BAMPFA’s ‘The San Quentin Project’ exhibit redefines prisoner narratives, adding dimension to images of incarcerated people

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Images of incarcerated individuals rarely depart from a stereotypical one-dimensional depiction:  Whether it’s a mugshot or photographs of humans in cages, the larger effect has always been about othering and distancing incarcerated people from the viewer.

Starting in 2011, social practice artist Nigel Poor has volunteered as a professor for the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison, supporting prisoners in their engagement with art and producing pieces that break the usual narrative of incarceration. Poor taught a course on visual literacy at the prison, encouraging men to engage both with well-acclaimed photographs from the art world as well as photographs from the prison’s own archive.

The final products of Poor and the prisoners’ collaboration are powerful, multidimensional images of San Quentin’s prisoners from the ’60s and ’70s, annotated by the thoughts of those incarcerated in 2011. These are sharp black-and-white images surrounded by a border of white paper, covered in the handwriting of critical thinkers trying to process their own experience in a new context.

These pieces have been featured in “The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison,” an exhibit at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA, which certainly breaks the mold when it comes to engaging viewers with images of incarcerated people. The exhibit allows museum visitors to not only view these photographs of the prison at face value, but to also understand how other prisoners process images of their own environment just a few decades prior.

“His confidence denotes one that wins more than he loses,” writes one prisoner, annotating a photograph of a prisoner in the San Quentin gymnasium, who is standing upright in a fighting stance while sporting boxing gloves, a stern look and a giant welt on his forehead. “But maybe headbutts accidentally or has an opening in his defenses.”

The prisoner circled the forehead where the welt lays and subtitled the photograph, “Allah.” Alongside this piece is a portrait of San Quentin school children, with goofy notes about the supposed personalities of the kids — one arrow points to a chubby boy with glasses on and says “collects bugs, comic books, stamps and coins. Defends his personality with humor.” Many of these pieces feature hints of religion, as they may manifest in the prison. One prisoner, noting two kids in the back of the portrait, wrote “Inshallah, those friendships are lifelong.”

An excellent representation of the prisoners’ humor is a photograph of a man holding a fish as big as himself, subtitled by a prisoner, “Who’s really caught!”

This goofiness lives, however, in tandem with shocking images of violence and death. One photograph captured a bird’s-eye view of an alley beneath a windowsill from the prison, where one man annotates: “terrible chalk outline of someone who fell to their death. Was he pushed or did he jump?”

More than this silliness and the images of violence, a salient feature of the exhibit is the underlying melancholy present in both the images and the thoughts of the prisoners. The exhibit features an essay turned in by former prison resident Michael Nelson for an assignment for Poor’s course. While in solitary confinement, Nelson wrote this essay, describing photographs assigned to the class as homework: “The two photographs remind me of those who get left behind by not being able to keep up with the change that lives and breathes throughout time. … I think of being locked up in prison where time seems to stand still, while the world outside moves on without me.”

Nelson was incarcerated as an adult, at the age of 15, but has since been released. He now works as a case manager serving HIV-positive homeless people. BAMPFA will be featuring Nelson and Poor speaking about the exhibit at an upcoming event Oct. 28. Yet for most of the pieces and the individuals represented in them, the visitors of the museum don’t know where their lives took them. In a sense, the prisoners captured in San Quentin’s archives and those who annotated the pictures are crystallized in this exhibit as nuanced, critical-thinking individuals. They are processing the environment they are a part of and adding dimension to its representation in the outside world.

The exhibit opened Aug. 21 and will run until Nov. 17. On Oct. 19, the museum will be hosting a colloquium of UC Berkeley faculty from the fields of law, social welfare and literature, along with Poor to emphasize the power of the narratives represented in “The San Quentin Project.”

As people who can appreciate this dimension and afford to shift their understanding of the visual representation of incarcerated individuals, the residents of Berkeley have an opportunity to learn and engage with this exhibit, leaving with a little bit more perspective.

Contact Malini Ramaiyer at [email protected]. Tweet her at @malinisramaiyer.