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The Frame

Blurred Lives

A portrait series captures the toll of long prison sentences on the people who serve them.

15/30

Portrait of a man 15 years into his life sentence.

In 2009, photographer Amy Elkins was doing research for a photo series about masculinity and violence (at the time, focusing on rugby players), when she came across the website, writeaprisoner.com, which features photos and profiles of inmates from throughout the country.

“What struck me most were the tools that [allowed you to search for] inmates who were serving life or death row sentences,” she recalls in an email. “There [were] countless faces staring back, all seeking some form of communication with the outside world…. The fact that most of those incarcerated in the United States are male, was in many ways, a catalyst to research further.”

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Portrait of a man 13 years into his death row sentence.

So she set up a P.O. box and started writing letters to several inmates, all of whom were on death row or serving life sentences in maximum security prisons. Five years later, the project, “Black is the Day, Black is the Night,” includes written letters, landscapes, altered portraits, and inmate drawings, among other objects.

“Not the Man I Once Was,” featured here, is one of the first series of images to come from her correspondences. According to Elkins, “I found many of [the men] echoing the same sentiment – that they weren’t the man they went in as. Some said that if they hadn’t gone to jail, they might have gone on to destroy their own lives or the lives of others.”

For the series, Elkins downloaded each inmate’s profile image, and using Photoshop, blurred the portraits. The longer the men were incarcerated, the more distorted their images became.

“In some ways the work is meant to reflect that idea of rebirth, change, metamorphosis,” writes Elkins. “But in other ways, I couldn’t help but shake this idea that they were all losing themselves in the system.”

19/32

Portrait of a man 19 years into his Life without Parole (solitary) sentence.

13/32

Portrait of a man 13 years into his death row sentence. He was executed in 2012. 

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Portrait of a man 17 years into his death row sentence.

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Portrait of a man 14 years into his death row sentence. He was executed in 2009.

19/32

Portrait of a man 19 years into his Life without Parole (solitary) sentence.

Black is the Day, Black is the Night” will be on display at Aperture Gallery in New York from Dec. 13, 2014- Jan. 29, 2015.