Early last year, commercial photographer Trent Bell learned that a professional friend of his was sentenced to 36 years in prison. Bell wasn’t just haunted by the loss of his friend, but also by the similarities in their lives. Bell could have very easily taken a similar wrong turn at several points in his life. The result of his contemplation was the REFLECT Project, wherein he asked 12 convicts in a Maine prison to write sincere, handwritten letters to their younger selves:
“It was… very emotional, very enlightening to be in that situation and to talk to those guys. Gives you time to stop and think about your own life, and appreciate where you’re at. They’re all pretty normal guys that have just made some bad decisions. And quite a bit of an awakening to realize that we’re all kinda capable of what those guys have done.” – Trent Bell
As you can see, the final products are especially haunting:
The process wasn’t easy, either. Bell and his team had to allow security to check every single piece of camera equipment at the door before any shooting even began. After the full day-long shoot, they went into post-production, where they touched up the convicts’ faces in Photoshop to draw out more depth and drama from the lighting.They also dulled the background and had to divide the letter text into sections that fit perfectly around the portraits themselves.
The gallery opened to universe acclaim, even though they were expecting some anger or backlash at this sympathetic view toward criminals.
Near the end of the video, there’s a small twist: one of the convict’s fathers is in the crowd. He hits us with the final emotional punch of the entire project, reflecting fondly on this otherwise crummy situation:
“I think, probably, the biggest emotion is pride. That might be odd to some people. It’s hard to stay without emotion, because with the mistake that my son made to get him in prison, he’s done so many different things to help others in his situation. And as I see his portrait on the wall and the letter that he wrote, it’s sincere. It’s, it’s… it’s my son. It’s all him. And for that I’m proud.”
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