No longer am I
the captain of this ship,
rather the oarsman
getting the whip

Black is the Day, Black is the Night is a conceptual exploration into the many facets of human identity using notions of time, accumulation, memory and distance through personal correspondence with men serving life and death row sentences in some of the most maximum security prisons in the U.S., all of whom had served between 13-26 years at point of contact.

There is a cage we all long to escape from.
Your cage, may not be mine.
My cage, may not be yours.

The title comes from poem excerpts written by a man who has been in prison since the age of 13. He was retried as an adult at 16 for attempting escape and was sentenced to life in solitary without the possibility of parole at a super-max prison. He taught himself to write poetry over this time.

Living in the land of the lost
Waking to the sound of bells
Like making a strenuous journey
With your mind trapped in hell.

On average these men spend 22 1/2 hours a day in solitary cells that measure roughly 6 feet by 9 feet; not only facing their own mortality, but doing so in total isolation. As one said, "I have asked myself if I have rather become so used to the company of my solitude that I no longer feel the passing of years and instead am grateful to have life pass with my every moment of existence as if the years were simply minutes."

Like a beast among beasts I go!
Am I a beast?

Oh youth,
what have
I done
to you?

So, I began to wonder how solitary would impact one’s notion of reality, of self-identity or even of their own memories outside of such an environment? Did they embrace the mind of a dreamer, the mind of a thinker or succumb to their bleak environment and allow mental, physical and emotional collapse? Did their violent impulses land them in an infinite state of vulnerability? I began writing several men to look into these complex ideas and ask first hand the impacts of such severe isolation.

It's probably safe to assume
that 17 years on death row
seems like a hard way to spend one's life.
But, taken one day at a time,
I can't say I've noticed it.
Since the age of 16 I have only been
free once for about 27 months.
This is the life I know.

How many thousands of ways
could I have done things
differently...from the
beginning, all the way until
the point of no return.

Out of our letters a collaboration unfolded. I constructed images using formulas specific to each of their stories, age and years incarcerated. Through these formulas their portraits became more unrecognizable and their memories became more muddled, regurgitated and fictional with the endless passing years of their sentence. Stripped of personal context and placed in solitary cells, their sense of identity, memory and time couldn’t help but mutate. I sent these images to them, they would critique them. This went on for years. Of the seven men I originally wrote, I remain in touch with one who has been in solitary confinement since 1995 for a crime committed at 16. One was released in 2010 at the age of 30 (after 15 years in prison), three eventually opted out, one was executed in 2009, another executed in 2012.

If you can see the light
in the darkest of holes,
you can survive

Take flight! My soul,

—Amy Elkins