Archive for Photography

Photographer Deborah Luster: Doing Time in Louisiana

Deborah Luster - LCIW25, 1999 Silver Gelatin print on aluminumDeborah Luster has entered the world of rural Louisiana prisons with camera in hand, just like our own Susan Madden Lankford did, when shooting in California for her book, Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time. Luster’s work in Louisiana prisons was also collected in a book, titled One Big Self. (It has received Book of the Year Award from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.) While there are similarities between the two, Luster has started on this path due to a personal tragedy, as this excerpt from her bio on the Edelman Gallery website shows:

Murder is not generally a subject in which most artists find themselves immersed. But twelve years ago, Deborah Luster’s mother was murdered, sparking a photographic project which led her to three different state penitentiaries in Louisiana, her home state, as a means of healing and understanding. Photographing inmates against a black backdrop or in the fields, Luster captures the individuals housed behind the barbed wire and prison cells in a project called ‘One Big Self.’ Cutting 5 x 4″ aluminum and coating it with a liquid silver emulsion, Luster creates images which serve as reliquaries for these men and women whose cockiness, youth, bravado and shyness are embedded in these pocket-sized contemporary tintypes. Through these images she asks us to ‘see beyond their crimes… to suggest that our punitive models are as reflective of who we are as our reward system.’

That last sentence speaks volumes about the similarities between the two photographers. In their own ways, both have humanized the people who had been relegated to the limbo of mere statistics. The approach to their projects was quite a bit different though. Where Lankford’s book contains an array of personal narritives transcribed from her discussions with prisoners, Luster used a different approach. She also talked extensively with the prisoners she had photographed, but, rather than using the exact words of the inmates themselves, she had relied on a poet to create the text based on these interviews.

I first ran across Luster’s work at The Newcomb Art Gallery in New Orleans, and later at Prospect.1, also in New Orleans. Her method of presentation was fascinating, drawing on institutional themes to compliment the photos. The following video will give you a quick look at the Newcomb show, as Luster talks about her work and its presentation:

Since everything in Louisiana has a culinary angle, Luster has incorporated it into her work by photographing the kitchen staff at the Angola State Prison and the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. The Kitchen Sisters at NPR have interviewed Luster for their Hidden Kitchens series, while also working on a feature for NPR about One Big Self. Both pieces are well worth a look.

Source: “After Mother’s Murder, Artist Photographs Prisoners,” NPR, The Kitchen Sisters, 08/09/10
Source: “Deborah Luster’s Hidden Kitchens,”, 06/30/10
Image courtesy of Deborah Luster and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.

Visit Us on Facebook: Humane Exposures Publishing , downTownUSA, Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes, It’s More Expensive To Do Nothing

Seeing a Brighter World: Photography as Therapy

RTP LogoThe camera eye can often throw the day-to-day world into sharp relief, making us notice things that usually slip past our conscious recognition. Photography can also be a path to rehabilitation, a means of developing skills, expressing ourselves, and creating a path of engagement with the world for those who feel deprived of one.

This is the stance taken by Rehabilitation Through Photography (formerly the Volunteer Service Photographers until its name change in 1982), a group that has been teaching photography as a form of therapy since 1941. What started out as simply photographing troops leaving for war and sending their photos, along with a personal note, to their families, has become much more as time went on. RTP’s website tells of the early days in the World War II era:

Volunteer Service Photographers (VSP) programs and volunteers used portable dark rooms that were designed to enable veterans to develop and print photographs from their wheel chairs and their beds. Photography speeded the healing process, easing the pain of mind and body. Herrick recognized the therapeutic potential of photography and she helped to establish additional programs that taught photography skills. VSP’s efforts became so well known that requests came from hospitals and other instituions serving the chronically ill and the emotionally disturbed.

This stance would dictate the shape of the program for the next 70 years. In the modern day, RTP engages with a large number of people at what most consider to be the fringes of society. At-risk youth is only one of the many groups that seem to be benefiting from RTP’s many efforts, as Picture Business Magazine reports:

RTP started and helps run 25 programs using photography as a unique form of therapy with 55 classes a week, 695 participants ages 8 to 80 with a total of 30,000 hours of instruction each year. Programs serve all facets of the community from the physically handicapped, developmentally disabled, at risk or economically challenged youth and nursing home residents. RTP provides photography instruction and programs to the physically and emotionally handicapped, the elderly, at-risk youth, the economically disadvantaged, the homeless and, the visually impaired.

In order to enact these programs, RTP needs equipment. If you find this to be a program worthy of support, it is currently engaged in its 2010 Summer Camera Drive. At the time of this writing, only 75 more cameras were needed by September 1, 2010, to help equip the current RTP programs. (Click on the Picture Business Magazine link for more details, below.)

What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you think that this kind of work can bring people back into a broader community? Can it provide a proper focus, allowing engagement with the world that had once seemed out of reach?

Follow Humane Exposures Publishing on Facebook.
Source: “Donate Your Cameras to Help RTP,” Picture Business Magazine, 08/04/10
Image: Rehabilitation Through Photography Logo, copyright retained, used under Fair Use: Reporting.
Visit Us on Facebook: Humane Exposures Publishing , downTownUSA, Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes, It’s More Expensive To Do Nothing