Photo: Darryl Richardson, from the series Nothing To Lose (Angola Prison Rodeo)
I was given a media tour of Angola Prison while in Louisiana during Prison Photography on the Road. The arrangements were straightforward and the administration very welcoming. The warden’s office is set up for requests and visits like mine. The prison even puts on tours for high school kids; they come in their thousands every week.
I put it to Cathy Fontenot, the Assistant Warden, that Angola was the most photographed prison in America. She said that was probably the case. (Look through the PP archive for examples.)
The Angola administration are proud that they can accommodate photographers and journalists in the numbers they do. Naturally, a discussion must exist about the level to which journalists gain access – what they see and what they don’t see – but this is for another time.
In the case of the Angola Rodeo, access for journalists is as easy as it is for the tens of thousands of public who attend each autumn. Florida based photographer, Darryl Richardson, went to Angola in October 2011. He, like others before him, focused on the visual spectacle of the rodeo. He attempted to draw a metaphor between the “combative livestock” and an unforgiving public; the prisoner always under attack.
Personally, I like Richardson’s portraits.
Take the portrait above. Whose is the signature on the hat? That’s a nice hat. Does the prisoner own it? Was it a gift or a prize? I’m drawn into the story behind that hat and behind that photograph.
The Angola Rodeo is a complex thing. At the arts fair, it is a chance for prisoners to interact with society and hawk their crafts; the rodeo is a big event that focuses energies of prisoners (Angola Prison is always looking for activities to occupy the thoughts of 4,500+ men that will die within its parameters); and it is about commerce. I was told by prison authorities that the rodeo raised $2.5million for the prison [programmes] last year. As the event grows, so does the figure year-on-year.
Richardson told me in an email, “I’m in the process of going back to Angola to connect with other inmates and take a look at other areas inside the penitentiary.” I wish him luck. For our sakes, we need to see more of Angola Prison than this wild public event. We’ll see what emerges.