One Artist’s Correspondence with Prisoners Sheds Light on the Dark Realities of Death Row

Photo by Amy Elkins

Whether we are writing, drawing, or photographing, the process of creating art often forces us to pay close attention to perspective. Point of view. I am especially fascinated by artists who use their mediums to challenge common notions of what is and what isn’t—those who question widely-embraced beliefs regarding, for instance, morality, gender, and race. Those who humanize the dehumanized.  Los Angeles-based photographer Amy Elkins is one of these innovative artists.

Beginning in 2009, Elkins began a project called “Black is the Day, Black is the Night,” connecting with seven male prisoners, all of whom were serving a life or death row sentence in maximum security facilities in the United States. All of these men had been confined to the inside of a prison for 13-26 years.

And there was a large pool of prisoners for Elkins to choose from: in 2012, the number of prisoners serving life sentences in American prisoners reached a record of 160,000. Over a third of these prisoners had no chance of receiving parole. Since 2007, the U.S. has had the fifth most executions in the world, with 55% of the population supporting the death penalty in 2013.

Many of those sentenced for life wither away in these facilities, forgotten. Through her project, Elkins brings their stories to light.

What began as a pen-pal correspondence between Elkins and the seven men grew into a multi-media project—photographs, sketches, readymades—that illustrates the evolution of these prisoners’ identities as they endure a life on death row.

 “On average these men spend 22 1/2 hours a day in solitary cells roughly six feet by nine feet; not only facing their own mortality, but doing so in total isolation,” Elkins writes on her artist page. “I often wondered how that would impact one’s notion of reality, of self-identity or even of their own memories outside of such an environment. Did they embrace the mind of a dreamer, the mind of a thinker or succumb to their bleak environment and allow mental, physical and emotional collapse? Did their violent impulses land them in an infinite state of vulnerability?”

 Elkins explores the impact that detainment has on the prisoners’ sense of self, even altering photographs to reflect the deterioration of their humanness and identity, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: “19/32 (Not the Man I Once Was). Portrait of a man 19 years into his life without parole (solitary) sentence where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.” – Amy Elkins

Yes, I do love innovative artists. However, I often find it difficult to see those who have committed such inhumane crimes as human. Perhaps I do not want to relate to them. Perhaps I do not want to see that I could possibly have something in common with a murderer. I do not want to feel close to them. I do not want to relate to them. I do not want to sympathize or empathize with them. That would make them so much more real, and that is terrifying. I do not want to be reminded of the horrors that we humans are capable of.

Regardless, I do think that it is important to see the world and its people from multiple perspectives. By really examining something or someone from another point of view, I can understand more thoroughly why I hold the beliefs that I do and how my beliefs interact with others’. Such openness and thoughtfulness is crucial in connecting with other people. I am always looking for new ways to better relate to and understand others. While it is challenging for me to fully embrace Elkin’s project, I believe that it is a challenge worth taking.

This post was inspired by Katherine Brooks’s article on The Huffington Post. To read the full article, click here.

Post submitted by JoAnna


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