Tall fences, barbed wire and an “orangey-brick building” with few windows loomed as University of Michigan students arrived at Thumb Correctional Facility for their first photography workshop.
Inmates told students ideas of scenes and subjects outside of prison to photograph, including sunsets and public benches. They also collaborated on photos taken inside prison walls.
It may be the first photography workshop involving university students and inmates in the state, says Heather Martin, program manager of the Prison Creative Arts Project and co-organizer of Humanize the Numbers.
The student-prisoner collaborative photos are on display through April 8 in the Residential College Art Gallery, East Quad, 701 E. University.
“Students say to me they know the statistics about mass incarceration. But in the course they are exposed to the diversity of individual experiences, and how that impacts families and communities. It’s a remarkable opportunity to understand the individual impact of mass incarceration,” Martin says.
The project experience was the highlight of her undergraduate career, says Olivia Patercsak, a Lapeer senior and recent graduate.
“While one of the prisoners was explaining his photo narrative to me, he said we are all trying to find a way to happiness and peace. It’s just that some of us take different routes. I think that really spoke to me and made me realize the complexity, yet the simplicity of humanity,” Patercsak says.
Humanize the Numbers is a collaborative of many departments across campus and organizations in the community, says course instructor and project co-organizer Isaac Wingfield, lecturer III in the RC, LSA. Last winter, 17 inmates signed up for the workshop. Six finished. The falloff was mainly due to changing work assignments and transfers.
Among the photos presented in the exhibit is one conceived by an inmate, in which white “power pieces” on a chess board — such as the queen, king, rook and knights —cast shadows over a single black pawn.
In another photo conceived by an inmate, a bench in a park reflects back on a time of transition, when they chose to break the law.
“All the while, the students are gaining photography experience and working on someone else’s vision, which is a real challenge,” Martin says.
The Michigan Department of Corrections prohibited students from meeting with inmates’ families. Photographs were taken in public locations within the region and the state.
Ariana Wescott is a New Jersey junior in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design currently studying abroad in Ireland.
“I got a chance to work with an amazing group of students and men who rapidly became very close to my heart, and I was most surprised by how hard it was to say goodbye at the end of the 16 weeks,” she said. Wescott said the inmates are an inspiration today.
Jessica Gray, a Detroit junior from the Stamps School, recalled the excitement she and other students felt driving to the prison.
“I was gracious but also very alert about everything going on around me. This is a prison. Act accordingly,” she said.
On the last day, her workshop partner said, “You guys are our bit of outside and I thank you for that. You guys don’t realize what this means.”
Humanize the Numbers is an ongoing project that utilizes collaborative art practices, public installations, and cross-disciplinary workshops to connect incarcerated men and women in Michigan prisons with hundreds of students, artists, researchers and activists in Southeast Michigan.