(MCT) — CHICAGO — Before one crisp fall morning recently, nothing connected freelance photographer Lloyd DeGrane and convicted killer Larry Kurina.
Then DeGrane agreed to take part in a project aimed at fulfilling photo requests of inmates from Illinois’ Tamms supermax prison, and so here he was shooting pictures of the gate at the old Union Stockyards, the sun rising behind him, the massive stone landmark in front of him.
“I don’t know what the guy did and I don’t want to know,” said DeGrane, as he slowly stalked the gate on the city’s South Side looking for good angles for the photographs. “But maybe he’ll look at the pictures and be nice to a guard or something. It’s a random act of kindness, I guess.”
The dozens of photo requests were sponsored by the Tamms Year Ten project, an advocacy group that is critical of harsh conditions at the prison, which is supposed to hold the state’s hardest-to-control inmates.
Tamms Year Ten wants to see the downstate prison shut down. Gov. Pat Quinn has, in fact, slated the prison and many of its inmates, including Kurina, have recently been transferred to other facilities. Kurina is serving his 500-year sentence at Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, according to the Department of Corrections.
The photography idea, according to Tamms Year Ten organizer Laurie Jo Reynolds, is to give inmates a snapshot of the outside world they almost never see — especially in the stark isolation at Tamms. It is also to remind the public that inmates are “human beings with families and imaginations.”
“The things the (inmates) are thinking about are images they already have in their minds,” said Reynolds. “It’s how they’ve survived.”
One inmate sought a photo of the United Center and the Michael Jordan statue. Another asked for a photo of the block at 63rd Street and South Marshfield Avenue, where he used to live, “while there’s a lot of (or at least some) people standing around outside on the block.”
Other requests were for photos that might be considered more exotic. One inmate, who said he was Muslim, asked for a photograph of the Holy Mosque in Mecca. Another inmate requested a picture of a Mexican flag taken at sunrise in the public plaza in the heart of Mexico City.
Yet another inmate asked for a photo of a gray and white horse in action, perhaps jumping or rearing up on its hind legs and its breath visible in the cold, all combined to “convey the freedom, strength, and the wisdom of nature.” One convicted murderer asked for a photo of a woman sitting by a lake fishing, with an empty chair and a cooler of beer next to her and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the background.
Kurina, who was sent to prison for his role in a 1976 double murder in which two people were stabbed to death behind a Chicago bar, said in his handwritten request that he used to climb on the stockyards archway as a child and hoped to see photos of it from different angles.
DeGrane has shown an interest in prisons and prisoners in the past. He had an exhibit of his photographs taken over much of the 1990s at the Cook County Jail and Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet. With Kurina’s request, he said he wanted to “put something positive in someone’s life.”
As he methodically shot the photos, DeGrane wondered if Kurina, who has been behind bars for decades, would recognize the gate.
“It’s probably going to look really different for this guy,” he said.
The focus on inmates rankled Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, the director of a statewide victims rights group, Illinoisvictims.org. Although she supports closing Tamms, saying its treatment of inmates is “tantamount to torture,” Bishop-Jenkins said the photo project was misdirected.
“I think this can traumatize a victim again because it’s all about the offender,” said Bishop-Jenkins, whose pregnant sister and her sister’s husband were killed in Winnetka in 1990. “You’re talking about many inmates who have killed people and have left behind devastated lives.”
The photographers and the artists who have joined the project have approached it in ways as varied as the requests that were received. Some, like DeGrane, made a point to not learn about the crimes that had sent the inmates to prison. But others studied the backgrounds and found peculiar conflicts. One photographer whose father is a retired police officer and whose brother is still on the police force agreed to take a photo for a Mundelein man convicted of trying to hire someone to kill a police officer and a prosecutor.
Caroline Carlsmith, a graduate student in fine arts at Northwestern University, said she had once archived an exhibition on prisons and was looking for a way to deal with the issue again. At the same time, she did not want the issue to inform or dominate her work. Volunteering for the project was a way to walk that line.
“I’m interested in the issue,” said Carlsmith, “but I’m not totally comfortable bringing that kind of politics into my work.”
The request she is filling is for a prisoner’s portrait. Because she will not have access to the inmate, she will use a photo and likely draw something from that. Like DeGrane, she said she does not want to know the details of the inmate’s crime.
“I don’t want it to be part of the way the drawing works,” she said.
Grete Grubelich, a fourth-year visual arts major at the University of Chicago, said she felt “drawn to the cause” behind the project.
She had heard about the project from someone at school, then attended an event for the Tamms project. She ended up choosing two requests from convicted murderer Charles Freeman. One is a portrait of Reynolds, the other a shot of the intersection of 63rd Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on the South Side. She said she has gone to the intersection to scout it and has been thinking about Freeman’s request.
She was curious about Freeman’s criminal history but did not try to learn about it.
“I think in a strange way I want to keep the anonymity,” Grubelich said in an interview. “They’re just looking for someone to connect them to the outside world. Just because they’ve requested this doesn’t necessarily give me the right to break into their privacy. I view this as a stranger helping another stranger in a way that I can. And that is art. I felt that that was a really important role, to be the connecter between two people.”
Like Carlsmith, she did not want the crime to color the photo.
“If I knew the crime, I think I would have a harder time approaching it with no bias,” she said. “I honestly just felt that they were calling on anyone to be their eyes.”