What would you change if you could turn back the hands of time? In 2009, photographer Trent Bell discovered that his friend – a husband, a father, and a kindred spirit – was sentenced to 36 years in prison. On his personal web page, Bell writes that the months that followed this were filled with painful introspection and ruminating over alternate possibilities where his own life could have gone down the same road as his friends’.
“This friend was the same person as me, we had the same morals, the same interests, what happened? Now, every time it’s quiet, every time my mind starts to collate recent moments, valuable experiences and memories, every time my son looks up and smiles at me, the finality and the loss of my friend’s ‘free life’ comes into my head,” Bell said in an interview.
Bell thought, and then he thought some more. As human beings, we all make bad decisions – sometimes not knowing the severity of the consequences that we incur, sometimes being fully aware of the ripples our actions have on the outside world. It’s all fine, perhaps, as long as we learn from the follies of our youth. But what if you could press the rewind button on life? What if you could erase the mistake before it happened? What if you could warn your younger self if given the chance – would you do it? The Reflect project was a result of this.
“Our bad choices can contain untold loss, remorse, and regret … but the positive value of these bad choices might be immeasurable if we can face them, admit to them, learn from them and find the strength to share.”
In August of 2013, 12 inmates from the Maine State Prison agreed to write letters to their younger selves for the project, in addition to being photographed by Bell. He says in an interview with news.com.au,
“There is a way to pull wisdom from these terrible situations, the people saw this is an ability to learn from these mistakes.”
It was quite the challenge for Bell, whose primary job is architectural photography. Although the potential for catharsis was great, photographing convicts with brutal honesty and taking a peek into the most fallible parts of themselves was ground that Bell had not touched before. He reflects on this in a later interview,
“These guys really had to soften and look within themselves, which for prisoners in that situation is a dangerous and very difficult thing”
But they did it. And here is the result. Compelling, heartbreaking, and all too human.
1. Robert / 67 / Murder.
“After 17 years in here, I know when chasing friends, whether it be family or others, be careful of those choices. Do we have similar goals in life with them? We let drinking and drugs shatter our dreams and our potential future.”
2. Red / 20 / Burglary.
“Never lose the person you really are because it may be too late by the time you find yourself again.”
3. William “Wild Bill” / 40 / Burglary and Theft.
“There is always another choice and you must find it. I have spent most of my life behind bars and you are worth much more than that.”
4. Paco / 46 / Robbery and Aggravated Assault.
“Be quick to smile, slow to anger, and treat all people with the respect they deserve. That is how you will avoid becoming me.”
5. Jamie / 42 / Robbery.
“Life is far from over, Jamie. The mistakes we made in the past are the mistakes we will learn from.I say this now and I say it tomorrow, “Don’t do what I did”.”
6. Kaihlil / 39 / Probation Violation.
“You may not believe me – but please listen – your innocence and virtue is a precious commodity, do not recklessly squander with carelessness … Every decision you make affects everyone around you, most importantly your own future.”
7. Peter / 55 / 6 years in prison.
“If you think something might be a bad idea, believe it! Don’t do it.”
8. Brandon / 26 / Attempted Murder and Elevated Aggravated Assault.
“Just know that people will always try and test you, and no matter what you think, only a real man can walk away.”
9. Wes “Pork Chop” / 44 / Murder.
“You have choices in life, and if you reach out to people that really love and care about you, I promise you won’t be a failure as I was … I believe in you, so many people do, you just have to believe in yourself.”
10. Bubber Jack / 41 / Trafficking Drugs.
“Jack, get clean and avoid the madness because you are good enough to live your dreams and not just have them in your sleep.”
11. Ken / 50 / 8 years in prison.
“Do yourself a favor, LISTEN TO THOSE WHO LOVE YOU. Get their wisdom + understanding. They want to save you from yourself!”