It’s easy to think about jail as an abstract concept, a vague threat lurking in the periphery for those who go off the rails. What’s harder is realizing that the people inside of prison didn’t always consider their current home an inevitability. Some of them probably thought it was impossible just like you.
A little over a year ago, one of photographer Trent Bell’s friends got sentenced to 36 years in jail. This wasn’t a shady acquaintance, but rather a friend Bell had grown up with—someone who shared a similar background and had gotten into some trouble. Thinking about this friend led the photographer to contemplate the series of events that lead people to jail and the stories they tell themselves about them. This curiosity became the basis for a new series of photos that aim to uncover what, besides the grace of God, separates the average man from a convict.
Initially the idea was going to be restricted to portraits of prisoners. After some deliberation, however, Bell decided that doing so would leave a lot of the true emotional meat out of the matter. Eventually he and his team arrived at an idea that was more of a collaboration between the photographer and subject. The convicts would write letters to their younger selves to go along with their portraits. Well, only if they agreed to actually do it.
"The 12 inmates we photographed were the only ones who volunteered," Bell says. "After all the public opinion, trial and such it turns out most inmates want to harden themselves and just keep their heads down and do their time. But the ones who did this project were very cooperative."
More than just photos and words, the images, which debuted at the Engine gallery in Biddeford, Maine, back in January, are truly striking. The lighting gives them a rather gloomy feel, dark around the edges, but lit up in a way fitting the life of a person who is constantly observed by guards. Bell’s team took a lot of time in measuring and dividing the words of the letters to fit around the prisoners, presenting the handwriting just so. It’s the words that make up the letters—these tales of cause and effect—that will really make you stop and think.
"In reading most of the letters I found myself feeling surprisingly similar to these men," Bell says. "But I also realized that either their situations were different than mine or that they had made incremental decisions that led them to these situations. The whole experience really made me look at my own life and reflect on why I’m ‘me.’"
Have a look through more of the photos in the slides above, and watch a behind-the-scenes video below.