It’s Time to Talk Social Justice: Isaac Wingfield & the Humanize the Numbers Prison Photography Workshop
Exposure Magazine: What is Humanize the Numbers? Can you describe this socially engaged, collaborative photo workshop that you’ve been leading the past few years?
Humanize the Numbers is a photography-based workshop that joins students from the University of Michigan with men incarcerated in the Michigan Department of Corrections. It started small — a two hour introductory workshop with myself, artist Mark Strandquist, and eighteen men incarcerated at Thumb Correctional Facility. Seven months later the first photography workshop was underway. In many ways I was not looking for this, but it found me. Like many people in academia I wanted to facilitate more community engagement in my courses, and yes, I was interested in exploring socially engaged arts practices. However, these vague interests are hard to put into action until they begin to take the form of more concrete ideas, and slowly the prison industrial complex began to take hold of me as both a need and an opportunity. The chance to bring photographs out of this largely invisible institution was not something I could pass up. The project eventually took shape with a class of students at the University of Michigan going into a prison every week for a semester-long workshop with a group of inmates. While the inmates build their knowledge of the camera and visual communication, university students are also learning about both the unique individual experiences of the men in the workshop, and the complex prison system we enter every week. This experience challenges many of the students, just as it has done for me, by forcing us to grapple with our stereotypes and our self-consciousness, our prejudice and our role in sustaining the system. Often these are uncomfortable realizations, but they accompany a growing knowledge of both the broken world around us, and the brokenness within us.
The name for the project, “Humanize the Numbers,” came from the initial introductory workshop discussing what purposes photographic images coming out of a prison could serve, with several inmates suggesting that in the face of overwhelming numbers and statistics about mass incarceration, photographs should serve to humanize those numbers. It does so by restoring the voices of those who have had their voice stripped away by the criminal justice system. With this photography workshop as a starting point, a broader collaborative developed of people seeking to humanize the numbers of the criminal justice system in different ways: advocacy groups, family support organizations, university faculty researchers, and creative student productions in visual and performing arts. As these connections continue to coalesce, the broader community of researchers and activists impacts the ongoing work of Humanize the Numbers.
Exposure Magazine: How did this project get started?
In many ways this project fell in my lap, as someone who had never been inside a prison and had given very little thought to prisons or mass incarceration. In 2014 two things converged to start me down this pathway. First, I attended a presentation by Mark Strandquist at the annual SPE conference in Baltimore where he talked about his photographic work within the prison system. Second, I began teaching in the Residential College, an interdisciplinary undergraduate program at the University of Michigan that also housed the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), an organization that has been facilitating theater, writing and arts workshops in Michigan prisons for twenty-five years. These two things were fundamental to the formation of Humanize the Numbers. Collaborating with Mark Strandquist and PCAP staff — Heather Martin in particular — allowed me to envision how I might teach a course that was based around photography workshops in prison. When we went to the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) Director’s office to request permission to bring cameras into a prison it was with a twenty-five year history of partnership, with hundreds of PCAP affiliated university students going into prisons. The importance of the long institutional relationship between PCAP and the MDOC is incalculable. State prisons are home to most of the country’s incarceration, but they vary wildly in their approach and willingness to accommodate various programs. Michigan has a fairly conservative correctional system, so it was a major victory to have the support of the MDOC Director. The final decision was still in the hands of the warden at the facility where we held the workshop, but starting off in the Director’s office helped us establish things and iron out the bumps along the way. There are always bumps when running a workshop in a prison.
Exposure Magazine: Can you describe some of the relational dynamics involved in conducting a workshop in a prison?
The workshop is usually chaotic — too many people in a space that is too small and a time that is too short. Inmates and students alike rotate between small group discussions, writing exercises, and several photography stations with someone in behind the camera and someone in front of it. Sometimes images come out of this chaos as unexpected gifts — gems you didn’t realize you were carrying out. Other times a photograph is slowly coaxed into existence, as trust builds and the potential for the images slowly dawns on the participants.
In setting up a project of this nature there are a number of potential pitfalls that can contribute to a poor environment for collaboration. I wanted to avoid the traditional service-learning dynamic with students coming in to serve a needy population by providing something that well intentioned outsiders (whether professors or students) thinks the community needs. Power relationships are often neglected in these traditional service-learning courses, which easily slide into exploitative educational opportunities. Socially engaged arts practice provides a structural foundation that grounds the workshop in our shared humanity. It considers where the power is located in collaborations, and keeps everyone on a level playing field as fellow humans. Whether student, inmate or instructor, everyone contributes to the structure and goals for the workshop by drawing on their unique skills and expertise. Recognizing our own skills, as well as our own deficiencies, is important if the workshop is to be deemed successful by all the participants.
Considering the power dynamic is particularly vital in this workshop because photography itself is historically bound up in concerns about power and representation. These issues are even more heightened in a highly controlled setting like a prison where an inmate’s representation and identity are controlled and determined by the state: mug shots, height, weight, criminal code violations, etc. In this context it’s obvious that the university-based participants hold all the power: access to cameras, tools for quick research, image distribution (both physical and digital), freedom to come and go from prison, etc. For that reason, the structure of the workshop has been intentionally structured to push against the typical power dynamic, finding ways to move as much of the decision-making as possible into the hands of the incarcerated participants: What do the images look like? What is the intention behind the images? Who is the intended audience? How can the camera alter the image? These are among the issues discussed in the workshops. Likewise, the images that come out of the workshop belong to the incarcerated participants. The person behind the camera has fluctuated depending on the workshop — sometimes an outside participant, but recently it is more often an incarcerated participant controlling the camera. However, regardless of who is collaborating in the image-making process, the photographs belongs to the subject — he is the one ultimately determining which image is in or out, and whether an image can be publicly shared or not.
Exposure Magazine: Can you describe some of the goals and outcomes of this course, both in terms of what is hoped for versus what ends up happening?
By extending the use of a socially engaged arts practice beyond the community-based portion of the course and into the traditionally hierarchical structure of a university classroom, professor-student interactions also become a model of collaboration and intentional engagement. The structure of the course, the goals of the workshops, the outcome and eventual exhibition of images are all included in the collaborative process with students and workshop participants. Structuring a course in the manner certainly takes more work, but also makes the experience richer for everyone, including me. Particularly as someone new to the field of mass incarceration and socially engaged art, I am always learning through this course and workshop. It is important for the public to see the photographs, but I’ve learned to coordinate exhibitions with the class schedule. For the first iteration we displayed banners in the University’s main green, which entailed endless unseen hurdles, most of which fell to me since the course had already ended, so student involvement decreased. When we couldn’t put posts into the ground because of the sprinkler system, I spent Winter Break in my garage building frames for the banners. Then I had a full week for the exhibition, which I spent installing the banners, checking them each morning for problems, repairing vandalism, and then de-installing them, all while teaching my full course load. It was an exhausting experience — continuing with the project has forced me to adapt. Now I slow things down so I can get help from students during the semester. During the workshop students make arrangements for exhibiting the work, but the exhibitions don’t take place for a year — when the course is offered again, with a fresh group of students who can support and learn every part of the process. Rather than hindering the project, this socially engaged structure is one of the strengths, because it does not rely on my own expertise as the instructor, but is collaborative from the very beginning. Early on I leaned into the open-ended structure, so even the most basic decisions moved very slowly through consensus building conversations. Over time I’ve learned there are areas where I should exert a bit more influence and implement more structure, while also learning how to keep everyone involved and invested throughout the process. Some groups want to get different things from the workshop, and that changes the flavor of the workshop: skill building with cameras was popular among a group that was mostly preparing for reentry, but telling personal stories was more important among a group of lifers. The workshop continues to change in some ways as I navigate what my own role is in this socially engaged project — what do I need to contribute to the project, and what do others need to contribute? I continue to learn more about myself and slowly settle into the role. As a result every semester is different, with new individuals bringing their own interests and motivation. After all, this project is ultimately about humanizing people, acknowledging their individual stories and skills. If that doesn’t happen in the workshop itself, how will it ever happen when the resulting photographs make their way beyond the workshop?
Exposure Magazine: What are some examples of things that you now know through the benefit of hindsight? What does it take to get a project of this scope off the ground and running?
It is helpful to recognize the lurking collaborator in the project: the MDOC is often silent participant but still an essential partner. I need their approval for every key element: going inside; bringing cameras inside; bringing students inside; meeting with a group of inmates on an ongoing basis; having a suitable room for a workshop; having a reasonable time for the workshop; processing the university participants into the facility on time; ensuring the inmates’ timeliness where their movement is more restricted; and finally, taking images and text out of the facility. Individuals within the system or the institution as a whole can, at any time, decide not to collaborate, and the project would be over. They can also unexpectedly insert themselves into the process, for example to reassert policies about volunteer interactions with inmates — absolutely no physical contact whatsoever (though again, this varies by facility). Sensitivity toward this partnership helps me stay positive despite any hiccups in the process because I know we are guests in someone else’s house, and I want to be invited back again. This has not prevented us from moving the project in bold new directions — after discussion in one workshop about the intended audience for their photographs, we mailed photographs to two Michigan advocacy organizations, the MDOC Director and to every Law and Justice Committee member in the Michigan state House and every member of the Judiciary Committees in the Michigan state House and Senate. We also sent out images to family and friends of the men in the workshop, as this was another important audience. After discussion in the workshop this list of recipients was reached by consensus, and were selected for their influence on policy and their personal connection to the system. Every participant approached the audience members differently, with some men addressing specific policy concerns (like cuts to the music program), while others told their own personal stories. Each image packet also contained a postcard soliciting feedback, and a few were returned, primarily from family and friends. Although we never saw any responses from the policymakers who received images, simply getting the images in front of them and sharing the perspective and the stories of the incarcerated men from the workshop made it a success. However, before sending out these packets we first submitted the plan, along with every image going into the packet, to the facility warden and then the MDOC Director. We want to protect our partnership with the facility and the MDOC leadership as key partners. While the additional permissions are not specifically required, the extra steps are worthwhile to ensure that all the partners are on board.
As an educator, one of the biggest struggles has been around scheduling because of the lead time required for scheduling courses within the university (my tentative Winter schedule for 2018 was due late in the Winter 2017 term). The MDOC often doesn’t plan more than a few weeks in advance, and things are constantly shuffling around. After we received approval for another workshop, the prison we’d been working at underwent changes in leadership. By the time I came back to start that second workshop I was working with a new warden, a new deputy warden, and a new special activities director (my most direct contact). None of the work I’d done previously carried over to the second workshop, and we were essentially starting from scratch and negotiating through even the basics, like the ability to use first names inside the workshop. Five weeks before the start of the next semester, the new warden unexpectedly denied our request for a third workshop. The workshops had all gone smoothly and we had received very positive feedback from the staff, but a few weeks before we were scheduled to start I was on the search for a new facility to host a workshop for my course. This experience is just one reminder that when you’re working with prisons, nothing is ever predictable or constant. What worked well for this project may not be successful beyond the present because things are constantly fluctuating. At a certain point you are forced to triangulate a position somewhere between your own experience, the inmates’ input on their experiences, and the current staff’s expectation and their interpretation of rules and regulations as applied in the workshop. It’s a constantly shifting target. Likewise, because every state and local system is different, it could be much easier to initiate a project like this in another setting. Or it might be impossible.
Exposure Magazine: What advice do you have for photo educators or even students interested in pursuing course development with socially engaged issues?
If undertaking a project like this appeals to you I would encourage you to seek out local allies and advocates of all types, and any experienced voices who are doing similar work. I uncovered resources from lots of different places within the University of Michigan, like support for developing courses focused on service learning or community engagement, systems for clearing students to enter prison, or vehicles for getting to and from the workshop. These small details can make a big difference — our first facility was 75 miles from campus, so university vehicles and fuel was essential. As we built events and programming around the first workshop I uncovered numerous faculty across campus working on these issues from different perspectives: law, social work, sociology, American culture, Afro-American and African studies, art, and so on. Particularly in an environment where there are fewer institutional support structures in place, these informal alliances will help you learn from others who are already working within the same systems. Likewise allies inside the corrections system are critical — these people can advocate for your work, point you in the right direction, or sometimes just move paperwork along that otherwise seems to have disappeared into a vast opaque bureaucracy.
If you dare poke your head down the rabbit hole, it will probably be hard to get back out. There are always reasons not to take on something like this; the course and workshop are very time-consuming, and my schedule is already full. However, it’s one of the most rewarding and exciting things about my job. It keeps me nimble — I have to stay on my toes because things can change at any time. It keeps my teaching fresh in an environment with little tolerance for the usual academic jargon. This is often transformative for everyone in attendance. The workshop can open up new worlds for men stuck inside a gray and changeless place. LaVone, a participant in one workshop, wrote that, “This class has opened my thinking up to a whole new world of creativity.” Another participant wrote, “[The workshop] gave me a different way to look at photos and helped me expand my imagination.” It challenges my own perspective on life because I can walk out the door every week and go home, but they stay there. This is particularly true at the final workshop when we’re all keenly aware that we may never see one another again — especially lifers.
Exposure Magazine: What effect has this workshop had on those who have participated in it?
The course also provides an opportunity to challenge my students in deep and transformative ways. There are strict constraints on the relationships, and prison volunteers are cautioned against “over familiarity” — if the MDOC determines you are violating their policy on over familiarity with an inmate, you can be banned from all volunteer activity. However, particularly for those students (and there are many) who have never seriously considered the criminal justice system, getting to know the men inside the system is perhaps the most transformative part of the course. One student reflected on this at the end of the semester:
I never thought I was a prejudiced person, but I know that I believed that this population was different from me, and I know I held some stereotypes about them. I think I believed in some way, maybe it was unconscious, that their lives were less worthy of living than mine was, that their lives were affected less than mind would be had I been imprisoned. Talking to these men in a candid way, and hearing their ideas and understanding that they have personalities, and futures, and goals has made me realize that that’s absolutely not the case, and that I was wrong to ever thing it was. I see now that we’re not so different after all. Buckles mentioned during the last workshop, that underneath it all we are all human regardless of our circumstances and what brought us all to the same room together, and I think recognizing the similarities between myself and the inmates has been integral to understanding what Buckles meant.
Helping students learn and grapple with the complexities of the prison industrial complex on a personal scale is an important outcome. Likewise, the inside participants appreciate the opportunity to learn from us — inside prison we are representatives from the outside that bring a sense of home to a world of blue and gray uniforms. Finally, like my students, every semester I get to know another group of men that I wouldn’t otherwise — hopefully their photographs provide at least a passing glimpse for you.
Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, Isaac Wingfield is a lecturer in the Residential College at the University of Michigan. He received a Bachelor of Science in Technical Photography from Appalachian State University, and a Master of Fine Arts in Photography from Rhode Island School of Design. Humanize the Numbers is a photography-based workshop he facilitates that combines students from a University of Michigan course and men incarcerated in a Michigan prison. Humanize the Numbers’ irregular activity can be followed on Instagram.
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