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Female Inmates Bare Their Souls for Emotional Portraits in KY

Photographer Ashley Stinson set out to shoot women working in male-dominated industries. She ended up at a prison.

Nathaniel Ainley

Nathaniel Ainley

Images courtesy of the artist. 

This article originally appeared on Creators.

A few years ago, Louisville based photographer Ashley Stinson set out to organize a photography project that explored women working in male-dominated industries. Stinson says the impetus for this search partially stems from her experience as a commercial photographer, which can be the "ultimate boy's club." She started the project by taking photos of female farmers in the Louisville area and made plans to shoot local mechanics, carpenters, and other tradeswomen.

In the midst of her research, Stinson posted an inquiry on Facebook looking for new leads. The mother of one of her good friends saw the post and pointed Stinson to The Western Kentucky Correctional Facility in Fredonia, KY, a small city in Caldwell County. The friend's mother was a nurse and had worked in the penitentiary system in Kentucky for decades. Stinson tells Creators, "Obviously, the focus of my project changed immediately and for the better."

When correctional facility first opened in 1977, it was an all-male prison with a substantial inmate-run farming operation. In 2010, it was converted into an all-female prison and the warden made arrangements to shut down the facility's farming division, out of fear that the labor would be too physically demanding for an inmate population he believed didn't posses the farming expertise required to make it run properly. He was convinced to keep the farm up and running, however, and by the time Stinson started photographing there, it was the largest female-worked farm in the nation. Within the grounds, there is an apple orchard, vegetable gardens, and hundreds of cows.

Before getting clearance to shoot, Stinson had to undergo an extensive background check and an interview with prison management. "Almost every person I spoke with made it very clear to me that female inmates were incredibly untrustworthy, that they would lie and manipulate in any way they could," Stinson says. "The gender distinction there was incredibly off-putting, but I have to admit, I was excited about the idea of this being an intense experience and photographically, I really wanted that to translate."

Stinson says her experience completely contradicted everything administrators had warned her about. She visited the grounds once a month for about a year and half and never had a negative experience with any of the women there. "I did, however, have a few negative experiences with a couple of male employees where my boundaries were not respected. No one bothered to warn me about them."

Most of the women she was in contact with had been locked up on small drug charges that had added up over time. "These were women that were sober, clear minded, learning new things, and absolutely supporting one another in a way that only women can," she tells Creators. "If someone was having a bad day, there would be five women right there rallying behind her, lifting her up, and pulling her through. They would then be yelled at for hugging because the no touching rule was strictly enforced—rehabilitation at its finest." Stinson played a lot of sports when she was growing up, and being with these women reminded her of the dynamic she used to see on the field. "There was a real sense that they were working together to win, to better themselves."

However, despite the community and camaraderie she witnessed during her time there, most of Stinson's photos are of solitary individuals. Inmate duties were organized in a way that physically separated them from one another, "and that was really hard to witness, because often the women were speaking about the most personal details and were unable to give that hug that made so much sense in the moment."

Stinson says at the end of the project, the friendships she had built with the inmates had really left an impression on her. At the end of the shoot, she created an online gallery so that the families of the incarcerated would be able to see that their lives were not confined to a bunk bed in a cinder block room. "It was the least I could do, and to this day I still receive emails saying thanks for that small nicety. The women were amazing."

Check out some more images from the series below:

Check out more work by Ashley Stinson on her website.

This month we're highlighting 50 States of Art projects and starting the year with Kentucky, Arkansas, Montana, West Virginia, and Wyoming. You can check back here for updates.

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