TO THE LETTER
Reflecting with Photographer TRENT BELL on His REFLECT Project
By Sarah Heikkinen
As we grow older, we often find ourselves reflecting on choices we made in our younger days, wondering how slightly altering our paths would change our present day lives. For a convicted felon in prison, these reflections are perhaps more heartbreaking and poignant than those of men and women with what we think of as relatively normal day-to-day lives. Photographer Trent Bell explores the importance of sharing your experiences with others with his REFLECT Project, where he “merges large-scale portraits of inmates in the Maine prison system with handwritten letters the convicts composed as though writing to their younger selves.” I spoke with him about this fascinating project.
Sarah Heikkinen: What initially drew you to the medium of photography?
Trent Bell: I was initially drawn to photography as a way to do something creative that was more “free” in its constraints and boundaries in expressing my own creativity. It was something that I could build a business and portfolio through my own sweat equity. (Before diving into photography I worked as an architect…)
SH: What inspired you to start your REFLECT project?
TB: I had a friend, who was very similar to me in many ways, go to jail for possibly 36 yrs. It happened right around the time my first son was born, and since then it had been weighing on my mind. When it came time to do a personal project I think it just naturally came out.
SH: Why did you choose the Maine State Prison as your base for shooting and interviewing inmates?
TB: We love Maine. The prison was fairly close and accessible to us. It was our first prison we naturally considered.
SH: Do you want to reach out to other prisons around the country in any sort of continuation of REFLECT?
TB: As of now we may do a similar project around female inmates here in Maine. We do have further plans beyond that, but are now in the planning stage and looking to get funding to move forward.
SH: Was it eye-opening for you personally to photograph these men and hear their stories and wishes for their younger selves?
TB: Very much so. It was not just the words but the combination of imagery, words, and the situation you as a viewer are in when you”re looking at a portrait but the the subject is speaking in your head, but to his younger self, and then also the tragedy of the situation and all the loss surrounding everything. It”s the most power example of photos and written word being combined that I have ever personally experienced.
SH: Do you feel that you”ve helped these men in any way by allowing them to reflect on their past in a way they may not have in their years of being in prison?
TB: I believe the process has greatly helped them, but mostly the courage of these men to share their own most heartbreaking, shameful, and tragic failures with us has helped us. It has reduced our tendency towards immediate judgment and given us more of an ability to place ourselves in someone else”s shoes.
SH: What universal message do you want to be taken away from this project?
TB: The importance of thought, sharing, and discussing the difficult subjects. It takes courage to step out on a limb and share your experiences and lessons learned, whether they are accomplishments or mistakes, you are sharing something that has affected you and something that is personal. Sharing how you have grown brings people together; it expresses our commonalities, tearing down walls of fear and prejudice.
SH: In the spirit of the REFLECT project, is there anything you”d like to say to a young Trent Bell?
TB: Be less concerned with yourself, think of others more, give of your time more, be less controlling, and hold on to your faith.
Trent Bell is a photographer. His REFLECT Project “merges large-scale portraits of inmates in the Maine prison system with handwritten letters the convicts composed as though writing to their younger selves.”
Written by Sarah Heikkinen
Photography by & Courtesy of Trent Bell
Design by Mina Darius
Photography by Trent Bell, From His REFLECT Project