Photographer Jenn Ackerman is nothing if not a boundary-pusher. Her work delicately treads the line between art and ethnography, offering glimpses into worlds that both trouble and intrigue us – from beauty pageants to dying inmates. Alongside her husband and creative partner, Tim Gruber, Ackerman captures the beauty and grace that can exist in even the harshest conditions, as demonstrated poignantly in her photo series “Trapped.” This project, inspired by a NY Times article on the growing population of inmates with mental illness, brings viewers into the stark world of someone trapped both physically and psychologically. It’s a place none of us would want to be, but one in which Ackerman immersed herself for the sake of shedding light on this little known side of the prison system. Ackerman writes:
My intention was to make that made the viewer feel what I felt when I was inside the prison. I took a more personal and emotional approach to this project than I ever have…I left the prison everyday wanting to help these men that have nowhere else to go. There were days that I was extremely scared and others that I left thinking how much someone on the outside missed them. Some days, I had to remind myself that many of these men had done heinous things. There were also days when I was reminded that some of these men have faded into the system with no hope of getting out…
For most of these men, they have been outcasts of society and rarely heard. So they had a chance to share their story and have someone listen that actually cared to listen not just focused on treatment or safety. My intention is to spark calls for reform for the treatment of the mentally ill and the prison system in the US.
On the project’s website you can watch the feature video, which includes a combination of action footage, still images, facts about the conditions of mentally ill inmates, and audio from an interview with the warden from the prison Ackerman photographed. The content is unsettling and at times hard to watch, but it is an important step toward shedding light on a community that might otherwise go faceless and nameless. Their stories, at least, will not remain trapped.
Photo credit: Jenn Ackerman