For a law-abiding citizen, Nigel Poor spends an inordinate amount of time behind bars.
The unlikely call to prison started over a decade ago, when a strange run of coincidences became impossible for the Bay Area professor and visual artist to ignore. First, there was the visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, where on the streets outside the city’s prison she came across notes thrown from the windows by inmates. Then, there were the letters from San Quentin Prison mistakenly delivered to her home—not once, but three times. Finally, there was Poor’s chance discovery of the University Prison Project, a volunteer program inside of San Quentin (yes, where Johnny Cash performed that concert) that would eventually see her teaching photography to incarcerated men—all without access to equipment, books or even cameras.
In lieu of these things, Poor created mapping exercises called ‘verbal photographs,’ asking the men to annotate images from world-famous photographers, using them as memory prompts and a way to stimulate visual dialogue. The project snowballed when she gained access to thousands of negatives stored haphazardly in the prison’s archives, documenting life at San Quentin as far back as the 1930s. Collaborating with her students at the prison, Poor created The San Quentin Project, a new book published by Aperture that uses archival photographs as a link to current day experiences as an incarcerated person in America’s prison system. All this, while co-hosting a Pulitzer-prize nominated podcast from behind bars, with co-hosts who don’t have access to the internet or even cell phones. I caught up with Poor to find out about her life’s work bringing visibility to a mostly invisible population, and how photography can change lives.
I can imagine prison is quite intimidating to walk into for the first time. Do you remember how you felt, teaching your first photography class at San Quentin that day?
I do! One thing that made it a little bit easier was I had really good training, so I had an idea of what to expect, but not completely. My mind was pretty full of images from bad TV, bad journalism about ‘everyone is going to be scary, everyone is going to be dangerous.’ The one thing that I didn’t expect, when we were escorted into the education building, was I was just dropped off at this room. And I was like, what? I thought there would be a correctional officer there, I didn’t realise I’d be in this room by myself. I got there a little bit early and all of a sudden, these guys started walking in all dressed in blue, big guys. I was like, ‘oh my god, what did I say yes to?’ I started getting nervous, like, I didn’t really think this through. They all looked really stern, and then once class started and we began talking about photography it was great, the ice just broke immediately. Now that I’m telling you this, what I’m realising is when I teach now, on the first day of class when my students come in—outside of prison—they all look stern too because they’re nervous. And it’s the same for the guys inside, they were just nervous about a new semester starting.
And you obviously couldn’t have any photography equipment, there’s no cameras allowed inside there with you. Were you nervous that your idea of doing these ‘verbal photographs’ wasn’t going to work out?
I didn’t know if the guys were going to be interested in what I was going to say or if they were going to have the background to handle a university-level class. I had confidence in photography as a way to connect, but I’d never tested it to that extreme before. I’d also never been in a class of men—I’m used to teaching mixed gender class, and that kind of… I’m not going to say it spooked me, but it startled me. Like, it’s going to be different, these are all adult men with varying degrees of education and very different backgrounds.
And the story goes that one day, you walked past the lieutenant’s office and he randomly gave you boxes of these incredible archival negatives. As someone who has to carefully veto everything that leaves the prison, such as all the material in your podcast, did you ever ask the lieutenant why he decided to give you access to all this material?
I think it’s a couple of things. I had spent an intentional amount of trying to get to know him, and him to know me. He knew I was a photographer and I think it was just that he trusted me, he knew I was interested in photography and I think he was curious to know what was in there too. I was a likely person to give it to. I also feel like his guard must have been down because it’s an unusual thing to do—I asked to see the boxes, and he gave me an envelope with maybe 20 or 30 negatives. When I scanned them and brought them back and he saw what was in there, he got excited. But I really think it’s because we’d built trust and a kind of friendship and also, some part of him wanted to make sure that they were preserved because they were just mouldering away. You know, negatives have to be archivally stored and taken care of, or they’ll be destroyed.
It could have been very easy for you to continue this archiving project alone and present the images in your vision, but you chose to get the men involved instead. Why was that so important to you?
When I was teaching the history of photography class, I realised that talking about photography with the guys was this really great bridge for storytelling. I really believe photography is this open, generous medium that allows us to insert our own experience into it, it’s a way to start a conversation. We had done some of the mapping exercises in that class with photographs with well-known artists, so when I started going through the archive I was just blown away by the breadth of images in there—some are really violent and disturbing, some are funny, charming, some are just about everyday life… but there’s also a lot of mystery in there, because there’s not a lot of information about those negatives. And I couldn’t and didn’t want to solve those mysteries on my own, so I thought, this is a perfect collaboration, to work with the men inside and invite them into the process of interpreting the photographs and becoming the escort, in a way, for me and the viewers to see these images in a different light.
I don’t want to ask you to pick favourites, but is there any image from the book that really took on another life for you, after it was image mapped by one of the men?
Yeah, right away. This is a very important one and it makes me very emotional. It’s an image by Ruben Ramirez of a man sitting up with two others holding him. Without his writing, you just see this man who’s been stabbed and you don’t know if he’s alive or dead… I still don’t know. On the photograph you see written, ‘stabbing in the gym.’ It’s a very violent, disturbing image. Ruben takes it and writes about it in terms of architecture; he says that the man is a once proud, fallen cathedral who is buttressed by these forces—one force for good and renewal, and the other force is trying to drag him back into his old life.
I was so astounded that Ruben saw it in such poetic terms and the way he looked past the violence, while still keeping it there because he is talking about the struggle. He showed me something about internal strife, and this wanting to better and being pulled back—kind of this yo-yo thing that happens to all of us. For me, that is the lynchpin of the project. It’s one of those beautiful interpretations of a photograph and it also points to a moment where someone, Ruben specifically, really found trust in his creativity, and I love that. He took my photography class and he got so into it—at the end of it, he told me he could ‘now see fascination everywhere’ and to me, someone saying that is a way of saying they value their own interpretation of the world. Again, it’s about having self-worth and understanding the power that your own creative meanderings can have.
That’s really beautiful. Has he been released, or is he still taking your classes in prison?
He’s been released and we’re in touch—he lives in the Bay Area so I see him occasionally, but we’re mostly in touch over social media. This is funny, I have a kind of funny hobby. (Laughs) Don’t think I’m crazy… I love to pull things out of sinks.
You know, things that clog sinks. I love to pull stuff out and photograph it, and Ruben knows that. He was working as a maintenance guy, and would take photos of all the things he would pull out of the sink and send them to me (laughs). So he’s still into photography, he sends me his sink pictures all the time.
Sink pictures, that’s so good. And what influences have you seen seep into your own photography work, after spending time with the men in San Quentin?
I think that they’ve bolstered ideas that I’ve had, which again go to the idea that photography is generous and open to anyone. I’ve always wanted to believe that in any situation we’re in, no matter how difficult, we can find a way to persevere, find self-worth, and engage. And I’ve really learnt that over and over again from the men in the project and also the guys in the podcast. They’re living in really difficult circumstances and they don’t spend their whole time being angry or having pity parties, they’re engaged in life just like anyone else is. I love their creativity too—there’s always a workaround in prison, there’s always a way to solve a problem. That’s the other thing that I’ve learned: artists are people who want to solve problems, and when you’re in prison, there are so many problems that you need to solve because the State just does not supply the things that you need. So I really started to think about the guys as artists; even though they might not have a canvas or a camera, they’re problem-solving constantly in a very creative way.
And you are, of course, one of the co-hosts and creators of Ear Hustle. When did the seed of the idea to start this podcast begin?
Originally, I was going to try and work on a film with some guys inside, doing a kind of ‘everyday life in prison’ thing, but it was too hard because you can’t take raw material out of prison, everything has to be edited in there.
Wait, it has to be completely edited before you leave?
Yeah, because imagine you’re making a film and you’ve got 50 hours of film—all of those 50 hours have to be looked at before it can leave the prison and no one’s going to do that, so it has to be edited down. It was too hard, so we came up with the idea of doing audio—this was in 2013, I started working with some guys on a radio project telling stories about life in prison for a public radio station, and that’s how I met Earlonne [Woods, co-host], he was a part of that. I just really liked him, he was a hard worker, smart, really solid. So I just asked him one day if he wanted to do a podcast and he immediately said yes, and then the next thing was, ‘What’s a podcast?’ (Laughs) So I had to explain what it was.
Oh yeah! He would’ve missed the birth of the podcast era.
Totally. And there’s no podcasts in prison, right? They don’t even have internet. So I explained what it was, said we could do long-form storytelling and use music. We dug in and started plotting how to do it and originally, we were going to try and broadcast it inside the prison on their closed-circuit station, but I found out about the Radiotopia podcast contest. We got permission to enter and we ended up winning, which shocked me and shocked a lot of people. By winning it, they would pick up our podcast and we would have national distribution. When we finally won, we looked at each other and were like, ‘Shit, now we really gotta figure out how to do this.’ But definitely without the teaching and without the book, I don’t think the podcast would’ve happened. It was really the seed of finding another way to tell stories from the inside, instead of using photography and writing, going to the spoken word.
I’m sure there’s people out there who would question why incarcerated people should be given the opportunity to participate in photography classes and make podcasts. What would you say in response?
I understand that sentiment and I always say, I have never been the victim of a serious crime, I don’t know how I would feel if someone that I loved and cared about was hurt. But I would also say: people change, people grow and we have to allow that to happen. Also, a lot of people are going to get out of prison eventually, so who do you want to leave—someone who’s been sitting for 15 years, angry, working out, not changing and not growing? Or do you want someone to come back to society that could be a contributing citizen and have empathy and remorse, understanding? That’s the argument that I would make, but I do understand that sentiment. But I would ask those people to try and open their hearts and imagine if their daughter or son or partner was in prison, what you would want for them. People are in prison for all kinds of reasons; there’s people who have committed unspeakable crimes, but there’s also people that are there because of bad choices, bad circumstances where the trajectory of their life… it was pretty obvious where they were going to end up. So, I’d like to come at it with compassion but also not telling anyone what they have to think. I try not to judge anyone and just listen to where they’re coming from.