Photo Requests from Solitary (PRFS) is an ongoing project that invites men and women held in long-term solitary confinement in U.S. prisons to request a photograph of anything at all, real or imagined, and then finds an artist to make the image. The astonishing range of requests received to date includes “the freestanding columns at the Great Temple of Amun, Karnak,” “A blue rose, cut with all its leaves remaining, held in a crystal/clear vase or a hand and if possible, the Perseids meteor shower as a background,” “a gray and white ‘Warmblood’ horse rearing in weather cold enough to see its breath,” and “Myself with a blue sky.” Taken together, these requests provide an archive of the hopes, memories, and interests of people who live in extreme isolation, surrounded by gray walls.
PRFS offers a new way for people to think about solitary confinement and the people who endure it. Viewers are able to see not what incarcerated people see, but what they envision—the vivid and varied thoughts/objects/images that all minds produce, independently of senses and circumstances. Capturing these images as photographs, which can then be sent back to the people who conceived them, completes an artistic collaboration that acknowledges the shared creativity and humanity of individuals on both sides of the prison walls.
While serving as a form of direct support to people in isolation, PRFS also helps to bring the growing debate over the U.S.’s use of solitary confinement to a broad audience. It seeks to engage viewers in what has long been an important—but largely hidden—domestic human rights issue in order to catalyze advocacy and change.
The Photo Requests from Solitary project was initiated in 2009 by Tamms Year Ten, a grassroots coalition of artists, advocates, family members and men formerly incarcerated in Tamms Correctional Center in southern Illinois, which was shuttered in 2013 after years of opposition.
In 2013, in collaboration with Solitary Watch, Parsons The New School for Design, and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the project expanded to California and New York. Photo Requests from Solitary is currently filling requests from these states, and using the project to support local campaigns to stop the use of solitary confinement. In New York, where more than 4,000 men and women are in some form of isolation, the project is partnering with the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. A group of photos taken for men and women in New York’s state prisons was featured, for the first time, in an exhibit at the Legislative Office Building in Albany in May, 2017. In September, the same exhibit had a two-week run at Photoville in Brooklyn (Press Release), and it is currently touring to sites around the state.
In 2018, Photo Requests from Solitary was awarded a grant by Eastern State Penitentiary, the nearly 189-year-old prison in Philadelphia that was the birthplace of solitary confinement and is now an historic site and exhibition space. A new Photo Requests from solitary exhibit will open at Eastern State in May 2018, featuring requests from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In its first venture into crowdsourcing, Photo Requests from Solitary will invite visitors to take and fulfill the requests, encouraging viewers to think about their own relationship to people in solitary, as citizens, artists, and potential collaborators. .
To arrange for a Photo Requests from Solitary exhibit at your venue, to volunteer to take a photograph for someone in solitary confinement, or for more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos for Prisoners in Solitary Confinement on Exhibit, by David M. Schwartz, Newsday
Congregants Push for Prison System Reform with Solitary Confinement Art Exhibit, Amelia Camurati, The Island Now
What People Locked Up for 23 Hours a Day Yearn to See, by Victoria Law, Gothamist
These Images Capture the Dream Life of Prisoners in Solitary Confinement, by Hanna Kozlowska, Quartz
Ending Solitary Confinement Through Viral Art
by Rhett Jones, Animal New York
Supermax Prisoners In Solitary Were Given One Photo Request – This Is What They Asked For
by Justine Sharrock, Buzzfeed
In Solitary Confinement, Requesting The Outside World
by Eric Mennell, The Story
My Childhood Home, My Mom with a Mansion… and J-Lo’s Derriere
by Louise Boyle, The Daily Mail
10 Must-See Talks at Brooklyn’s Photoville Festival This Weekend and Next
by Pete Brook, Wired
Prisoners in Solitary Confinement Requested Photos Of The Outside World — And Here They Are
by Priscilla Frank, Huffington Post
Photo Requests from Inmates in Solitary
by Hamilton Nolan, Gawker
Banner photo: Manhattan Skyline, by Frank Jump for David