Many of America’s prisons boast visiting rooms that are festooned with bizarre wall art, so that friends and family members of incarcerated people can take pictures of their loved ones on backdrops other than the depressing, institutional grays and whites of the correctional facility.
Artist and photographer Alyse Emdur has compiled six years worth of such portraits for her new book, Prison Landscapes. Inspired by a childhood photograph of herself posing with her incarcerated brother, Emdur contacted 300 prisoners and asked if they’d like to provide family photos and get involved in the project.
“My act as a photographer is not from behind the lens but as a collector of images,” Emdur told Wired. “I see myself as a mediator. These are people who have had no relationship with the outside world so while Prison Landscapes 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.”
Emdur also sees her work as a critique of our country’s ever-growing prison system. “Clearly prisoners are more than their crime,” she says. “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.”