State of the Arts Blog

Photographer Emily Baxter turns lens on the guilty, but unconvicted masses

Emily Baxter wants people who have been convicted of crimes to get a second chance.

To persuade others that they should, Baxter is employing an interesting argument.

In her words: "We are all criminals."

This anonymous subject confessed that he helped a drug dealer in college in order to be more popular. Now he's an attorney. "I can’t tell you how many background checks my name has been run through in the last year, but I can tell you how very relieved I am knowing that each time it will come back clean." Photo by Emily Baxter

According to Baxter's research, one in four Minnesotans has a criminal record, which goes on a file that affects the person for years.

But a far higher percentage of Minnesotans have committed crimes, and simply got away with it.

By day Baxter works as an attorney at the Council on Crime and Justice. She reaches out to employers and landlords, legislators, licensing boards, and the general public, seeking to convince people that those who have served time deserve acceptance -- and a chance to rejoin society.

"Time and again, I’ve been told 'once a criminal, always a criminal,'" Baxter said. "There's an underlying assumption in that statement: that there are two mutually exclusive and immutable categories of people: ‘criminals’ and ‘clean.’"

For some participants, the criminal behavior continues. This woman admitted "I break the law all the time. I drink and drive sometimes, which isn’t the best thing. But when I’m sober I don’t want to do it, and when I’m drunk I feel like driving. I steal stuff, when it’s available. I don’t go out of my way to do stuff like that, but if I don’t feel like paying admission somewhere, it’s easy to get around." Photo by Emily Baxter

"We Are All Criminals" is the product of a Bush Foundation grant and years of work. Baxter asked people in the Council on Crime and Justice's social network to share stories they've "had the luxury to forget."

"To my astonishment, the responses started trickling – then pouring – in," she said. "I spent the next several months traveling all around the state, interviewing participants in their homes and offices, at nearby diners and bars, in parks and on boats."

After interviews, which often run two hours, Baxter takes photographs of the participants, sometimes in their homes or offices, or occasionally where the actual offenses occurred. They hold a chalkboard declaring their crimes. Each participant approves their "criminal record" before it goes live on Baxter's website.

Participants in the "We Are All Criminals" project have confessed to everything from pissing in a neighbor's beer to steeling from a 70 year old man's retirement fund, but most of them involved drugs, theft and/or the destruction of property. Photo by Emily Baxter

Baxter hopes viewers will see themselves reflected in the photos and the stories.

"I hope that viewers take note of the context they allowed themselves -- 'I was young, drunk, stupid, in college, hanging out with the wrong crowd, just along for the ride, no one was hurt, I gave it back, or I didn’t mean to do it' -- and acknowledge that others may have been in a similar situation but were caught. I hope that some recognize the privilege they’ve experienced (the cop just told us to go home) and appreciate that the not everyone has benefited from that same privilege."

Baxter also wants viewers to reflect upon how very different their own lives would be had they been burdened by a criminal record. Once they recognize that, she hopes they'll take action to help create second chances for those relatively few people who have already been punished for their crimes.

You can see some of Baxter's images through the end of January at Boneshaker Books in Minneapolis. Or you can see them online at her website.