Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

What do murderers look like, anyway?

HSBurke's picture

I am particularly thankful for Zehr's decision to photograph the men and women in street clothes for their representation in Doing Life. The first thought I had upon cracking open the book was "Wow, these people sure don't look like prisoners." In fact, I actually had to flip back to the introduction to verify that I was indeed looking at people who would spend the rest of their lives behind bars. On one hand, I think that the choice to take these people out of their prison attire was one that influenced my inability to connect them with the institution. More so, however, this book reminded me that, "lifers" or not, these people ARE JUST PEOPLE. People who had jobs, families and aspirations. People I could have stood next to in the grocery store checkout line. Whoa. It is disappointing to me that despite this mini-epiphany, I still feel a burning desire to know why these people did what they did to land themselves in this situation. I see this as my minds attempt to understand what separates them from me. But of course, not having access to this information, separation is impossible. I wonder, know, how I will react to being with the women at the Cannery tomorrow. Will they look any less "normal" to me because they'll be wearing the prison uniform? Will I be able to more easily erect that wall of separation that I seem to subconsciously strive for because of this? I think also that there is something to be said about Zehr's use of black and white photography. I've always thought that a lack of color in photography serves to soften edges, blur the lines. Being devoid of color makes any similarities between those pictures of criminals I see on TV and the pictures in Doing Life less apparent and thus humanize Zehr's subjects. I finished our readings today with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I wanted more from the book. I wanted to hear the detail of everyone's story. What could land a women with a Ph.D. in PSYCHIATRY in jail? But then I recognize that the strength, for me, comes from the fact that we won't ever know. Instead, we know where they stand now. And interestingly, I find it's not too far from where many of us in this class stand, as well. 



jo's picture

checking my assumptions and demands

I too was struck by how normal these people looked and sounded, apart from their status as prisoners for life. I think a big part of that had to do with their clothes and maybe even the styling of the photos. I also got the impression that, as these people had committed crimes so long ago, and most of them when they were young, they had really grown since then, and become more at peace with themselves, and this came accross in the photos. I noticed some other interesting things about the way I took in this book, and often found myself checking my thoughts. Why did I still see many of the men (though none of the women) as dangerous, purely based on my knowledge of them as prisoners? Why did I keep wanting to know each of their crimes? I, too, felt dissatisfied by the stories that did not include this aspect of these people. What could these seemingly good, normal people have done wrong? True Tyrone Werts mentions his crime, and it's similar to many we've heard about young people being incarcerated for immaturity and minor roles in murder. So are they all this way, screwed over by this unjust criminal justice system? And does that even matter? As Donald Montgomery said, "You can look at this picture, and you don't know if this guy is doing well, or if he is doing badly. Is he going on with the program? Is he trustworthy? You know, this really doesn't show you anything. A picture doesn't show you nothing!" (p 64) I relate this to your comment on black-and-white photography. I found your thoughts interesting in particular because of what Zehr has to say in the Little Book of Contemplative Photography: "With black-and-white images, it is easier to remember that we are looking at a photographic image." (p. 7) Perhaps Zehr is trying to tell us that, although he is representing these people with photographs and trying to tell us something about there normalcy and relatability, we don't really know anything about these people or their situation. It keeps us separated, because "black-and-white images represent a kind of abstraction." Or, perhaps he is trying to make this image of normal humans dressed in normal clothes more of a reality, more believable, for he also quotes Richard Niebuhr: "The shadow-reality of the black and white image in the 'straight' photograph...invites us to become the world it re-presents. Some would say that it invites us to imagine the real for ourselves." This sounds more like your interpretation, HSBurke.