AUGUSTA — On the walls of the Danforth Gallery are almost life-size portraits of a dozen men with letters to their younger selves filling up the rest of the frames.

The men, all incarcerated in the Maine State Prison in Warren, warned themselves about drugs, alcohol, dropping out of school and trying to fit in with the wrong crowds.

“You got here because of ignorance, because of a mindset, and because you were trying to be someone you are not,” wrote Brandon Brown, 28, in prison for shooting a man outside a bar in Portland, paralyzing the man from the waist down. “Just know that people will always try to test you, and no matter what you think, only a real man can walk away.”

Trent Bell, a commercial photographer based in Biddeford, came up with the photo project after a friend of his, a man with four children and a wife, was sentenced to 36 years in prison.

Bell, who specializes in architectural photography, said he wanted to do a project that included social commentary. The 12 inmates were the only ones who volunteered to participate.

University of Maine at Augusta held a question-and-answer session with Bell on Thursday afternoon at its Danforth Galley. The exhibit, “Reflect: Convicts’ Letters to Their Younger Selves,” runs through Nov. 7.


American culture generally doesn’t support helping and sympathizing with inmates, Bell said. However, so much so much of people’s lives and situations are shaped by decisions made by the their parents and other people before them, Bell said.

“It was just a moment of realization of how much we need each other and how many of us are let down, underserved,” he said.

The text superimposed on the images allows viewers to participate and feel as though they’re eavesdropping on a conversation between the prisoner and himself, Bell said.

“It puts you in a position to absorb their advice because they’re not talking to you. They’re talking to their younger selves,” he said.

Ellen Taylor, an English professor at UMA who teaches prisoners in Warren, also spoke Thursday at the Q-and-A at the gallery. She said she has taught four of the photographed inmates, and seeing the project was the first time she learned about some of their crimes.

Next to each photograph is a label with each inmate’s first name, age, crime, time spent in prison and time left.


Taylor said the UMA professors who teach at the prison, in a program funded by a private organization, don’t seek out information about the men’s crimes because they want to see them as humans.

“If we don’t treat them like humans, they’re just going to spend their whole life there,” Taylor said.

Brown, who is scheduled to get out of prison in 2026 after serving 17 years for the attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault of James Sanders, wrote to his younger self that he should love his family and do something positive every day.

“Do the right thing now so you won’t look back and wish you had done better or done more,” Brown wrote.

In a short video about the project on Bell’s website, Brown’s father said he felt proud of his son after seeing the letter and portrait.

“He wanted to be part of this in hopes it helped somebody, one person, anybody,” Mark Brown said. “He’s grown up. It’s a tough way to grow up.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

Twitter: @paul_koenig

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