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I meet with photographer Trent Bell for tea at Crema Coffee on a sunny March afternoon. Having recently visited his exhibition of larger-than-life portraits of prisoners, a step outside of his usual field of architecture photography, I am eager to hear firsthand about his departure from commercial work to an original project that communicates prisoners’ stories through images. His artwork conveys humanity behind bars, unquestionably (though not overtly) calling attention to the many problems plaguing our incarceration system – incarceration of vulnerable populations, prison conditions, medical care in prisons, restrictions of prisoners’ rights, and solitary confinement. 

The exhibit, titled Reflect: Convicts’ Letters To Their Younger Selves, features 12 inmates at the Maine State Prison. Superimposed behind each portrait is a hand-written letter that Bell asked the inmate to write to his former self. Their words are introspective, imaginative, and unabashedly honest. The inmates’ portraits are displayed around the perimeter of the gallery, while portraits of prison guards hang in the middle of the room. Clanging doors and hollow metal sounds ring at a low volume at the gallery entrance. As a viewer, one walks between the gaze of guards and prisoners – in essence, a Panopticon. 

I ask Bell how this endeavor came to be. “It was something that was crying within me to come out. I am used to making expensive things look nice. This project sprang from my desire to help society directly, to make a real difference.”

A year ago, Bell’s friend was sentenced to 36 years in prison. He reflected on the ease with which a single decision could alter one’s life, and took it upon himself to translate these reflections through light and composition. “I suggested we take on this challenge to do portraits of prisoners. I wanted to help people to have their untold stories heard.”

Bell explains the process to me. Maine State Prison staff offered the option to participate in the portrait and letter-writing project to all inmates who were on relatively good behavior. “It was asking an amount of vulnerability. A few prisoners were still angry about what they had done. Many had hardened themselves to putting their head down and doing their time.” Bell told me that the 12 inmates who stepped forward had dealt with their situations emotionally, and had accepted or were at least willing to face the fact of their incarceration.

One inmate in particular, Brandon, was clearly making the best of his situation. “I was curious about where his desire of wanting to take full advantage of his situation and get an education came from. Brandon has a lot of encouragement from his family, and I doubt that many of the others have that. We really need to study the impetus of change – how can the prison system foster an inmate’s desire to be better?”

I ask Bell if he has any plans to build upon this work. He leans back in his chair and, with a smile, tells me that People Magazine is interested in picking up his photojournalism. “I had always thought of People as a grocery check-out tabloid magazine, and asked if this was really the right place for my work.” People Magazine showed Bell some examples of work in this realm of photojournalism, and Bell thinks there is potential in reaching such a wide readership. He now has plans to complete his project by doing the same portrait and letter-writing project at a women’s prison in Maine.

To get an inside view of Reflect, check out this video.

To read more about the ACLU of Maine's work to end mass incarceration and improve prison conditions and policies, visit here: http://www.aclumaine.org/tags/criminal-justice