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Inside the walls of the penitentiary, there isn’t much color or hopeful recognition. Not many things to inspire tranquility or sweet nostalgia. Maybe a wildflower in the recreational yard or the wisp of a song-ending on the radio. Occasionally, we might get a whiff of a scent of perfume. In this cold and sterile environment, a photograph can be salvation for people like me — a lifeline to reality and things loved.

Pictures have held great importance throughout my life.

Growing up, I used to sneak up to the attic and look at my mother’s old photographs, stashed inside a ripped cardboard box and covered with dust. I would sit on top of my stepdad’s varsity football jacket on the hard 2-by-6-inch wood rafters and rifle through the box, gazing at snapshots of her life.  I was only 10 or 11 years old at the time.

Some were pictures from her first marriage; others were of my grandparents’ row home in a 1970s-era Philadelphia, ice hockey games and picnics. I could stare at one picture for an hour, memorizing every detail and imagining what it was like to be there when the picture was taken. That was the beginning of my love of photographs. 

But when I came to prison, I lost all of the precious images that I’d saved for so long. Misplaced during my arrest, my irreplaceable collection of a lifetime of memories was gone forever. 

I’ve had to learn to let go of the loss of all my precious belongings and printed memories — my postcards of happiness. After seven years in prison, I can no longer remember what the picture looked like of my ex-wife and son standing in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on a cloudy day, but that hasn’t diminished the sweet memory. 

When I started my eight-year sentence, my family — especially my mother — knew that they had to do things to keep me grounded to my past and present. Sending me photographs was a way to remind me of my roots and what I was fighting for, and those printed images gave me peace. I would hold onto a photo and stare at all the little details once again, often laying on my bunk and looking at a picture of my son or a Zen garden all night, daydreaming and wishing to be home. 

The photo album from the inmate canteen that I kept them in only cost $2, but it was worth a lot more to me. 

The pictures came in letters at mail call. When my name was called I would hastily rip the envelope open and flip through the stack of my allowable 10 pictures, scanning them quickly at first, and then savoring the collection later. I carefully placed them in order of importance in my 20-page album, and I coveted the compilation, locking it away in my footlocker like treasure. 

My moods determined when I would pull it out and look at it; homesick days were made easier by looking at pictures of my parents’ pond in autumn or my nephew’s soccer portraits. In the mild Florida winter, I’d sit in my bleak correctional institution and pull out my album, finding the pictures of deep white snow on the Pennsylvania mountains. Each summer I’d flip through countless photos of the salty Jersey Shore or the boardwalk in Ocean City, gentle reminders of my childhood revelry.

Two years ago, my photo album was rendered obsolete when we received the Department of Corrections’ tablets, allowing my family to send unlimited digital pictures to a photo gallery. In times of worry and disheartenment, I sit and scroll through my new collection — ever respectful of my old album buried in my footlocker — and pause on the landscapes and profiles and action shots of my family and friends. 

Vacation pictures sit side by side with my son’s high school graduation portrait and a Bucks County pumpkin patch. 

The hundreds of pictures tell me about the life I get to go back to at the end of this year, of the reality that waits on the other side of these gates and my new beginning. Pictures of nieces and nephews I’ve never met. In-laws who joined the family after I was imprisoned. The pictures comprise the most meaningful things in my life — the things worth fighting for and my reason to stay out of prison. 

When my father died last year, I scrolled through my photo gallery for days, staring at his pictures through tears and laughter, looking at photos of him in a chicken costume for Halloween or proudly posing in a tuxedo at my stepmom’s side for a university gala. 

Without those photographs, I might have been bitter. Being able to look into his blue eyes allowed me some closure and opportunity for remembrance of someone I loved. It made me happy to relive my memories of him through a photograph, and that’s all I can ask for in here — a chance to remember.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Ryan M. Moser

Ryan M. Moser is a writer incarcerated in Florida. His work has been published in the Evening Street Review, Storyteller, Santa Fe Literary Review, The Progressive, The Marshall Project, Medium, The Wild Word, The Startup, and more. In 2020, his essay, “Injuries Incompatible with Life” received an Honorable Mention award from PEN America.