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Between 2002 and 2003, New York based photographer Serge J-F. Levy, visited six maximum security prisons across multiple states. The series is called Religion in Prisons.

I am decidedly ambivalent about the role of religion within prisons – it can be a force for good and for positive change, but it can also be reductive in scope and used for manipulation. I wanted to ask Serge a few questions to see if he could help me, and us, through some of the issues and interactions religions bring about in prison environments.


Prison Photography: Tell us about your approach.

Serge J-F. Levy: When I did the project, I did my best to approach each individual (inmate) tabula rasa. I did everything within my power to try and understand who they were in the moment I met them and to understand who they wanted to be from that moment onward. In most cases I did not know what each person was punished for.

Though I feel a general compassion for humanity and a desire to understand troubled people, I also understand that the acts of many of the people I photographed often had dire and unimaginable consequences on the lives of their victims and the victim’s families. So, my compassion and understanding is measured with an awareness of the distinct nature of my relationship to my subjects.

It seems like you’ve been to a few states. Which prisons have you photographed in and in what time period?

I started in Greenhaven Maximum Security in New York State. I went on to photograph at the Muncy Women’s Unit in Pennsylvania, MCF (Minnesota Correctional Facility) – Stillwater, MCF-Oak Park Heights Super Maximum, MCF- St. Cloud, and Angola in Louisiana.

What attracted you to prisons and specifically religion in prisons?

When an accused criminal is locked away, we, as a country and a society, have assumed the inmate will be experiencing some degree of “rehabilitation.” Instead, it would appear these environments quite often breed further damage, dysfunction, and pathology. I became interested in how inmates used their time to pursue a form of healing outside of the prescribed forms of daily routine. Through religious communities, inmates were often seeking a form of spiritual rehabilitation. This spiritual rehabilitation often provided the inmates a way to metaphorically experience a freedom beyond the obvious confinement and constraint they experience in their present lives. Religion also provides many adherents a lasting form of reflection and cleansing to purge the remains of unresolved tragedy from their pasts. So you asked why I was attracted to this project? Because I feel the literal experience of being imprisoned, stripped of freedom, and confined in a den of thieves (and murderers, etc.), is a powerful figurative example of aspects of the more general human experience. The ability to find a way to transcend the reality of one’s current circumstances and experience a healing and freedom through the channels of spirituality and reflection… that’s a valuable tool.

How did you negotiate access? Did different DOCs react to your request differently?

I got access through the most classic technique I know of; I met someone in the mailroom who introduced me to someone who worked on the second floor who introduced me to the fourth floor and on up the chain until I had an endorsement to enter my first prison. After working in Greenhaven Maximum Security Prison for several visits, I had created a body of work that would encourage future prisons of the valuable intentions and ideas behind my work.

And related to the last question of how I got access, the work I was doing was not much of a security risk for prison administrations as I was mostly working in areas and in ways that could only make the prison system and its staff look good. However, I guess there was always the risk that I could have turned my camera in a different direction and as was the case in many instances, I was left alone with inmates long enough that I could have seen more than I was potentially supposed to. But that’s not who I am or how I work.

Any memorable interactions?

One warden in Texas suggested we grab tea and beer when I made it down. I never made it down but I was always interested in whether that was an obscure Texan custom.

Is photography a security risk for prison administrations?

I just don’t know the nuances of security well enough to weigh in on that question. I could imagine that with a particular intention, a photographer may be able to provide the necessary coverage to develop a plan, but I am mostly constructing this from my avid movie watching hobby!

Some of the services/prayer/rituals you’ve photographed seem quite involved. How much time did prisoners spend involved in religious observance? Were their other outlets available to them for self-reflection and improvement, e.g. sports, industries, education, group counseling, libraries?

I found it interesting how religion served multi-faceted functions for the inmates. On the most direct level, it was a form of spiritual cleansing and growth that would happen in services and weekly or daily gatherings and meetings in chapels and make-shift religious venues. But beyond these formal locations, religion becomes an identity and an opportunity to develop a social circle; a comparison to how gangs function in prison might be an apt comparison because as I understand it, competing religions would at times seek to sabotage the work of each other. One such case was how the baptism tank had to be replaced by a laundry cart because it would constantly develop mysterious holes at Stillwater Maximum Security Prison in Minnesota.

But religion was also practiced in the art inmates created; from sculptural effigies to paintings and drawings of religious scenes, the hobby shops and prison cells often contained quite a bit of religious memorabilia. There were several outlets for inmates to reflect and experience spirituality; the arts, group meetings of various sorts (including therapy), formal religious gatherings, one-on-one consultations with chaplains, and library hours.

Policies varied from prison to prison and in each case I would hear inmates express grievance as to the limitations that were imposed upon them. I was only there for small slices of time and generally wasn’t able to get a more holistic sense of what the greater experience was like.

What did the prisoners think of your presence?

I think the inmates respected the integrity of my stated goals and the ideas I had for my work. I also think, rightfully so, many inmates were skeptical as to my intentions and my affiliation with the media. After all, many of the people I worked with were directly featured and often intensely maligned in the media during their prosecution and processing through the judicial system.

What did the correctional officers think of your presence?

The correctional officers, were largely very helpful but also insistent upon reminding me of the omnipresent dangers. On more than one occasion I was told that a particular inmate was trying to con me into believing one story or another. I generally felt that the correctional officers had seen or heard quite a bit during their time working inside.

Were their any days and/or experiences with the prisoners that shocked, surprised or delighted you?

Kneeling in a small room for Friday Jumma with 300 Muslim inmates listening to and responding to the call of Allah Oh Akbar is something that can’t be explained but only felt. Same for a Baptist or Pentecostal service.

On one occasion, I sat in a room of 10 women gathered with a Catholic chaplain, and listened to one woman recount her experience of being raped and simultaneously attacked by a dog. Sometimes, it was more important for me to listen, feel and internalize the moment without the filter of photography.

Do you follow a creed or religion?

I don’t follow any particular religious path. I lead a life that is guided by principles that I have culled from religious practice and ideas that have resonated with me over time. My “religion” is constantly evolving. The sources behind my spirituality that I can identify are Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and many other faiths and disciplines I have encountered throughout my life.

What has been the reception to these images?

I think people like it. But due to the limited exposure these images have had, I have yet to hear strong dissenting opinions if there are any.

How do you think your images fit into the visual landscape of prisons and prisoners in America. Do they confirm or counter stereotypes or common narratives?

I am seeking to provide a record of the people practicing religion in prison. Of the work I have seen done in prisons, much of it addresses religion as a component of life inside, and therefore seems to be geared toward molding the religious component of prison life into a greater aesthetic and narrative whole.

My work is more thorough in exploring this particular [religious] angle of prison life. Of course, I could be very wrong about the full breadth of quality work done on this specific topic.

Thank you for your time Serge.


Serge J-F. Levy’s work is represented by Gallery 339 in Philadelphia and has been exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Schroeder Romero Gallery in Chelsea, and The Leica Gallery (New York City and Tokyo) among many other national and international solo and group exhibitions. In 2011 the Princeton University Press published a book of Serge’s photographs made during his yearlong photography fellowship at the Institute, along with essays by Institute members. Serge’s magazine photography has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Life, ESPN The Magazine, and Harper’s Magazine among others.. For over 10 years Serge has been on the faculty at the International Center of Photography in New York City where he is a seminar leader in the documentary/photojournalism program and teaches street photography, editing, portraiture, and several other courses. In addition to his street photography practice, he is an avid draftsman and painter. Serge lived in New York City for his whole life … until recently moving to the Sonoran Desert.


Body vs. Structure: Islam in Prisons
Dustin Franz’s ‘Finding Faith’
Andrew Kaufman and the Incarcerated “Jesus Freaks”
Photog Searches for Healing on Texas’ Deathrow

John Holbrook‘s Death Row portraits (2008) were taken in the Polunsky and Gatesville units, Texas.

The portraits serve two functions – they are the products of Holbrook’s own therapeutic journey and they are didactic props for the families of victims of murder.

“I want to teach the victims this liberating truth that I have learned,” says Holbrook. “The only way we can truly stop suffering is to love and forgive those who have caused the suffering.”

Seemingly, Death Row was propelled by Holbrook’s interpretation of Christian forgiveness and his need to psychologically heal after seeing images of violence during his work.

For 17 years, Holbrook worked as a private investigator on capital murder cases in Texas. In 1995, he was assigned to a case involving the double homicide of a teenage couple for which he spent many hours examining crime-scene evidence and graphic photographs.

Years later, Holbrook began suffering anxious episodes.

“A psychologist determined that my photographs of that time of homeless and social outcasts shown in a spiritual light, were subconscious attempts to correct the ‘bad pictures’ I saw while working the capital murder case,” says Holbrook.

“Ultimately, I learned that I could overcome PTSD by forgiving those who had caused it.”

As he photographed through windows of prison visiting-room booths, Holbrook directed his subjects in spiritual gestures. The video (below) mirrors the artist’s rationale and is sympathetic to his needs. It bothers me a little that Holbrook feels he is the one to bestow forgiveness. He was a professional in his work. It was work that carried extreme emotional trauma after the fact, and I understand why Holbrook responded outwardly with conviction and a project as strong as his prior distress, but it could be argued Holbrook’s dragged prisoners into his healing process. If a university wanted to interview death-row prisoners they’d need ethics approval from a human subjects research board. I’d like to know about Holbrook’s preparations for the project.

That said, the prisoners he worked with (on the evidence of the video below) are engaged in the project and undoubtedly moved by the Holbrook’s portraits. I assume they were extremely grateful for the visits and discussion with Holbrook.

The stresses of criminal justice work lead to many responses by professionals and while Holbrook’s methods may be unorthodox, it seems he’s gone about them in good faith (pun intended). Better this outward healing than the slow degradation of family life and health that can impact police and prison personnel.

At its core, Holbrook’s work is a call to victims’ loved ones – who have significant sway in the death penalty debate – to oppose state murder.

“In order to get a death penalty, a Texas prosecutor will argue that the victim’s loved ones endorse the death of the accused. It is said that the surviving loved ones, “need closure”. Through my pictures, I argue that this disables the survivor’s ability to forgive the accused. To me, execution is a grave injustice done to the loved ones, ultimately denying survivors the ability to stop suffering.”

We mustn’t forget that Holbrook’s invocation of Christian teachings will help many Americans connect with his work. The work is anti-death penalty and Holbrook’s American audience vote.

I have not come across any project similar to this and I’d be very interested to get the views of the prisoners involved. I think only then can we begin to weigh the value of Holbrook’s works. Who knows, several of Holbrook’s subject may have already been executed?

The overt Christian imagery can be regarded as talking point, for some, maybe a noble purity, but for me it is suffocating. There are sociological causes to crime and there can be political responses. That is not to say I don’t believe in forgiveness; it is just to insist that forgiveness needn’t be monopolised by faith groups but instead incorporated into secular policy, restorative justice programs and sentencing laws that are not overly-retributive.

Forgiveness is an essential part of understanding the causes and cycles of crime. Unfortunately, too often “forgiveness” hinges upon a final apology of the condemned before we fry them anyway.

Andrew Kaufman took a long look at religion in America during the Bush presidency. His multi-story project is irreverently titled The United States of God and the Jesus Freaks. One chapter is in the Broward Correctional Institute.

Religious missions are a mainstay of many American prisons. Christian programs constitute 65% of all volunteer efforts at the prison at which I work in Washington State.

Prison religious programs are not mandatory so I steer clear of accusations of manipulation. The carceral culture may be coercive but it’s dealing in hyperbole to equate prison fellowships with exploitation. For many, the cultural relevance of Christianity and evangelism makes prison worship an understandable choice.

Reasons for the existence – in some places prevalence – of evangelism within prisons are complex and many. I will defer to Kaufman’s observations to give context to these particular photographs and the matter of fanatic religion in prisons.

Q & A

Explain your title.

During the George W. Bush presidency religion was a constant topic. My photography of, and research into, evangelism started in 2003 when the Ten Commandments statue was removed from the Alabama State Supreme court. Since that time I photographed many different elements of the Evangelical movement including a drive-in church, Holy Land Amusement Park, a hip-hop church, Christian rock, the Global Pastor Wives Network, Billy Graham’s Last Crusade and then here, at a women’s prison bible group. At that point I had come to name the project ‘The United States of God’.

During the summer of 2004, I was watching Hawaiian TV and saw a young lady being interviewed. She had just been attacked by a shark and had her arm torn off. The interviewer asked her how she was coping and said she was doing great because she was a “Jesus Freak”. The interviewer asked her if she liked being called a “Jesus Freak”. She replied “Yes” as that was how she viewed herself. She identified with the idea. At that moment the working title of my project became ‘The United States of God and the Jesus Freaks’.

Why did you extend the project to a prison?

I researched evangelical Christianity in America and made contact with the Prison Fellowship for Women. I had always known that people in prison were interested in evangelism and atoning for the sins or wrongdoings. I don’t want to speculate but it seemed that the grief of being incarcerated is eased when finding prayer.

I made a few visits with the fellowship and eventually had an opportunity to see close up what they offer. I was compelled to photograph this segment of evangelism because I wanted to see different strata of society and how each prays.

What purpose does religion serve in this particular institution?

The prison allowed them to devote time and attention to their faith. It was fascinating to see how they cope with the incarceration and [see the] time that they need to heal and move on from emotional strain.

Did any of the prisoners receive prints?

As far as I know, none of the inmates have any physical copies of the images. The work is online so they might have seen the web. As I wasn’t family, it was difficult to communicate with the inmates.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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