Exhibit shows faces behind prison bars

Adam Troxtell / The Transcript

Photographer Yousef Khanfar, left, speaks with attendees of his "Invisible Eve" portrait exhibit Tuesday at its unveiling in Gould Hall on the OU Norman campus. The exhibit will be on display through Tuesday.

NORMAN — The photographer behind "Invisible Eve," a project to highlight the rate of incarceration of women in the state, came to the University of Oklahoma for an unveiling this week. Yousef Khanfar addressed the crowd and answered questions about the exhibit, which will be on display in Gould Hall until Tuesday. Portraits taken of women at the time they were serving their sentence are arranged in the gallery room near the north entrance.

"We want people to consider these women who are in prison," Khanfar said.

The portraits on display were of women serving time in Mabel Basset (McLoud), Eddie Warrior (Taft) and Hillside Community (Oklahoma City) correctional facilities. Some were of family members locked up together, others included their children, and some posed with handcuffs.

And each came with a message -- either a few words or a poem written by the inmate to the reader. They stressed the importance of making good decisions, the struggles that addiction can bring, and the desire to once again see family and their children.

"At the end of the time we have today, all of you will leave here, you will go home and go to your bed. If any of you have a kid, you will go home to them or with them, and later you will lay them down to bed and kiss them goodnight. These women do not have that opportunity."

Khanfar said he was inspired to do this project when he thought about how the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

In Oklahoma, the rate of incarceration of women is the highest in the nation, and at one point in 2017 was twice the national average.

It is an issue the public needs to be aware of and needs to address, Khanfar said. The system needs to be reformed, and Khanfar hopes to inspire that effort by showing that the women behind bars are just that: everyday women.

"The people who can change hate can change history," Khanfar said. "The prison system is a medieval system that is obsolete. It needs to be changed to more of a rehabilitation model."

Khanfar said the project took about five years in total, and the strain of doing it forced him to take a break halfway through. The faces and voices of the inmates he interacted with stayed with him constantly.

He said former Chief Justice Sandra Day O'Connor encouraged him to take a break for a while and return to it fresh and see it through.

As for gaining access to the inmates for portraits, Khanfar said he simply asked the heads of department of corrections and told them what he wanted to do.

"Just ask for it," Khanfar said.

He encouraged attendees to the exhibit opening on Tuesday to stick with their passions and ideas. And to those who felt inspired, he said they should not be afraid to stand up and act.

"Don't hesitate to take that first step," Khanfar said.

He said the eventual hope is that advocacy for this issue will lead to fundamental changes in the correctional system.

"We are not advocating that a crime should go unpunished," Khanfar said. "We are advocating that a non-violent crime should be treated as a rehabilitation."