Assignment No. 2: San Quentin Prison text by Michael Nelson
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anaïs Nin
Reading through Michael Nelson’s essay in Assignment No. 2 testifies to the compelling power of looking, and the inseparable link between observation and personal experience. At age fifteen, Nelson was charged with first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. He pled guilty in 1998; he has been in San Quentin Prison for his entire adult life. Nelson wrote the essay in Assignment No. 2 for “Visual Concerns in Photography,” a course taken through the Prison University Project, the state’s only on-site, degree granting college program.
Nelson completed his assignment while in solitary confinement, without access to class notes or handouts. Isolated from these resources and classmates, he relies on in-depth, visual analysis to discuss the photographs of two seminal contemporary photographers — one of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s black-and-white theaters and the other of Richard Misrach’s Las Vegas drive-in theatre. Though both photographs depict blank screens without people, Nelson quickly recognizes they are made using distinctly different visual languages and describes these differences with ease. His descriptions are poetic; Sugimoto’s blank, illuminated screen operates like “a mouth whose light screams out to be heard, to be seen.” We get a sense of how he interprets the formal qualities of these images and mines his own experience to understand what he is looking at. He writes “…I think of change and the consequences that come with change… the two photographs remind me of those who get left behind by not being able to keep up with the change that lives and breathes throughout time.” The genesis of this stark evaluation can be found in the nearly two decades Nelson has spent behind San Quentin’s bars. He casts his own shadows across these blank screens, revealing as much about the photographs as he does his own struggles and challenges with the constantly evolving world beyond his reach.
TBW Books handled the challenge of designing an engaging presentation for an essay and two photographs with finesse. A folio resembling a ragged, worn personnel file is the perfect vehicle for the enclosed materials. Large reproductions of Misrach and Sugimoto’s photographs flank Nelson’s text, which are presented as in a crime scene evidence folder. The essay is carefully reproduced from the legal pad upon which it was originally drafted, simulating Nelson’s elegant blue script across the lined, yellow pages. His deliberate care emanates through the writing; the subtle production by TBW Books echoes this meticulous mentality.
Assignment No. 2 simultaneously alludes to one man’s personal experience in the prison system and a universal truth about the highly idiosyncratic act of considered looking. It is less about the two photographs discussed, and more about the way we reveal ourselves through the discussion of images.