“If you could have window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?”
This is what the project Windows From Prison asked inmates from Washington, D.C., across the country. The project works with community members to photograph inmates’ answers and mail them back to participants. Along with a response to the prompt the participants include a specific address if possible, and describe exactly how to create the photograph — what should be included in the frame, what time of day, or where to stand. Mark Strandquist, the project’s director, wrote to The Washington Post:
It’s often the most mundane letters that prisoners write that end up moving me the most. … a hallway that someone used to slide down with their sister in their socks … a typical bay window on the side of a house (through which the Mother and prisoner wanted to see so she could imagine her children and her together again) … a typical non-descript street corner that, when you read the letter, becomes filled with life.
Strandquist, a D.C. native, became involved with local nonprofits and activist groups. He wrote: “It was here that I gained my most radical education. Where I understood the importance of the words; ‘anything without us, about us, is against us.’”
In 2012, Strandquist collaborated with Free Minds D.C., a book club and writing workshop for young inmates, to create Write Home Soon, a project in which participants create postcards depicting “a place from their past that they no longer had access to.” The postcards struck Strandquist as incredibly powerful. They “articulated the process of dehumanization that is integral to incarceration in such devastatingly profound ways,” he wrote.
The powerful words of Write Home Soon evolved into the project “Windows from Prison.” “I strongly believe that all the advocacy, research and activism will only go so far, without engaging with incarcerated and at-risk communities first and foremost as human beings,” Strandquist said.
Strandquist, who has a background in documentary photography, became dissatisfied with the way most photography represents prisoners. After spending time with inmates, he said he became frustrated by how he and other artists translated other people’s stories and “diluted their power.”
“The project doesn’t utilize shock, a strategy used by many photojournalists,” he wrote. “Instead it works with individuals in very intense and dehumanizing places, who often grew up in very traumatic communities, on an intimate, empathetic, and human level. A level that I think and hope we can all associate with. Which to me is the necessary precursor to any meaningful prison reform.”
Strandquist wanted to generate a new kind of prison photography — without showing images of prisoners, detention facilities, police cars, court rooms or execution chambers — to make it more collaborative. For logistical reasons many of the facilities would not allow the inmates names to be included in the project but Strandquist points out that by withholding the inmate identities they could stand in as human beings for the rest of the national prison population.
“The project begins with the radical belief,” he wrote, “that by engaging with individuals as human beings (through dialogue and exchange), that something incredibly powerful, potentially therapeutic, and politically activating may arise.”
And it did. His project grew to include public art installations and work with dozens of different high schools and colleges, including Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington and the George Mason University School for the Arts.
“As the project has expanded, including more student photographers, we’ve been able to create a larger amount of images but to me it’s less about ‘how many’ and more about the process,” he wrote. “Each iteration is designed to respond to local issues and engage with diverse populations as active participants if not direct collaborators. ”
Strandquist recently sent 5,000 blank postcards to prisoners and flipped the prompt “If you could create a window in the prison walls, what would you want the world to see?” He is currently receiving the answers and will be exhibiting them this coming year in Philadelphia.
“We’re working with people on a human level,” Strandquist wrote. “Not as numbers.”
For a larger selection of photographs from the project and a bigger viewing experience, click here.
Nicole Crowder contributed to this article.