Luster Captures Portraits of Inmates
by Robin Miller, 2theadvocate.com
Time is frozen behind the gate, even as one slide follows another on the screen.
There’s Gumby and Cornbread. No, that’s not Cornbread; his nickname is Padu. He lives in the Main Prison now.
But the face is the same, as is the person. The same, it seems, as he was 10 years ago when Deborah Luster snapped his portrait. “I remember giving a portrait to one guy, and he looked at it and said, ‘Man, I’ve gotten old,’” she said.
“That’s when I realized that time really stands still here. They come in as young men, and they don’t realize just how much they’ve aged.”
Until someone measures their time with a camera. Place emphasis on the personal, because Luster didn’t set out to establish a record of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, its places or its history.
No, she was interested in those who lived there, their faces, exactly who they were. The “why” here wasn’t important. She never asked about the committed crimes that landed them on this maximum security farm, once known as the bloodiest prison in the United States.
But Luster wasn’t naïve, either.
She already knew what people were capable of doing, horrors orchestrated by a single hand. One of those hands dealt death to her mother, and Luster was dealing with this while working on a photography project sponsored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
Luster was documenting rural parishes in northeast Louisiana when she saw the East Carroll Parish Prison Farm. Maybe she wouldn’t have noticed had it not been for her mother’s murder.
She doesn’t expand on the subject, not here, not now inside Angola’s David C. Knapps Correctional Officer Training Academy. It’s located on the backside of the prison’s spread of some 18,000 acres, near the Death House, where electric chair executions gave way to lethal injection years ago.
But no one is thinking of that part of prison life on this day. No, only a handful of people remain with Luster in this room. Others, all visitors, have boarded buses to tour the prison.
Inmate artwork is being exhibited in spots along the way as part of the symposium Angola Art: Reflections from Inside.
Luster is part of this symposium, but she’ll make her presentation in the afternoon. For now, she sets up a slide carousel, then tests it, making sure photos are set in the right places.
And the handful left behind eagerly watches.
“That’s Raymond,” one said.
“And that’s Popeye,” another said.
“Yeah,” Luster said, “when I took his portrait, he asked, ‘Do you think my ears are sexy?’”
Her audience laughs.
They’re all inmates here, some whose art is on display, some musicians set to perform at lunchtime. But time stands still at this moment as their fellow inmates stare back from the screen.
There’s Peter, and there’s Ahab, who recently moved to the Main Prison.
“Ahab told me he came here from the coast of Spain,” Luster said. “I asked him how he ended up in Louisiana, and he said he came to Mardi Gras and never left.”
“That was the same with me,” William Kissinger said.
He’s one of inmate artists. Again, Luster doesn’t ask about the convictions that sent them to prison, not even now.
Oh, she could. Her mother’s murder generated so much fear and anger that she could have taken another road at one time, perhaps one of protest. But she found herself on a different path, one that led her to a project that came to be known as One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana.
Poet C.D. Wright provided the text, and the project has won national acclaim.
The title was taken from a poem by film director Terrence Malick, found in his film, A Thin Red Line: “Maybe all men got one big soul where everybody’s a part of, all faces of the same man: One big self.”
A limited edition book was published by Twin Palms Publishers in 2003. Company owners Jack Woody and Arlyn Eve Nathan printed only 2,000 copies.
So demand and prices are high for any copies floating around the rare book store circuit. Luster never expected any of this. She really hadn’t planned on a book when she started. One Big Self was really more about herself, what she hoped to learn and understand.
Back to that day in Lake Providence. Luster was drawn to the prison farm.
She walked up to the front gates, told guards she was a photographer and requested permission to shoot inmates’ portraits. Guards called Warden Roy Dixon, who, to Luster’s surprise, simply invited her inside. She began taking portraits that day. She would return several times thereafter, contacting other Louisiana prisons in the meantime. Many of those prisons would give her the brush off, but two agreed — the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel and, of course, the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
That was in 1998. A decade later, Kissinger, fellow inmate Larry Wilkerson and a few others see people they know in these slides.
“I took this one of Mr. Allen,” Luster said, the carousel showing a slide of an inmate’s arm. “He didn’t want his face shown.”
“Well, that’s Robert Louis,” Wilkerson said, looking at the next slide. “We call him Lowdown.”
Then there’s the slide of Franklin Jones.
“He’s in the geriatric ward of the hospital now,” Wilkerson said.
The room is suddenly quiet as a thought occurs. Time only seems to stand still here, but it doesn’t. Not really. Inmates grow old like everyone else, even lifers. “I developed the photos and placed the images on pieces of 5-by-4-inch aluminum,” Luster said. “I coated them with a liquid silver emulsion and brought them back to the inmates. They were happy to get them, and they sent the portraits to their mothers, girlfriends, children and friends.”
There is no anger, there is no sentiment in this project. There is, however, a sense of forgiveness. It’s been written that Luster offers forgiveness in the sense that the only thing worth forgiving is the unforgivable. Again, this is her exploration of who, not why.
“A lot of photographers told me not to take portraits,” she said. They may have thought portraits would not be artistic enough, Luster doesn’t say. She simply did it her way.
And she discovered different sets of personalities along the way.
“The prison farm in north Louisiana is a minimum security farm,” Luster said. “The guys there are young, and they like to act tough. They pulled their shirts off to show their tattoos in their portraits.”
Angola was a different story
“It’s sober here,” Luster said. “You don’t see the prisoners strutting around. This is a different
world.” One where inmates didn’t show off muscles or ink-injected skin. “We wanted the portraits here to be dignified,” Warden Burl Cain said. “We wanted them to have something dignified to send home to their families. This was something different than the kind of Polaroid snapshot they’d usually send home — it was something nice.” Now, that’s not saying some inmates didn’t dress up for the occasion. Those well-known for their rodeo skills wore their cowboy gear. Others chose special hats or shirts. Women at the St. Gabriel prison even went as far as to wear their Halloween and Mardi Gras costumes. “Halloween and Mardi Gras are really big at the women’s prison,” Luster said. “They all dress in costume, and they all have a good time.” “Yes, they do,” Kissinger said, watching as Luster flashes portraits of women in costume on the screen.
Luster grew up in Arkansas and now lives in New Orleans, where she’s newly married but still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Her next project will focus on victims and places where violent crimes have taken place. But her inmate portraits still have a way of intriguing people. Her slides segue back to Angola inmates, showing an inmate named Chris holding his hat to his chest. His great-grandfather always took his hat off for photographs.
“So he did the same,” Luster said. And then there’s Teeter, who now lives in Camp B, and Cookie and Cheyenne, who’s trained the best of Angola’s boxers over the years.
The carousel stops on a solitary face.
“He died only a few months after I took this portrait,” Luster said.
No one calls out his nickname. No one seems to remember his real name. He died, Luster had said.
And now he’s lost in time.