The Lansing Correctional Facility, a state prison operated by the Kansas Department of Corrections, was not where photographer Nick Vedros thought he'd shoot the images for one of his first big museum exhibitions. The 62-year-old has been a prolific photojournalist and commercial photographer for nearly four decades, but prior to his work for Faces of Change , an exhibition open through February 7 at the Kemper Museum for Contemporary Art in Kansas City, he had never stepped inside a prison.
The solo exhibition features 22 portraits of inmates engaged in Reach Out from Within (ROFW), a rehabilitation project created by the organization Courage to Change, which aims to reduce recidivism rates through weekly meetings where inmates are encouraged to interact with one another and address their personal problems in a group therapy-like setting. The goal of ROFW is to encourage inmates to break the cycle of violence, drugs, and crime that has overwhelmed so many that belong to this country's convict class outside of prison walls.
Vedros's photo project aims to document images of the men and women who are actively changing their lives by following the program, as well as humanize both the initiative and the inmates it seeks to help.
Faces of Change is an unflinching glimpse into the eyes and souls of those trying to exit the world of mass incarceration and never return. VICE talked with Vedros by phone to learn about how the exhibition came to be, what it was like shooting inside a prison, and why he decided to include the raw interiors of the prison in his photos.
VICE: How did you end up going into a prison and taking portraits of inmates?
Nick Vedros: I first heard about Reaching Out from Within at a party and met SuEllen Fried, this amazing 83-year-old powerhouse behind the program who's never been accused of being low-energy. Over a glass of wine, she began telling me about the rehabilitation initiative and started quoting statistics, such as that the national recidivism rate hovers above 50 percent and some years it's in the 60s. But her program, which was founded 33 years ago, has a recidivism rate of 8 percent when inmates attended 50 to 60 ROFW classes.
I was stunned that it had dropped from a national average of 50 percent to 8 percent and I thought, My God, that's doing a world of good . I asked SuEllen if anybody had taken relevant photographs, had anyone on the inside photographed these inmates? Has anybody put a face on these inmates? I said I know there are words written about this program, but are there any photographs to go along with the words? And she said no.
What was your thought process from there? Just go in and photograph prisoners?
I asked if SuEllen could get me into the prisons, and she said yes and arranged for me to go to one of the Reach Out from Within meetings. And the very first visit behind those walls was an eye-opener for me. I didn't know what to think when I arrived, but then these guys in the meeting were intelligent, articulate, welcoming, very warm and friendly—not at all what I figured it would be like on the inside.
After that initial meeting, I went home and thought about how I could photograph the experience. I wanted to do a portrait series and at first I thought it would be good to have a white background because I wanted it to be as far from a mugshot as possible. I didn't want to make it dark and gloomy because that wasn't the feeling that I got from these guys. Eventually it evolved to a cinderblock background because that was more real and honest. Most of the inside walls are cinderblock. The format that I picked was a square because they live in a box in the prison. So I went with the square format for the final image.
I wanted to tell the story in a positive light. We had the inmates give us three of their favorite quotes because they start every meeting with a quote. You have to say your name. I would say, "Nick Vedros, I'm a photographer," and I would give my quote. Mine was: "Heal the past, live the present, and dream the future." The quotes from each inmate became part of the photographs. This way the viewer would be able to look into the eyes of the inmate and see their positive quote. That helped us tell the story.
How did you get approval from the warden at the prison to undertake the project?
I went with SuEllen and I had to pitch the idea to the warden and make sure he was on board. I first created a test portrait of what my concept would look like and presented that to Warden [Rex] Pryor at Lansing, who understood the project from the get-go. What made it easy for me was that this program has done so much good behind the walls that the warden is in favor of if. He thinks it keeps the prisoners nonviolent and encourages them to be kinder to one another, so he gave me excellent access throughout the facility. I wanted to have access to the entire prison because I'm curious about what the inmate sees everyday.
Why did you include the photos of the cell walls, barbed wire, and other parts of the prison on top of the inmate portraits?
I felt it was necessary to capture the environment that the prisoners were in because most people don't know what the inside of a prison looks like. They've seen movies but to see a real prison is different. I wanted to shoot inside the walls of both the women's prison in Topeka and the men's in Lansing to contextualize the portraits so we could see where these people existed. I even asked for a plate of prison food and they brought me a very typical meal inmates get in the cafeteria. I photographed that plate of food to show how awful the food actually is. According to what I heard, they feed each inmate on $5.61 [€5.12] a day. For three meals, thats about $1.87 [€1.7] per meal. You can imagine what the food is like.
I felt lucky to be able to do this project and put a face on it. I felt like I'd been given access and was able to see something that very few people had ever been given access to. I did feel like it was important to show the walls and the barbed-wire and the confinement. That way people could see the environment inmates are trying to leave.
How did you pick what images to use in the exhibition?
I photographed 51 inmates total, about 15 female inmates at Topeka Correctional Facility. From that 51 I had to pair it down to 22 final portraits. It was very difficult. A lot of times you are looking for who simply photographed the best—whose face worked best in front of the camera, if they connected with me, how honest their poses looked. I also wanted to have a pretty good cross-section of age and ethnicity—older, younger, black, white, Hispanic, and American Indian prisoners.
Can you tell me about the exhibition, now that it's open at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art?
My wildest dream was to get this project into a venue like the Kemper. That was shooting for the sky. We weren't sure we would get in. We needed a gallery or a museum that would give us the credibility to make people pay attention to it. And we fortunately landed our first choice because they viewed my photographs not only as an artistic project, but as a socially-relevant project. The Kemper has been wonderful to work with and they provided terrific input on how to hang the show.
I haven't made gallery showings the main part of my career. Its not really the thing that I do the most, and I needed a lot of help putting the show together and doing it right. The museum was a great support system, and my longtime friend and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Dan White acted as curator for the exhibit.
What images from Faces of Change in particular have made a lasting impact on you?
The image with the guy who has his back turned to the camera is one of my favorite images. That was shot on the casting day. A photographer doesn't just press the button and shoot like an idiot. You need to think and reflect and look at your work on your computer monitor to see if what you are doing is working. So that you can bring out the real them. I had that experience on the casting day. Another one I really liked is Darien, the guy with the glasses looking into the frame. He became kind of the face of the program. I really like that one and his thick glasses.
Faces of Change is on view at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art through February 7. For more information, visit the museum website here and Nick Vedro's site here.
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