Early in 2013, photographer Trent Bell found out that a friend — a father and professional — had been sentenced to 36 years in prison. It was right around the time that Trent’s first child was born and he was forced to wonder — how much of our future is decided by circumstance and how much is due to our own choices?
As is the origin of many a creative endeavor, it was from this existential debate that a project was kindled. The plan? To photograph inmates at Maine State Prison and superimpose their portraits on letters they would write to their younger selves.
For Trent, who is best known as an architectural photographer, the process of getting these photographs was not simple. He started by approaching the administrator of the prison, who put him in touch with a social worker. The social worker offered the inmates the opportunity to participate. When he did finally gain access he and his studio manager Timothy Holt had to list and declare every piece of equipment he brought through the prison gates — down to batteries.
“When we started with the idea, we figured we’d have to turn a lot of people away,” Trent told me on the phone. “I imagined if I was in prison I would want to do anything to break up the norm.”
However, only a dozen inmates at Maine State Prison opted in. According to Trent, “Something like this introspective-reflective-reconsidering of the situation is just not something hardly any of them felt comfortable doing.”
Lending to this vulnerability was the reality that after their portrait was taken, the inmates would be strip-searched before rejoining the prison population.
Furthermore, as Trent saw it, he was in some ways asking the men to make a public example of themselves “and put themselves out there, like ‘OK, I made a huge mistake and this is how I learn from it,’ by letting us eavesdrop in on the communication to their younger self.”
The muted pallets of the photos and the gray concrete background serve as perpetual reminders that this is prison. Yet the high-definition, high-contrast style of each portrait maintains enough detail to keep each one distinct from the next. The act of looking at these formally beautiful portraits can feel satisfyingly voyeuristic. My eye can linger on the network of wrinkles on Jamie’s shirt and on the expression on Bob’s face. I have no idea how old this man is. Prison seems to age a human mysteriously.
A light positioned above the men casts an almost reverent glow on their brows. Trent’s intention was to create a lighting scenario that was both somber and interrogatory, which was, as he explained, “not so much to give reverence to the person, but the situation that the viewer would find themselves in and the mindset the viewer should be in when seeing these images and thinking about their younger self.”
Amongst the rounded script of Robert Payzant, 46, there is a revealing piece of text. He writes, “… no matter what negative experiences you suffer, they do not have to define you. You have the power of choice, always.”
Speaking slowly to consider his words, Trent told me, “We all have the same desires and different weaknesses here and there … but either through economic means, family means, friends, these are all just different influences that affect our lives. At the end of it all, it comes down to really our choices.”
For me, the talk of choice brings up current debates on the over-criminalization of needy teenagers — how many of them are ending up in the juvenile justice system for crimes of poverty? How many of them come from abusive or neglectful homes? For a child where this is the story, how much of their life is scripted in an unfortunate direction?
Many of these questions were raised for Trent recently when a group of high school age boys were brought to the exhibition of the final project, “Reflect: Convicts’ Letters to Their Younger Selves.” A professional accompanying the young men used the word “under-resourced” in reference to the 12 inmates in the photos, as well as the kids looking at them.
The term resonated with Trent, who told me, “I’m thoughtfully kind of exploring, how much of it was situations in these guys lives and how many other people have been in the same circumstances and not chosen to do the thing that ended them up in prison.”
It’s a worthwhile question, though I have to confess that having been on the journalism side of juvenile justice for a while now, I am ready for some new inquiries to be made.
The beauty of the REFLECT Project is the way it has created space for incarcerated men to reveal their humanity to the free world. For many of these men their narratives are a retelling of poor decision-making. Yet for many, the catalyst is a lack of resources that propels one into a life of crime.
When I look at the images from “Reflect” it is easy to get swept into a dialogue of destiny and capability. Could I steal, hurt or maim given a turn of personal circumstance? But what is left out of the conversation is a discussion of economic circumstance, of the war on drugs, and of the childhoods we allow to fail through broken child welfare systems.
Prisoners deserve to be humanized. Photography often shines in this role, and the REFLECT Project is no exception. However, we also need art and imagery that helps us to understand the repercussions of mass imprisonment. For example, I dream of artwork capable of helping us understand that most imprisoned men, women and children will reenter society.
As a nation, if we wrote a letter to a younger version of our country reflecting on the politics and societal elements that have resulted in a prison system that incarcerates 2.2 million Americans – would we wish we’d made different choices?
See more of Trent’s work here: