I have just come home from my first photo-shoot in the Montana Women's Prison. The MWP is an unusual prison in that most of its offenders have committed non-violent crimes, such as using stolen checks or drunk driving (one of the more common crimes in Montana; I label this a non-violent crime, as I see more news stories about drunk drivers being caught for the 5th or the 8th time, often with kids in the car, but you seldom hear of a drunk-driving related homicides; I'm sure they do happen and I am sure some of the women in the MWP are there for that reason). Because of the sort of low-violence rate of the prisoners, they have a fair amount of freedom inside the prison, and there is a big emphasis on training, therapy, and education. Each hour, they can move from one place to another, activities they have chosen (other than any court mandated activities, such as AA, etc.). They are only restricted in that they have to go if they signed up, so they are accounted for at all times.
Last year I wrote a grant for some equipment and materials but they arrived late, then summer came, then blah blah... so here I am, beginning what I started to begin in May. When I first went to the prison, I had every anxiety and fear one would expect me to have going into a prison. But I found the women who had signed up to be a part of the project were curious, diverse, creative, and fairly kind. There was a raw honesty to their questions of me. "What made you want to photograph us?"
My experience today was amazing. My equipment is not ideal, so I had to do some wanky things to make it work, and since I was using Instant film, there was this awkward 90 seconds of waiting to see if the image was right before starting another one. They would say, "That looks good," and I would say, "I think we can do better. I'm not happy with ___." Then we would do another and they would say, "oh, that is so much better!" I've promised them all copies of their pictures, and they are excited about receiving them.
I asked each woman to name something she missed outside of prison. (Because of privacy issues and prison policy, I did not include personal homes or family members.) My intention is to photograph that place (or thing) and pair them with the woman who longs for it. I have basically asked these women to give me homework assignments, places that are important to them that I should see. They cannot have the power for me they have for these women, but I will be able to bring the picture back to them.
It feels good to be shooting again.