If you were confined to a windowless room for 23 hours a day, what would you miss? And if after years in that room you suddenly had the chance to get any photo you wanted, what would you want to see?
As part of a great initiative from Tamms Year Ten, activist photographers have been taking photo requests from prisoners in solitary confinement in Tamms Supermax in Illinois.
The requests range from the simple (the beach) to the complicated (a love sick clown), from the religious (Mecca) to the crude (J. Lo’s butt). Some just ask for images of themselves. These requests and the resulting photos are more than just pictures. They are a testament to the almost complete sensory deprivation that comes with being in solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time.
What’s also fascinating about these requests is how some of the photographers have struggled with the terms of the project—i.e. taking requests from prisoners, some of whom have committed horrible crimes. Photographer Angela Jimenez reflects on her request by an inmate who she later discovered to be in prison for attempted murder:
“Finding out information about them is not necessarily going to warm you up to them, or make you feel like you want to know them personally, it actually complicates it in a way,” she said.
At one point, she had to ask herself: why am I doing this?
Jimenez says she decided to focus on what solitary confinement does to the mind, and how her photograph might provide a new mental landscape.
Jimenez, like most members of the public, struggles with the concept of punishment. When you commit a crime, you give up some of the liberties that come with living in a free society. This trade off is in conflict with this project, which allows prisoners to make personalized photo requests when they are supposed to be being deprived of these liberties. But Jimenez is able to discern the concept of punishment from the evils of solitary confinement—punishment need not involve the psychological trauma of isolation. Here is the photo that Jimenez eventually decided to send to her inmate (read more about Jimenez’s photo process here):
These photographers are doing brave work. The amazing Prison Photography Blog wrote up a post about this project last week which includes many more photos (here). I’m selecting a few of my favorites to include below. I hope you enjoy them.