CENTER SOCIAL AWARD: Artist's Statement

Winner: Peter Merts

Incarcerated Artists

16x20-inch archival inkjet prints

This project shows California prison inmates discovering, developing, and occasionally mastering artistic expression; it celebrates the humanity of these men and women, and the authenticity of their creative pursuits.

A common thread running through America’s incarcerated population is the experience of childhood trauma. I survived my own domestic trauma while growing up, which is likely what spawned in me an empathy for people who were dealt a tough hand in life. As an adult I discovered that art—for me it was photography—could serve as a way to engage productively with that trauma and its consequences, and to provide a sense of fulfillment.

Consequently, when I was offered the opportunity to document art classes at a nearby prison, it felt like a good fit. But how to photograph them?

Initially my shooting style was objective—a fly-on-the-wall approach. However, I soon deemed this method inadequate to my experience of the passion, joy, and commitment of the artists, and the ways they engaged with their instructors, with each other, and with me. About the same time I came to realize that perhaps the greatest obstacles to prison reform in the US are the widespread beliefs that prison inmates are irredeemable, undeserving, or even less than human. This, in spite of numerous studies having shown the beneficial effects of prison art programming on inmates’ behavior, relationships, and sense of worth.

So I began working closer, engaging with my subjects and occasionally collaborating with them. In fact my entire conception of the project shifted—from documenting the activities and accoutrements of prison art classes, to illuminating the humanity of the student artists, and the authenticity of their artistic explorations and expressions.

By showing these inmates as passionate artists, exploring and expressing themselves with vulnerability and courage, I aim to in some measure disrupt our society’s prejudices against incarcerated persons, and to support expansion of prison art programming.

CENTER SOCIAL AWARD: Juror's Statement


Jury of Panelists from the CENTER Team: staff, former grant recipients and an Advisory Council member

We invited a Selection Committee, comprised of Mary Anne Redding, Curator, Sioux City Art Center, and former CENTER grant recipients Ada Trillo and Justin Maxon to consider the following criteria: the quality of the images, writing, and concept fit within the social category, the work has potential for an interest outside of the art/photo community, and holds the potential for application and collaborations. The majority chose the series “Incarcerated Artists” by Peter Merts.

Selection Panelist Mary Anne Redding wrote about the project: “This series portrays a part of prison life that is not in the news. Positive prison communities are not the norm, so these photographs are necessary both within and well beyond the photo community.”