Photographers' Blog

My day in a California prison

The first inkling I had that it wasn’t going to be an ordinary day at work was the dress code; no tight or revealing clothing, no blue jeans, no blue shirts, no orange clothing, no jewelry, no cell phones.

For the first time, I thought of the possible mental state of the people I was visiting, and how little some of them would have to lose.

I had been in a car crash (not serious) the day before. I wasn’t expecting anything bad to happen to me inside the prison. But imagined that if it did it would be much the same kind of sudden violence coming out of nowhere.

I realized all my trousers that weren’t jeans were dressy. I thought of the absurdity of buying new clothes to visit a prison, and found a pair of (tight) brown corduroys. I dug in my boyfriend’s wardrobe and found an old black t-shirt that was long and baggy on me.

I asked him how I looked. He said brown and black was a bad color combination, but that I looked suitably dressed for the reception area for new prisoners.

Drumming to the sound of a different beat

The Drumming Inmates from Taiwan from Nicky Loh on Vimeo.

While shooting this feature on prisoners trying to reform themselves through the art of traditional drumming, I was reminded of a question once posed to me by a lecturer when I was 18. Are all men inherently evil or is it society that makes them so?

Inmates perform a drum routine onstage with the U-Theatre group in Changhua, central Taiwan October 2, 2010. An arts program at Changhua Prison by the U-Theatre drumming group has given inmates a chance to perform annually for the public outside prison grounds. The project aims to give the inmates an opportunity to discover spiritual calm through drumming and meditation. The inmates wear masks or traditional facial paint to conceal their identities when they appear in public.   REUTERS/Nicky Loh

When I first met the inmates at the Changhua Prison to work on this feature, I was surprised to find the drum trainees, whose ages ranged from 18-25, well-mannered and soft spoken. Far from the dangerous criminals that I had etched in my mind. Rather, they were just men who were no different than I was. I felt guilty for having such exaggerated thoughts in the first place.

Inmates perform a drum routine onstage with the U-Theatre group in Changhua, central Taiwan October 2, 2010.  REUTERS/Nicky Loh

Hearing their stories during the interviews made me realize that they were basically boys whose lives took a turn in the wrong direction because of a lack of good guidance and peers. I count myself fortunate to have been able to grow up with a decent education and support from my friends and family.