Life Sentences: Photographer Amy Elkins and Her Prison Pen Pals
Elkins shares the story behind her photo series "Black is the Day, Black is the Night" and "Parting Words."
Photographer Amy Elkins offers an unflinching contemplation of capital punishment and identity in a culture of mass incarceration. Her latest exhibition, now on view at Aperture Gallery in NYC, draws from two profound projects: “Black is the Day, Black is the Night” and “Parting Words.” Both portfolios convey the systematic dehumanization of the prison complex. But, imbued in the very same images is also a restoration of dignity—a poetry—to those behind bars. Elkins’ images stop the clock on the inmates’ minute-by-minute battle with the passage of time. “The end result,” says the L.A.-based photographer, “seems to provoke the viewer to enter each image, perhaps ask questions and seek their own answers.”
Parting Words is a visual archive of the 500+ inmates to date that have been executed in the state of Texas. Elkins overlays the mugshots of the condemned with the text of their final words. These men and women’s entire lives boil down to a single final statement. “I put her remains in the Trinity River,” reads one; “Real or imagined. All marked, erased,” reads another. It is a funeral dirge for lives squandered.
“Black is the Day, Black is the Night” is a haunting visual call-and-response that sprouted from Elkins’ 5-year spanning letter exchange with men serving life and death row prison sentences. In the project, she utilizes drawings, text borrowed from their correspondences and photos digitally obscured according to a specific formula (years incarcerated versus time on the outside). The interior landscape of life from within a 6’x9’ cell is revealed. It is a solitary terrain strewn with muddled memory, fantasy and the specters of former and future selves.
We recently caught up with Amy to talk further about the projects.
Mass Appeal: What was the genesis of “Black is the Day, Black is the Night”?
Amy Elkins: “Black is the Day, Black is the Night” unfolded rather organically and without much premeditation. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted the work to be about or what would unfold at first. It wasn’t until I started writing with several men serving life and death row sentences in supermax prisons around the country and they in turn started writing back that the project began to take shape. But, even then I couldn’t predict how any of it would unfold. It took on a life of its own. I was definitely fascinated by notions of distance, memory, and time, and how much that could impact one’s perception of self and others and the world at large. It haunted me in many ways to think of the reality of living in a solitary 6’x9’ cell. Almost all of the men I wrote with had lived a decade or more in that degree of isolation.
Share how “Parting Words” sprouted from the work you were doing with “Black is the Day, Black is the Night.”
I had begun a written correspondence with several men scattered throughout the country serving death row sentences in the summer of 2009. While letters were exchanged between many of them for years, it was only within the first three months that the first man I wrote with was executed. He was in the state of Texas. I went online to search for more information the day of his execution and landed on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) website and the executions archive. It was with that information that I catapulted into “Parting Words,” a visual archive of the 500+ prisoners to date executed in the state of Texas.
What surprised you most about the men, the system, even yourself, over the course of the journey of these projects?
In the early days of “BITDBITN,” what surprised me most and something I will never forget was that very first letter that arrived in my P.O. Box. I had sent out letters to several men, five of which were serving death row sentences, two of which were serving life without parole. It was a simple introductory letter. I just wanted to gauge who wanted to write and potentially make work with me regarding their time incarcerated. But that first letter that came back was short and to the point. It was written by a man in Texas who had been given an execution date a few months out. He showed concern in that letter that I might not want to write with him, knowing of his upcoming execution. We ended up writing a few letters back and forth before his date came.
While I definitely didn’t underestimate the gravity of the sentences these men were serving when I started the project, I didn’t imagine in the span of a few months that one of their sentences would be played out. Several years later, another penpal was executed. That time around, it hit me much harder, as we had written often for years and it felt much more personal. When I first started the project, there was nothing in me that could have anticipated the events that would later follow. [I had] no way of knowing that I would become so invested in exploring the U.S. Prison System, in all of its shattered brokenness.
Do you think the work stands at the crossroads of fact and fiction?
Definitely. I talk about the landscapes as fictional landscapes, though they are grounded in fact and memory. I often think about our letter exchange in a similar way, as we aren’t allowed to actually ever see or hear each other; so much is imagined when either party describes one’s own environment, surroundings, thoughts, feelings, etc.
How did you go about developing correspondences with your pen pals? Was there a process of selection and rejection on your part and theirs, in terms of which inmates you would pursue communication with?
I had fairly simple criteria: I wanted to make sure that I was reaching out to men serving in different prisons and in different states to make the project feel balanced. I found all seven of my penpals through an online prison penpal site. I read through their profiles, which [also] included information about their sentencing and crime along with a written bio and personal info. All of which was submitted by a relative or friend as none are permitted the use of computers, Internet, etc. I suppose in a way, I was being selective or curating in a sense. I gravitated towards those who seemed open to creative writing assignments and art, culture, music, etc. I just went with my gut feeling. I wrote each as long as they were interested in doing so. And I did have one man who wrote me to tell me he was no longer interested in working on the project after a year or so.
How did the men react to the images, to your interpretation?
Some more so than others. I had a few men tell me that they hung the images up in their cells. Seeing that most had been in prison for over 10 years, many had never used a computer, let alone Photoshop. Many had never even taken a photograph. So, they were all equally curious about how I created them. Some would critique the images and it would spark a dialogue. To quote one of the men I wrote: “I must admit to you that when I first received your letter two days ago I could not stop myself from feeling so overwhelmed by this longing of being in a place as lovely as that. I really do wish to convey my appreciation for you bringing these places to me right in my cell, where it makes my mind run wild.”
“Black is the Day, Black is the Night” and “Parting Words” are on view through Jan. 29, 2015 at Aperture Gallery in New York City.