Inmates gain outlet for creativity, new skill through photography class

  • Students work on Photoshop to create projects in their Greenfield Community College photography course held at the Franklin County House of Corrections. The work from the class will be showcased at an art show at the Art Space Gallery on Mill Street in Greenfield in November. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon

  • An image a student of the GCC photography class at the Franklin County House of Corrections made. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon

  • GCC Professor Joan O’Beirne created the photography course held at the Franklin County House of Corrections that’s now in its fourth year. She teaches inmates during the summer course offered to a dozen. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon

Recorder Staff
Published: 7/12/2018 9:41:00 PM

GREENFIELD — Around the circle they offered what the photography class had meant to them: a creative outlet they never thought they’d get; college credits and the path to education; and skills for a potential business when they get out.

It was one of the final days of the class, and before they began to print out their projects, Shawn Arsenault started to explain why it was more than just some photographs and Photoshop.

“I never seen nothing like this,” Arsenault said. His fellow inmates at the Franklin County House of Corrections agreed. They never had an opportunity for a three-credit college photography course while in jail before.

The class is taught by Greenfield Community College Arts Professor Joan O’Beirne. She does other work at the House of Corrections on Elm Street, but this course has become a huge point of emphasis for her. Three times a week for six weeks, about a dozen incarcerated men come for the class, where they get to use Nikon cameras and Mac desktops equipped with Photoshop, all from GCC.

They all rave about O’Beirne, who is in her fourth year teaching the course, one that she constructed. And like past years, the work from the class will be showcased at an art show at the Art Space Gallery on Mill Street in Greenfield in November.

“The act of creation always fills me with a sense of wonder,” O’Beirne said. “That sense of wonder is missing in a lot of people’s lives who are incarcerated.”

O’Beirne is patient with her students. She allows them to listen to music while they work. Using professional cameras and editing software, she allows them to create more or less what compels them.

Flipping through some of the work they have already printed out during the semester, there’s photos of themselves along mountainscapes; interpretations of miscellaneous items in the classroom, like chairs reconfigured digitally; magazine clippings recolored and overlaid; and self-written poetry imposed over filters.

“They have a lot working against them, and for them to sit down in front of a computer and thrive, it’s something,” O’Beirne said.

The whole process was rather foreign at first for most in the class. Like many of his peers, Arsenault had only ever taken photos with his cell phone. He explained his girlfriend might edit it by using a filter from an app.

Getting into drugs at a young age, Arsenault explained, there was never a desire to explore photography. “Honestly, on the streets, I would’ve never cared to.”

Arsenault showed a photo of his a page of his poetry over a waterfall along with a faint portrait of himself.

“It was crazy to me when I first came here,” Arsenault said. “I didn’t think any place did anything like this.”

Living in Fitchburg, he ended up with a court case in Orange following an arrest of larceny over $250 at the Walmart there, according to court records. His lawyer, he said, suggested to take his nine months in Franklin County.

“For me, this has changed my life,” Arsenault said. “I’ve been in and out of jails for the last eight years and never once have I felt the way I do now, trying to clean my life up.”

He hopes to bring his new skills to the outside world when he is released. If he was to go into a profession like graphic design, it could take away some of the stigma associated with taking a job meant to employ people who have been incarcerated, Arsenault said.

Arsenault, like some of the others in the class, toggles between tabs with images he’ll submit for classwork and photographs with loved ones.

There was a photo of him and his girlfriend, combined together through Photoshop and placed in a heart. The photo of himself was one he took in class. “When I was on the streets, I was a drug addict,” he said. “I didn’t look good.”

Then there was another one he worked on with a photo of himself, his 15-month-old son, his girlfriend and her child.

“I’ve never met my son yet,” Arsenault said. “The four of us have never been in the same place together.”

Ray, whose last name is held under the jail’s wishes to protect his identity, said it’s been “mind-blowing” to have this opportunity, but offered another side.

“A lot of times people in the outside world hear about all of these programs we’re doing,” he said. “But we still miss our families.”

“I have a little son. He’ll be 5 years old this month,” Ray said. “But we don’t have a picture together.”

He scanned in a photo of his family and a photo he took of himself, then photoshopped them together. Although the photo of himself was taken in the jail’s classroom, he said he can crop out everything else, “So they can see I’m doing alright.”

“Working on a picture with my son,” he said. “It feels good to see us together. It gives me peace of mind.”

And the same can be said for E.S.S., who House of Corrections administration preferred for him to go by his initials.

The photography class taught E.S.S. exactly what he wants to do when he gets out of jail. He showed his image of a cross section of the ground, with his body below the surface, in the roots, and a budding seedling emerging out of it.

“When I start my little business at home, hopefully it’ll expand like that,” he said. “Because every idea starts with a little seed.”

What the photography class has also showed him and others is a way to put their family together, even when it seems distant.

“Even though you don’t see me, believe me, I’m with them all the time,” E.S.S. said. “When they finally see it, they’ll probably freak out.” He paused, and smiled at the thought. “I told you I was with you.”

You can reach Joshua Solomon at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 264.

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