BIDDEFORD, Maine — They are sex offenders and murderers. Men caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some look proud, even threatening. Others haunted or defeated.
All 12 life-size portraits dominating the walls of Engine have one thing in common: The subjects are inmates at Maine State Prison.
Last year, photographer Trent Bell set out to penetrate the barbed wire and bars to give the incarcerated a voice.
His show, REFLECT: Convict’s Letters to Their Younger Selves, is a visceral look at the inner life of criminals doing hard time in Maine. The exhibit opens Friday at Engine in Biddeford.
By asking convicts to write a letter to their pre-incarcerated selves, Bell, a commercial photographer who works for the New York Times and Conde Nast, embarked on a personal journey.
When a close friend was sentenced to 36 years in prison, “it was a big wakeup call at how his life has changed, and mine,” said Bell, who lives in Biddeford. “I considered him to be the same as me.”
By going into the prison to shoot their portraits he exposed the seriousness and gravity these men embody. He wanted to find out what prisoners would tell themselves.
“It made me realize these guys have created a huge loss and misery in other peoples’ lives, but they themselves go through a lot of loss and misery too,” said Bell. “It makes you reflect on your own life knowing that we are capable of doing something as bad if we don’t guard ourselves.”
He also discovered something else. Life behind bars is not always a dead end. “They’ve gained perspective in having lost everything.”
Why shed light on convicts? Some who have done horrific, unspeakable things?
The number of people incarcerated in this country peaked in 2009, but remains higher than most nations. In 1978 Maine had 711 prisoners in a state or federal correctional facility. In 2012 that number soared to 2,108, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Bell is not trying to glamorize these offenders but humanize them.
“I don’t think they are outside our compassion,” he says. “They are a result of us as a whole town, community, state, nation, world and family.”
The letters, digitally composited behind the portraits, are written in each prisoner’s hand. Many are filled with regret. “Brandon, it hurts to be sitting here writing you this letter. Our journey has been tough, it has been filled with pain,” one begins. They are remorseful and act as a warning. “Look what you’ve done to us? Our souls, our careers, our future destroyed,” reads another.
Bell wants viewers to internalize the letters, look into these men’s eyes and reflect. “My intent is that troubled youth come to see this and realize they are not entirely or completely above these guys,” said Bell. “They were in the wrong circumstance at the wrong time and made the wrong choices. It puts us in danger to think we are above.”
An audio installation of clanking chains and slamming doors captured in the jail accompanies the show. In the middle of the room, photos of prison guards and administration personnel stare knowingly at the men.
Tammy Ackerman, executive director of the Engine art space, expects the show to spark conversation. It is meant to make gallery-goers uncomfortable.
“People are going to have a reaction and not always a positive one. The show is not glorifying these guys by any means. It’s providing a look into their thoughts, and you are being asked to reflect,” said Ackerman. “It’s not an easy show, right or wrong, it’s open to interpretation.”
REFLECT opened Friday, Jan. 10. Gallery hours are 1-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday at Engine, 265 Main St. in Biddeford. The show runs through Feb. 22. For information, visit feedtheengine.org.