“Faces of Change”: From Despair to Hope

Photographs © Nick Vedros 2015

A photography exhibit, titled “Faces of Change,” is coming this fall to the Kemper Museum.

The images are by Nick Vedros, a KC-based photographer with a glittering list of corporate clients, including Apple, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, DuPont and Sony.

The faces belong to Kansas prison inmates.

The pictured prisoners are beneficiaries of Reaching Out From Within, a volunteer program dedicated to helping inmates achieve new lives built on nonviolence and helping others.

ROFW is the brainchild of founder SuEllen Fried, 80. Every week, the spitfire grandmother of seven visits prisons in Kansas, meeting inmates who range from minor drug offenders to murderers facing life behind bars.

The exhibit, which will feature 22 images installed in the museum’s meeting room, was born of an encounter between Vedros and Fried.

“I first heard about ROFW at the house of SueEllen and Harvey Fried,” Vedros said in one of a series of phone and email exchanges. “Here’s this local organization working in prisons to make the world a better place, and I wondered if anyone had put a face on it.”

Then Vedros visited the Lansing Correctional Facility with Fried.

“I was enlightened,” he said. “The inmates in the medium and maximum security groups were intelligent, articulate, quick-witted, welcoming, sincere, and affectionate—all the characteristics I cherish in my circle of friends.”

The experience inspired him: “I typed up a proposal and sent it to SuEllen and the warden. Then I went to meet with the warden in person and had her accompany me. I took examples of what I envisioned. Then I got approval. The exhibition is my effort to convey their courage to change, and their positive approach to the world inside those walls.”

Curator of the show is Dan White, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer based in Kansas City.

Vedros’ work for ROFW couldn’t be more different than the fun, often fanciful work he does for his commercial clients. The “Faces of Change” images are of the prisons themselves, of the stark walls and menacing barbed wire, of the meager and fantastically unappetizing food the prisoners are served.

Most dramatically, there are portraits of the inmates. Vedros captures them as contemplative, bemused, or joyful. They are fully, abundantly human. The exhibit, in a broad sense, is about hope in a hopeless place.

Fried is thrilled with the photos. “I love that they capture the sensitivity, the hearts and souls of the people. My hope is that the exhibit will give people a different idea about those who are serving time in prison. I hope they will be seen as people instead of just someone who committed a crime.”

In an emailed statement, Kemper Museum executive director Barbara O’Brien noted the museum’s “history of presenting exhibitions of works by artists whose themes align with social engagement and social justice,” citing the 2011 exhibit, Grandeur and Catharsis: The Gao Brothers, and last year’s Hung Liu show.  O’Brien added, “The Kemper Museum is committed to creating dialogue through exhibitions and programming that engage a range of perspectives.”

A Kansas Historical Society document had this to say about the prison, built in 1866 like a medieval fortress in the midst of acres of Kansas farmland:

“Convicts worked together during the day, took their meals in a congregate dining hall, and returned to solitary cells at night. The system’s traditional features included absolute silence, downcast eyes, striped uniforms, deprivation of personal possessions other than those issued by the prison, and lockstep marching. The lockstep was the trademark of American prisons during the 19th century.”

“Faces of Change: Photographs by Nick Vedros” opens Nov. 20 and continues through Feb. 7 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, 816-753-5784 or kemperart.org

The exhibition will be accompanied by two private events. First is an Oct. 13 patron’s party at the homes of Nick and Patty Vedros and Bill and Peggy Lyons, for patrons who have agreed to contribute from $500 to $10,000 to sponsor ROFW services for inmates. The second is a VIP private opening of the “Faces of Change” exhibit on Nov. 18 at the museum.

Hampton Stevens

Hampton Stevens is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, The Kansas City Star, and many other regional and national publications.

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