The Reflect Project
by Melodie Roschman
“If you could write a letter to your younger self, what would you say?” This is the question that commercial photographer and Andrews alumnus Trent Bell asks in “REFLECT: Convicts’ letters to their younger selves,” a 2013 portrait series that has since gained international recognition.
Bell, 37, received his master’s degree in architecture from Andrews in 2003, but soon decided he preferred commercial photography. He now lives in Biddeford, Maine, and works as a personal and architectural photographer, with work published in publications such as “Conde Nast Traveler,” “The New York Times,” and “Good Housekeeping.”
The decision to undertake “REFLECT” was motivated by personal circumstances. In early 2013, only a few days after his son was born, Bell received news that a friend of his, an educated professional with a wife and four children, had been sentenced to 36 years in prison. The news came as a shock and a wakeup call; a reminder of how quickly one bad decision could change his whole life.
“There were times when my son would look up and smile at me,” Bell reflects on his website, “and the finality of my friend’s situation would rush into my head and I would hear a cold thin voice say: ‘…there, but for the grace of God, go I…’”
With this in mind, Bell approached the Maine prison system with a proposal: he would photograph portraits of convicts, then have them write heartfelt letters to their younger selves, pre-crime, and superimpose the text over the portraits. He received permission, and in August 2013 he shot twelve portraits of inmates at Maine State Prison in Warren, Maine. After the photo shoot, he returned to the studio and spent hours painstakingly editing the photos and overlaying each man’s handwriting over his portrait.
“There was a moment when I first saw the text overlaid around the inmates and the project really came together,” Bell recalls. “It was an immediate realization that something powerful had been created.”
Bell printed the portraits to be almost life-size, and displayed them in a gallery showing in February 2014 at Engine Gallery in Biddeford, Maine, to overwhelmingly positive responses from family and friends of the subjects, as well as the general public. In a video on Bell’s website, visitors reflect on the portraits, describing them as “extremely powerful,” “very touching,” and bringing them “to tears.”
The father of “Brandon,” the youngest prisoner in the series, reflects that in viewing the gallery, “the biggest emotion [for me] is pride…[in light of] the mistake that my son made to get himself in prison—he’s done so many other things to help others in his situation, and as I see his portrait on the wall and the letter that he wrote, it’s sincere and it’s my son, it’s all him.”
The project has since been profiled by national and international newsagents in North America, the UK and Australia, and Bell plans to develop it into a documentary and possibly a further photo series applying the concept to other aspects of society.
“The goal of this project,” he explains, “was to encourage conversation; to create empathy, understanding and a heightened experience of standing in someone else’s shoes.”
View the whole project on Bell's website.