Insider art

In the photograph she sent me, Marlo Nichols, a handsome energetic woman in her mid-thirties, stands in front of a brightly painted backdrop that looks a bit like a tropical sunrise. With her hand on her hip, she looks jaunty despite her drab uniform. I had contacted her because she had heard of my interest in prison portraits; not the official images demanded by police procedure and record-keeping, but the photographs prisoners take of each other.

The photographs Nichols sent me were taken in a Georgia prison, where she is serving a 25-year sentence for a murder that took place outside an Atlanta nightclub. While protesting her innocence, she was happy to talk to me about the photograph. “Listen baby, about the picture. What do you think stands out most: me or the background? I must say both. One is needed for the other, the pose goes with the background.”

While Nichols’ interest in the composition of the image is unusual, her situation is far from unique. America is one of the most heavily incarcerated societies in the world – there are almost 5m people under “correctional supervision” in the US, and 2.5m in prison.

Not surprisingly, there are all kinds of subcultures and customs that take place in prisons unknown to those of us living in the “free world” (as inmates refer to life outside prison). One of these subcultures is the making of “escapist” photos, in which prisoners pose in front of hand-painted fantasy backdrops they or fellow inmates have created. Although the resulting images are only intended for family and friends on the outside, they have the odd, striking look of outsider art at its best.

The backdrops are typically painted on to canvas, or directly on to the cinderblock walls of the visiting rooms where most of the photographs are taken. Though natural themes are common – beaches, waterfalls and rainbows, in particular – so are city skylines.

Regionalism is apparent, including Western motifs and Mexican murals, but early American themes and New England covered bridges have their place too. Lighthouses are another common backdrop. Many backgrounds, however, are abstract: prisoner portraits are not a truly free art system and are closely monitored by wardens who inspect every backdrop for gang symbols. Abstract paintings are seen as more likely to be clean.

Prison wardens look out for gang symbols on paintings

I first came across prison photography by chance. I am an artist and documentary film-maker, and some years ago a criminologist friend asked if I would be interested in lecturing on film and media studies at a women’s prison on the outskirts of New York. Reached through leafy landscapes and rolling horse farms, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, which I first visited in 2007, is the state’s only maximum-security correctional institution for women.

Inside, behind its barbed-wire walls and under harsh fluorescent lighting, the number of prisoners taking part in literature classes and art shows surprised me. But what struck me most were the painted backdrops in the visiting room.

One woman in my class, who worked as a nurse before she was found guilty of stabbing her boyfriend in the chest and killing him, told me that she and her fellow prisoners had created these backdrops. She liked posing in front of them at Christmas, she said, so she could send home a photo of herself in front of a seasonal theme rather than a bleak wall or bars.

In fact, as I later learnt, the Bedford Hills backdrops are not an isolated phenomenon: something similar can be found in almost every prison in New York State, which has more than 60 correctional facilities, but also in almost every state and federal prison across the US. Those states and prison wardens that discourage the practice are in a minority; most encourage the practice as a peaceful means of self-expression.

Intrigued by the art and industry involved – and the scale of the endeavour, I began collecting and documenting the images, with the goal of someday exhibiting them. Criminologists wrote on my behalf to social justice groups, which supplied some of the photos. I also wrote directly to prisoners. And, as news of my project got out, prisoners across the US started to get in touch, keen to explain the stories behind the photos. While happy for me to see and display their photographs, many of the inmates preferred not to be identified by name.

The letters I began to receive, from addresses such as Attica, Leavenworth and Sing Sing, usually followed the same theme: a life story gone bad, and then a protestation of innocence. But the letters also often included a discussion of beauty and art. “I enjoy painting and drawing. I work with acrylics, graphite, and coloured pencil. My subject matter is usually landscape and architectural; realist and impressionistic,” wrote “Jonah”, jailed for a sex offence, and photographed in front of cityscape.

Many of the letters describe why the prisoner was interested in a particular backdrop. “I chose the backdrop because it looks peaceful in a place that is so deceitful,” wrote “Dan”, who is serving a sentence for attempted murder. “I was incarcerated since I was 16 and I’m 30 now. I find drawing to be useful as therapy, therapy for poor people like me.”

Marlo Nichols in front of a tropical backdrop

My interaction with Marlo Nichols, sparked by my interest in her photo, has grown to encompass a better understanding of her life and crime, and the possibility of her innocence – there is no DNA evidence. Nichols, in turn, has asked to see my photo. “It’s only fair,” she wrote. (I sent her one of me posed in front of other prisoner photos.)

“Tobias”, unlike many of the prisoner artists, has had art training, and his paintings could easily be exhibited in a gallery. His huge, 18ft prison mural took only two days for him to create. It incorporates both watercolours and acrylics. He also paints pet prison rocks” – small rocks from the prison yard – to be given away as gifts. His letter described his background to me: “I was a disliked kid. I had to escape into the woods. My best friends were rocks, caves, trees, creeks, and old abandoned cars.” By the age of 10 he had learnt how to shoot, using his father’s gun: “I was a good shot, it was the only time he ever liked me.”

At 15 he ran away from home for good, living in the woods, and breaking into homes for food. A life of art – and crime – followed, and, in a drug-fuelled shootout over a property, he shot and killed a neighbour whose body he buried in a shallow grave. “In 1993 I shot a friend. I didn’t plan on killing anyone. But it happened.”

These days, he wrote, “I paint a lot of old cars and trucks. I get to relive my days in the backwoods of New York State. The new warden doesn’t want any more paintings and, without painting, I am lost.”

Prison photography provides an illuminating counterpoint to the mainstream art world. The practice of using backdrops is almost as old as photography: by 1841 Antoine Claudet, a photographer with a Regent Street studio frequented by an upper-class clientele, had patented the use of painted backdrops, frequently images of classical ruins.

Today the backdrop tradition still exists among Latin American, African and Tibetan street photographers. Though seen as old-fashioned in an era of Photoshop as well as easy travel, they are nonetheless amazing. Like prison backdrops, the work of Philip Kwame Apagya of Ghana, for example, features the unobtainable: in this case, deluxe fitted kitchens with televisions and other electronic gear, as well as fully stocked refrigerators.

Though the practice is so commonplace as to be considered unremarkable in prison circles, the portraits are largely unknown in the wider world. Unlike portraits of prisoners by outsiders – which often convey menace – these insider portraits convey a very different truth of how prisoners want to present themselves and like to be seen: everyone is smiling.

The photos are the preferred method of communicating with family and friends, since email is either not allowed or involves cumbersome pay services. The photographers are also inmates: “visiting room photographer” is an official, rotating position, equivalent to working in a prison laundry, and is “paid” at rates between 30 cents and $1.25 an hour.

The “Son of Sam” law, named after the New York serial killer David Berkowitz, prohibits criminals from profiting from the publicity surrounding their crime, and so the prisoners can’t sell their photos. Instead, what drives this art are other motives – which I’m hesitant to call purer, given the context – including escapism and solace and, certainly, sincerity. Though they are financially worthless, the photographs are imbued with a value often lacking in expensive portraits from the free world.

While my archive of these photographs has been presented primarily in art-world settings, first at last year’s Athens Biennale and currently at the Clocktower Gallery in New York, it will travel to the American Society of Criminology’s annual meeting in Chicago in November and, eventually, it will be housed at the Institute for Peace and Justice at St Francis College in Brooklyn, New York.

The backdrops and photos are not an artist-led “intervention” but are self-created, largely without outside prompting (though internal prison approval is always required).

“We put up different backdrops for almost every holiday, this photo was taken on Halloween. It is one of my favourites,” wrote “John”, serving a 30-year sentence for aggravated kidnapping. But the undertow remains one of sadness.

There are the victims, of course, or rather they are absent. They are off-stage and not pictured. And the mere fact of the backdrops’ existence painfully conveys the prisoners’ desire to be somewhere else, somewhere in the “free world”.

In spite of the best efforts of prisoner painters and photographers, the backdrops are not physically transporting – it is clear the prisoners are going nowhere.

‘The Age of Innocence: Photos from the Inside’ is at the Clocktower Gallery ( in New York City until August 31

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