June 26, 2019 | 75° F

'Prison Nation' launch artistically addresses mass incarceration

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Art, activism and social change often work hand in hand, and last night at Zimmerli Art Museum the topics came together again. The photography magazine "Aperture" launched their Spring 2018 issue entitled “Prison Nation” with a panel discussion at the museum. "Aperture" is an institution in the world of photography, but it began at a time when its existence seemed unnecessary.

In 1952 fine art photography was not a fully realized concept, so a group of photographers and writers created the Aperture Foundation and "Aperture," a quarterly magazine based around photos. Since then, it has been one of the premier journals for photography — winning multiple awards and an avid readership. The "Aperture" website introduced the theme of “Prison Nation” with a question, and a crucial one at that. 

“Most prisons and jails across the United States do not allow prisoners to have access to cameras. At a moment when 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the US, 3.8 million people are on probation and 870,000 former prisoners are on parole, how can images tell the story of mass incarceration when the imprisoned don’t have control over their own representation?," according to the website

Nicole R. Fleetwood, director of the Institute for Research on Women and an associate professor in the Department of American Studies, worked as a guest contributing editor for “Prison Nation.” She handled the introduction and laid the framework for what would be discussed over the course of the event. Fleetwood made sure to stress the often unseen “visual culture of mass incarceration” would be in the spotlight and warned against complacency saying “we haven’t seen any substantial change in the carceral system.”

After Fleetwood’s opening remarks, Che Gossett, a trans femme writer archivist and Rutgers graduate student introduced the visiting artists, editors and writers. Brendan Wattenberg, the managing editor for "Aperture" spoke first, showcasing images and text from the magazine. Included was work from Professor Fleetwood as well as Sable Elyse Smith, another visiting artist. 

“Prison Nation” includes interviews and essays from different people involved in criminal justice reform and the visual documentation of incarceration. For instance, famed lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson sat down for a portrait and an interview. Later on in the magazine there was a conversation between two former corrections officers who are photographers, detailing their experience with how prisoners are presented.

The magazine is a comprehensive look at everyone involved in our justice system, with an emphasis on prisoners that is not always granted. The lack of proper documentation was the main focus of the issue.

Joe Rodriguez, a photographer and professor was up next, and he displayed the work he has done with prisoners and ex-cons in California. He has a practice of staying with and documenting a subject over the course of many years, building mini portfolios of family histories and the winding road life takes us down. A real point of emphasis for Rodriguez was parents in prison and how they reacted to missing out on the lives of their children. His work with imprisoned parents has a common motif, mothers and father seeking redemption and validation in the eyes of their children. His work also explored the way that drug abuse tears families apart, and the various struggles that come in the re-entry process for convicts.  

Once Rodriguez was done, Smith presented her work, which was deeply rooted in her personal experience with her father in jail.

 “I work from the archive of my own body,” Smith said.

Smith explores the splintering of families through her career as an interdisciplinary artist and uses poetry and fragmented prose, along with personal letters and vivid displays in her work. Neon lights often spell out her written work, and she uses collage and reinterpretation heavily in her work.

Last but not least, conceptual artist Jesse Krimes spoke about the art that he created while in prison. Using only a plastic spoon, hair gel and copies of The New York Times, Krimes made image transfers onto prison bed sheets and soap, then shaded in the various prints to create cohesive portraits. He mused on his time in solitary confinement and the way that art aided him in staying calm under the inhumane circumstances. 

“I used artwork as a way to survive ... I can honestly say that art saved my life in many ways,” Krimes said. 

After the presentations, the panel sat to take questions. Ranging from questions about why cameras are not allowed into prison to families dealing with separation, and the answers were just as insightful. Fleetwood ended the evening by expressing hope for the rising generation of activists, namely students.

“I definitely think this generation, college students today, are more politically aware and also fearless in their activism. I think there’s definitely a rising awareness, my fear is that people will focus band-aids, when the whole system need to be re-imagined," she said. 

The theme of the night might have been put best by Krimes in his presentation, “comfortability is complicity.” “Prison Nation” and the event as a whole brought that important point to the foreground, where it belongs.

Jordan Levy

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