Tuesday, March 11, 2014
BIDDEFORD — Wesley Knight has some advice for his younger self: “You have choices in life and if you reach out to the people that really love and care about you I promise you won’t be a failure as I was.”
Trent Bell stands in front of portraits at the Engine gallery in Biddeford. Behind him is Wesley Knight, left, convicted of murder, and Peter Mills, convicted of gross sexual assault. Bell said the exhibit does not seek to glorify the convicts or minimize their crimes, but may offer lessons that could prevent future victims’ suffering.
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
Brandon Brown is serving 17 years for attempted murder. “A real man can turn the other cheek and walk away,” he writes.
Photo courtesy of Trent Bell
A near life-size portrait of Knight, who was convicted of murder, stares out at the reader from the midst of his handwritten words, his eyes a flat blue that matches his prison shirt.
Knight is one of a dozen inmates at the Maine State Prison who participated in an exercise in which they wrote letters to their younger selves. The letters, filled with self-recrimination, were then superimposed over photographic portraits of each inmate.
The portraits are part of an exhibit now on display at the Engine gallery at 265 Main St. in Biddeford.
“Reflect: Convicts’ Letters to Their Younger Selves” was created by Trent Bell, a commercial photographer based in Biddeford who specializes in architectural photography.
Bell, 37, said he wanted to do a project that would have more of a social component than his commercial work.
He said the exhibit does not seek to glorify the convicts or minimize their crimes, but may offer viewers lessons that could prevent some future victims’ suffering.
“These guys have done really bad things. ... These guys aren’t doing time they don’t deserve,” Bell said. “If you don’t learn from it, it truly is a failure. If you can learn from it, there are some redeeming features.”
The Department of Corrections alerted the convicts’ victims – those who have signed up for information about their case – to the exhibit, so they could be prepared.
“It can be very traumatic for victims,” said Tessa Mosher, the department’s director of victim services, saying people could be surprised by images or stories about the person who hurt them. “It does bring up the case for them and sometimes they are reliving it because of this.”
MIXED REACTIONS EXPECTED
Robert Schwartz, director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association and the former police chief in South Portland, said the exhibit is likely to generate mixed reactions.
“You like to think lessons can be learned from it, particularly if younger people are learning from it and they’re promoting it for the young people,” Schwartz said. “If you were the victim of one of the crimes of one of these people, that’s the other side. You might take offense. Hopefully, they can take a positive look at it.”
Bell says it is productive to hear what lessons convicts say might have made a difference in their lives.
“No matter how sticky and difficult the situation is, it’s still something that has to be looked at. You can’t just lock these guys up and let them rot,” Bell said. “These guys are part of our family ... part of the same social fabric. At the same time, it isn’t an isolated incident that led them here.
“That kid was a 2-year-old at some point and totally harmless,” he said, gesturing at the face of a 26-year-old who is spending the next 13 years in prison for attempted murder.
Bell said that in the failures that led them to prison, the prisoners have something to offer.
“They have a sharpened perspective on life, of what’s valuable, because they’ve lost everything,” Bell said. Insights into their lives could help others make better choices, even if it’s just cherishing the opportunity to play with their children or help their elderly father with chores.
Bell had a personal motivation for wanting to explore the lives and impressions of prisoners. He learned that a good friend, much like himself in many ways – a well-educated professional with a wife and children – had been convicted of a crime and sentenced to 36 years in prison.
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Jack Haycock is serving time for drug trafficking.
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Robert Forrest is serving 55 years for murdering his wife and 3-year-old son.
Photos courtesy of Trent Bell