People held in supermax prisons and solitary confinement units were invited to request an image of anything at all, real or imagined—and promised that artists on the outside would fulfill their requests.
The resulting photographs provide an archive of the hopes, memories, and interests of Americans who live locked in cells for 23 hours a day in extreme isolation and sensory deprivation—conditions that have been widely denounced as torture.
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.
Like some 80,000 other people in U.S. prisons, the men in Tamms were locked in small, concrete cells for 23 to 24 hours a day without human contact. Mental breakdowns, self-mutilation, and suicide attempts were common at Tamms, and are an expected consequence of long-term isolation.
Photo requests from the men in Tamms included the sacred mosque in Mecca, comic book heroes locked in epic battle, Egyptian artifacts, a lovesick clown, and a grey and white horse rearing in weather cold enough to see its breath.
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 solitary, the project is partnering with the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. Photo Requests from Solitary made its New York debut with an exhibit and panel discussion at Photoville in Brooklyn in September 2013 (Press Release).
A new round of photos taken exclusively 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 on May 2. In September 2017, the same exhibit had a two-week run at Photoville in Brooklyn (Press Release).
To arrange for a Photo Requests from Solitary exhibit at your venue, or to volunteer to take a photograph for someone in solitary confinement, contact email@example.com.
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: The strangely touching requests for pictures from supermax prison’s ‘worst of the worst’ inmates stuck in solitary for the rest of their lives
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