San Quentin Archive

From Pete Brook’s recent article on the brilliant and considered way that Nigel Poor is activating an archive of images at the San Quentin Prison in California for The Atlantic.


Big Gaunt gym profile, July 15, 1975 (San Quentin State Prison)


Archived mapped image (San Quentin State Prison)

Poor uses the photos as teaching tools to draw out the emotional content of the photos. Once she has printed selected photos on large card-stock with wide white borders, she encourages students to write out their thoughts and impressions in the margins, or on the images themselves. Prisoners are writing current stories about an institution that dates to the 1850’s. They’re examining their connections to the the lives of inmates who came before them. Poor calls this archive mapping. “It gives them a lot of power,” she says. “Archive mapping allows them to talk about their own experiences’’ and reflect on their upbringing, the nature of punishment, personal relationships, accountability, social codes and much more.

Beyond the catharsis and the potential therapeutic gains for the men, Poor hopes the mapped photos may spark the interest and empathy of the public. In fact, she thinks her students’ voices are the only way to humanize an otherwise stereotyped population.

“The incarcerated men’s responses have to be the core,” she says.

Researching and preserving such a vast trove will take years. At present, prison officials are entrusting Poor with the task. Eventually she envisions an online archive, with the images cross-referenced across themes, and perhaps a book.

For now, week-to-week, Poor and her students continue to analyze what they have found.“I can use this picture to talk about race in prison, or that picture to talk about homosexuality in prison. And this one, maybe, about what it’s like to spend holidays locked up and away from family.”

“These images,” she says, “represent difficult conversations.”



See here for a better look at some of the amazing photographs in the archive. You can see more that Pete has written about the project at his site, Prison Photography.

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