Imagination is a Radical Tool: Hatty Nestor Interviewed by Lucie McLaughlin, BOMB Magazine, June 31, 2021

I interviewed Hatty Nestor about her book Ethical Portraits which explores a collective oral history of the justice system’s problematic portrayal of inmates.

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

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