- Peter Merts (III)
20” x 16”, inkjet print, 2017.
The title of this exhibition and publication, Freedom & Captivity, perfectly describes the dichotomy in which my photographs reside. By encouraging incarcerated men and women to explore and express their creative selves, prison art programs are designed to re-imagine incarceration variously as self-discovery, transformation, and sometimes even rehabilitation.
Studies have shown the effectiveness of art practice—the development of confidence, self-control, and self-awareness; increased purpose, agency, and critical thinking; and improvement of relationships with other inmates, staff, and family. For these reasons, for the past 15 years I have been photographing California’s Arts in Corrections program.
The title of my project is Unbound: the Passion of Incarcerated Artists. The works engage in two ways with the notion of abolition—by illustrating the unbridled creativity and artistry of incarcerated artists, and by highlighting the humanity of the artists by showing their authenticity, expressiveness, courage, and passion.
There are many ways to envision abolition, and progress comes in many forms. Prison art programs, by engaging the creative passions of incarcerated men and women and offering opportunities for personal transformation, are rich environments for nurturing such changes.
I have been photographing the impact of art on institutionalized populations for four decades, and have found that engagement to be immensely powerful. Since 1980 I have documented the work of Bread & Roses Presents, which produces live performances (music, dance, theater, etc.) inside nursing homes, drug rehab programs, children’s hospitals, jails, prisons, etc.
In 2015, I published with Dr. Larry Brewster Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons (2nd ed.).
In 2021, I self-published a monograph of photographs from California’s prison art programs—Unbound: the Passion of Incarcerated Artists. This book will serve as a starting point for a new publication due out in Spring 2022, from publisher Daylight Books.
To date, I have photographed art classes in all 36 of California’s adult state prisons. At each shoot, I give each artist directions on how their family members can view the photos of their loved ones engaging in art practice. My photos are used widely to publicize and promote prison art classes, appearing in numerous magazines, blogs, websites, books, films, exhibitions, and slideshows. More at www.petermerts.com and @petermerts.