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Anonymous Backdrop Painted in State Correctional Institution- Houtzdale, Pennsylvania. Credit Alyse Emdur

My interactions with artist Alyse Emdur set me on a journey of understanding the role escapism plays for those incarcerated in the United States. Prison Landscapes, a project Emdur started in 2013, brings together a collection of one hundred photographs of prisoners as they stand in front of painted backdrops in prison visiting rooms. The portraits in the book were photographed by inmate volunteers who work in the portrait studios, and photos of the depopulated paintings were captured by Emdur.

The backdrops convey optimistic visions of another world, fantastical depictions of non-confinement. These paintings often reference natural landscapes: waterfalls, tropical beaches and sunsets mount the grey walls of various prisons. Others depict iconic city scenes and recognisable cultural monuments such as the Statue of Liberty in New York. As the book’s introduction states, ‘Prison Landscapes explores this little known and largely physically inaccessible genre of painting and portraiture seen only by inmates, visitors, and prison employees’. [1]

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Anonymous Backdrop Painted in Otisville Correctional Facility, New York. Credit Alyse Emdur

Re-imaging the identities of those inside prisons conjures questions of visibility, both of prisoners’ representation and the geographical visibility of prisons within wider society. ‘Prison Landscapes revealed the extent to which the system is hiding itself […] most prisons are very hard to find— they are in rural areas’ stated Emdur, reflecting on her visits to  institutions. [2] The phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is an interesting term when considering where the government positions prisons; they ‘are often in remote areas, miles from towns and cities, difficult to visit and gain access to’, Emdur noted, ‘Prison Landscapes is really about showing the opacity of the prisons and the level of control that the system has over its own representation.’ [3] Conversely, the photographs demonstrate the control of the individual, providing a space of transparency for the public to consider and the ideologies and constitution of prisons in a wider context. Josh Begely’s ‘Prison Map’ (2012) uses satellite images to assemble a visual geography of prisons in the United States.

One in a hundred adults live behind bars in the United States, proving that the slur ‘prison nation’ isn’t one made in jest—it denotes a lived and statistical reality. Autonomous, experiential representation of this system—as Emdur’s project enables—is a method of communication, a window into what isn’t visible within prisons. When inmates can be seen by wider society, we are encouraged to acknowledge their existence as individuals beyond the specificity of  their crimes. 

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Remi Emdur, Bruce Emdur, and Alyse Emdur, Bayside State Prison, Leesburg New Jersey, 1988. Credit Alyse Emdur

The lack of visibility for prisoners is symptomatic of a wider ideology which renders all ‘problem people’ (LGBTQ citizens, homelessness, disabled people, criminals and the mentally ill, to name a few) invisible through institutionalisation. Emdur’s photographs disrupt such demands: they demonstrate moments where solidarity emerges and new possibilities arise. As Hannah Arendt writes  in regard to collective strength: ‘the simple truth is that no man can act alone’. [4] In displaying these photographs in the book and providing inmates with copies, Emdur facilitates collective resistance to invisibility, ‘even though it is such a restrictive situation, I think that the inmates pictured are really in many instances using every little freedom, every little way they can to express themselves’. [5]

The byproduct of these institutional constraints, Emdur explains, is a longing for self-expression and self-representation. How prisoners communicate with the outside world is institutionally limited, and in order to conquer loneliness and isolation they use self documentation to connect to others. Emdur explained that her project, just as with Alicia Neal’s portrait of Chelsea Manning, reiterates inmates’ desire of ‘wanting to be seen, wanting someone to acknowledge your existence as a human’. [6] 

The regulations imposed by prison authorities also affected how Emdur could communicate with inmates and collect the photographs. She began commissioning and compiling the images by writing to people in prison, explaining  that she ‘[had] to be vulnerable in the letters, [writing] honest personal information, [and] that’s what I got back in return—a level of respect’. [7] 

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Anonymous, State Correctional Institution- Coal Township, Pennsylvania. Credit Alyse Emdur

Traditionally we think of prison visiting rooms as two people facing one another, sitting on either side of a pane of glass or perspex, communicating via a phone; these are called non-contacting (NCV) visiting rooms and are usually located in high security prisons. [8] The photographs in Prison Landscapes, however, are an example of contact visitation (CV). The backdrops are situated in large rooms with a number of chairs and tables where inmates can talk to visitors for up to ninety minutes. These spaces, often found in low and minimum security prisons are where prisoners have their photographs taken, alone or with visitors. The visiting room photographs, sometimes referred to as ‘click clicks’ are seen as a service by prison authorities and not representative of anything artistic. [9]

While researching this mode of prison photography, artist David Adler reported how one Warden explained this service’s function: ‘[it is] not one of our art programs. That’s just a service we offer for prisoners”. [10] Although a mandatory service, there exists a social hierarchy of who can have the photographs taken: ‘you can only get your picture taken if you have a visitor, but of course there are exceptions to that rule dependent on the state and institution’. Without visitors, prisoners have to pay for the photographs themselves. [11] This places a constraint on the photographs’ accessibility. One cannot help but wonder—where are the photographs of inmates without visitors?   

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Lynette Newson, Correctional Institute for Women, Corona, California. Credit Alyse Emdur

The notion of ‘freedom’ is nuanced and intricate for those who are incarcerated; at once nostalgic and fantastical, the term ‘free world’ is used by those on the inside when referring to the outside—it illuminates how complicated creating a situation of momentary freedom for inmates can be. Through visually documenting their time spent in prison, they allow their identities to emerge in a different context: it is ‘a way to document their time, to document themselves, and those images I think in part are taken for themselves and are powerful in another way—someone wanting to document themselves, to see what they look like in a photograph’ explains Emdur. [13] But they also exemplify the emotional labour involved in attempting to bridge the gulf between incarcerated reality and self-imaging;  Arlie Hochschild describes this as a discrepancy between one’s outward face and inner reality: ‘the separation between “me” and my face or between “me” and my feeling counts as estrangement depends on something else— the outer context’. [14]

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Anonymous backdrop painted in Woodbourne Correctional Facility, New York. Credit Alyse Emdur

Mugshots are the usual mode of photography within the criminal justice system. This method of documentation strips inmates of their identity and humanity, and the images are cropped so that clothes and lower bodies are no longer visible. ‘I think that’s the difference between these images and a mug shot’ explains Emdur, ‘[that] they’re not pseudoscientific’. [15] In Prison Landscapes inmates are allowed to make gestures and pose however they choose in front of the backdrops:

‘Prisoners have the freedom to kneel or sit, stand or twist to express themselves through their body even through their facial expressions and sometimes their clothes, depending on how restricting their dress code is in the institution. There are still a lot of decisions that the inmates are making within that frame to express themselves.’ [16]

Emdur describes the prisoners’ attempts to dissolve institutional control by creating alternative representations. Some prisoners kneel, crouch and even touch the backdrops—others hold props that relate to the scene they stand in front of, such as fake fish. Although such gestures appear to be made casually, they are still subject to restraint imposed by prison authorities. ‘This photographic system is so controlled’ Emdur told me, ‘in the sense that the prison is saying, this is a painting you can only get your photograph taken in front of, and we’re going to crop out everything outside the frame. That is so oppressive and restricting in terms of representing yourself’. [17] Yet this seems somewhat contradictory; yes, the inmates have more freedom in their poses in front of the backdrops. But what about the fee, or, indeed, the durational limits imposed on the visiting time? Is representation really an affirmation of individuality, or another form of subjection?


Hatty Nestor has published in Art in America, BOMB, The White Review, Frieze, and many other publications. She was Jerwood Arts Space writer in residence 2017, and currently lives in New Mexico. Her book on portraits of the incarcerated is forthcoming from Zer0 Books in 2019


[1] Alyse Emdur, Prison Landscapes (London: Four Corners Books, 2012) p. 2

[2] Author interview with Alyse Emdur, artist, 3 February 2017

[3] ibid.

[4] Hannah Arendt, The Life of The Mind (London: Secker and Warburg, 1978) p. 180

[5] Author interview with Alyse Emdur, artist, 3 February 2017

[6] ibid.

[7] Alyse Emdur, Prison Landscapes (London: Four Corners Books, 2012) p. 3.

[8] Conversations in NCV visitations are often recorded by prison authorities, who have the permission to listen back to the conversations. It is mandatory that the prison records all conversations between visitors, inmates and operators

[9] Harry Cheadle, ‘Click Clicks in the Clink Clink’, Vice (2012)

[10] Author interview with Alyse Emdur, artist, 3 February 2017

[11] These photographs are often between $2 -$3, which we could consider to be another method of how the justice system gains capital from prisoners

[12] Author interview with Alyse Emdur, artist, 3 February 2017

[13] Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart (Berkeley: California University

Press, 2012) p. 37

[14] Author interview with Alyse Emdur, artist, 3 February 2017

[15] ibid.

[16] ibid.