A little over a year ago, photographer Trent Bell's friend got sentenced to 36 years in jail. This friend was someone Bell had grown up with; someone who shared a similar background and had gotten into some trouble.

Bell thought about this friend, which led him to contemplate the series of events that lead people to jail and the stories they tell themselves about them. This curiosity was the basis for a new series of photos that uncover what separates the average person from a convict.

The idea was going to be initially restricted to portraits of prisoners. But after some deliberation, Bell and his team decided on an idea that was more of a collaboration between the photographer and subject. The convicts would write letters to their younger selves to go along with their portraits - only if they agreed to do it.

“The 12 inmates we photographed were the only ones who volunteered,” Bell says. “After all the public opinion, trial and such it turns out most inmates want to harden themselves and just keep their heads down and do their time. But the ones who did this project were very cooperative.”

The photography project debuted at the Engine gallery in Biddeford, Maine, in January.

“In reading most of the letters I found myself feeling surprisingly similar to these men,” Bell says. “But I also realized that either their situations were different than mine or that they had made incremental decisions that led them to these situations. The whole experience really made me look at my own life and reflect on why I’m ‘me.’”

Watch a behind-the-scenes video below, and look at the photos that follow: