by Absa Fall, JAC Intern
Justice Arts Coalition is proud to present a wonderful collaboration that came from our pARTner project, which matches incarcerated artists with artists on the outside to foster connection through letter correspondence and the exchange of creative works. Steve Davis, a photographer, and Chad Merrill, an incarcerated painter, came together to create a masterpiece that seeks to artistically represent those in a hard situation and highlight their humanity in the process. Steve photographed people experiencing homelessness while making sure to focus on who they are as a person and not just their living situation. Chad then proceeded to recreate the photo with a painting. The duality of the images would paint a clearer picture of people in hardship and connect with the viewer.
Steve developed a passion for photography at an early age, earning a Master of Fine Arts in the medium at the University of Idaho. This journey led to his pursuit of personal projects in portrait photography while also teaching in colleges. Steve describes his love of photography as being driven by “trying to make photographs that are seen differently or highlight parts of people in the world who are not seen very much or not seen well.” This belief in showing the humanity of those who are misunderstood led him to photograph people who were incarcerated or institutionalized for other reasons and then develop a connection with the subjects of his photos. Generally, he takes his skills to “places where cameras are usually not welcome.”
On the other hand, Chad found his connection with art and creating while being incarcerated. Chad writes, “In 2018 I had been involved in my second murder in prison and sitting in my cell with my back against the cold wall, all I could think about is killing myself. I had nothing to show for my life and I finally saw myself for me. I was a monster so full of hate and pain and all I did was blame everybody else.” In this moment of darkness, Chad was confronted by a teacher at the facility named Casey who he says essentially saved his life. The time Chad spent with Casey was filled with education on “Art History, music, classic books, and more importantly, self-respect and confidence. He pushed me to be a better man and friend.” The time he spent with Casey allowed him to see value in himself and infuse his past experiences into his art and other positive outlets. The process of painting was a pathway for Chad to take back control and to have a sense of freedom. Chad sums up his journey like this: “After years of being selfish and taking, I only want to give back and be selfless.”
Steve and Chad both stumbled upon the pARTner Project in different ways. Steve somehow found himself on the JAC mailing list and then proceeded to receive links and information about engaging with somebody else in a creative way. In contrast, Chad joined in on the project because he wanted the chance to collaborate, and the process would make for an interesting story. The two were paired up about a year ago, and after exchanging several letters, Chad suggested that Steve photograph people that he thinks are less fortunate than he is. After careful consideration, Steve agreed to the project and set up personal limits and guidelines so that his photos didn’t fall under the realm of exploitation. He decided to go through the proper channels and collaborate with a Rescue Mission to gain proper access. “I don’t just grab people on the streets and say, you look homeless can I take a picture? That would lead to exploitation, and I want to be careful of that,” explains Steve.
When photographing people, especially strangers, it is crucial that one first gain their trust by getting to know them. Steve’s first experience with photographing a subject was hurried and uncomfortable. As he has continued on with this project, he has steadily been growing more comfortable with the work. However, Steve admits that there is more relationship-building that needs to be done. “ I’m hoping to get a better relationship with the subjects that I am photographing. I want to talk more about who they are and how they got there,” he says. Unfortunately, one of his roadblocks to developing that connection happens when he tells them that he is doing this for the Justice Arts Coalition. “They heard the word justice and literally ran out the door. The law was looking for a lot of these people so they were uncomfortable with being on camera,” explained Steve. Even with these challenges, he was able to get amazing shots of his subjects and capture their humanity. “What I wanted was their facial features. I wanted to see all the details, their beards, and their eyes. I wasn’t doing body shots. I wanted to capture the person, not their situation. Just close-ups, and hopefully somewhat intense and simple,” says Steve.
Once Steve sends the photographs to Chad, he recreates them through his paintings. He makes homemade paintbrushes out of toothbrushes and blows out pen ink into a toothpaste cap to create his pieces. Chad’s goal is to bring awareness to the situation of houseless people through his art: “I just want to help others in any way I can, so if painting can help them, I’m with it. If I had one word to describe my project it would be: change.”