Tag Archive for photojournalism

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,” KitchenSisters.org, 06/30/10
Image courtesy of Deborah Luster and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.

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Across the Pond: Incarcerated Women in the U.K.

Maggots in my Sweet PotatoesThe situation of women in prison is well known to us at HUMANE EXPOSURES.

Our book, Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time, is the first in a photojournalistic series addressing the social issues of child abuse and neglect, homelessness, incarceration, and the special needs of women behind bars. It would seem that the sort of personal narratives shared in that work are shared by the women incarcerated across the Atlantic in the U.K.

Thea C. Garland, a reporter for Global Post, sheds light on the changing view of women’s incarceration that arrived with the new administration last May. The new Secretary of Justice, Kenneth Clarke, has stated that he believes there is no link between falling crime rates and rising levels of imprisonment. Evidently, he has begun a campaign against short prison sentences. In addition, Prime Minister David Cameron seems to share his views, having called short jail terms “meaningless.”

Garland brings us some startling statistics about the global extent of these issues:

Not since the mid-19th century have there been so many women in British jails. Britain’s female prison population has increased 60 percent since 1997, compared to a 28 percent increase for men.

‘Practically every country in the world, rich and poor, is seeing their social fabric disintegrate as more and more women are being charged and held in custody, often long distances from families,’ the World Health Organization noted in a report last year.

The numbers that Garland reports for the U.S. are also unsettling:

While women make up only 7 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons in the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2000 and 2008, the female prison population in America rose by 23 percent. More than half of women in federal prisons said they were mothers.

“Down under,” another former British colony is not exempt from the trend:

In Australia, the imprisonment rate for women rose by 209 percent between 1984 and 2003, but only 75 percent for men, according to the report ‘New Gender Rights for Women Prisoners and Offenders.’

In Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time, the photographs of Susan Madden Lankford are accompanied by the words and stories of women and workers in a California women’s jail. These women’s crimes are often intertwined with prior abuse, mental health problems, and addiction issues. Garland holds a British mirror up to these narratives and finds the reflection to be quite similar:

A report by a British penal reform charity, The Prison Reform Trust, revealed that a staggering 70 percent of British female prisoners had two or more mental health problems; more than a third said they had attempted suicide at some point. More than half of women in British prisons had suffered from domestic violence and one in three had been sexually abused, according to the trust.

The Howard League for Penal Reform states that women account for roughly 50% of all incidents where harm was self-inflicted, but make up only 5 % of the total prison population. With a 50% rise in incidents of this nature between 2003 and 2007, the numbers look grim.

Follow the  link below to read  the rest of  Garland’s article — it is thoughtful and dense with information. When you’re done, stop back and let us know your thoughts.

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Source: “UK: When jail doesn’t work,”  The Global Post, 08/05/10
Image copyright Susan Madden Lankford, from the book “Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time.” Used with permission.

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