You know those cheesy portrait backdrops you can find in strip malls and other fine establishments? Most people avoid them like the plague, but for a lot of inmates they provide a nice pictorial escape from life behind bars. Over the span of six years, artist Alyse Emdur visited ten East Coast prisons to gather over a hundred photos documenting the phenomenon of visiting room walls adorned with fantasy murals. Compiled within her book “Prison Landscapes” the photos shed light on the dual nature of the landscapes: They offer inmates a moment of respite from their never-changing surroundings, in addition to obscuring the walls used in the portraits – for security purposes.
Along with fantasy settings, these walls tend to feature region-specific scenery, with a few, like San Quentin State Prison in California, even depicting part of their state’s history. According to Emdur, “if you weren’t familiar with prisons, you might think these were prom photos or made in community centers. They’re very ambiguous.” As to the motivation behind the project, she goes on to explain: “I see myself as a mediator. These are people who have had no relationship with the outside world so while ‘PrisonLandscapes’ might be a very small gesture, the people who chose to be involved in this project want to be seen; they have their own agency. They want the outside world to know they aren’t the criminals they are stereotyped as.”
It’s a sentiment she knows first hand having posed for a similar photo at the age of five, alongside her incarcerated brother. Says Edmur, “I’m not saying they’re not criminals; they are in prison because they were convicted and proven guilty. I am not going around that but it is important to look at these images and consider the rise of the prison industrial complex. The portraits reveal a system and how individuals fit within that system.” Although her efforts serve to highlight these individuals as more than the over-simplified caricature of “prisoner,” the inordinate number of Americans behind bars will continue to provide subjects for books like “Prison Landscapes.”