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How Can Images Tell the Story of Mass Incarceration in the US?

Aperture Magazine Announces “Prison Nation” Issue, Exhibition, and Public Engagement Series


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? How can photographs visualize a reality that disproportionately affects people of color, and, for many, remains outside of view?

This spring, Aperture magazine will release “Prison Nation,” addressing the unique role photography plays in creating a visual record of this national crisis. Organized with the scholar Nicole R. Fleetwood, this landmark issue will be accompanied by a related exhibition from February 7 through March 7, 2018, as well as a series of six public programs—featuring speakers such as Nigel Poor, Jamel Shabazz, Deborah Luster, Bruce Jackson, Jesse Krimes, Sable Elyse Smith, Joseph Rodriguez, and more—all to take place at Aperture Foundation’s gallery.

Incarceration impacts all of us. “Americans, even those who have never been to a prison or had a relative in prison, need to realize that we are all implicated in a form of governance that uses prison as a solution to many social, economic, and political problems,” Fleetwood notes. Empathy and political awareness are essential to creating systemic change—and through Aperture magazine, and the accompanying exhibition and public programming, “Prison Nation” may provoke us to see parts of ourselves in the lives of those on the inside.

Prison Nation: Public Programs

In a six-part series of programs, photographers, writers, historians, and activists discuss the unique role photography, art, and storytelling play in understanding and creating a dialogue around the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States.

Nigel Poor, Prison Rock Band, June 26, 1975
Courtesy the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco

Narratives from Inside

Wednesday, February 7, 2018 at 7:00 p.m.
Aperture Foundation Gallery, New York

Panelists: Nigel Poor, Virginia Grise, Vee Bravo, Russell Craig

How can storytelling convey the experience of incarceration? Be it photographs, podcasts, or fiction workshops, these panelists deploy various modes of narrative strategy to bring stories of incarceration beyond prison walls.

Moderated by Shani Jamila, managing director of the Urban Justice Center

Deborah Luster, Layla “Roach” Roberts (Inquisitor), fromthe series Passion Play, 2012–13
Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Seeing Angola

Wednesday, February 14, 2018 at 7:00 p.m.
Aperture Foundation Gallery, New York

Panelists: Deborah Luster, Zachary Lazar, Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick

Louisiana’s State Penitentiary, the largest maximum-security prison in the United States, is also known as “Angola,” as it sits on the site of a former plantation with a slave population originating from Angola, Africa. This panel convenes three photographers and one writer who have made work about the notorious prison in a state that has the highest rate of incarceration of any place in the world.

Moderated by Makeda Best, Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at the Harvard Art Museums

Jamel Shabazz, A detainee from Brooklyn poses in the corridor of his housing area, Rikers Island, 1986
Courtesy the artist

Inside Rikers Island

Wednesday, February 21, 2018 at 7:00 p.m.
Aperture Foundation Gallery, New York

Panelists: Jamel Shabazz, Lorenzo Steele Jr., Katherine Cheairs

A movement to close New York’s Rikers Island jail facility is gaining momentum. This panel brings together two former corrections officers/photographers who worked at the facility in the 1980s and ’90s, as well as a documentary filmmaker who has taught filmmaking to incarcerated youth and adults, to discuss their work around the facility and criminal justice reform.

Moderated by Janos Marton, Director of Policy & Campaigns at JustLeadershipUSA

Joseph Rodriguez, At Walden House FOTEP (Female Offender Treatment Employment Program),
a young mother holds her son. El Monte, California
, 2008
© the artist

Art & Incarceration

Wednesday, February 28, 2018 at 7:00 p.m.
Aperture Foundation Gallery, New York

Panelists: Aliya Hana Hussain, Jesse Krimes, Joseph Rodriguez

How does incarceration impact art making for incarcerated artists and non-incarcerated artists concerned with the criminal justice system? This panel brings together a range of artists and figures who facilitate art projects with incarcerated individuals.

Moderated by Nicole R. Fleetwood, contributing editor of Aperture’s “Prison Nation” issue

Stephen Tourlentes, Wyoming State Death House Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming, 2000
Courtesy the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston

Architecture of Confinement

Wednesday, March 7, 2018 at 7:00 p.m.
Aperture Foundation Gallery, New York

Panelists: Bruce Jackson, Johnny Perez, Laurie Jo Reynolds, and Stephen Tourlentes

This panel considers incarceration from an architectural perspective and how photographers engage with prisons as omnipresent structures in the American landscape. Moderated by educator and activist, Shana Agid.

Sable Elyse Smith, from the book Landscapes & Playgrounds (San Francisco: Sming Sming Books, 2017)
© and courtesy the artist

Artist Talk: Sable Elyse Smith

Tuesday, March 27, 2018 at 7:00 p.m.
Aperture Foundation Gallery, New York

Known for her work across photography, video, poetry, and performance, Sable Elyse Smith is interested in the personal consequences of mass incarceration in the United States. Her recent artist’s book Landscapes & Playgrounds (2017), featured in Aperture’s “Prison Nation” issue, is a meditation on the relationship between an incarcerated father and a daughter, and a form of communication that is embedded in surveillance. Smith’s work has been presented most recently in Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon at the New Museum and in the solo exhibition Ordinary Violence at the Queens Museum in New York. She is a 2018 artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Aperture magazine’s “Prison Nation” issue and the related exhibition and programs are funded, in part, with generous lead support from the Ford Foundation, as well as funding from the Reba Judith Sandler Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Grace Jones Richardson Trust, and the Board of Trustees and Members of Aperture Foundation. Additional public funds are from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. 

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