“Hello, I saw your picture and profile on http://www.writeaprisoner.com. Would you like to send me a photograph of yourself in the visiting room where you are? The picture can be of you alone or with a friend or loved one. Represent yourself”.
In 2005, Alyse Emdur began writing to prison inmates that she found on dating websites. She wasn’t looking for a lover. She needed models and photographers for a project that would expand on a single photograph of herself: age 5, knock-kneed, posing very seriously with her sister and much older brother in front of a blinding tropical sunset. The background beach is acrylic on concrete, a painted set in the visiting room of Bayside State Prison, Leesburg, New Jersey USA, where her brother was jailed.
Every day, tourists pose in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, or the Grand Canyon to create a photographic souvenir. Visitors to the United States prison system do the same in nearly equal numbers. American prisons hold a full quarter of the world’s incarcerated, and their visitation rooms provide paradisiacal backdrops (often painted by fellow-inmates) to enliven commemorative photos. Emdur’s collection of these photos, called Prison Landscapes, offers viewers “a rare opportunity to see America’s incarcerated population, not through the lens of criminality, but through the eyes of inmates’ loved ones.”
The painted tableaux don’t just make visiting time less gloomy and conjugal visits more exciting. Designated background walls mean that photographs are rarely set elsewhere in the prison, which helps avoid security risks: accidental snapshots of doors, windows and other structural details that could be used in an escape blueprint.
Emdur asked the inmates to photograph themselves as they wish to be seen. So in contrast to traditional images of prison life, these photos are an act of self-representation, a rare individual freedom. Inmates’ artistic license was limited only by the conditions of their confinement and the imposing photography wall itself, almost always an idyllic cliché - Hawaiian beaches, Christmas scenes, snowy Alps and (once) Donald Duck.
Photo Credit: All images from Alyse Emdur's series Prison Landscapes.