Twelve years ago, artist Diane Bladecki saw a play about people who had spent time in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Although the play inspired empathy, Bladecki noticed that the photos displayed in the theater lobby did the opposite.

Dark and intense, they made the exonerees look like they were indeed criminals.

When Marcus Washington went to a Queens police station at age 17, he thought it was to give testimony about a murder, not to be arrested for it. Decades later, the precinct doors looked exactly the same. Washington served 29 years for a wrongful conviction.
When Marcus Washington went to a Queens police station at age 17, he thought it was to give testimony about a murder, not to be arrested for it. Decades later, the precinct doors looked exactly the same. Washington served 29 years for a wrongful conviction.

Bladecki shared this observation with Centurion Ministries, an organization that fights wrongful convictions and which was involved with the play. The executive director responded with something of a challenge: “If you can do better… .”

Thus began more than a decade of work by Bladecki to capture the humanity and dignity of Centurion Ministries’ clients, first as a volunteer and more recently as the nonprofit’s marketing director. Bladecki has attended exonerations, visited freed men and women in their homes, spent time with their families and even accompanied them to the scenes of the crimes they didn’t commit.

Her photographs are on display this month in the “I am Innocent” exhibit at the Arts Council of Princeton’s Taplin Gallery in New Jersey.

“The pictures are connected to the darkness that was our life, but [Diane] brings out the light that is our life. I see my whole journey in the photos, and being able to share that with my family means the world to me,” said Richard Miles in a testimonial about Bladecki’s work.

Miles was freed from prison in 2009 after serving 15 years for a murder for which he didn’t commit. While working on his case, Centurion’s team discovered that another man had confessed to the crime but Dallas police did not investigate it. After Miles’ release, the key eyewitness admitted that his testimony was coerced.

Richard Miles survived several fights in prison. He won the most important one: his freedom.
Richard Miles survived several fights in prison. He won the most important one: his freedom.

The “I am Innocent” exhibit includes more than 100 photographs that were mounted on plywood and distressed with a sander. This style symbolizes that “we do rough work,” Bladecki explained in an interview with ivoh. “Uncovering crooked police work is not easy. It’s not polished. It doesn’t belong in a frame with a white mat and a glossy edge.”

There’s also symbolism built into how visitors experience the exhibit. At the opening reception, for example, attendees were addressed by numbers instead of their names, just like in prison.

“People were really moved by that, and they started talking about, ‘Can you imagine what that must be like? Can you imagine losing your identity?’” said Bladecki.

Those are the kinds of questions she wants people to ask when they see her images. She’s asked herself the same ones as she’s gotten to know the exonerees she’s photographed. Bladecki doesn’t have a secret formula for how she develops relationships with each of them, but she said trust is essential:

“There’s a certain comfort that I try to establish with people … I’m pretty good at shooting from the hip, which means taking your camera down below, setting everything up so you’re just pushing a button but they can still look into your eyes. The camera becomes invisible a lot.”

Though photography is a visual medium, much of Bladecki’s process is about listening.

“When you sit and just break bread with these guys, they want to talk about [their experiences], but they really need to be asked,” she said. “They talk about how hard it is to fit in when they get married or when they go on with their life to have peers in the world. … They spent 25 years of their life where every day was the same while everyone else was out building a career or having kids.”

Like other Restorative Narratives, the stories Bladecki capture can’t be wrapped up neatly at the end of an exoneree’s false imprisonment. The journey after that is different for each individual, and that’s part of what Bladecki documents. She shared, for example, the contrast in photographing two different prison releases in 2013.

Mark Schand’s murder conviction was based on testimony from six career criminals. On the day of the murder Schand underwent a major dental operation that would have kept him in severe pain for days. He also had six witnesses who placed him 30 miles away from the crime. His wife, Mia, visited him every week for all 27 years he was falsely imprisoned.
Mark Schand’s murder conviction was based on testimony from six career criminals. On the day of the murder Schand underwent a major dental operation that would have kept him in severe pain for days. He also had six witnesses who placed him 30 miles away from the crime. His wife, Mia, visited him every week for all 27 years he was falsely imprisoned.

Mark Schand, who served 27 years, walked out to elation and hugs from dozens of family members. But for David Bryant, who was arrested at age 17, only his attorney, Bladecki and Kate Germond, Centurion’s executive director, were present. His parents and sister had all passed away during the 38 years he was locked up.

Centurion Ministries Executive Director Kate Germond comforts David Bryant on the day of his release from a wrongful conviction.
Centurion Ministries Executive Director Kate Germond comforts David Bryant on the day of his release from a wrongful conviction.

“He’s this small little man, and I’m taking his photo, he’s smiling,” recalled Bladecki. “I ask him, ‘So David, what are you gonna do now?’ And he said, ‘Well the first thing I’m gonna do is — ’ and then he lost it, he fell into Kate’s arms crying, weeping uncontrollably, and he said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t have anyone.’ ”

Centurion has freed 54 men and women who were wrongfully convicted since 1980, and is working on 22 active cases. The organization receives more than 1500 new requests every year. According to Bladecki, creating images of those individuals and their families has changed her.

“They are the least angry people I know,” she said. “It’s made me much more forgiving in my life. … When you hang out with someone who has gone through something so unimaginable like that and they have so much grace and dignity and ability to forgive, it’s inspiring.”

Bladecki is in talks about bringing the “I am Innocent” exhibit to other venues.

“Twenty years ago we didn’t talk about cancer, we didn’t talk about mental illness. We still don’t talk about what it’s like for people who are in prison. … Sharing their stories and making people more aware, I’m hoping we can just all do better as human beings and help the system get better,” she said.