Photo Collaboration University Without Walls Students x Olivia Mikolai Ridge

Michael Bell x Olivia Ridge

Some Grass in an Open Field at the Indiana Dunes, 2022, by Michael Bell and Olivia Ridge 

First Correspondence Q & A 
02/02/22 & 02/24/22

OR: How do you want to be seen? This is intentionally a broad question for you to answer literally or abstractly. Photographs reflect parts of ourselves. What would you like people to know about you from your image?

MB: I want to be seen as a human. I want to be seen as a son, a brother, an uncle, cousin, friend, and grandson. From my image I’d like people to know that I’m not some monster who lives in that place, behind the big walls, and who only knows havoc, violence, destruction, and evil. 

OR: Describe the best photograph of yourself. This photograph can be imagined or real.

MB: It’s a picture of me putting two braids in my grandmother’s hair. Or me bear-hugging her while she is in a full-belly laugh.

OR: Is there a real or historical place you would like to be photographed? Imagine you can be photographed in any place or setting that holds meaning for you. How does this setting relate to how you want to be seen?

MB: I’d like to be photographed at the family reunion playing softball with all my relatives.

OR: What is your relationship to your State ID photo (like it, hate it)? Would you change or edit your State ID photo if you could? If so, what would you do?

MB: I have no relationship to my ID. It’s not mine, it belongs to the State. The two largest words on it is “In Custody.” Even larger is a bar code like they have on items in a store that can be scanned. This ID is a reminder that the information that pops up when it’s scanned is all that matters to the State of Illinois. To them this is who I am – an “In Custody-bar code.” I wouldn’t edit it, I think doing so would be to condone it and to accept their representation of me. From 1997 to about 2017 there were no pictures allowed in IDOC. The only pics that exist of me are copies of my ID. Before that we were allowed to take pics in the visiting room, we were allowed to hug our families and interact with them. Those pictures are no doubt my most valuable possessions. Now we aren’t allowed to touch our people or kids in pictures or even show our hands (anything we do with our hands, even draping them over a loved one’s shoulders, is considered a gang symbol). So we stand there like expressionless boards. Pictures are important here, and I think of the guy whose children were 5 in ’97 and in the next picture he has with them they’re 25 years old in 2017. We didn’t exist for 20 years in family photos.

Hi Michael,
Thanks for your honest response. I am struck by your mention of the 20 years cut off from visiting room photos. Do you know why it was disallowed or why it was brought back in 2017? I’m sorry to hear about the restrictions they imposed on these photos after 2017 to make you stand like expressionless boards. Has there been any opportunity for photographs since Covid? When you said during this gap it was as if you “didn’t exist for 20 years in family photos,” I wondered if you have been in them recently.

The place you describe playing softball with your relatives at the family reunion sounds so lovely. I think a lot about what photography can and cannot do. What I hope to offer through this project is a photograph that is made for you – one that you actually want. One of the difficulties of this project is not being able to take a photograph of you. Knowing that any recreation of this image cannot satisfy the real, I’d love to know more about the image you describe. Where did you hold the family reunions? Who was there? Where are they now? Are there any parts of the photograph you describe that I could take for you on the outside? I wonder about the value of photography here – if it would bring satisfaction or disappointment.

Since you mention your family reunion, in your next letter, I’d love to hear more about each of your family members, and how they could be included in the image. What strikes me most about your description of the best photograph of yourself is moments of closeness with your grandmother. This aspect of tenderness and touch seems like it would be important in any image made for you.

Looking forward to this conversation,

Hello Olivia,
I received your note and I’ll get straight to the answers.

Visiting room photos were stopped in 1996 after the Richard Speck tapes came out (Google it). He was a serial killer who was housed at Stateville and someone sold some videos he’d made while he was here to the press. After that, all video cameras and photo cameras were taken from the facilities. We went on lockdown for a year, and after that year began the era in IDOC known as “the shutdown.” Before that was known as “wide open.” They came back in 2017 when the powers that be decided that family connectedness was important, I guess. We didn’t have any for the two Covid years, but I was able to get some pre-Covid.

When I think of softball with my family, I can picture some grass in an open field at the Indiana Sand Dunes. We’d have makeshift bases made out of cardboard boxes and way too many people on the teams.

I’m most reminded of the women in my family who were incredibly athletic and great softball players. My mom and aunts would dominate these games oftentimes, out-playing the guys.

Everybody played. If you could walk, you played. Sometimes we’d even find other families at the park to play friendly games against. I can remember my Aunt Juanita who would bite her tongue and had this hop she’d do just before she hit the ball a mile. She’s no longer with us, and I believe that’s why my family no longer does it. There’s too many people missing now, including me, that brings up some strong memories and emotions.

To be honest I think the best picture or photo for me would be an empty field, with maybe a sunset in the background. This way it’s not one moment in time as photos often are. I could use this photo to have many memories, by putting my family in it like a movie in my head.

I could imagine my aunt hitting the ball. I could see my uncle sliding unnecessarily into first base. I could see my 5-year-old cousin running the wrong way, and I could see my grandmother on the sideline, sitting in her chair and watching over her progency as a proud matriarch.

As you can see, for me, it always boils down to my grandmother. She passed away when I was 14 and I have never loved a human being as I loved her.

I didn’t quite understand the potential of this project until now.

Michael - 
I wanted to give you a sense of how this project will eventually be displayed in a physical exhibition in a way that centers your authorship and voice.

Photo below: A digital collage previewing this project’s exhibition plan using Michael’s work as an example. The scale/final print size of the photographs is undertermined, but I am hoping to print them quite large to mimic landscape photographs or photographic backdrops. You will also see the headphones on the right and Michael’s handwritten piece framed to the left to serve as the exhibition text explaining the image.

Olivia -

Wherever this ends up being exhibited my family will be there...