A group of students, some from a photography class and others who weren’t, gathered for a photo shoot at Eastern State Penitentiary. This was for an upcoming exhibit of photos and information about the history of the prison. I had never been there before and really wanted to go because of my interest in visiting historic sites. Also, despite the fact that Philly is the nearest big city to me, there was so much there that I hadn’t seen. So it was great to have the opportunity to finally see one of the many sites that had been on my Philly must-see list for so long.
I’ve watched a lot of different shows on the Travel Channel featuring Eastern State Penitentiary. It was also one of the destinations investigated by the popular TV ghost-hunting teams of “Ghost Hunters” and “Ghost Adventures.” So prior to the photo shoot on April 4, I knew a good bit about the prison’s past, both the historical information as well as its stories of hauntings. When that day of the photo shoot arrived, we head to the prison in two vans with our cameras and a few tripods. I was in the van that arrived at the prison first and while waiting for the other van of students, my half of the group decided to stop in Mugshots Coffeehouse. Another first for me, by the way, as a place that I wanted to check out in Philly. I saw the coffeehouse’s name on Google Maps when bring up directions to the prison for my own day trip of touring the city. I thought, as part of those plans, I’d check out Mugshots while in the vicinity of the prison. Who knew I’d get to do just that sooner than I thought?
We spent a few hours capturing images of the prison, views of the halls and numerous cells. Some areas were closed off to the public, although I didn’t know if that was due to less stable conditions or just saved for special behind-the-scenes tours. In either case, it was still possible to at least view them and try to get a decent photo of such areas minus any in-depth exploration that day.
For the exhibit, we chose our best photos from the trip, uploaded and captioned them on SmugMug. Then various photos were selected to be displayed out in the lobby of Founders Hall for a week toward the end of April. There were Halloween-themed decorations being put up, creating a lot of buzz among students. One student involved in the photo shoot said someone had tweeted about the Halloween decorations, trying to find out what was going on. The deal with the Halloween decorations was to reflect the prison’s annual theatrical event, “Terror Behind the Walls,” while showing photos of the cells as they are now and informing the campus community of the site’s history. Photos were displayed on tables as well as taped onto sturdy matte boards, which were hung from fishing wire and binder clips.
Besides the student photography, a short documentary was created by a few students to tell others on campus about the prison and what it was like for those who spent time there. Some reading material on the prison was also provided, telling different aspects of life in the prison and charting various statistics. A former prisoner came to see the exhibit and talk about his days there, as well as changes he made in life such as academic pursuits.
There were four of my photos in the exhibit and I have some others uploaded to my Flickr page. I’ll have to visit the prison again sometime since there was a lot I didn’t see my first time around. The photo shoot led not only my first time exploring the historic prison, but also the first time being a part of a photo exhibit. These were a few more firsts that came from my time as a Cabrini College student.