Imagination is a Radical Tool: Hatty Nestor Interviewed by Lucie McLaughlin

A collective oral history of the justice system’s problematic portrayal of inmates.

Ethical Portraits5

Hatty Nestor’s Ethical Portraits: In Search of Representational Justice (Zero Books) examines the role of prison portraiture in the US criminal justice system. The book investigates image-making—surveillance recording, mugshots, courtroom sketches, and DNA profiling—to reveal how it’s been weaponized against marginalized people, and in what ways the ambivalent territories of self—real and imagined—are formed for prisoners by the architectural and artistic spaces they inhabit. These explorations are centered on examples of visual survival; images or artwork made by or for incarcerated people (alone, or in collaboration with artists) which attempt to intervene in the dominant systems of portrayal where inmates are dehumanized or absent from representation altogether.

Through interviews, critical theory, and creative nonfiction, the book examines the effects of differing levels of agency, visibility, and connection between prisoners and their portraits, exploring the aesthetics of criminality today. Nestor’s close attention to the dangers of voyeurism, and the complicated ways in which communication with incarcerated people gets controlled, is reflected in the sensitive rhythm of Ethical Portraits. The distances negotiated between the vast geographical backdrops where prisons and inmates are often hidden, and the intricate ethical landscapes of the research Nestor traversed while visiting these spaces, reveal a sense of place built from collective conversation.

—Lucie McLaughlin

Lucie McLaughlin I am interested in your research methods and how you crafted this book. For instance, did you gather physical documents on paper and make handwritten notes? Or did you work digitally?

Hatty Nestor Gathering information was complex due to the nature of the book’s subject. Some information was held by legal authorities. And several people didn’t want to speak to me due to legal issues. Much of the information about Chelsea Manning’s case was given by the mainstream media. During her first incarceration, there was an overwhelming amount of press debating the legal questions around her innocence or perceived guilt in varying ways, and describing her lived existence with authority, despite the fact that they did not speak to her personally. 

I mostly worked digitally, archiving news reports, old legal documents, and images on my computer. There were also some instances where digitizing my experiences was prohibited. While researching courtroom artists, I went to the Old Bailey in London to watch trials. I wanted to understand the performance of the courtroom, the differing roles of the barristers, judges, and audience. I could not bring my phone or laptop, so I took handwritten notes. I also interviewed over fifteen people even though only four interviews are referenced in the book. 

LM When reading the book, I was struck by the multitude of information you gathered. Your deconstruction of news reports raises questions about the media’s power to build public narratives. Can you talk a bit about the process of writing the book? I know you traveled to the US while you were writing it. 

HN I was committed to working in an interdisciplinary way, using archives and interviews as a methodology which foregrounded my questions of representation and subordination. Saidiya Hartman’s book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, was a large influence. I kept her definition of archiving and writing close. She writes in “A Note on Method” that writers and historians have to confront the “authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known, whose perspective matters.” 

I also was influenced by ideas of satire from the New Journalism movement; how setting and descriptions of place can function as testimony. The efficacy of “truth” and “objectivity” was also a central question, not just in terms of how misrepresented prisoners are in the media, but also how I conveyed my understanding of the justice system. I didn’t want to contribute to a problem I was attempting to scrutinize or expose. While living in America from 2017 to 2018, it was very difficult to get access to prisons, particularly the high security supermax prisons. For this reason, I didn’t ever meet prisoners in-person. But I did email several in California via Jmail—a service which prints and delivers emails to prisoners. I wanted to build a picture of how representation is denied and obscured, and what incarcerated individuals themselves felt an “ethical portrait” could be, 

In the Prison Landscapes chapter, I describe visiting the dilapidated Penitentiary of New Mexico—an institution that employs the theme of “Old Main”—“Respecting our Past to Create a Better Future.” It is not maintained by the state, and thus looks faded, greying and neglected. Its color is an off pink, and there is very little wildlife. Inside, the atmosphere is eerie, cold, and unused. During this field research, I attended a “prison tour” of a space which had remained empty since a riot in 1980, to see a painted “prison landscape” in the flesh. There were two of these painted landscapes at the prison. The first was in the dining hall and covered the entirety of the south facing wall. It showed a woman with two overflowing barrels of fruit and vegetables, depicted in purples, pinks, and blues. The background was yellow and optimistic in color, a stark contrast to the rest of the prison. What was so strange about it was that it had retained its brightness and life, whereas the rest of the prison was so worn and distressed.

The architectural position of prisons is a stark reminder that they are purposefully built to be “out of sight, out of mind.” They are usually on the outskirts of towns, or miles from populous areas. This act of traveling and witnessing felt fundamental to my research. 

Hatty Nastor By Robin Christian

Photo of Hatty Nastor by Robin Christian.

LMWhat ethical or political considerations did you have when carrying out the interviews? Are there any interviews you conducted which stand out for you?

HN I’ve always been interested in having multiple voices within a text, as a feminist approach to writing and history making, and this line of thought felt particularly crucial to Ethical Portraits. As I was interviewing and writing about marginalized people, part of my approach was to pose open-ended questions, giving the interviewee several avenues to explore. My intention was that this could destabilize, or undermine, the presumed power dynamic at the core of any interview. I was also interested in how interviewing can be a form of portrait-making itself, and was influenced by Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts (2013), which faces head on the ethical quandaries of interviewing. 

The courtroom artist I interviewed, Priscilla Coleman, particularly stood out. She seemed acutely aware of how interviewing can be a pursuit of revealing information, and often didn’t answer questions which referenced her emotional relationship to her job, despite the fact that my investigation was about empathy. What wasn’t expressed drew attention to what she wanted to keep hidden. I then wrote the chapter around this absence; which ultimately became a rich source of information.

LM I gather Ethical Portraits took many years to come together, and you’ve been working on it continuously. Given the length of the book’s development, how does research time operate differently to writing time? Are these registers distinct, or are they entangled?

HN I started writing the book at the end of 2016, and finished it in mid-2019. There is a strange delay in publishing which writers often experience, but it was particularly exacerbated for me, partly because of the pandemic, but also due to the lengthy fact-checking process the book required. What became immediately apparent while researching for Ethical Portraits, was that there was a huge amount of writing on the history of prison photography, like mugshots. However, courtroom sketches, post-mortem drawings, activist projects, and written accounts were few and far between. 

I kept notebooks full of rough notes, and different kinds of journals; archives of my findings. One was dedicated to my internal and emotional response to the material I found, another for references, and so on. In retrospect, these books acted as time-sensitive archives of my thinking. But I also realized there was a necessity to this method of research, which was indicative of the different subjects the book weaves together. I was witnessing myself, and the individuals I encountered. Record-keeping felt so vital, as I was considering visibility and invisibility in relation to human life, and who is and isn’t accounted for—and of course—grief. 

I would often interview, research and write, and then take a long pause, waiting to hear back about access to archives, prisons, or other interview requests. So, the researching and writing were intertwined, and their relationship meant I had to give up control over certain elements of the book. But as the book’s release was delayed, the circumstances of some of the subjects rapidly changed. For instance, Chelsea Manning has been pardoned, re-incarcerated, and released once again since the time when much of the book was written. Nonetheless the ethical questions central to the text; representation, accountability, and recognition, remain urgent for any evolving critique of the criminal justice system. 

LM Your book also confronts the negative space of representation: the experiences of those who are denied visibility, imagery, and documentation. There seems to be a concentrated effort to try and tune into the silence of their absence. In revealing these gaps, your writing brings spaces of collective resistance closer to the reader. Did you feel that you were writing into these absences? Or writing to discover what is filling the space where ethical representation of incarcerated people should be?

HN This is a very perceptive question; thank you! The question of absence is an interesting one, because in the context of visibility, the absence of representation is indicative of broader structures of control and subordination. The idea of “writing into an absence” raises the question of what is known and unknown, and who can be accounted for. I attempted to write through these absences of representation by contacting prisoners, reading penal literature, theories of abolition, and through my courtroom visits. However, where limited representation occurs, this does not immediately solve the issue.

Absence can also refer to those instances where someone is portrayed only in a certain way. Most prisoners are only represented through their mugshot—a form of portraiture which purposefully codes them solely as an inmate. A collective resistance against such absences is the process of giving agency back to prisoners, so they can be represented on their terms. This is the only “filling in” of such absences which seems plausible to me, otherwise prisoners are always subject to the interpretation of others. Portraits have this ethical paradigm embedded within them; the subject who is being portrayed, and the portrayer. It is simple to write into an absence with one’s own perceptions, but, I found, much harder to give agency to another on their own terms through the prism of your writing. 

LM The chapter “Prison Landscapes” looks at many different projects where incarcerated people have created portraits. The title comes from Alyse Emdur’s large collection of photographs of inmates in front of murals, taken in the prisons by fellow inmates. I was drawn to these painted backdrops as a place for looking to slow down. They stand in such strong contrast to the technologized images created by the state and surveillance. Do you think there is a relationship between the natural subjects of the murals, coastal scenes and rolling hills, creating a stronger empathetic response in the viewer? I was also thinking about how the relationship between the viewer and image might change when the inmates are absent and only the painted backdrops are photographed, as seen in some of the images. How does this project operate as an artistic platform and does it give agency to the inmates involved?

HN The research for that chapter was where I thought most about prison abolition, because the scenes permitted the prisoners to imagine otherwise—a physical and cognitive concept abolition is often founded upon. Imagination is a political strategy for agency and hope, which permits us to be psychologically different than—as Adrienne Rich writes—“the condition in which we are drenched.” This paradigm also seems central to the use of natural scenes (mountains, rivers, waterfalls, beaches) which are seen in Alyse Emdur’s collection of photographs in Prison Landscapes. There also are often skyscrapers and famous cultural monuments such as the Statue of Liberty, or castles and stately homes with grand gardens. What is interesting is that the backdrops which aren’t purely depicting nature are often idealized or affluent parts of society, too. So what binds both the natural and man-made landscapes is their utopistic and idealized focus of a world which cannot be experienced on the inside (and, arguably, outside prison!)

It is difficult to say if the use of these scenes creates a deeper empathetic response in the viewer, however I do think it highlights the desire to be perceived, and viewed, differently than as a prisoner. For prisoners, the act of standing in front of these landscapes is often done for their family and loved ones to have an image of them which is different from a mugshot. It seems an element of agency is given to the prisoner through this process of creating, documenting, and portrayal, even if for a brief moment. As beyond the frame of these backdrops, the nondescript prison walls are a stark contrast to the bright, fantastical scenes. All of this is bound to a history of prison portraiture, where the power dynamic of the criminal justice system dictates how inmates are depicted to the outside world.

LM The book combines creative nonfiction, theory, and interviews. We see you traveling through New Mexico by car on research trips to prisons, or penning notes in the quiet moments between court cases at The Old Bailey in London. While questioning the interdisciplinary form you were working inside, you ask sensitive and important questions about bias throughout. Did you feel conscious about your own critical distance when writing the book? I wonder how much you thought about objectivity in creative-critical writing?   

HN The question of intersubjectivity was fundamental to my writing method and ethical approach. I continually asked myself how I felt about the material I encountered, which at times made me feel deeply unsettled. I was simultaneously interested in voyeurism, how I could inadvertently stray into that territory, while wondering why others are so drawn to—for instance—true crime dramas. My critical distance was almost impossible to achieve, and so I included these complicated feelings throughout the book, as an honest meditation on the subject at hand.

Working in an archival “collage” was the natural form I pursued when conveying the material of the book. This interweaving of creative and critical writing was an attempt to produce a collective book; one which contained the thoughts and experiences of multiple people, not just my own singular venture into the subject. Although at the same time, I think the book subtly indicates my position on the carceral system, abolition, surveillance and subordination. It was always my intention to confront representation as an inquiry into different forms of portrayal, but also how the book might challenge ideas of objectivity by including interviews with others. I hope the book is perceived as a group portrait, not just of those I interviewed, but as a collective oral history of the justice system’s deeply problematic representations, and as a proposition of how imagination can be a radical tool when we use it to see things differently. 

Ethical Portraits is available for purchase here.

Lucie McLaughlin is an artist and writer from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Suppose A Collapse, a book length collection of her creative-critical writing was published in 2021 by JOAN, a new publishing project in London for interdisciplinary artists’ writing.

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