Wednesday, 02 November 2011 13:55

Prisoner

Photography In Preview

Ron Levine captures the faces of some of Canada’s and America’s most elderly prison inmates and shares their stories in what has been described as a touching yet intense photographic exhibition.

“In 1996, I heard a radio piece on the Canadian Broadcasting Association about this geriatric prison in Alabama: the first geriatric prison in the world. I was so enthralled by it I thought it could make some great photographs for my series.”

This was just the start of what was a lengthy, life-consuming, ten-year project for Levine. Between working with his commercial clients, he worked on a book, documentary and exhibition, all compiling the images from the prisons he had visited and the inmates he had met in them.  â€œThe photos in the book were shot over four years, the photos in the exhibition were shot over about ten years. It was a huge project, it started in 1996 and ended with a documentary in 2005. In total I have photographed in ten different prisons over the years.”

Conflicting thoughts stirred within Levine when working on this project after seeing frail old men serving a life sentence in a prison and hearing their stories, which were the whole reason they are in there to start off with. â€œIt was just a fascination with these old guys and with their stories, how they found themselves in prison and how it has now forced the United States to open up these geriatric facilities in almost every state of America. I think a lot of the fascination was in the way they spoke of the past; that they are repentant of what they had done. A lot of them have resolved their situation. It became more about their stories and what got them in these horrible situations. Most of them are never going to get out; they are going to die in there. Just their faces told such a story,  like a roadmap of their experiences. The stories they told us were like what you would tell a kid so that they wouldn’t follow your criminal ways.”

Willingness of the inmates played a crucial part in the success of the exhibition and project; something that Levine was pleasantly and surprisingly overwhelmed with. â€œAfter speaking with a few of them on the first day, we had over 100 release forms signed by the inmates. They wanted to tell their story, they wanted to have their photograph taken and it was touching. Some of the crimes were really, really heinous, some so much so that we didn’t put those in the book.”

Confronted with their stories on a daily basis, Levine turned this into almost an educational exhibition. â€œWe got schools and groups of troubled youths to come down to the exhibitions. I was told later that a lot of the 17-year-old ruffians were crying when they read what some of them had done. They said that they didn’t want to continue their life of crime as they didn’t want to end up like the old guys in prison. “We saw an educational need for the exhibition, we tried to make it as accessible as possible for the youngsters.”

Levine is obviously still extremely interested by this topic. â€œThere are at least a dozen more elderly prisons that have popped up in the United States since I finished this project in 2005, in fact I was just reading about one in Pennsylvania and another one in Virginia actually.”

The exhibition explores the socio-economic causes of crime and delinquency and sheds light on growing old in prison, an issue that is not often talked about in society today. Levine aims to make the viewers see the faces not just the felonies. â€œThe first day you go in to one of the prisons, a lot of them just look like your grandfather, you know nothing about them of course when you first meet them. I walked away after a week of being there with thousands of images, I remember thinking there is something here, there is more than just pictures.”

Ron Levine’s Photography Exhibition, ‘Prisoners of Age’ will be on display at the Brisbane Powerhouse until November 21.

Published in Art/ Photography

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