Tommy and Joe. © Roger Kisby

Roger Kisby, a NYC-based photographer and a friend of a friend, and I chatted briefly during my recent trip to New York. He mentioned he had photographed some prisoners.

It wasn’t your typical situation. Roger decided to get out from under his contract work and leap into the unknown with a road trip. It was intended to test his skills, hone his techniques, and grow his portfolio.

Judging by the results – showcased today on The Awl – Roger succeeded. I like the diversity of personalities in the edit and I like the fact a prisoner double portrait slips seemlessly into the selection too. On this American holiday, it seems a fitting bunch of Americans – of all shapes and stripes (excuse the pun) – to reflect upon. Prisoners are us.


Some photographers are shy about approaching strangers to make portraits. Was this ever a problem for you? Was this any different when approaching inmates?

To some degree, I am always nervous about asking a stranger for his or her portrait. If there wasn’t that element of getting over my fear I don’t think I’d get as much satisfaction as I do when I get a good portrait. It helped that I had a quick pitch about my road trip project. Most people were receptive to it and those that weren’t simply said no and that was that. Even with the ones that said no I still had good conversations. That was the point of the project; for me to engage with people along my trip.

In this case with Tommy and Joe, I was driving out of Marfa, TX when I saw them. I remember distinctly having a conversation with myself about whether I should turn around. I didn’t know if I was legally allowed to take photos of prisoners. I didn’t know how the inmates would react. I didn’t know if it was safe. Ultimately, I realized it would have bugged me for the rest of the trip if I didn’t at least try.

What were they doing?

As I walked up they were doing some grounds-keeping in front of the courthouse. They had someone monitoring them but it wasn’t a guard. Or at least he didn’t seem like one to me. It all seemed very relaxed except for the chains around their ankles.

What do you think they thought about having their picture made?

I wasn’t sure who to ask so I directed my question to all three. The monitor gave permission and the inmates were very much into the idea. I went back to my car grabbed my camera and set up. I tried to work quickly to not take up too much of their time which in retrospect seems silly now; they obviously had time and were happy to do the photos. Honestly I think I was just nervous.

Did you get any of their story?

A little. Tommy had 9 months left for possession. Joe mentioned something about being deported and had 6 months left on an 8 month sentence. One thing I loved was they both asked me if I could send copies of the photo to their moms and gave me their addresses. Which I am doing.

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Roger Kisby is an editorial and portrait photographer who lives in Brooklyn. You can see more road trip photos at his Tumblr and on Instagram. You can also follow him on twitter.