Haunting Imagery and Searing Honesty

The San Quentin Project offers a glimpse of life behind bars.

It will come as no surprise that among the four thousand inmates housed in San Quentin State Prison in Marin County there are men convicted of murder, rape, and other acts of extreme violence. More unexpected? Some of them also are gifted artists, writers, poets, or storytellers.

These are creative men with imaginations who view a photograph of pumpkins abandoned in a field and invent tender, nostalgic stories about a family-owned farm and the lavender and morning glories that cover gravestones in the family’s burial plot. Or men who see dark marks on the skin of an unnamed man in an archival photo taken by correctional officers and know instinctively the marks are not moles but stab wounds from a shiv, a prison-made knife. In the prison’s highly acclaimed podcast, Ear Hustle, the more verbal inmates describe with searing honesty and surprising humor and sensitivity the horrid, humdrum, and heroic realities of life behind bars.

The San Quentin Project, a new exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), features more than 80 archival photos, Ear Hustle audio stations, and approximately 30 original visual documents. The artworks were created by students in artist Nigel Poor’s visual literacy and history of photography courses. Poor is a Professor of Photography at California State University, Sacramento, whose projects highlight the meaning and value found in everyday objects and debris; and portraits of people left behind, cast off, or overlooked. Since 2011, the Bay Area-based artist and educator has volunteered as a professor for the Prison University Project, a nonprofit that provides higher education for inmates at San Quentin.

During a private tour of the exhibition, Associate Curator Stephanie Cannizzo pointed to the photographs’ crisp balance of shadow and light and high-quality compositions. “I wondered if they hired a professional photographer, but most were taken by guards,” said Cannizzo, one of the show’s organizers. On a personal level, she noticed that many images included finger pointing. “A pointed finger can be coercion, accusation or guilt,” she said. “Imagining the men not having freedom and how they got to that point was painful.”

There is intrigue in images like “Mother’s Day 5-9-76,” a photo of a man and his young son, dressed up and sitting outdoors on the grass, squinting with the same inscrutable gaze at the camera. Other photos taken from prison archives and used in the class — inmates and even Poor are not allowed to have cameras in the prison, so all the photos were either taken by guards or outsiders — capture weddings, kids in playpens, a Native American dancer in full garb, athletic teams and ice carving. Less celebratory, often eerie, are photos of confiscated weapons, dummies found in cells and air vents, splattered blood on prison floors and chalk outlines of a man fatally stabbed in a recreation area. The accumulative impact of the imagery is haunting. Prison is clearly a place no one wants to visit, let alone live in or recall.

Even so, like two halves that form a substantial whole, the exhibit expands perspective. Poor’s collaboration with the men had them engaged in “mapping,” a process wherein each student lived with a 17 x 11 photo, printed on both sides of the paper, for nearly a month. Students wrote in the margins on one side the features they noticed; on the second side, they wrote responses that range from real life memories to fiction, poetry, drawings, and even “Mrs. McLean’s Famous Homemade Pumpkin Pie Recipe” in Frankie Smith’s Mapping Joel Sternfeld, side B, 2011/12. The notes and longer responses especially tell poignant backstories. Violent men living in dangerous, life-threatening circumstances see and write about threat in bulging pockets, or loss and pain in the eyes of lifers shown in images with their families. Stories or memories expressing pride and self-respect come mostly in response to obvious physical power: a weightlifting inmate’s bulging biceps in one photo, the most obvious example.

In an interview, Poor recalled at age seven filling shoeboxes with bottle caps, leaves, found metal, popsicle sticks — not her own — and “any small thing left behind.” The impulse to hold onto impermanent things wasn’t depressing. Instead, being aware of life’s fragility and “documenting small things” she thought of as validation. “How can we examine our lives and find what matters?” she asked. “It goes back to knowing our time is limited and we need to make the most of everything we have.”

Poor said photography provides an ideal art form for teaching history. “Anybody can take or talk about a photograph, so you disarm them with simplicity, even though as a photographer I know there are layers we can pull out of any image.”

The class at San Quentin she said is transformative. One student living in the bleak surroundings told her he now sees beyond the surface. Instead of indifferent arms holding up a wounded inmate in a photograph, he saw buttresses supporting the man as he fought against good and evil forces. “He said, ‘Now I can see fascination everywhere,'” she recalled.

If the exhibit has the same affect on visitors, Poor said people will confront their assumptions about inmates. “There are images of violence, but also family portraits of people in school, with children, working. The purpose is to break the wall down and get them to see people who are incarcerated as human and not so different.”

The San Quentin Project was organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and curated by MAM’s Lisa J. Sutcliffe. The BAMPFA exhibition was organized by Senior Curator for Asian Art Julia White and Associate Curator Stephanie Cannizzo.

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