Too Much Chocolate
Jake assured me that Damon was – is – “a super-nice guy” as well. I might argue that Damon is too nice; he carried, without complaint, a sinus-busting cold to deliver the interview.
Damon and I spoke about his assignments in Dallas, L.A. and New York, the Obama campaign coverage, making portraits, Dan Winters, Irving Penn and Bruce Gilden. Read the full interview here.
Not without my own agenda, I also asked Damon about his experience down at the Angola Prison Rodeo:
PP: Why were you there?
DW: I had gone out for two trips. It was when I worked at the Dallas Morning News. The way I pitched it was that the prison was expanding the program to launch a spring rodeo. I wanted any excuse I could get to go down there and photograph. It sounded absolutely incredible.
DW: And the paper ended up not being that interested. They may have run a small little blurb about it, but I did it for my own interest. It was fascinating – a completely wild situation. Most of these guys came from the cities. Some had never even seen a cow let alone roped a horse.
PP: Describe the atmosphere.
DW: The closest thing to modern day gladiators – something you’d see in a Roman Coliseum. The crowd is chanting for blood, they want to see a violent spectacle where prison inmates are the subjects. It’s the same reason people go to see a horror movie or stare at a wreck on the highway. It is a very strange situation but they want to see blood.
PP: Do you think it helpful to the local community?
DW: There is no interaction between public and inmates. The public is there to observe and the inmates are there to entertain. The benefit the inmates gain is at a level very specific to their situation. They risk injury being in the ring with massive bulls, and their prize is something I think anyone in the free world would laugh at, you know? Maybe a couple hundred bucks. But it is substantial in their environment.
It speaks to the bleak situation that those guys are in that this would be enticing – to risk bodily harm for a couple of hundred dollars.
I don’t know how constructive it is for relations between prison and non-prison populations.
PP: Which is unusual because in any other state across the country, there is no interaction between the public and the incarcerated population.
DW: What’s your feeling?
PP: I think it builds a division at a local level, but it also feeds a national view that excludes the realities of prisons. The inmates are put out there to be observed, photographed and consumed. Such a presentation is not unpalatable to the American public. To the contrary, the public feels as though it gains from it. I think here unexamined (and abusive) interactions can be confused with relationships.
I think the wasteful and very boring reality of prisons in America is not going to make it into newspapers or media, but the rodeo does. It skews perception. I think the rodeo is problematic.
DW: I felt the event was dehumanizing. It was done in a manner so that the inmates are reduced to the level of the beasts they are competing against. It seems the field has been leveled between animals and inmates and the feeling that you get from that is that they themselves are like animals. They are not seen terribly differently from the way that the animals are seen.
PP: I am not sure that that sort of spectacle would take place outside of Louisiana, certainly outside the South. Granted, Angola’s warden Burl Cain jumps at the chance to get the cameras in at any opportunity.
DW: Yes, I saw The Farm, a documentary filmed at Angola.
PP: I think Cain’s administration paired with the history of the event creates a spectacle at the rodeo that goes unexamined.
PP: Cameras are common at Angola; documentary shorts on the football team and photo essays on the hospice. It is a complex that has 92% of its population.
DW: You should look at Mona Reeder’s work. She works at the Dallas Morning News. I think it was called The Bottom Line and she turned the stats into photo essays and one of the stats was the number of prisoners in juvenile facilities. She got some pretty good access. She received a R.F. Kennedy Award.
PP: I certainly will. Thanks Damon.
DW: Thank you.
Below are three of Damon’s photographs from Afghanistan which stopped me in my tracks. Unfortunately, I discovered them after the interview so didn’t get Damon’s take on them.
The images of the boys really affected me. We see so many images of bearded men, U.S. Marines in the dirt, explosions, women in burqas, etc, but it is the children of Afghanistan who will carry the violent legacy for the longest. What pictures reflect that fact?
It is an impossible task of any image to near ‘truth’ or reality, but these two pictures get very close to the sad reality of conflict and the impressionability of youth.