Spring Garden: Library Exhibit Highlights Photography, Humanity of Prisoners

Excerpts and photographs from "Still Doing Life" mounted on shelves in the Parkway Central Library.

After having a midlife crisis, Howard Zehr moved from Alabama to Indiana. It was there where he ran the House of Simon, a halfway house for prisoners, until it burned down and his colleagues started looking for ways to bring offenders and victims together for reconciliation. 

“I got reluctantly involved in bringing victims and offenders together in a new idea that some folks had there and that just changed my whole perspective,” Zehr, a photojournalist and director emeritus of the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice, said. 

Zehr has published multiple books about criminal justice and the legal system since 1976. His latest book, “Still Doing Life: 22 Lifers 25 Years Later,” he cowrote with University of Washington professor Barb Toews and published with the New Press. The book features photographs and interviews with Pennsylvania prisoners who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. The book was turned into an exhibit by Vox Populi and is on display at the Parkway Central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia until Aug. 15. 

New Press contacted Vox Populi to create the exhibit in 2021, which was produced using grant money from the Art for Justice Fund, said Danny Orendorff, the executive director of Vox Populi, a contemporary artist collective.

The prisoners’ photographs have been enlarged and are accompanied by two quotes from their interviews — one from their first interview where they described life sentences metaphorically and one from the second interview about what they’ve learned in the last 25 years, Orendorff said. 

Zehr and Toews wanted their work to be accessible and expose the general public to stories about incarceration and the Free Library was perfect for that, Orendorff said.

“We really wanted to enter the testimony of the folks featured in the images into more of a public sphere and in a place where civil society conducts itself, particularly since they’re so hidden from public view and their experiences and their testimonials are often not part of a public record,” Orendorff said.

After leaving the Free Library, the exhibit will hopefully travel to Tacoma, Washington so Toews and her students will have a chance to see it, Orendorff said. After Tacoma, he hopes the exhibit will be able to visit the South. 

Toews has known Zehr for years and previously worked with prisoners serving life without parole as part of the Pennsylvania Prison Society which made her a “natural collaborator” for “Still Doing Life,” Toews said. 

For Toews, reflecting on the experiences and resiliency of the prisoners was a highlight of working on the book. 

“There’s so much there that we can learn about the tremendous ability of humans to overcome really really difficult situations,” Toews said. “And so even amidst the despair and sense of hopeless, and some people running in place and other people showing movement forward, this life and humanity and hope that still shines through.”

“Still Doing Life” builds on Zehr’s previous book, “Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Without Parole” published in 1996. Normally Zehr would not have been able to revisit the prisoners but was able to do so thanks to a friend who worked for the Department of Corrections who was a fan of “Doing Life.” 

“He approached the Department of Corrections initially and eventually I got permission to go back 25 years later and interview and photograph 22 of the same people I photographed 25 years earlier,” Zehr said. 

For “Doing Life” Zehr worked with organizations within the prisons he visited, which gave him a sense of legitimacy that made prisoners more willing to open up and trust him, he said. 

Zehr also built trust by letting the people he interviewed know he would omit things from the book if they asked him to and did not pose them for the photographs, he said. When he went back for “Still Doing Life” he asked people to recreate their original poses.

Zehr and Toews hope the “Still Doing Life” exhibit humanizes prisoners and inspires people to think deeper about society.

“I really want them to think deeply about what we want from justice and what we’re trying to do, and about the nature of our punitive society,” Zehr said. 

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