Trent Bell usually does photo shoots of beautiful architecture, interior design and landscapes that are destined for the glossy pages of magazines such as Condé Nast Traveler or Design New England. But searching for a more personal project that would stretch him creatively and diversify his portfolio led him to very different subjects in a very different place-taking portraits of inmates in the Maine prison system.
The inspiration came to Bell because a friend he grew up with-an educated professional man with five children-had recently been sentenced to 30 years in prison. “I remember hearing about it a week after my first son was born,” Bell said. “It’s just constantly been on my mind. He just kind of went away and the rest of our lives go on. He obviously made some horrible decisions, but he’s still a father, he’s still a soul, he’s still someone living and breathing.” Looking at his own infant son, Bell says he was haunted by the thought that his friend’s children would now grow up without him, and that he had come to that place through a series of small bad decisions and wrong turns. There, but for the grace of God, go I, Bell thought.
For his photo project, Bell wanted to take pictures that would tell viewers a story. He and his editor came up with the idea of taking portraits of prisoners and asking them to write letters to their younger selves.
Bell called a Maine prison to pitch the idea, and a social worker in the institution loved it. She cleared the way and made the arrangements.
Doing the portraits, along with some video interviews with the inmates who participated, was a very powerful and “heavy” experience, Bell said. Some of the men were incarcerated for homicide and double homicide. Others were in for drug offences and non-violent crimes.
One of the most powerful stories that has stayed with Bell was from someone who, he said, “seemed to me to be the most respectful, nicest guy. The videographer told me that in the interview he said, ‘I call my dad on the phone to talk and I hear that he’s raking the yard, and all I want to do is be at home, helping my dad around the house because his back’s hurting him.’ But he’s in for 10 years because he shot a guy when he was drunk…he was in college; [he made] a split-second bad decision.”
Bell added that he was moved when the social worker told him that all the men told her the experience of writing the letters and being photographed had been an awakening for them, and a good, though difficult, process. “They [had] to, in many ways, soften themselves to look inside…and see what they would tell themselves. Where[as] every day they are working on being less available, more hardened, in every way protecting themselves from the environment that they are in.”
Robert Payzant wrote to save his younger self from his present fate as a 20-year veteran of the prison system: “Be yourself and attract good people to you. When you try to be different in order to fit in, you will lose more and more of your true identity,” he warned. “…Also know that your family loves you and will always love you. Don’t over-analyze it or compare it to the love of other families. They do the best they can with the tools they have. Love them back without expectations and without condition and the bonds will remain strong. Finally, no matter what negative experiences you suffer, they do not have to define you. You have the power of choice…always.”
Peter wrote of the mistakes he made, but also of his faith. “If you feel the Lord in your life, believe it! You will receive many blessings, many signs of what you should do. Keep your eyes wide open and pay attention, do what is right and you won’t need to go to prison. God loves you, live by His word.”
The project has been the most rewarding of Bell’s career, he said, because he felt that his work had benefited someone in a personal, emotional and spiritual way. “When you are constantly photographing material possessions-you know, large homes, commercial buildings-it starts to feel a little hollow…my dad was a pastor, my father-in-law is a pastor [Seventh-Day Adventist], so I always grew up with the idea that I should be giving back,” he said. “This by far has been the deepest thing we’ve done that we’re really proud of in that way.”