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Imaging Carceral Subjects: Prison Portraiture and the Penal Scene

Feminist Conversations Fall 2013

Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood will examine how photographic protraits of U.S. prisoners are composed and staged and the ways in which these photographs circulate in public life.

Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood will discuss photographic portraits of U.S. prisoners done by documentarians, artists and activists. Framing her work through studies of portraiture, the history of photographing criminalized subjects and the field of critical prison studies, she will examine a range of photographs taken from the mid-twentieth century through the contemporary moment; these photographs employ a variety of styles from sober documentary aesthetics to fantasy-scapes of prisoners in/out of penal institutions. Of particular importance is the visual production of carceral subjectivity and the staging of the penal scene over the past few decades; whether visible or not, prison as setting is the framing device through which the subject is photographed and audiences read these images. Prison portraits are composed and staged in ways that speak to, work through, or incorporate the ever-looming eye of carcerality. The lens of the portraitist serves as a subordinate, but inquiring, lens to that of carceral optics. In this talk, Dr. Fleetwood is interested in modes of producing and visualizing carceral subjects and the ways in which these photographs circulate in public life. The works of artists Deborah Luster, Dread Scott, Bruce Jackson, Danny Lyon and others will be considered, as well as photographic projects by anti-mass incarceration activist groups and collaborations between incarcerated and non-incarcerated populations.


Dr. Fleetwood is Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Associate Professor in the Department of American Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She researches and teaches in the areas of visual culture and media studies, black cultural studies, gender theory, and culture and technology studies. Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, her first book, is the recipient of the 2012 Lora Romero First Book Publication Prize of the American Studies Association. Her current book project is a study of prison art and visuality, in which she examines a range of visual art and practices emerging inside prisons and about prison life.