U-M photo exhibit showcases work of incarcerated artists

by Fernanda Pires
Artist Jose Burgos
Artist Lewis Chris

The Ann Arbor Art Fair will be the next stop for “Humanize the Numbers,” a touring exhibition organized by the University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project, launched at the Detroit Historical Museum earlier this year.

The show features 45 photographs created by 36 incarcerated artists in a series of workshops in Michigan facilities. Prisoners were allowed creative freedom not normally permitted in a system where the state strictly regulates their identities and representations.

The works will be organized into thematic sections of personal experiences within the system, humanization, community and family impact, means of coping and self-reflection. Pieces will display the unique individuals and highlight the personal stories and the diversity of experience within the system.

“This exhibit aims to highlight the personal impacts—and costs—of the prison system, encourage empathy-building with people who are in prison, and inspire future action in support of people who are in prison,” said U-M lecturer Isaac Wingfield, the exhibition conceptualizer.

Artist DLG

Wingfield teaches Humanize the Numbers, a community-engaged course in the PCAP curriculum, and recently won the 2023 Provost’s Teaching Innovation Prize for his work developing the course.

Over a semester, U-M students drive to a Michigan state prison weekly to work alongside a group of incarcerated men learning the fundamentals of photography. They collaborate on a creative photography project, which often serves to educate the public about the issues of the carceral state.

One image created by artist Jamal Biggs is a self-portrait holding a childhood photograph featuring him along with his brothers and cousins when younger. Half of them passed away at young ages, and of the others, only one remained in contact with him after his incarceration.

Artist Jamal Biggs

His work represents “the pain and blessing of prison—severely straining and often severing family relationships. But also giving me time to grow up and saving me from the same fate of dying young which has befallen my other family members,” Biggs said.

For PCAP’s director Nora Krinitsky, the photographs are a rare opportunity to understand the experiences of incarcerated people in the state.

“I don’t know of any other program that provides incarcerated people the agency and opportunity to compose photographs of themselves that the public will see,” she said. “In the free world, we create and circulate images of ourselves constantly. This exhibition returns that crucial right to incarcerated people.

“I hope the public will benefit from the vulnerability of the artists featured in this show. Creating art entails risk and featuring your own image takes even more risk. I hope viewers will understand the bravery they see in these photographs.”

Artist José Burgos—who served 27 years in prison—will have two pieces at the Ann Arbor Art Fair show. Being part of this project when incarcerated, he said, allowed him to connect with others and explore his creativity and skills.

Artist Buckles

“This project became exactly what the title is,” Burgos said. “When you get incarcerated, you’re given a prison number, and you’re told, ‘remember this because from now on, this is who you’re going to be.’ Humanizing the Numbers captured the true essence of who we are as men. We’re family people; we have people who love us.

“It conveyed that even after we caused harm and were counted accountable for it and sent to prison, we’re all still human at the end of the day. Nobody should ever be reduced to just a number.”

Now working as a reentry specialist for the State Appellate Defender Office in Michigan, Burgos continues to use photography to capture his journey out of prison and to communicate with colleagues who are still incarcerated.

“I continue to communicate with a lot of guys on the inside, and I am always sending them photos,” he said. “I send them pictures of food, trips, conferences, special places I visit or people I meet. They tell me they are living through my eyes.

“When I share these pictures, I’m telling them, no matter how long you’ve been there, you can come out here and have a life outside incarceration. You can still return to the community, help others and find a sense of purpose and joy.”

“Humanize the Numbers” will be located on the corner of Main & Liberty streets July 20-22.

Release Date: 07/15/2023
Tags: Prison Creative Arts Project