Prison Nation is a traveling photographic exhibition coordinated by Aperture that brings together the work of photographers who focus on prisons and prisoner life. From the 1960’s through contemporary prison culture in the United States these photographs address the question, “how can images tell the story of mass incarceration when the imprisoned don’t have control over their own representation?” Exhibited artist include Nicole R. Fleetwood, Lucas Foglia, Bruce Jackson, Emily Kinni, Jesse Krimes, Jack Lueders-Booth, Deborah Luster, Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun, Zora Murff, Nigel Poor, Joseph Rodriguez, Jamel Shabazz, Sable Elyse Smith, Stephen Tourlentes.
Most prisons and jails across the United States do not allow prisoners to have access to cameras. At a moment when an estimated 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S., 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? How can photographs visualize a reality that disproportionately affects people of color, and, for many, remains outside of view? Coinciding with Aperture magazine’s spring 2018 issue, “Prison Nation,” this exhibition addresses the unique role photography plays in creating a visual record of this national crisis, despite the increasing difficulty of gaining access inside prisons.
Since its early years, photography has been used to create and reinforce typologies of criminality, often singling out specific groups of people. Today, it is essential for photographers to provide urgent counterpoints and move beyond simplistic descriptions of the “criminal” or the imprisoned. Much of the work gathered here—from a recently discovered archive at San Quentin in California to portraits of prisoners participating in a garden program at Rikers Island in New York City or performing a passion play at Louisiana’s Angola prison, a facility located on the site of a former slave plantation—underscores the humanity and individuality of those incarcerated. Some projects explore the prison as an omnipresent feature of the American landscape, often serving as a local economic engine, or delve into the living conditions and social systems of prisons, while others address the difficult process of reentering society after incarceration. One series was produced in prison: Jesse Krimes made 292 image transfers with prison-issued soap while he served a five-year sentence.
Incarceration impacts all of us. Americans, even those who have never been to a prison or had a relative incarcerated, are all implicated in a form of governance that uses prison as a solution to many social, economic, and political problems. Empathy and political awareness are essential to creating systemic change—and through this exhibition, and the accompanying series of public programs, “Prison Nation” may provoke us to see parts of ourselves in the lives of those on the inside.