauty – even in some of the most difficult images to look at. It was this that most surprised Nigel. “It was an oddly joyful experience,” she adds. “Because what happened was, which is what happens with anyone who does something creative, is the people making stuff start to take delight in their own imagination, and their own ability to create something that engages others. You could say it’s a kind of self esteem-building exercise. But I think it’s more than that. It is really about learning to rely on your own creativity and your own ability to observe and trust your observations.”
It’s here that the true impact of The San Quentin Project becomes clear. And nowhere is it clearer than in an interview between Nigel and one of her former students, now friend, Ruben Ramirez, which appears in the book. It’s a remarkable conversation in which Ruben reveals that being introduced to photography and working with it in Nigel’s class taught him to “see fascination everywhere” and that it “schooled him in empathy”. Working with photography, for this man, taught him how to look at another person and understand how they are feeling – that’s life-changing. Crucially too, what The San Quentin Project does is also elicit empathy from its readers – empathy towards incarcerated people, their situations inside and the stories which led them there.
“I love how it defied expectation,” says Nigel when reflecting on mapping the archive, “it really let me know that whenever someone looks at a photograph, they’re going to see something different than the person next to them.” The San Quentin Project, ultimately, gives space for vital personal expression and the growth that comes with that. It seeps through the words of every included essay, interview and, mostly clearly, through the handwritten mappings that feature throughout. Including these was not initially a clear cut decision, Nigel tells me, but the impact is massive – handwriting lets you know an individual touched something, that their hands were on the object you now hold and that you’re reading their intimate thoughts. Being invited into a space of such nuanced personal expression reminds us that, no matter how steadfast we are in our perceptions or understanding of the world, everyone else sees it differently. The book, therefore, challenges perceptions, in this case, of those in prison and of why but more importantly how we imprison them.
Without photography as her primary medium, Nigel doesn’t believe this project would have been possible. “It’s this ubiquitous material; everyone has seen a photograph,” she responds when asked why. “It’s concrete, in some ways. People feel comfortable with it. Now, at first, that isn’t always the case – when people think they’re taking an art class, they feel intimidated, like, ‘I’m not going to understand the photographs, they’re beyond me’. But when I can talk with students about this idea that photographs are everywhere and that you have participated in the photographic experience all of your life, you may just never have thought about it, it removes the fear.” What’s more, because photography is so often people-focussed, “when you look at a photograph, you connect with a person, whether someone you know or not, you recognise some kind of humanity there.”
Again, it’s a notion that’s happening both ways in The San Quentin Project. Here, Nigel returns to her earlier point, that we have all have a responsibility to care about what’s happening in prisons, and a right to know. Because, in the United States (and other countries), taxes go towards the running prisons like San Quentin, “in a sense, we own prisons. And if we have ownership of them, we need to know what’s happening in there. We have a right to know. And one way to know what’s happening in prisons is to see images, whether they’re from the past or present. This is what we need to know about.” From reading The San Quentin Project, Nigel hopes people will come to their own understanding of the subject, one not drawn from the usual stats, news reports or bad crime dramas but from personal histories.
What The San Quentin Project also does prove how vital education and arts education, in particular, are in institutions like prisons, as well as everywhere else. Circling back to Ruben, Nigel says: “Ruben was very clear about it, his prior lack of empathy, and how photography taught him about empathy, so honestly and powerfully. It really, really changed him. And I think that that’s an experience that could happen for a lot of people… Art programmes are so important because when you create something, you realise the power that you have inside of you... No prison, no horrible experience can take away your ability to have an interior life and to express your interior life.” Ultimately then, does Nigel think the book is more about photography or more about prisons? “It’s about the power of photography to connect people,” and that you should “believe in the potential of anyone you meet.”
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.