Deborah Luster: Evidence of Life

© Deborah Luster – Transylvania, Louisiana; Eddie M. ‘Fat’ Coco; doc # 409584; pob. New Orleans; sentence. 6 years; 2 children; future plans. be success, lawyer; East Carroll Parish Prison Farm 03.08.02 [detail]

The portraits are intended as evidence of life – to make visible the ‘invisible’ men and women who populate our prisons.


Why do we imprison criminals? Is it a form of retribution meted out by the state on behalf of the community? Is it in order to deter others who may consider a life of crime from taking that path? Is it simply a way of removing and containing dangerous individuals in order to maintain the peace and safety of society? Or is it a way to rehabilitate those who have made bad choices, so that they may be re-integrated into society when their sentence has been served?

Across time and the diverse forms of society around the world, the checks and balances between these four theories of the purpose of imprisonment have had many different degrees of emphasis and, even today, there is no firm consensus. Deterrence, retribution, containment and rehabilitation do not easily find a comfortable equilibrium. There is an especial tension between retribution and rehabilitation: the anger of the victim and the desire to help the perpetrator transcend their crime. As a result, while much attention is paid to the processes of guilt or innocence, once decided in a court of law, the convicted individual falls from public view. The complexity of considering the purpose of imprisonment is left to others and, as the individual is recategorised from citizen to prisoner, they become as if invisible.

The USA incarcerates more of its own population than any other country in the world and, within that country, the state of Louisiana imprisons the most. Across the country, the proportion of the black African-American community in prison is five times that of the white Caucasian. Ethnicity and poverty skew the way in which offenders are sentenced and, as a consequence, the demographics of the American penal system.

It is against this background that the photographer Deborah Luster began her work collaborating with inmates in three prisons in the northeast of Louisiana to create nuanced, timeless portraits. These are not documentary images of the US prison system, neither do they seek to diminish the crimes committed. Rather they seek to discover the human condition behind the label ‘prisoner’; to provide a mirror to the individual, a means of human connection with their families beyond the prison walls, and visibility in wider society.

Alasdair Foster


Alasdair: What drew you to make photographs?

Deborah: Growing up, our family had a camera and several photograph albums. As we looked at the albums together, the photos would prompt stories about friends and family, both alive and dead. I fell in love with both the photographs and the stories they elicit. Along with the albums, my favourite object in our home was a wooden box containing unmounted snapshots. I found them intensely fascinating. As I held each print in my hand, those photographed – family, neighbours, pets, and me – all looked directly into my eyes. Time dissolved and they were free to speak to me in secret.

My mother and grandmother were the family’s exclusive photographers. It was following the murder of my mother that I began taking photographs myself.

Why was that?

Because of circumstances surrounding my mother’s murder, I feared for my own life as well. I used the camera as a kind of shield when venturing out into the world again.

How did you first begin making photographs in prisons?

In 1998, I was one of several photographers recruited by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities to document poverty in the northeast corner of the state. While driving around the area, I noticed many abandoned houses and several prisons. I wondered where all the people in the houses had gone and if some of them might be in prison. One Sunday morning, I knocked on the gate of a small prison and asked the warden if I might come in and make portraits of some of the inmates. He agreed.

Later, I printed the portraits and, looking at them, knew that I had finally found what I had been looking for: a project to help me come to terms with the murder of my mother.

The two series we will be discussing were made in three prisons in Louisiana. Could you describe them?

East Carroll Parish Prison Farm was a minimum-security facility housing two hundred men serving sentences of less than ten years. The prison has since closed.

The Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel has minimum-, medium-, and maximum-security facilities for around one thousand women. The guards here were almost exclusively women. They were not armed, and no gun was kept on the premises.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is a maximum-security prison located on 18,000 acres of farmland contained on three sides by the Mississippi River. The five thousand inmates work the fields, producing food for Angola and for other correctional facilities around the state.

What was the demographic of the prisoners?

At East Carroll, seventy per cent of the population was African-American. Most of the men had completed less than nine years of formal education. Most of the thousand women housed at St. Gabriel were serving sentences directly or indirectly related to drugs. Sixty-five per cent were African-American and around one hundred were serving life sentences. Angola – which once served as a ‘slave-breeding farm’ – housed five thousand inmates. At the time I worked there, Louisiana was the incarceration capital of the world. There were over eighty men in Angola on Death Row, and eighty-eight per cent of the prisoners would die in this prison. However, in the past few years, prison reform has led to the release of some inmates.

Many of the inmates in the Angola prison were there for murder. Given the circumstances of your mother’s untimely passing, how did this make you feel?

© Deborah Luster – Transylvania, Louisiana; Eddie M. ‘Fat’ Coco; doc # 409584; pob. New Orleans; sentence. 6 years; 2 children; future plans. be success, lawyer; East Carroll Parish Prison Farm 03.08.02

I struggle to explain the counter-intuitive fact that, from the moment I first stepped through the gates at East Carroll Parish Prison, I felt the desperate grief I’d lived with since my mother’s murder lifting. Perhaps I had finally found a population that deeply understood loss…

One afternoon, just as I was arriving at the East Carroll Parish Prison Farm, it began to rain. The warden ordered Eddie M. ‘Fat’ Coco (who was serving a six-year sentence) to take down the flag, and then to help me carry my equipment to the studio location. When we began photographing, he decided to pose wrapped in Old Glory. Eddie would tell the other inmates not to clown around during the photo sessions and to pose with dignity, because “this work is important”.

The first series you made in prison was ‘One Big Self’. How did you go about making that work?

It’s a collaborative process. The inmates were invited to volunteer to be photographed. They posed themselves without my interference. It was important to me that they trusted me to present them as they wished to be seen. They wore whatever clothes they happened to have on. Occasionally these were costumes, as I photographed both the Halloween Haunted House and the Mardi Gras Parade at St. Gabriel, and the Angola Rodeo participants in their striped shirts. Any objects that appear in the portraits were provided by the inmates themselves.

I realised early on that the best thing I could do was not get in the way of the process and allow the inmates to pose in any way they wished and for whomever the portraits were intended. One inmate from St. Gabriel spotted the prison-yard pet toad while she was waiting and chose to be photographed with it. After that, all the Inner Yard workers insisted on being photographed with the beleaguered amphibian.

Do you give prints to the prisoners who you photograph?

They each received between ten and fifteen wallet-sized prints. Over the course of this project, I have provided over 25,000 prints to inmates. I became fascinated with where all these prints were going. One woman, sentenced to ninety-nine years, had not been visited by any of her nineteen children during the fifteen years of her incarceration. She wanted to send them photos in the hope that it might ‘soften their hearts’. A few months later, she told me four of her children had come for a visit, saying: “The baby was five years old when I left. He’s nineteen now.”

For the inmates and their families these photographs can be magical things in ways that a letter or a visit cannot. I have come to realise that this project is as much about the universal power of personal photographs as it is about the specific individual I was photographing. ‘One Big Self’ is not a documentary on the prison system and any reference to the prison environment was excluded. The portraits are intended as evidence of life – to make visible the ‘invisible’ men and women who populate our prisons.

Recently, I received a call from the Innocence Project of New Orleans [an organisation that works to free innocent, life-sentenced prisoners]. They were seeking permission to use a photograph of Wilbert Jones. Wrongly convicted, Mr. Jones was finally being released after almost forty-six years behind bars. I had taken the photograph some twenty years earlier; it was the only picture he had of himself.

How did the prisoners respond to seeing themselves in their photograph?

The most shocking comment came from a man at Angola: “Damn,” he said walking away with his pictures, “I done got old!” I asked the guard what he meant. He explained that men come into Angola at the age of eighteen… nineteen… twenty years old, and for thirty or forty years have only blurry stainless-steel mirrors in which to see themselves. It seems unimaginable, but they have no clear understanding of what they look like.

Why is this series called ‘One Big Self’?

The title comes from a voice-over in Terrence Malick’s film ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998): “Maybe all men got one big soul where everybody’s a part of. All faces are the same man, one big self.”

These portraits are printed with a very particular aesthetic. Why did you choose this approach?

The images are selenium-toned, silver-gelatin on prepared black anodized aluminium. They were printed to resemble tintypes, suggesting the long history of incarceration in the USA. I chose to print them small (5 x 4 inches), the size of an intimate keepsake. Practically, printing the portraits on metal produces a durable object that makes it possible for viewers to handle them. The rigid metal also allows information to be engraved on the back of the plates.

© Deborah Luster ‘One Big Self’ steel display cabinet (installation views) 2003

How do you exhibit this work in an art gallery?

The ‘One Big Self’ presentation consists of a black steel cabinet with three drawers that contain approximately two hundred and fifty of these photographic objects. Each metal plate bears the portrait of an inmate and is engraved on the back with information that they provided about themselves. To access the work, the viewer pulls open the heavy drawers and removes a handful of portraits. This mode of presentation requires the viewer to touch portraits of people that society shuns. One might be able to look without being seen, but one cannot touch without being touched. I set out to assemble a portrait survey of an incarcerated population at the turn of the millennium. To my surprise, I found that the project was also very much about the power of the personal photograph and of human touch.

The second series is called ‘Passion Play’ and revolves around a religious drama. How did this theatrical event come about?

The Assistant Warden at Angola, Cathy Fontenot, had seen a community play called ‘The Life of Jesus Christ’ presented in Scotland. The play had been produced by Sir John Stewart-Clark in the grounds of his home, Dundas Castle. It had been performed in many other places around the world, in each case adapting to the culture and characteristics of each community’s performers. The Assistant Warden thought that the wide-open spaces at Angola would be a perfect place to stage it. In 2009, Sir John and his production director, Suzanne Lofthus, travelled to Angola to meet with the prison administration and the inmate director of the Angola Drama Club, Gary Tyler.

(Tyler was first imprisoned at the age of sixteen, and at seventeen he was the youngest Death Row inmate in the United States. As director of the Angola Drama Club, Gary mentored dozens of inmates. After forty-one and a half years, he was released and is currently working with at-risk young people in California.)

Together Lofthus and Tyler held auditions at Angola and St. Gabriel before beginning a rigorous schedule of rehearsals. Each day, the twenty-five prisoners from St. Gabriel were shackled and transported one hundred and sixty miles by van to rehearse with seventy-five inmates at Angola. The theatrical sets and costumes we made out of whatever could be found around the prison. They staged three open-air productions in 2012 and 2013.

Given the Passion of Christ is a story of unjust punishment and ultimate transcendence, how did the prisoners respond to their roles and to the underlying narrative?

Even though many were non-Christians, each inmate took on the challenge of the project and many identified strongly with the Biblical characters they portrayed. To varying degrees, the actors came to realise that the play’s characters parallel the lives of those affected by today’s Criminal Justice System, whether victim, perpetrator, or wrongly accused. The young woman playing the Virgin Mary (imprisoned for armed robbery) realised that she had had an abortion at the same age Mary had given birth to Jesus Christ. The man playing Judas told me that nobody had wanted to take that role. However, he concluded: “Who am I to judge Judas? Who better than me to portray the man who betrayed Jesus!” For many of the actors, the experience was transformative. The women playing Mary Magdalene (convicted for murder) now felt that she should have just accepted the beatings rather than killing her abuser and, as a result, losing all the years she was separated from her children. And so, together with the audience, they went through a process of opening, extending, receiving, grieving and loving.

What have you learned about compassion in the process of making these two bodies of work?

That the act of creation – whether posing for a photograph to be shared with loved ones or participating in a play – is a path that can lead us to experience and understand what the poet Jack Gilbert described as “our hearts in their marvellous cases”.

© Deborah Luster – Transylvania, Louisiana; transferred to Hunt Prison Boot Camp; East Carroll Parish Prison Farm 1998 [detail]

Biographical Notes

Deborah Luster was born in Bend, Oregon, in 1951, and has worked as a professional photographer since the 1990s. Her photographs have been exhibited in many museums and galleries across the USA including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), and the Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago). Her work is held in the permanent collections of a number of prestigious public and private collections including the National Gallery of Art (Washington D.C.), the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Deborah Luster has published two books: ‘One Big Self’ (Twin Palms 2003), created in partnership with the poet C.D. Wright (1949–2016); and ‘Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish’ (Twin Palms 2011). She has won a number of awards including the Baum Award for Emerging American Photographers (2001), an Anonymous Was a Woman Award (2002), and, jointly with the poet C.D. Wright, the Lange-Taylor Prize (2000). She has been awarded fellowships from the John Gutmann Trust (2002), the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (2013), and a Ford Foundation (2017). She lives and works in New Orleans, Louisiana, and in Galway, Ireland.

Photo: © Kevin Kline

This article was initially published in Chinese, in the April 2020 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was compassion.