In 2013, commercial photographer Trent Bell was shocked by the news that a friend — an educated professional, a husband and a father of four children — had been sentenced to 36 years in prison. Over the proceeding months, Bell found himself haunted by not only his friend’s decisions and loss of freedom, but also moments in his own life when things could have easily taken a bad turn.
“There were times when my son would look up and smile at me,” recalls Bell, “and the finality of my friend’s situation would rush into my head, and I would hear a cold thin voice say: ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I…’”
Bell — who is known for his architectural photography, which has been featured in publications such as Conde Nast Traveler, Design New England and The New York Times — soon conceived a photo project that would merge large-scale portraits of inmates in the prison system with handwritten letters the convicts composed to their younger selves.
“Our bad choices can contain untold loss, remorse and regret,” Bell said. “But the positive value of these bad choices might be immeasurable if we can face them, admit to them, learn from them and find the strength to share.”
“REFLECT: Convicts’ Letters to their Younger Selves” is an artistic documentation of choices, consequences and reflection. Here Trent shares what the project means to him, how it was achieved and the purpose he hopes it will serve. For more information visit his website.
How did the idea for REFLECT come about?
A friend of mine did some things he should not have done and went away to prison. And that happened right around the time my first son was born. I just remember sitting on the porch one morning. My son was only about a week old at the time, when I heard about the news. My friend had four kids and was going away to prison. We had grown up around each other. He seemed like a very similar person to me. He was married. He was a professional. He had kids. And now, he’s in prison. It was just that moment of thinking about being in that situation.
Was this your first time shooting a project like this?
Typically, I spend my time shooting very expensive product photography or architectural photography. I wanted to do something that was aimed at giving back or helping those who maybe didn’t have as many advantages in life as I often did. That had been sitting on my mind a lot. So, I sat down with my studio manager and we started brainstorming around the idea of prison inmates. With what had happened with my friend, I thought this could bring awareness to the situation that a lot of people are in prison. It turned out to be way beyond what we had initially envisioned. We kind of knew it would be good. But when we first looked at the images on the screen, once the portraits and the writing were combined, we realized how powerful it was going to be. It would speak to people who had never had any kind of history of being anywhere close to breaking the law, [and] put them in the inmates’ shoes. And we saw that as a really incredible thing — to be able to help people understand each other in that way.
What was the process of getting inmates to participate?
The process of getting access to the prison inmates was very easy to us. It was just a coincidence that we got lucky. We asked at the right time, when there was a social worker there, and that made it all work for us. It was offered up to a vast majority of the prison population. Only 12 came forward and agreed to participate because that is a very dangerous place to put yourself psychologically in prison — to open up old wounds and make yourself vulnerable.
Were the participants eager to reflect on their younger selves and where they could have been as opposed to where they are now?
If you can imagine going to prison, it is a very scary thing. And you have to harden yourself to your reality. And you have to package it all up and push it down deep and protect yourself for however long you are going to be in prison. For the individuals that participated, it was definitely a challenge for them to basically open old wounds and imagine themselves at a time when they weren’t in prison, when they were free. To go back to that was very, very difficult for them. It was a very introspective process, very painful and difficult to share. But they said that, after doing it, they had a huge amount of benefit from that process. I’ve since had follow-up letters from several of the individual participants.
What was the response of the participants after they saw the completed project?
One of the guys had really done a lot of work on his letter and engaged in a lot of introspection. He had produced a letter to himself that really focused on the idea of taking the higher road when it comes to reacting to situations and not succumbing to the gut reaction to end this with violence. He shared with me that since doing this project, there have been two or three times when he has been challenged. He was even putting on his shoes, lacing them up to go be violent towards someone else because of the situation. And he took his shoes off. He put them away and said, “No, I remember what I wrote to myself and I’m not going to do this.” To me, that was incredible.
What did you hope this project would provide for the participants?
Initially, we hadn’t done it as much for the benefit of the participants as much as something to take what the participants had learned and share that with individuals. It turned out to be really more of a social awareness thing — to get the soccer mom that showed up at the gallery opening to say, “I relate to this guy,” when they never would have related to each other. Getting to read their actual words in their handwriting while looking at them, it was this combination that worked really well.
What was your favorite part of the project?
I was most proud of the guys that participated just for [the sake of] going through the process to be introspective and think about their lives. I think that was the best thing. The idea that people on the outside are considering them and thinking of their situation. And that they’re able to share [their experiences] beyond those walls. I really do think a lot more of this type of thing should be done. We’re just locking them up and throwing away the key, but a lot of them do eventually get out. And what we get back into society is a discarded person that really does not fit in. If they could spend their time in there reflecting, thinking, growing and sharing on what they’ve done, it seems like you’d end up so much better off in the long run for the population on the outside and on the inside. The biggest pain that these guys have when they leave is that they feel like absolutely everyone on the outside does not want them. They are a complete outsider everywhere they go. Every job they have to share that they are an ex-con.
What do you hope people can learn from viewing REFLECT?
To a large degree, we’re all in the same human skin. We all have the same abilities to make a split-second decision that goes the wrong way. We all have weaknesses. We have all come up short so many times. I just learned so much about how connected we are below the surface. How much we do need each other and how much community means. How much these guys lose the sense of community when they go to prison. When we make the community on the inside of prison so toxic and acidic, we’re just sending them to training camp to become hateful people, if we’re going to treat them in that manner. I learned that we really need interaction with each other and outside of our day-to-day normal that we experience all the time. We need to relate to each other and understand.
If people could take the time to sit in front of these images and read them, it’s a very powerful experience. But isn’t that the thing that we’re constantly trying to do — get people to see outside of their own world? It’s really difficult. n
Courtesy of The Curbside Chronicle / INSP
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