Nigel Poor, photographer and Associate Professor of Photography at California State University, recently exhibited a selection of work involving prisoners from San Quentin Prison at Haines Gallery in San Francisco.
The exhibition resulted from Poor's ongoing work with the inmates of San Quentin Prison, and is part of a collaborative, three-part photographic project called The San Quentin Prison Report. The final part of the project involved the prisoners responding to archival photographs with written commentary.
A Haines Gallery information sheet about the exhibition states: “San Quentin Prison Report demonstrates Poor's longstanding commitment to facilitating a dialogue around how we manage crime, punishment and rehabilitation in the United States. Poor has been working with the inmates at San Quentin Prison since 2011.”
I was on holiday in San Francisco when the exhibition was on and was excited to see how the work from a prison photography class would translate when placed in a fine art gallery.
When you think of a photography class, you think of people taking images, of composition and self-expression through documenting a moment in time.But cameras are not allowed into most prisons due to security restrictions so this means photography as an artform isn’t an option in terms of art activities.
This exhibition was a great example of how photography can be used in the prison and how an exhibition of “prison art” can also show the participants’ processes and discovery.
The way Poor has used the study of photography in the prison environment has provided an examination and understanding of the artform rather than the actual practice of taking an image.
As the information sheet states, “Poor invited the inmates of San Quentin to augment photographs with written commentary and observations, this time using images selected from the prison's archives. Here, each inmate's relationship to the photographs is more intimate; the prisoners reflect on depictions of incarceration with astute insights, humour and compassion.”
The handwritten comments around the edges of the photographs give the viewer personal insights into how the men view the world - or the world of the photograph. The images themselves are fascinating because they provide a rare glimpse into the San Quentin Prison archives.
Another way Poor engages the audience is by providing images the viewer can touch and turn. Making the art physically accessible seems to encourage the audience to interact with the content of the exhibition.
In an excerpt from an interview with Nigel Poor and Doug Dertinger, Pete Brooke from the blog Prison Photography writes:
“Interestingly, the idea that the photograph was not – is not – a reflection of truth was disconcerting for many of the students. Obviously, the reliability, or not, of narrative and testimony may have had a more profound effect on the reality of their lives as compared to others not subject to the criminal justice system. If you can’t use the language of truth and reality when discussing photography (popularly considered to be objective), then can you use those concepts when discussing your own life?”
Jacqui Moyes is Prison Arts Advisor, Arts Access Aotearoa. For the full interview with Nigel Poor and Doug Dertinger about their photo history work.