One of America’s ugliest truths and an issue that continues to be swept under the rug is its sheer number of incarcerated people—the largest population behind bars in the entire world. This is one instance where our leadership is most unwelcome. Since 1970, the prison population has increased over 700%, and a 2011 report showed that there were approximately two million people incarcerated and seven million people under correctional supervision in the U.S. alone. These are some statistics we cannot run away from and are hard to ignore.
An audience was forced to come to terms with these facts at “Looking In/Looking Out: Prison Portraits and the Visual Archive of Mass Incarceration,” which took place Wednesday, March 30 at 3:30 p.m. in the Alumni Lounge. The basic premise of the event, moderated by Associate Professor Nicole R. Fleetwood of American Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, was to shed light on mass incarceration in the states. In an attempt to humanize the subjects, Fleetwood went through various artists’ work from around the country, some of which was made by prisoners themselves, others of which are artists’ renditions of prison life, oftentimes incorporating prison subjects.
As recounted by Fleetwood, the origin story of her interest in Prison Portraiture is a tragic one. As a senior finishing up her undergraduate education at Miami University, her world completely changed when she found out that a beloved cousin, who was only 18 years old at the time, was sentenced for life in prison. Fleetwood attempted to remain in close contact with her cousin, and took photos with him to try to retain a state of normalcy—even so, her relationship with those images were at first largely negative. It wasn’t until 2010 that she felt she had a story to tell and began sharing the photos both formally and informally. Much to her surprise, other people’s stories resonated very well with her own.
She went on to describe how art has functioned to encourage greater understanding of the penitentiary system, as well as the experience of daily life in a prison. Of particular interest was the “Boneshaker” piece, a sculpture made to look like the artist’s dream motorcycle. An inmate created the piece entirely out of rodent remains collected over the course of two years. Another piece of art was composed of materials that were stolen from the prison, which the artist felt was a small measure of justice in a legitimately unfair system. This particular prisoner was found innocent after serving 20 years—the least he could do was steal from the institution that stole his years away.
A project titled “Prisoners of Age” is more traditional in terms of documentation of the incarcerated. The series is concerned with representing elderly inmates, a scarcely thought about demographic, though they comprise approximately 35 percent of the prisoner population. One of the images Fleetwood talked about in particular showed an aging man sitting on the bottom bunk, commanding a strong grip on a staff, the sunlight shining in through a nearby window.
Dread Scott’s work, on the other hand, is incredibly diverse, including audio interviews as well as mixed media projects, among a multitude of other artistic media. Of interest to this presentation was his “Lockdown Project,” made between the years 2000 and 2004 in order to individuate and rename his subjects. Both a photography and interview based project, the images are a series of 20” x 24” black and white photos that tell the story of the incarcerated from their own lips.
Deborah Luster’s work deviates from the norm, working similarly to humanize the subjects, but with an altogether different approach. She is successful in this regard, especially with her “Prisoners of Louisiana” (1998-2002) series, as she incorporates short bios about the individuals and veers away from standard photo documentation (which typically includes the subject’s face and torso). In one photograph, she focuses on an imprisoned person’s hand holding a picture of the subject’s son.
Fleetwood’s knowledge of prison portraiture was vast and far ranging, but even more importantly her honesty and compassion for the inmates drove home the seriousness and imminence of the issue. Incarcerated people are, in fact, collectors of art, which speaks volumes for a group of people who are otherwise silenced in our society.