Relearning the Art of Living, Photos of Indonesian Ex-Prisoners documents the lives and art practice of two Indonesian artists, formerly incarcerated on drug charges, who have been released from prison. My subjects’ prison-created artwork depicts the challenges they faced on the inside. There wasn’t reliable water to their cells, so the men hauled water from a well. My subjects and other prisoners had to pay guards for a cell, or face daily beatings and electrocution in solitary confinement. The two men’s artwork also chronicled internal struggles and the stress of being separated from friends and family.
While spending time with the two men and looking through their prison artwork, I discovered that their art practices had really helped them transcend the madness of such an institutional setting, with all its turmoil and uncertainty, and had fundamentally changed their prison experience. Themes of loneliness, chaos, and frustration were prominent in their artwork and recollections of prison time; yet throwing themselves into creating a record of their experiences and feelings while in prison helped them process all the things they faced and seemed to sustain them while in a grim situation. Similar to a person who practices meditation to tackle stress in their life, my subjects’ art practices helped them navigate their unsettled and imperfect lives away from home with some imagination and calm.
Aside from making a visual record of my subjects’ artwork, I also photographed the men in their daily lives on the outside. I spent a lot of time getting to know my subjects and their families and photographed slowly and vulnerably. I observed them as they began interacting with family and re-acclimatizing to their surroundings. They worked to reconcile their feelings of ‘otherness’ in a familiar environment, and I was there to document the transition.
Beginning with President Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs, the US enacted tough sentences in an attempt to wipe out drug use. Indonesia also penalized drug offenses similarly, if not more harshly, in some cases. Having worked in the Phoenix, Arizona justice system for two years, and with my photo subjects in Indonesia, I’ve seen similarities between the US’ and Indonesia’s criminal justice system first hand. While the US has begun making incremental changes in its drug policy (occasionally opting for less harsh sentences and treatment options for people with drug addictions), Indonesia’s government still exacts long prison sentences in difficult conditions for simple possession, and the death penalty for drug trafficking.
Although public opinion may be that long prison sentences are a deterrent for people considering committing crimes, studies do not support this belief. Instead, I believe we should be incorporating restorative justice initiatives into our criminal justice system in order for our society to function more peacefully.
I see Relearning the Art of Living as a visual part of the conversation around drug policy and the justice system. Photography offers insight into people’s motivations and life patterns, which in turn supports empathy and builds awareness. Understanding can incite change.