People rarely glimpse the reality behind the walls of maximum-security prisons.
“That was one of the things that fascinated me: hearing those doors close behind me,” says photographer Nick Vedros. “Giving up your wallet, phone, keys — all the devices for how you survive in the real world — and then those doors close. It’s claustrophobic. You certainly hope they remember you’re a visitor.”
Vedros visited both the Lansing Correctional Facility and Topeka Correctional Facility to photograph “Faces of Change.” His new exhibition features 30 black-and-white inmate portraits and images. It opened recently at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.
The Kansas City native was drawn to the subject after learning about Reaching Out From Within. Founded 33 years ago by activist SuEllen Fried, this program consists of weekly meetings held at seven different Kansas prisons for inmates who desire to improve their behavior in hopes of becoming better role models once released.
“It changed my view on these people almost immediately,” Vedros says. “I found out they were intelligent, welcoming, warm, funny. So many of them have already made positive changes. They are not the street thugs you might imagine.”
The hourlong meetings begin with participants stating their name, then offering an encouraging statement. Vedros recalls the first time he attended and was asked to do the same.
“My statement was, ‘Heal the past. Live the present. Dream the future,’ ” he says. “Essentially, that’s what Reaching Out From Within tries to do. I honestly feel this program is making the world a better place.”
The 62-year-old graduate of the University of Missouri took inspiration from his college days, where he first realized “positive change can happen when you combine pictures with a story.” He felt Reaching Out From Within had a story but no meaningful pictures to enhance it.
Aided by a small team to help coordinate the lighting, Vedros eventually shot enough to compile an exhibition of this pro-bono excursion. “Faces of Change” includes 22 inmate portraits: 16 men from Lansing and six women from Topeka.
“One of the inmates was 17 or 18 (when the crime was committed) and talked about how much he changed from that time,” Vedros says. “He had broken into a home at that young age, then went back to cover his tracks and accidentally set the house on fire. Somebody died. It’s a sad story for the victim and the inmate. All he can do is try and make a positive change and redeem himself over time. I believe everybody deserves a second chance,” Vedros says.
So far, the program has upheld that philosophy. Vedros says the rate of recidivism for prisoners who attend the meetings for at least two years is 8 percent. The national rate hovers around 50 percent.
“This project has brought Nick back to his roots,” says Dan White, curator of “Faces of Change.” “While he’s gone on to have a great career in the world of commercial advertising, I think there’s a piece of him that’s wanted to do this kind of project for quite some time.”
Vedros served a stint with The Star right out of college — albeit only for a month. He was recruited by the newspaper in 1976 to help shoot the Republican National Convention held at Kemper Arena.
“My assignment? Covering some guy named Ronald Reagan,” he says.
The gig proceeded smoothly until Vedros pushed his way into a departing vehicle that he assumed was the press car. Turned out it was solely occupied by the Secret Service.
After that brief fling as a member of the news media, Vedros decided to go freelance at the age of 24. He launched Vedros & Associates in 1977 — which is still going strong 38 years later. The renowned commercial studio boasts a client list that includes Apple, McDonald’s, Sony, DuPont and Sprint.
“When you say you’re a photographer, it can conjure up a portrait studio guy, a wedding guy, a sports guy. There are so many classifications of photographer that you need to define it in broad strokes to help them understand what kind of image-maker you are,” Vedros says.
“Faces of Change” provides one more career high point to aid that understanding.
He adds, “I’ve always had photojournalism embedded in my DNA.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
“Faces of Change” by Nick Vedros runs through Feb. 7, 2016, at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd. The exhibit is free. More: KemperArt.org.