Have you ever wondered how life might have turned out had you made different choices?
The second phase of adulthood is often accompanied by introspective analysis of the paths we didn’t take and ones we may yet pursue. When time feels more precious or when it’s evident that things haven’t gone the way we’d expected, we consider mistakes we’ve made and may try to resolve regrets.
This process, of course, also occurs at other times of life, especially in moments when our actions have led to difficult or disastrous results.
A Stunning Photo Project
In early 2013, Maine-based commercial photographer Trent Bell heard that his 26-year-old friend, Brandon Brown — a professional, husband and father of four — had been sent to prison for a 36-year term. He began thinking not only about his friend’s poor decisions but also the times in his own life when things might easily have gone another way.
He was motivated to undertake “REFLECT,” a stunning photo project that captures the impact of the choices prisoners in the Maine State Prison in Warren, Maine, made and the life wisdom they'd now impart to their younger selves to shape a more positive outcome.
Bell’s bold images superimpose large portraits of 12 convicts against blow-ups of their handwritten letters filled with advice and warnings for their younger selves. As a group, the photos underscore just how thin the line is between a life of freedom and opportunity and one of captivity and deprivation.
“Our bad choices can contain untold loss, remorse, and regret,” says Bell in a statement about the series, “but the positive value of these bad choices might be immeasurable if we can face them, admit to them, learn from them and find the strength to share.”
(MORE: 30 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Die)
The images serve as potent reminders of the power of regret and ignite an empathic, compassionate response in most viewers.
The Prisoners' 5 Pieces of Advice
I’ve watched video interviews with the prisoners shot on the day of photo shoot and read their enlarged letters. I’d like to share some of their instructive words of wisdom. Not all serve as warnings; some express the majestic nature of freedom:
1. The most amazing experiences in life are often the small ones — make sure not to take them for granted. One prisoner details what he misses most: the interactions with family, watching kids grow up and family members grow old. Says Brandon, 26: “I hear my Dad say his back hurts from raking leaves and I wish I could rake those leaves. It’s little stuff. You just wish you could be there for the little things.” James Blair, 42, expands on the list of sacrifices in prison, reminding us of what really matters: Going for a walk, going to the store, sitting down with people, going to the movies. Other inmates mention playing sports, going to the beach, fishing and eating pizza and ice cream as things they long for.
2. Even people who are not behind bars can be in a prison of their own making — but this kind of incarceration is reversible. Inmate Robert Forest, 67, says he feels more free in prison than he ever did in the outside world because he was ruled by his addictions. “So many people are in their own little prison and don’t even realize it,” he says. You become a slave to your work, your schedule becomes over busy. You don’t take time for family. Don’t take time for friends.” His comments remind us that it’s vital to understand the difference between the irrevocable constraints of institutional life and those we impose on ourselves, which we can often release if we take concerted action.
(MORE: 9 Most Common Regrets of the Living and Dying — and What to Do About Them)
3. We all make mistakes and can learn from them. “I know people look at prisoners and say ‘What does he have to offer?’ says Wesley Night, 44. “People make mistakes in life. I know it’s helped me grow up. I’m not the boy I was when I first came in…..You can only go forward, never look back.” The prisoners in Bell’s project underscore a uniquely human trait — the possibility of growth at all stages of life. We need only want to keep growing and take action to evolve.
4. Belief in oneself is critical at every life stage and having the right people around you counts for a lot. “Believe in how special you are,” says Robert Pesa, 46. “Don’t ever let anybody take that away from you….Surround yourself with the people who care most about you.” This is especially important advice as nests empty and professional lives shift, and along with them, definitions of personal self-worth.
5. Never ever be afraid to ask for help. “Everybody needs help at one time or another throughout their life,” says Forest. “I always felt I was strong enough that I didn’t need help — and here I sit.” We all need to remember that it’s okay to reach out in times of need, that doing so is not a sign of weakness. And just as important, we must be willing to extend our support to others.
Creating the images
The below video documents Bell’s creative process for "REFLECT" as well as an exhibition of the works that was mounted at Engine in Biddeford, Maine, and attended by his imprisoned friend’s father. Bell describes the experience of working on the project as emotional and enlightening. “They’re all pretty normal guys that have just made some bad decisions,” he says. “It’s quite a bit of an awakening to realize that we’re all capable of what those guys have done.”
Bell’s project has been getting people young and old to reflect on their life decisions, remedy old wounds and set about making the most of their time. He recently turned the “REFLECT” images into posters, had them hung in a juvenile detention center, then posted responses from the young residents on his Facebook page. “These guys changed the way I look at life,” wrote one. “We all should just keep pushing and keep our heads up,” said another.