Photo Collaboration University Without Walls Students x Olivia Mikolai Ridge

This project chronicles collaborative photographs created during a six-month-long correspondence with Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project University Without Walls degree students and alumni at Stateville prison. Together, we considered the value and possibilities of photography as a tool of agency over one’s own image.

In February 2022, PNAP staff member Jason LaFountain invited me to conduct a photography-based project with current and former UWW students. While I was a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I took Jason’s class, Visuality, Criminality, and the Counter-Image, where we studied how photography has served to uphold systems of oppression and criminalization. As a photographer, I am invested in creating the representations that people want of themselves. I was intrigued by the irony of this invitation: to create photographs, but photographs that would not include the students’ likenesses. No photography is allowed within the prison, and, as we were amid the COVID pandemic, I was not able to visit the students at Stateville. As a result, we utilized photography to reflect on the disconnection between the inside and outside worlds, and the removal of people from communities, which is both the ends and means of mass incarceration.

Our correspondence began with me asking the students their feelings about their State ID photos. As the only photograph I had access to, and the most recent photo of some students, their unanimous disdain for their State IDs helped give me a sense of the photographs I wanted to create. In ID photos, the background is entirely blank. At the outset, I proposed to create a photograph for each student based on their descriptions of a real or imagined place, to envision this empty space as one that could be representative of their actual and three-dimensional identities. I sought to create a photograph that would be useful and meaningful to each student.

On this website, each photograph is a portal. Clicking on the photo will lead you to excerpts of our letters that document and explicate the collaborative progression of the image. The student’s voice is most present through their written words. Although we met once in person, when I was able to attend Michael, Daniel, and Reginald’s graduation in October 2022, and once again over Zoom, our communication was primarily in the form of letters. Jason facilitated our exchanges by hand-delivering my printed text and their handwritten responses during a weekly study hall.

Throughout this project, I questioned the value of photography, knowing that any recreation of a memory or ambition cannot satisfy the real. The resulting photographs are all fictions in some regard. By following the correspondence, you can trace the development of the image through the process of exchange, experiments, rabbit holes, failures, photo combinations, and post-production.

Collaboration is both limitless and ambiguous. This ethos begins as an open process, that slowly must find its fuzzy borders of compromise and definition to come to a result. Our published exchanges lay bare the early ideations and possibilities as they crystallized into eight final photographs. These letters refuse the flattening of identity by personifying authorship and annotating intention. As a collaborator, I have tried to make and bring together images that showcase the vision most closely described in each student’s writing. 

Olivia Mikolai Ridge

Click on photographs for further correspondence 

Thank you to the Prison + Neighborhoods Arts/Education Project and Jason LaFountain for organizing this space of dialogue and collective creativity.