In the nearly three years Nigel Poor, 50, has been volunteering in San Quentin, her perceptions about life have broadened.
“I have been privileged to see the people some of society considers invisible,” she said.
Poor is an artist who has tenure at Sacramento State, where she has taught photography for the last 10 years.
She started teaching an art appreciation class on photography with Doug Dertinger at San Quentin through the Prison University Project, which gave her the opportunity to meet the men in blue.
Human nature has always fascinated Poor—a fascination that led her to teaching at San Quentin. Although she has always considered herself an artist, Poor has worked various odd jobs to support her endeavors, including being a cook, maid, chauffeur, English as a second language teacher and studio assistant.
“It’s not what you do for a living, it’s about ideas,” Poor said, explaining how she has been exposed to ideas she could never have conceived of before coming into San Quentin. “I hear stuff I never imagined, things I never thought of before.”
After growing up in Boston, she went on to earn an undergraduate degree from Bennington College in Vermont, followed by a graduate degree at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.
Poor said her work at San Quentin has helped her to figure out the direction of her own life; just as the men she interacts with in San Quentin have been forced to discover who they are. She said she’s taken their experiences as a lesson in life to figure out who she is.
Poor defines herself by what she does in life as an artist, teacher, and volunteer.
As an artist Poor says, she is always looking for the story under the surface. She says she sees the story in the humble objects in every day life. Objects such as a crumpled up piece of paper or used t-shirt fascinates her. One of the projects she undertook was to photograph a different object that she found discarded by people everyday for a year.
Poor says there is extraordinary in the ordinary, and after viewing her artwork, “I hope people think about the humble object.”
Poor says she hopes people will see something more besides the obvious in life, and quotes one of her San Quentin students Ruben Ramirez, when she said, “After taking the photography class I see fascination everywhere.”
She says this is the fascination she has for everything.
Poor’s greatest influences as an artist have come from the German photographer August Sanders and Walker Evens, creator of American photographs. These photographers tried to create order out of the chaos of life, she said.
Poor seems almost amazed that after spending time in San Quentin her interest in photographing people has returned.
She said after years of creating portraits her interest had waned, but now she is taking pictures of people both inside of prison and outside as well.
This interest in human behavior has pushed her into one of her new projects, working with the San Quentin Prison Report.
She is working with prisoners Troy Williams, Tommy “Shaqur” Ross, Wallace-Stepter, and Greg Estridge to produce radio shows for KAWL.
The radio spots are the first time San Quentin has produced radio shows for over 50 years.
She is helping to bring the stories of the men that fascinate her to the public.
In a project she is producing outside the walls of prison, she is photographing the objects in people’s homes when they are not there. She says the point is to see the person through their possessions.
Pictures of possessions turn into portraits of people when they are shot through the lens of Poor’s camera.
When asked what a portrait of her would look like if she was not in it she said, “A piece of paper that I have written on and erased several times, and there would be words you couldn’t really make out left on the page.”