Bob Shell: Some Prison Thoughts

Woman masturbating in an old prison in Paris inside the catacombs
Catacombs. Paris. Photo: Tony Ward, Copyright 2022

Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2022



“Sometimes I think this world is one big prison yard,
Some of us are prisoners, some of us are guards,
Lord, Lord they laid George Jackson down,
Lord, Lord they laid him in the ground.”

— From the prison song ‘George Jackson.’
George Jackson was a California prisoner killed by guards who shot him in the back of the head.

I am approaching the beginning of my fifteenth year of incarceration, which will begin on September first. People ask me, ‘How have you kept your sanity?’ Actually,it hasn’t been that hard, because I know in my soul that I am right and they — the so-called ‘justice system — are wrong. My conscience is clear. I can truthfully say that I never killed another human being, or contributed in any way to the death of one. Nor have I acted inappropriately with any of the over two hundred women who have modeled for me. That’s why so many of them are my friends today. I always respected them, treated them as persons, collaborators in the production of my photographs. They were always paid well.
In January of this year, after looking at all of the evidence in my case, most of which is demonstrably false, the Innocence Project took my case and assigned me an attorney. Their standards are very high, and they only accept a tiny fraction of the hundreds of cases brought to their attention. They studied my case for five years before taking it. They have asked me not to talk about the specifics of my case here, so that is why I can only speak in generalities, but I have genuine hopes of release.
Photography was in my life ever since my father taught me to develop film and make prints in his basement darkroom in my early teens. I had an old Ilford Ensign folding camera that I bought at a Goodwill store for something like fifty cents. It took remarkably good photographs. I even adapted it to work with my microscope. As I learned more about photography, my father let me use his cameras, first an Aires rangefinder camera, later his Exakta and Leica cameras. I got hooked on photography and never looked back.
But I originally didn’t think of making a vocation of it. If I thought about it at all in those early days, the late 1950s and early 1960s, I envisioned it as a hobby, like my father’s.
In 1965 I graduated high school near the top of my class and went on to college at Virginia Tech, majoring in biology and fine art, where I took my first, and only, photography class. After graduation, I was offered a job at the Smithsonian Institution, and went to live in Washington.
Fast forward to the 1980s. By 1985 I’d established a reputation as a photographer and writer, with agents for my photography in Europe and Japan. I became known for my classic nudes and Virginia and other US and foreign landscapes. My agents placed my photographs in many publications, including Asahi Camera, Japan’s preimminant photography magazine, on the covers of the Japanese editions of Danielle Steele romance novels, in a series of books published by Rotovision in Switzerland, and in ‘Asian Photography’ magazine in India. I won an international design award from Graphis for one of my magazine covers.
I made my first trip outside the USA in 1980 to attend photokina, the ‘World’s Fair of Photography’ in Cologne, Germany, and attended that event every even-numbered year until 2002, meeting photographers and people associated with photography from everywhere in the world, networking, establishing a worldwide network of friends and associates, many of whom I am still in contact with today.
My first one-man gallery exhibition of my photography was in 1973, in Richmond, my last in 2004-5 in Chicago.
By the time of my arrest in June of 2003, I was, in the words of Federal Judge Glenn Conrad, “A renowned photographer with a long-established reputation.” My arrest was reported by media in England, France, Germany and Italy, that I know of, perhaps in other countries where I was well-known.
I worked very hard at my photography and writing to establish that reputation, but to the small-minded police and prosecutor, it meant nothing. A lifetime’s work went up in smoke.
As a result, I have not so much as touched a camera since August of 2007, and only had limited access to computers in prison law libraries, for legal research and writing only. These computers are not connected to the Internet.
I write these posts and my blog on a JP5 mini tablet, which has a 4 1/4 inch screen and a tiny Android keyboard. I’m on my fifth one, because the batteries don’t last. We’ve been promised the larger JP6 for well over a year, haven’t seen them yet.
So here I sit on a hard bunk at 4:00 in the morning writing these thoughts. Going back to the question of preserving my sanity, writing these posts has really helped as has writing my blog, and a few magazine articles as well as my 2019 book ‘Cosmic Dance,’ which has sold fairly well considering I have been unable to actively promote it.
Before my incarceration in this human warehousing system I’d written more than two dozen books and over a thousand magazine articles for magazines in many countries, translated into most major languages, even Serbian.
Contact via letters and email with friends around the world has helped me keep a positive attitude. They know the truth about me. I even have one friend who emails me regularly from Tehran, Iran. Anyone reading this can email me via JPay. On you can sign up using my name, Robert Shell, and my ID number 1201280. I’m always happy to hear from people out in the real world.
At age seventy-five I know there are far fewer years ahead than have passed, and can only hope to be free once more when I have some years left. The man in the cell next to me is in his mid-90s, feeble, possibly suffering from Alzheimer’s. I have watched many men die in prison in my years of incarceration, the saddest death I can imagine, and I certainly don’t want to be another one.


About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models.  He is serving the 15th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read Bob Shell’s, first essay on civil war, click here:

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