August 15, 2010

What America Do You Wrap Yourself In?

Deborah Luster, 2002

Deborah Luster, 2002

This portrait by Deborah Luster was taken as part of her five year project, One Big Self  (1998-2002). Luster photographed prisoners in facilities across Louisiana and, for the most part, adopted a faux-tintype process by printing on metal plates.

In the past, I have promoted Luster’s work and as no surprise to me it proved very popular – for the simple reason being it shows prisoners in unexpected lights; vulnerable, inventive, pensive, emboldened. What is most remarkable is that each sitter seems to understand how powerful “the image” can be.

During the project, Luster gave away approximately 25,000 paper prints to prisoners. In some cases, Luster’s portraits were sent out to family members by desperate inmates and – after years of no contact – their estranged family members would return to the prison, to the visiting room.

Luster was able to photograph sitters at the Angola Prison Rodeo, at Halloween and Mardi Gras celebrations. She photographed in farm-fields, prison-yards and hobby-shops.

I cannot be sure where this young inmate got the flag nor what activities he was in-between, but the star-spangled banner he has. Did he know the weight of association the star spangled banner carries? Probably, hopefully.

This portrait should jolt us. This is his America. America has perfected the widespread application of prisons. America specializes in prisons and yet they fail two thirds of their wards. Nationally, the recidivism rate is north of 65%. We wouldn’t hesitate to close down any school or hospital that had failed that amount of its constituency and yet the US keeps building prisons. This is his reality. This is the country he is tied to and wrapped up in.

My question is which America do we want to wrap ourselves in?

Can we justifiably ignore imprisonment rates six times that of the next-highest Western nation? Can we really claim prisons are not occupied by disproportionate numbers of minority groups and dismiss that (failing) institutions haven’t played their role in crippling and criminalizing entire communities?

Luster’s images are a call to emotion and, dare I say it, empathy. Luster’s is a portfolio that brings forth an invisible America; it is a body of work that restores to the sitter (however briefly) the type of dignity to which we all aspire.

After doubling it’s prison population during the past 20 years under the zealous ‘tough on crime’ politics of Conservative and New Labour, the new UK government has announced a u-turn in policy.

Minister for Justice, Kenneth Clarke, announced recently that harsher sentencing has not improved public safety and that prison alternatives are the logical, economical choice. Even more remarkable is that this is the decision of a coalition government dominated by Conservatives who set in motion the disastrous “prisons work” mantra nearly two decades ago.

What America do you wrap yourself in? What America are our politicians wrapped up in? What America do we foresee? As well as invisible, America’s prisoners are voiceless. Even after release, disenfranchised felons are denied the vote. When November comes and the flags are flying for both parties, maybe you’ll think of the portrait above. If prisoners could vote tomorrow, I can assure you we’d all be wrapped up in a better, fairer, more representational America.


UK government announcement.

Discussion of new prison policy in UK

The history of prisons and race in America – Robert Perkinson’s work talks about Texas but it has applications across the US.

The disenfranchisement of criminals in America – Michelle Alexander’s work

Post By

Pete Brook
See other posts by Pete here.

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