Aperture, 2021. First edition. Hardcover, 168 pp., 97 b/w illustrations, 215 x 279 mm. Authored by Nigel Poor. Contributions by Reginald Dwayne Betts, George Mesro Coles-El, Rachel Kushner, Michael Nelson, Ruben Ramirez, Lisa Sutcliffe.
The San Quentin Project collects a largely unseen visual record of daily life inside one of America’s oldest and largest prisons, demonstrating how this archive of the state is now being used to teach visual literacy and process the experience of incarceration.
In 2011, Nigel Poor—artist, educator, and cocreator of the acclaimed podcastEar Hustle—began teaching a history of photography class through the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison. Neither books nor cameras were allowed into the facility, so an unorthodox course with a range of inventivemapping exercises ensued: students crafted “verbal photographs” of memories for which they had no visual documentation, and annotated iconic images from different artists. After the first semester, Poor says, “one student told me he could now see fascination everywhere in San Quentin.”
When Poor received access to thousands of negatives in the prison’s archive, made by corrections officers of a former era, these images of San Quentin’s everyday occurrences soon became launchpads for her students’ keen observations. From the banal to the brutal, to distinct moments of respite, the pictures in this archive gave those who were involved in the project the opportunity to share their stories and reflections on incarceration.
Nigel Poor (born in Boston, 1963) is a San Francisco Bay Area–based visual artist and professor of photography at California State University, Sacramento. In 2017, Poor cocreated the podcast Ear Hustle with Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, who were both incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison at the time. Her work has been featured in Aperture magazine’s Spring 2018 issue, “Prison Nation,” and in the New York Times. Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet, memoirist, and teacher. Formerly incarcerated, he is now a lawyer and author of several award-winning books, including Felon: Poems (2019) and A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (2010). Betts is currently pursuing a PhD in law at Yale University. George Mesro Coles-El is currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison and has worked with Nigel Poor on the San Quentin Archive Project. Rachel Kushner is an American writer, known for her novels Telex from Cuba (2008), The Flamethrowers (2013), and The Mars Room (2018). She lives in Los Angeles. Michael Nelson served over twenty years in California prisons for a crime he committed at the age of fifteen. In 2018, at the age of thirty-six, he earned his parole. He cofounded and serves as executive director for the youth offender program Kid CAT (Creating Awareness Together). He also cocreated the Acting with Compassion and Truth (ACT) program. Nelson lives in central California. Ruben Ramirez was born in Pecos, Texas, in 1957. When he was forty-eight, he received a fifteen-to-life prison sentence. During his incarceration, he began, as he says, “a journey of higher learning and enlightenment” and worked with Nigel Poor on the San Quentin Archive Project. Lisa Sutcliffe is the Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum.