The Reflect Project: Portraits of Prisoners by Trent Bell

The Reflect Project, by Trent Bell, is a photography project that merges large-scale portraits of inmates in the Maine prison system with handwritten letters the convicts composed as if writing to a younger self.

This project makes you think about just how easy it might be to make one wrong choice that will change your life forever. Below Trent describes, in his own words, a bit about what the project is and how it was achieved. Also make sure and watch the documentary of the project at the end of this post to get even more insight into this very powerful project.

Please visit Trent Bell’s portfolio to see more of his amazing work.

Enter Trent Bell

In early 2013 we sat down to conceive a “self assignment” project. We wanted something with depth as we normally are producing commercial media, beautiful houses and such. I thought, “portraits of prisoners, why not…?” As we sat discussing the idea we realized that “just portraits” would leave a lot out. We wanted more of a story to help draw the subject out and help pull the viewer / reader in. So the idea as you see it now was developed, something that was very much a collaboration between the photographer and subject.


The idea came up as I recently had a friend, a husband and father, an educated professional, go to prison for possibly 36 years. This friend was the same person as me, we had the same morals, the same interests, what happened? Now, every time its quiet, every time my mind starts to collate recent moments, valuable experiences & memories, every time my son looks up and smiles at me, the finality and the loss of my friends “free life” comes into my head and I hear a voice“…there, but for the grace of God, go I…”


As this project progressed we developed a lighting scheme to fit the mood of our subject, something to give a very somber feel, and a tiny bit of an “interrogation lighting” feel to help communicate the situation to the viewer. We then did a lighting test shoot before hand to iron out the kinks. Then we tried to speculate any issues we might have with post, how to position the subjects to allow for space for the letter, things like that. We then also had to create a way to gracefully transfer the handwritten letters to the portrait and make it look believable, respectful and beautiful. This took a lot of time in measuring, dividing, isolating and transferring in post to achieve the desired look. In the end the thing that tied the two aspects of the project together was respecting the vignette of the portrait in the representation of the letter on the background.


We then brought two other associated artists on board, Corey Desroches for prison guard portraits, and Joe Carter for a video art/documentary. The project rapidly filled out to be an artistic documentation of choices, consequences and reflection. We saw this as something with value far beyond monetary means, something containing decades of time, untold pain, loss, remorse and regret. What we found though was the positive value of bad choices can be immeasurable if we can face them, admit to them and be strong enough share.