As a result of the privatization of prisons, greater powers of arrest for minor criminal offences, and systemic racism, the US prison population has soared from 200,000 in 1970 to nearly two million today. Hatty Nestor’s debut book, Ethical Portraits (2021), adds to the conceptual framework of debate about the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration by examining portraiture’s central role in understanding how the criminalized are unjustly characterized in the public domain.
Ethical Portraits weaves together expanded interviews with various forms of judicial portraiture – courtroom sketches, forensic drawings, artist projects, facial-recognition technology and surveillance-camera footage – to examine the ways in which the accused are depicted, whether by artists, activist groups or state-sponsored strategies of visual representation. What starts out as an interrogation of social injustice through the portrayal of the incarcerated steadily expands into a wide-reaching conversation on mass surveillance and how it unfairly indexes criminality, targeting the most marginalized in society.
Beginning with an examination of activist and whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, Nestor lays bare how the brutal treatment of a transgender inmate is symptomatic of the widespread violence of the US justice system. Nestor interviews the artist Alicia Neal, commissioned by the Chelsea Manning Support Network to paint Manning’s rightful portrait as a transgender woman. What follows is an ethically complex journey in attempting to create a portrait of Manning that is true to her real likeness without having access to her. It calls into question the political implications of what it means to create a portrait, and how misrepresentative portrayals of prisoners reveal anew the injustice of incarceration.
Another project, Prison Landscapes (2012) by Alyse Emdur, documents the freedom-evoking backdrops, such as tropical beaches and waterfalls, which prisoners are allowed to pose in front of for photographs when family and friends visit. Inspired by her conversation with Emdur, Nestor is optimistic about the project’s role in giving prisoners visibility on their own terms but also wonders if it perpetuates ‘yearning or a false sense of hope’.
As the writer negotiates this complex moral terrain with sensitivity, asserting her understanding ‘of the fine line between “research” and voyeurism’, she implicates the reader in this very act of looking. The consequences of such representations, she suggests, should not only be the concern of artists but of all those who engage in sensationalist penal spectatorship, such as true crime dramas. Nestor makes the case for those who are rendered invisible by a system that discriminates against signifiers such as class, race and gender conformity. ‘Criminality’, she writes, ‘is the result of structural and economic oppression.’
The foreword – written by Jackie Wang, author of Carceral Capitalism (2018) – lays the foundations for a book that pays attention to the power dynamics controlling not only who of the incarcerated are seen, but how. Nestor’s research is driven by a stringent moral and ethical obligation to represent justly those who lack, and are denied, any agency to represent themselves – or to question and examine the attempts of others.
The book asks readers to sit with this question: is it possible to portray incarcerated people ethically? We might be able to say yes, but only when it’s on their terms. There are no simple answers; Ethical Portraits broadens our understanding of the implications of how those on the ‘outside’ look at those who are incarcerated, and from what purview. ~ Gwen Burlington, Frieze Magazine - https://www.frieze.com/article/hatty-nestor-ethical-portraits-book-review
In her first book, Ethical Portraits, Hatty Nestor examines artworks, activist projects and individuals subverting forensics, to find a morally acceptable way of representing people in the US prison system, exposing how they are dehumanised by their exclusion from representation and self-expression. She pays careful attention to the mediums of portraiture because she is acutely aware that each attempt at representation is intimately linked to a real feeling person, who deserves respect.
While rooted in the visual arts and the techniques of image making, the book’s implications are bigger, stretching into general ethics; compassion owed to every other person as the fabric of society, and into representation more broadly; how we are all at risk of being dehumanised by ‘top down’ conglomerate systems which propagate racial, gendered and economic prejudices. Prisoners and artists are at the heart of this search, but its findings are by no means restricted to them.
Anyone making representations or concerned with the politics of their own image finds in this book stimulating questions about technical choices; the emancipatory neutrality of a background, how framing a picture can mutilate a subject, how melancholy manifests in landscape or escapism in colour, how the time spent looking might disfigure, how these choices or pressures, far from inconsequential decorations, actually give a subject more or less freedom to be and to see themselves being, how they have real psychological consequences for real people, especially but not only those hidden away in correctional facilities. It also works outwards, heightening readers’ awareness of surroundings, how they nourish or curtail self-expression, how environments, be they ethical or physical, structure our sense of self and have the potential to generate our emotions..............
Ethical Portraits starts and ends with the case of Chelsea Manning, the American activist imprisoned for whistleblowing, who exemplifies like almost no other individual the violent psychological trauma that can be inflicted when representations are denied, politicised or indeed weaponised against their subject. Her story, extreme in its coverage and the stark ethical abuses of Trans rights that it entailed, is a relative success in the search for representational justice. It demonstrates what can be achieved when the wider community, through activism and art, forge an ethical portrait of an oppressed individual. It seems to share the intuition that has bolstered Nestor’s research, an awareness that thinking, feeling and resulting action should not be insular or a source of inertia, that it should have a point and do something in the world. That it should, if possible, do something good.
~ Brett Walsh, Review 31 - http://review31.co.uk/article/view/783/can-we-make-it-better
A portrait is always a portrait of power. Where this power lies, however, is a vexed and complicated issue. In her book Ethical Portraits Hatty Nestor explores the contested space – both material and representational – of the portrait when it collides with the brutal realities of the carceral system. Images of the human face are integral to contemporary legal structures: ‘wanted’ photographs and composite sketches are disseminated to capture suspects, mugshots are taken of those who have been arrested, courtroom sketches are made of defendants and, if convicted, these individuals are subject to a regime of highly invasive visibility, despite being removed from visibility in wider society. Nestor’s book examines how power dictates the circulation, and obfuscation, of the faces of those who have come into contact with the American legal system and find themselves enmeshed in the structures the carceral state produces.
Although Nestor’s book raises a number of troubling questions for readers, it is perhaps most driven by one that she poses in her introduction: ‘who has a right to representation on their own terms, and for whom is this right obscured or denied?’ (pp.14–15). Rather than offering a direct answer to this question, Ethical Portraits recounts the stories behind such denials and obnubilations. The book is divided into seven chapters and includes discussions with the courtroom sketch artist Priscilla Coleman, the activist-artists Andrew Tider and Jeff Greenspan in relation to their project that compares ‘portraits of those held accountable for their crimes with those who aren’t’ (p.50), the artist Alyse Emdur, who has photographed inmates in prison visiting rooms as they pose beside uncanny landscapes FIG. 1, and two artists, Alicia Neal and Heather Dewey-Hagborg, who have each produced portraits of the American political dissident and educator Chelsea Manning. The chapter on Dewey-Hagborg is distinct from the the essayistic chapters that precede it in that it follows a question and answer format. Using the work of these artists as a starting point, Nestor explores themes of accountability, agency and power asymmetries in regimes of visual production.
In 2014 Neal was commissioned by the advocacy group The Chelsea Manning Support Network to paint a portrait of Manning for circulation in the media FIG. 2. Prior to this, Manning was generally represented by images that consciously misgendered her or were not intended for public circulation. In creating the portrait, Neal’s focus was to give ‘[Manning] the dignity of at least being seen as who she wants to be’ (p.25). As Nestor elaborates, ‘Neal’s portrait is a reminder that Manning’s identity has nothing to do with her imprisonment. It reminds us that we are not solely defined by the institutions and environments we are subjected to and conditioned by’ (p.28). In meeting and discussing the work with Neal, Hestor formulates her most explicit definition of what constitutes an ethical portrait: ‘a depiction of someone which holds political weight, is integral and empathetic, which challenges marginalisation through a visual image’ (p.24). Although readers may have their own addenda to such a definition, it provides a framework for Nestor’s selection and analysis of portraits in this volume.............
~ William Kherbek, Burlington Contemporary - https://contemporary.burlington.org.uk/reviews/reviews/ethical-portraits
As I embarked on Hatty Nestor's fluid, liberatory journey through the difficult question of portraiture and/in the prison, a plethora of cultural "moments" of (anti-)carceral representation and counter-representation were summoned from my memory - beyond even those that Nestor unpacks so carefully in the book. Nestor's methodological hopefulness recalled, for instance, Native trans woman Stephanie Yellowhair's legendary pronouncement (from within a cop car, circa 2001) "excuse my beauty." In contrast, her unflinching critiques of diverse modes of anti-Black spectacularization brought to mind the artist Dana Schutz's infamous 2016 painting of the lynch victim Emmett Till, "Open Casket." Via fine-grained engagements with our culture's systems for putting a face on the incarcerated person - as well as the cracks in those systems - "Ethical Portraits" is a profound contribution to contemporary prison-abolitionist struggle. ~ Sophie Lewis, Theorist
Hatty Nestor is a writer of rare commitment, ambition and talent, whose interest in the field of criminal and carceral portraits has already produced an urgent and engaged piece of research and writing. The book outlined here mounts a timely and compelling case for such representation as more urgently than ever in need of analysis. It is intimately informed by engagement with the images in question, interviews with artists and prisoners, informed theoretical reflection throughout, and the pressing political impetus that has been at the heart of Hatty Nestor’s interest in the subject. ~ Brian Dillon, author of Essayism