IT was simple curiosity that guided photographer Serge J-F. Levy to New York’s Green Haven Correctional Facility in 2002. “Without having any personal predisposition to any religious activity but having a fascination with how people can work on their spirituality and healing their souls, I was interested in how this was happening in an environment that seemed to be everything but conducive to that,” Levy said.
That trip was the beginning of a 2½-year project for Levy that ultimately took him to six maximum-security prisons and one super maximum-security prison in states including Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Louisiana. But getting access was tricky, requiring a mix of networking and persuasion. “Other than the obvious ways, it’s not too easy to get into prison. It’s a real challenge to convince people of your intentions, and I felt very lucky to have my intentions aligned with something that was pretty hard to see a negative take on it,” Levy said. “I wasn’t going in and looking for the cracks in the toilet bowl and poor inmate conditions. I was looking at something that could possibly make a prison and its staff look better.”
Levy’s photos capture a diversity of religions and religious practices. There are Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Wiccans engaging in a range of practices, from silent prayer to large services. “I was looking for a variety of experience. I wanted to really get everything from that public experience all the way down to the private experience. Because that’s the breadth of what religion and spiritually means to people,” Levy said.