Imagining Freedom: A Conversation with Nicole Fleetwood and Virginia Grise

Virginia Grise
Apr 1 · 14 min read


Photograph Courtesy of Fleetwood Family Archives.
Photograph Courtesy of Fleetwood Family Archives.

You have said that “…one of the most voluminous sites for the production of contemporary black photography takes place in the visiting room of US prisons.” Can you talk a little more about that process? Who takes those photographs? What type of camera is used? How are those photographs taken on the inside different than photographs you have studied from outside photographers?

NF: There are makeshift photo studios in many prisons and jails around the country. They are usually set up in visiting rooms, and at a cost — typically $2 or $3 per print — incarcerated people can take photos with loved ones documenting the visit. The photos are usually staged in front of a backdrop painted by incarcerated people. The backdrops tend to be landscape paintings, scenes of nature, or symbols of freedoms like an open blue sky.

Photograph Courtesy of Fleetwood Family Archives.

When the reception was over and we were getting ready to leave, Allen asked, “Aren’t we going to take those photos with us?” He knew that they were part of the exhibit but something about the intimacy and pain that the images triggered provoked the question. I told him they were staying and asked if he was okay with it; he said yes but I could tell he it really affected him to see his experience as captured in those images on display.

Allen and I have had several conversations about my research on the visual culture of mass incarceration. I’ve also talked with his mom a lot about it. Allen said to me, “If others can learn from my hardship, then I’m all for it.”

© Chandra McCormick, Line Boss Angola, 2013. Photograph provided by Fleetwood, used with permission from C. McCormick.
© Keith Calhoun, Ditch Digging, 1980. Photograph provided by Fleetwood. Used with permission from K. Calhoun.
© Chandra McCormick, Work Call, 2013. Photograph provided by Fleetwood. Used with permission by C. McCormick.

I am often asked to talk about the issues that I address in my work, or my politics, but rarely am I asked to actually speak about the art. Or how I tell a story — and how I tell a story is just as important to me as the story I am telling, because I think how I tell a story is also inherently political. Aesthetic choices are also political choices. I don’t think you can separate those things out.

Centering aesthetics is important to me in my work, including the work I make in prisons.

I have heard incarcerated artists speak about feeling used or exploited by collaborative projects that create more economic and cultural currency for non-incarcerated artists and that use incarcerated people as “raw material” for the making of art. It seems to me that part of the work of collaborating is being upfront about how power operates inside these collaborations and across institutions invested in these projects.

VG: Theater can not be made unless it is made in collaboration and yet people still approach work from very colonialist models as if the artist on the outside is “bringing light into a place of darkness.” This is an actual quote I have heard people use, a straight lift from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, right? Ideas like these don’t acknowledge folks that are incarcerated as collaborators or artists even. I want to work with people as collaborators, as artists.

NF: Whenever someone who is held captive, who is subjugated, who is rendered silent or invisible, who is labeled as non-human, irrational, or unthinking create, that very act is a challenge to their captivity and subjugation. To create is a foundational practice of aesthetic discernment, of articulating a viewpoint, of being in the world. That’s how I’m using liberatory in these cases. It’s not the same as freedom.

More than once a week, I repeat Angela Davis’s saying, “Freedom is a constant struggle.” In so many ways, my work is indebted to the scholarship, activism, and visionary ideas about justice and freedom developed by Davis and other prison abolitionists, especially black feminist abolitionists who are working to create a world that we have not yet seen but one that is centered around dignity, recognition, and healing and where institutions are not built and perpetuated to enforce suffering and marginalization.




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Virginia Grise

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society for photographic education | understanding how photography matters in the world