Photograph of a tree against a pale blue sky, taken from Folly by Jamie Murray

Jamie Murray’s photo book examines the prison system

Honest conversations with ex-inmates over the course of five years inspired Murray to reflect on the seemingly unnatural nature of imprisonment

Bristol-based photographer Jamie Murray began making the images in his new book, Folly, in 2017, when he endeavoured to gain access to a prison and better understand the nature of being incarcerated, and what can lead a person to such circumstances.

Upon realising that this kind of formal access would not allow him to truly connect with the prisoners’ stories, he began looking for answers within the ex-inmate community.

These intimate conversations led to equally intimate portraits of the interviewees, but they also led to imagery that went beyond simple documentary work and instead saw Murray taking photographs inspired by the conversations themselves.

Photograph taken from Folly by Jamie Murray showing a taxidermy deer, rhinoceros head, and a human-like figure with an animal's head, inside a darkened neutral room
All images from Folly © Jamie Murray
Photograph from Folly by Jamie Murray showing grassy earth and plantlife with white petal-like tops

Moving between poetic still lifes and moody landscapes, the series hints at the profound effect that the exchanges had on the photographer. The reflections of the subjects inspired Murray to consider his “own life, choices and history, with meandering thoughts and emotions relating to what had been discussed”.

These musings are embodied within the visual journey of Folly, which looks to understand not just the reality of a life spent in prison, but also how such experiences go on to inform life outside of prison.

Photograph from Folly by Jamie Murray showing a person's hand touching the beak of a large black bird
Photograph from Folly by Jamie Murray showing a road lined with trees

Beyond a simple, renewed appreciation of open spaces and freedom, there is also a deeper questioning of humanity’s relationship with nature. The images of trees, fields and butterflies stand in stark contrast to the implied, but not photographed, prison architecture. We gain a sudden sense of the strangeness of imprisonment – the human capacity both to coexist and to interfere with a perceived natural order of things.

This can be read as a critique of the prison system, further symbolised by the first image in the book – a “visual metaphor of an imposing folly” – which brings into comparison the definition of the term and the system itself.

Photograph from Folly by Jamie Murray showing a butterfly or moth next to two rows of cocoons suspended from branches

However, the image of the butterfly on a branch, surrounded by pupae, carries with it a possible dual meaning.

Writing in the book, Murray recalls his conversation with one of the ex-prisoners: “He looked at me and asked, are you a man or a beast? I questioned if there is a difference between the two. There can be if you want, that’s the butterfly, that’s the aim, it just takes time.”

Photograph from Folly by Jamie Murray showing old machinery close-up and mounds of earth, with berries growing at the centre
Close-up photograph of a horse's face with dark brown fur, as part of Folly by Jamie Murray
Photograph from Folly by Jamie Murray showing the sea with clouds overhead, with the sun piercing through one, leaving a beam of light on the sea

Folly by Jamie Murray is published by Photo Editions;