Moving America Forward

This Moving Photography Series Combines Portraits of Prisoners With Letters They Penned to Themselves

March 11, 2014
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This Moving Photography Series Combines Portraits of Prisoners With Letters They Penned to Themselves
Trent Bell
Trent Bell
Trent Bell
Trent Bell
Trent Bell
Reading these inmates' words will lead you down a path of self reflection and discovery.

We’ve all heard the phrase “hindsight is 20/20.” It’s never been truer or more poignant than in these letters, written by prison inmates to their younger selves.

As part of photographer Trent Bell‘s project called REFLECT: Convicts’ Letters to Their Younger Selves, 12 prisoners at a Maine correctional facility were asked to write letters to themselves, as well as sit for a portrait session. The resulting images — photographs of the inmates’  superimposed with their scrawling handwritten notes — are nothing short of heart-wrenching. From tales of regret to inspired pieces of advice to the realities of life behind bars, these men open up in ways that anyone can appreciate, and their words will make you think hard about your own life.

“In reading most of the letters I found myself feeling surprisingly similar to these men,” Bell told Fast Company. “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.’”

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About a year ago, Bell, who is mostly known for his architectural images, was shocked to find out that a close friend of his had been sentenced to 36 years in jail. This friend was a professional, husband and father of four. The man was someone who never thought he would find himself behind bars. For months, Bell says he was haunted by the reality that just one bad decision can change a life forever. He kept thinking that it could have been him. “There were times when my son would look up and smile at me, and the finality of my friend’s situation would rush into my head,” he wrote on his website. From this, the idea of REFLECT was born.

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At first, Bell intended for REFLECT to be solely a photography project, but then he and his team realized that it wouldn’t capture the prisoners’ emotions in the same way. Of all the inmates they approached, only 12 agreed to be included in the project. The final images, which debuted at the Engine Gallery in Biddeford, Maine, in January, are powerful in their simplicity. But really, it’s the inmates’ words that truly move their viewers. “Our bad choices can contain untold loss, remorse, and regret,” Bell says. “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.”

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