Sara Bennett - Photographer and former Attorney

Sara Bennett - Photographer and former Attorney

Sara Bennett has been a public defender specializing in battered women and the wrongly convicted. She draws attention to the problems of mass incarceration through her photographs of women with life sentences. Her work has been featured in, among others, The New York Times, PBS News Hour/Art Beat, PDN Photo of the Day, and the Marshall Project, and hung in a variety of venues including the FENCE 2018, Photoville 2018, the 10th International Organ Vida Photography Festival in Croatia and the 2018 Indian Photography Festival. Bennett is a Top 50 finalist in the 2018 Critical Mass competition.

You worked previously as a public defender specializing in battered women and the wrongly convicted. Did this experience lead you to photography? How do you feel that your advocacy work influences your photography, and vice versa?

ANNETTE, 59, in a homeless shelter six weeks after her release. East Village, NY (2018) Sentence: 20 years to life. Served: 32 years. Released: August 2018. “Even though I share a room with four other people…It’s Freedom… No words can explain how I feel. It’s breath-taking…amazing. It’s like a bird that has been in a cage. Set free.”

I was a criminal appeals attorney for 18 years and in 2004 I left the practice of law to do something completely different, something less stressful.

I was concerned about the amount of homework my young children were doing and I co-authored, The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting our Children and What We Can Do About It (Crown: 2006) and founded Stop Homework.

But I was still immersed in the injustices of the criminal system and in 2008 I became the pro bono attorney for Judith Clark, who was serving a 75-year-to-life sentence for her role as a getaway driver in a famous New York Case—the Brinks robbery of 1981. I was trying to get the governor to grant her clemency, something rarely granted, and I had to show that she was extraordinary and worthy of the governor’s mercy.

 I took 15 portraits of women who had been incarcerated with her and had them speak about her influence on their lives. I self-published the work as a book, Spirit on the Inside: Reflections on Doing Time With Judith Clark and I sent it to the governor, state legislators, and pretty much anyone I could think of. Not only was Judy granted clemency, but the book was selected for the 2014 INFOCUS Juried Exhibition of Self-Published Books at the Phoenix Art Museum.

TOWANDA, 45, in her own apartment five years after her release, with her daughter, Equanni. Bronx, NY (2017). Sentence: 15 years to life. Served: almost 23 years. Released: October 2012. “I was in the shelter system for the first four years. It was about the same as prison. You’re confined, you can’t do anything, you don’t have your own thoughts, you’re always stressed out. It’s good to have my own apartment and pay my own bills. It’s peaceful and I feel safe.”

Can you tell us about your subsequent work?

It was the reaction to Spirit on the Inside—viewers were surprised that the formerly incarcerated women were just regular women—which sparked my second project, Life After Life in Prison. I followed four women — Tracy, Evelyn, Carol, and Keila — as they returned to society after serving anywhere from 17 to 35 years in New York State’s maximum security prison for women.

VALERIE, 62 in an apartment she shares with a roommate. Bronx, NY (2018). Sentence: 19 years to life. Served: 17 years (granted clemency by Governor Andrew Cuomo). Released: January 2017. “I got my freedom. That’s true! But it’s not the same as being free free. I like to travel. I used to go to VA, to PA, and the casinos and the boardwalk in Atlantic City. I love the beach. But I can’t go anywhere without my PO’s permission. If I want to go to a play or a concert, I need my PO’s permission. Until I get off parole, my life is messed up. I can’t do what I want.”

My goal is to humanize those we have locked up for decades, or even the rest of their lives, and challenge viewers and society to rethink those policies.

At the same time, I began work on The Bedroom Project, where I photographed former women lifers in their bedrooms and asked them to reflect on their freedom. A life sentence doesn’t mean someone never gets out of prison. But if a sentence is 15 to life—the minimum possible for a murder conviction—then the person has to serve fifteen years in prison before she sees a parole board. There is no guarantee of parole and, in fact, a presumption against parole. So many of my portrait subjects had sentences of 20 years to life but then ended up serving 30 or more years...

Why do you focus on women?

The number of women incarcerated in the U.S. has increased 800 percent since 1980, although women are still a relatively small percentage of the overall prison population. However, in the conversation around criminal justice issues, women’s voices are almost never heard and I wanted to change that dynamic.

One of the saddest things to me about prison is that it can be the first time a woman has found safety in her life. Most women in prison have been victims of gender-based violence. In general, women have fewer outside contacts than men and lose touch with their families much quicker than men do. So they are very isolated from the outside world and come home to a world that has moved on without them and with little or no support.

TRACY, 51, in her own apartment three-and-a-half years after her release. Jamaica, NY (2017). Sentence: 22 years to life. Served: 24 years. Released: February 2014. “I imagined coming home, living in a one- or two-bedroom apartment, where one was a master and an extra room for guests. Here I have that. I call this room my “doll house,” my safe haven. I feel at peace. I’ve finally unpacked. I spend a lot of time in here. I take pride in everything. I put more into this room than into the kitchen. I know I need to eat, but my room is my nourishment.”

What is your goal with this work?

My goal in all of my photography work is to show the humanity in people who are, or were, incarcerated. I believe that if judges, prosecutors and legislators could see lifers as real individuals, they would rethink the policies that lock them away forever.

We have noticed that you also do yoga, are a mom of 2, and have a proud husband at your side. What's next on the agenda?

It was actually yoga that sent me onto the path of being a photographer. In 2013, I did a yoga teacher training program, and for my final project I decided to photograph yoga practitioners over the age of 50.

My husband, photographer Joseph O. Holmes, set up a camera and lights for me and that work ended up being featured in Parade Magazine online. I loved taking portraits and my next photography project was about Judith Clark, which I mentioned before. My children are both young adults now. As to what’s next: I’m currently photographing women in prison who are serving life sentences. Some are at the beginning of lengthy sentences and are very young, some are at the end of lengthy sentences and wondering if they’ll ever be granted parole, and some have sentences of life without parole, meaning they’ll never be released.