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Maybe I got sucked in by the fact it is A FRIKKING MONKEY RIDING A SHEEP DOG IN SOME MUDWORLD MAMMAL OLYMPICS! … maybe the photo is a document of animal misuse. It’s mad-bonkers.
Either way, this photo of animals being forced to do unnatural things under the watchful eye of humans seemed to say more about the Angola Prison Rodeo than the thousands of images I’ve seen of people at the Angola Prison Rodeo. It’s a weird event.
See Bettina’s full set from the Angola Prison Rodeo.
(All of this explains the title to this interview with me from ages ago. I never understood the title at the time.)
I am decidedly ambivalent about the role of religion within prisons – it can be a force for good and for positive change, but it can also be reductive in scope and used for manipulation. I wanted to ask Serge a few questions to see if he could help me, and us, through some of the issues and interactions religions bring about in prison environments.
Prison Photography: Tell us about your approach.
Serge J-F. Levy: When I did the project, I did my best to approach each individual (inmate) tabula rasa. I did everything within my power to try and understand who they were in the moment I met them and to understand who they wanted to be from that moment onward. In most cases I did not know what each person was punished for.
Though I feel a general compassion for humanity and a desire to understand troubled people, I also understand that the acts of many of the people I photographed often had dire and unimaginable consequences on the lives of their victims and the victim’s families. So, my compassion and understanding is measured with an awareness of the distinct nature of my relationship to my subjects.
It seems like you’ve been to a few states. Which prisons have you photographed in and in what time period?
I started in Greenhaven Maximum Security in New York State. I went on to photograph at the Muncy Women’s Unit in Pennsylvania, MCF (Minnesota Correctional Facility) – Stillwater, MCF-Oak Park Heights Super Maximum, MCF- St. Cloud, and Angola in Louisiana.
What attracted you to prisons and specifically religion in prisons?
When an accused criminal is locked away, we, as a country and a society, have assumed the inmate will be experiencing some degree of “rehabilitation.” Instead, it would appear these environments quite often breed further damage, dysfunction, and pathology. I became interested in how inmates used their time to pursue a form of healing outside of the prescribed forms of daily routine. Through religious communities, inmates were often seeking a form of spiritual rehabilitation. This spiritual rehabilitation often provided the inmates a way to metaphorically experience a freedom beyond the obvious confinement and constraint they experience in their present lives. Religion also provides many adherents a lasting form of reflection and cleansing to purge the remains of unresolved tragedy from their pasts. So you asked why I was attracted to this project? Because I feel the literal experience of being imprisoned, stripped of freedom, and confined in a den of thieves (and murderers, etc.), is a powerful figurative example of aspects of the more general human experience. The ability to find a way to transcend the reality of one’s current circumstances and experience a healing and freedom through the channels of spirituality and reflection… that’s a valuable tool.
How did you negotiate access? Did different DOCs react to your request differently?
I got access through the most classic technique I know of; I met someone in the mailroom who introduced me to someone who worked on the second floor who introduced me to the fourth floor and on up the chain until I had an endorsement to enter my first prison. After working in Greenhaven Maximum Security Prison for several visits, I had created a body of work that would encourage future prisons of the valuable intentions and ideas behind my work.
And related to the last question of how I got access, the work I was doing was not much of a security risk for prison administrations as I was mostly working in areas and in ways that could only make the prison system and its staff look good. However, I guess there was always the risk that I could have turned my camera in a different direction and as was the case in many instances, I was left alone with inmates long enough that I could have seen more than I was potentially supposed to. But that’s not who I am or how I work.
Any memorable interactions?
One warden in Texas suggested we grab tea and beer when I made it down. I never made it down but I was always interested in whether that was an obscure Texan custom.
Is photography a security risk for prison administrations?
I just don’t know the nuances of security well enough to weigh in on that question. I could imagine that with a particular intention, a photographer may be able to provide the necessary coverage to develop a plan, but I am mostly constructing this from my avid movie watching hobby!
Some of the services/prayer/rituals you’ve photographed seem quite involved. How much time did prisoners spend involved in religious observance? Were their other outlets available to them for self-reflection and improvement, e.g. sports, industries, education, group counseling, libraries?
I found it interesting how religion served multi-faceted functions for the inmates. On the most direct level, it was a form of spiritual cleansing and growth that would happen in services and weekly or daily gatherings and meetings in chapels and make-shift religious venues. But beyond these formal locations, religion becomes an identity and an opportunity to develop a social circle; a comparison to how gangs function in prison might be an apt comparison because as I understand it, competing religions would at times seek to sabotage the work of each other. One such case was how the baptism tank had to be replaced by a laundry cart because it would constantly develop mysterious holes at Stillwater Maximum Security Prison in Minnesota.
But religion was also practiced in the art inmates created; from sculptural effigies to paintings and drawings of religious scenes, the hobby shops and prison cells often contained quite a bit of religious memorabilia. There were several outlets for inmates to reflect and experience spirituality; the arts, group meetings of various sorts (including therapy), formal religious gatherings, one-on-one consultations with chaplains, and library hours.
Policies varied from prison to prison and in each case I would hear inmates express grievance as to the limitations that were imposed upon them. I was only there for small slices of time and generally wasn’t able to get a more holistic sense of what the greater experience was like.
What did the prisoners think of your presence?
I think the inmates respected the integrity of my stated goals and the ideas I had for my work. I also think, rightfully so, many inmates were skeptical as to my intentions and my affiliation with the media. After all, many of the people I worked with were directly featured and often intensely maligned in the media during their prosecution and processing through the judicial system.
What did the correctional officers think of your presence?
The correctional officers, were largely very helpful but also insistent upon reminding me of the omnipresent dangers. On more than one occasion I was told that a particular inmate was trying to con me into believing one story or another. I generally felt that the correctional officers had seen or heard quite a bit during their time working inside.
Were their any days and/or experiences with the prisoners that shocked, surprised or delighted you?
Kneeling in a small room for Friday Jumma with 300 Muslim inmates listening to and responding to the call of Allah Oh Akbar is something that can’t be explained but only felt. Same for a Baptist or Pentecostal service.
On one occasion, I sat in a room of 10 women gathered with a Catholic chaplain, and listened to one woman recount her experience of being raped and simultaneously attacked by a dog. Sometimes, it was more important for me to listen, feel and internalize the moment without the filter of photography.
Do you follow a creed or religion?
I don’t follow any particular religious path. I lead a life that is guided by principles that I have culled from religious practice and ideas that have resonated with me over time. My “religion” is constantly evolving. The sources behind my spirituality that I can identify are Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and many other faiths and disciplines I have encountered throughout my life.
What has been the reception to these images?
I think people like it. But due to the limited exposure these images have had, I have yet to hear strong dissenting opinions if there are any.
How do you think your images fit into the visual landscape of prisons and prisoners in America. Do they confirm or counter stereotypes or common narratives?
I am seeking to provide a record of the people practicing religion in prison. Of the work I have seen done in prisons, much of it addresses religion as a component of life inside, and therefore seems to be geared toward molding the religious component of prison life into a greater aesthetic and narrative whole.
My work is more thorough in exploring this particular [religious] angle of prison life. Of course, I could be very wrong about the full breadth of quality work done on this specific topic.
Thank you for your time Serge.
Serge J-F. Levy’s work is represented by Gallery 339 in Philadelphia and has been exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Schroeder Romero Gallery in Chelsea, and The Leica Gallery (New York City and Tokyo) among many other national and international solo and group exhibitions. In 2011 the Princeton University Press published a book of Serge’s photographs made during his yearlong photography fellowship at the Institute, along with essays by Institute members. Serge’s magazine photography has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Life, ESPN The Magazine, and Harper’s Magazine among others.. For over 10 years Serge has been on the faculty at the International Center of Photography in New York City where he is a seminar leader in the documentary/photojournalism program and teaches street photography, editing, portraiture, and several other courses. In addition to his street photography practice, he is an avid draftsman and painter. Serge lived in New York City for his whole life … until recently moving to the Sonoran Desert.
MORE ON RELIGION ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY
Source: 225 Baton Rouge
Well, I thought I’d seen it all. But no.*
Prisonview Golf Course is a 9-hole, par 72, 6000 yard course, on the grounds of Louisiana State Penitentiary.
This isn’t golf for the prisoners, but amateurs who fancy a punt on one of America’s most ethically dubious courses. Could the disparity between the have and have-nots be played out in a more brazen manner in a more bizarre location? Many golf courses already invite criticism given their over-use of water and the cultivation of monocultures. In the case of Prisonview Golf Course, to those concerns, we might as well add cynical social attitudes.
- All guests must provide personal information (date of birth, drivers license number, social security number, etc.) for complete background check before play. (48 hours in advance)
- No tee times will be scheduled prior to completed background check.
- Convicted felons and individuals listed on any inmates visiting list will not be allowed access.
- All golfers must present valid, state issued identification upon arrival.
- Play may be suspended at any time, due to institutional need or at the Warden’s discretion.
- Tee times may be cancelled without notice.
- Absolutely NO firearms, drugs, alcohol or other contraband items (such as, but not limited to, cameras, knives, etc.) are allowed on the premises.
- Persons entering Louisiana State Penitentiary must consent to a search of their vehicle, belongings and/or person at any time, while on institutional grounds.
I wonder if golfers are allowed to take photographs, unhindered?
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* When I visited Louisiana State Penitentiary in December, I did not see the golf course.
I wanted to share some PPOTR snapshots with you. Angola Prison (Louisiana State Penitentiary) is the state’s maximum security prison. An 18,000 acre former slave plantation, Angola is the size of Manhattan. At the time of my visit, Angola was “home” to 5,400 men, over 4,500 of whom will die within its razor wire.
Angola is a strange place. Burl Cain, warden since 1994, has blurred the lines between church and state by implementing a regime of “moral rehabilitation”. Of the six interfaith chapels on prison grounds, four have been constructed under his watch.
As well as providing God, Cain also provides as many programmes as possible to keep the prisoners active. From harvesting tonnes of crops (“We never open a can of food in our kitchens,” said prison spokesperson Gary Young), to refurbing wheelchairs for charitable use; from the twice annual rodeo season to the dog-training facility; from the horse breeding programme to the prison hospice; and from the prison newspaper – The Angolite – to the prison’s own TV station, prisoners who tow the line are kept busy.
Of course, on my media tour, I wondered what I didn’t see: the death row, the solitary confinement cells, the staff quarters.
I did see worklines in the fields guarded by armed correctional officers on horseback. I was also provided a meal of beans, rice and fried chicken at the Warden’s Ranch House. I visited shortly after Thanksgiving so the Christmas decorations were going up.
All in all, on that sunny late autumn day, I was driven through what outwardly appeared to be a pastoral idyll. I focused my lens at the signage, the murals, the markings of the regime. I present this little snapshot not in an ironic way, but that it may confound some viewers and we might wonder what lies behind these very surface-level illustrations.
David, DJ at the prison radio station holds a Polaroid of him and his wife. He said the picture was taken more than 15 years before, when he was 18 and she was 16 years old. During his hour as DJ he played mostly Gospel and Christian music at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, June 27, 2000.
Photographer, writer and psychotherapist Adam Shemper and I talk about his portraits and photographs from Louisiana State Penitentiary.
At the age of 24, Adam was challenged (almost dared) by a family friend to “experience something real.” The friend offered him an introduction to warden Burl Cain and the test to photograph within Angola Prison.
We all have difficulty putting our work out in the world, and Adam found that after his nine-month stint at Angola he had more questions than answers.
For many years the work remained unpublished and Adam’s own justifications for the work unsteady. We discuss the life-cycle of the photographs, the reactions of the prisoners to Shemper and his work, and generally, the responsibilities of photographers toward their subjects.
In photography, as in life, it is all about relationships and positive connections that benefit all parties.
Victor Jackson, cell block A, upper right, cell #4. He had ‘I Love U Mom,’ tattooed on the inside of his right forearm. Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, April 17, 2000.
LaTroy Clark, cell block A, upper left, cell #6, Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, April 17, 2000
Don Jordan reads the Bible in his cell, Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, April 17, 2000
Jonathan Ennis puts a puzzle together of a farm scene in Ward 2 of the Louisiana State Penitentiary hospice at Angola, March 21, 2000.
A man sleeping during the day in the main prison complex, camp F dormitory, Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, February 1, 2000.
Henry Kimball and Terry Mays in cell block A, upper right section, cell #15, Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, September 6, 2000.
Brian Citrey, main prison, cell block A, upper right, Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, April 17, 2000
Nolan, a prison trustee, standing in front of the lake, where he often spends his days fishing. He caught catfish and shad on this day for the warden and his guests. Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, June 27, 2000.
Man cuts open sacks of vegetables to sort through, Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, June 27, 2000
After chopping weeds in the fields, men wash up as they transition back to their cell blocks at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, April 17, 2000.
Men housed at prison camp C dig a ditch at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, January 31, 2000.
All images © Adam Shemper.
Images may not be reproduced elsewhere on the web or in print without sole permission of the photographer, Adam Shemper.
© Adam Shemper
Photographer: Adam Shemper
Title: ‘In the Wheat Fields, Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, Louisiana’
Print: 9″x9″, B&W on archival paper.
Print PLUS, self-published book, postcard and mixtape – $325 – $BUY NOW
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Another incredibly beautiful and difficult image has been made available for purchase to funders of my Prison Photography on the Road proposed road-trip. This time by photographer and psychotherapist Adam Shemper.
I first discovered Shemper’s work in the Mother Jones feature, Portraits of Invisible Men: A photographer’s year at Angola Prison. Shemper describes how he responded to the frequent question for inmates, “What are you doing here?”
I answered that I’d come to make their largely invisible world visible to the outside. I said I wanted … to reconnect them in a way to a world they had lost. I talked of the prison-industrial complex and the deep-rooted inequalities of the Southern criminal justice system. (Almost 80 percent of the inmates at Angola are African-American and 85 percent of the approximately 5,100 prisoners are serving life sentences.) But as I spoke of injustice, it was obvious I wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t know from their daily lives.
Eventually I stopped trying to explain what I was doing. I simply kept taking pictures.
Chaperoned by a prison official at all times, I visited dormitories, cellblocks, and even the prison hospice. I photographed prisoners laboring in the mattress and broom factories, the license plate plant, the laundry, and in fields of turnips, collard greens and wheat.
Another day, another Kickstarter incentive to peddle.
You can read more about Frank and the AABA in Exclusive: Photos of the Angola Amateur Boxing Association, Louisiana State Penitentiary, previously on Prison Photography.
Visit Frank’s website Lemons and Beans to read more about his time photographing the AABA.
In the management of prisons, fighting is an activity prohibited by the authorities (bar some exceptional instances) and a sign that the regime and control measures are failing. However, at Louisiana State Penitentiary (commonly known as Angola), the Angola Amateur Boxing Association provides equipment and space for prisoners to spar and bout. From the Louisianan Dept. of Corrections website:
“The prison’s boxing program sponsors “fight night,” held every few months with boxing teams from other state prisons competing for corrections department championship belts. The Angola Amateur Boxing Association has held more belts in all weight classes through its 25-year history than any other prison boxing club in the state. The organization is a member of the Louisiana Institutional Boxing Association.”
In February of 2010, Baton-Rouge based photographer Frank McMains went to Louisiana State Penitentiary to document the club, the fighters and a bout. I asked him a few questions about the experience. [Underlining added by me]
How did you hear about the boxing club?
I had heard about prison boxing through another photographer who had attended a bout at a different prison in Louisiana. Oddly enough, he went without his camera. There is also a documentary about a volunteer boxing coach at Angola and I happen to know the guy who put that together. In short, among those who are interested in such things, boxing at Angola and intra-prison boxing between different prisons in Louisiana is somewhat widely known.
Did you do the story on assignment or of your own volition?
These shots were taken because of my interest in Angola and my interest in the boxing specifically. I pitched it to a few national magazines and one picked it up, but the folks at Angola were uncomfortable with the magazine that was interested in running the photos and article. They felt it was not a serious enough venue for the subject, so the photos remained un-published.
How did you gain access?
Angola is surprisingly accessible for a maximum security prison. I can’t say I have tried to get access to any others, but my sense is that they welcome outsiders who want to report on what is going on there. Over the course of several articles about different activities at Angola I have built a relationship with some of the wardens and staff. As a result, I didn’t really have to negotiate for access so much as plan around their schedule. Recent funding cutbacks meant that Angola’s boxing team did not fight teams from other prisons as they had in the past. There just wasn’t the money to transport the prisoners. So, the whole program was kind of in flux for a while, but once they confirmed a date, I wasn’t going to miss it. The staff at Angola are very professional and they are clear about what sort of interactions you can have with inmates as well as what sort of things you can bring into the prison. I have had my gear searched before but the prisoners who are allowed to participate in events like the rodeo or boxing matches are ones the prison administration feels are less of a threat. They basically would not let you into an area with prisoners who they didn’t trust and they also wouldn’t let someone into the prison with a bag full of gear with whom they didn’t feel comfortable.
How many individuals were involved?
There were about eight bouts so that means 16 boxers. However, there were about 150 prisoners who were there to watch the event and cheer on their friends. In the room with us there were probably four guards who sort of came and went as well as a few staff members and the warden with whom I was acquainted.
How did the prisoners talk about the AABA? Had it changed their behaviour or outlook?
One of my real regrets about this project is that I didn’t get a chance to talk to the boxers in more depth. As they were warming up for the fights they were focused on the what was ahead of them and I didn’t want to interfere with that. After the fights were over I spoke with several of the fighters and coaches but it was very informal.
It has been my experience that prisoners are much more interested in talking about where their family might see the photos and things that don’t pertain to their life in prison. Most of the conversations I had after shooting these photos were about people’s families, not about their lives behind bars.
I would like to follow up with the guys involved, but it was sort of outside of the scope of this shoot.
Some people might think boxing is not the right activity for prisoners; that it is violent. What would you say to people with these reservations?
Some people will always object to boxing as a brutal activity whether that is in prison or in Las Vegas. I get that objection, although I see it as graceful and pure in a way that many sports are not, but you can’t deny that it is violent. Last I checked that was a component of the human condition.
When it takes places in a prison I think it is understandable that some people would balk at what could be construed as violence piled on top of violence. It has been my experience that anything that the prisoners get to do is a step towards socializing them and giving them some hope in the face of a pretty bleak future. Angola has an unusual approach to punishment; they try to engage the prisoners in as many activities as possible. The prisoners work the land there to feed the prison population, they maintain the facilities and even staff the prison museum and gift shop. There is also a prisoner run newspaper and radio station. So, if you remove the fact that it is boxing from the equation then I think that an approach to incarceration that does something other than let people rot away in a cell is a good thing; boxing is a commitment to rehabilitation.
The other aspect of life at Angola is that most of the prisoners will die there, simply put. Most are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. I understand the punishment-as-vengence argument that some might have. It is understandable to look at a murderer and say, “Who cares if they have any dignity.” I think the staff at Angola see a path for redemption for the prisoners that runs through many different courses. It might be boxing, it might be prison ministry. They seem to think that engaging the prisoners is preferable for all concerned to treating them as de-humanized creatures who simply have to be warehoused until the end of their days. From that perspective, Angola seems to run pretty well. Less than a quarter of the inmates are housed in cells and they spend their days working to make the prison run. That, to me, speaks for itself.
Did you get any sense of what the boxers wanted from you as a photographer? Did they want to convey any message to the eventual viewers?
Yes, every time I have photographed at Angola it is pretty clear that the prisoners want to be portrayed as retaining some of their human dignity. Beyond that, they long for connections with the outside world, their family in particular. You can’t forget that the prisoners at Angola have committed horrible crimes, but it is hard to not feel some sympathy for the incredible loneliness and isolation they all seem to share. Maybe they deserve that, it isn’t really for me to say what justice should look like.
How was, and how is Angola? What’s the culture like? How is it perceived?
All of my experiences at Angola have been unsettlingly mundane. In my mind, I expected to see prisoners rattling tin cups on metal bars and walking around in leg-irons or something. But, they are mowing the grass, cooking food, painting buildings, essentially participating in their own, highly-unusual little community. When people think about Angola, if they think about it outside of the rodeo, it seems that they imagine a dreary place of routine horror. I am sure that it is rough out there, very rough in many respects. But, it does not have the feeling of an armed camp where gangs are pitted against each other, where races are seething to tear into one another or where the guards are everywhere searching for escape tunnels. It’s culture will confound your expectations. Or, it did mine anyway. I didn’t grow up with any sense of prison life outside of film and television. If Angola is anything, it is unlike those scenes from popular entertainment. That is not to say it is bucolic or some penal Club Med. It is a sad but necessary place where the passage of time and the intrinsic nature of humanity do not conform to the normal rules.
It seems there have been many photographers who’ve shot at Angola (I might go so far to say it is the most media-present prison in America). Would you agree? What would one attribute that to?
In a word, yes. It is a thoroughly media documented prison. I think that is for two reasons. First, it is highly unusual in its approach to incarceration as I have spelled about above. They just do things differently there in terms of engaging prisoners rather than just warehousing them.
Secondly, it seems that the administration at Angola, starting with warden Burl Cain and running all the way down, are genuinely empathetic to the prisoners. They know that some of them have been changed, and perhaps redeemed, by the way Angola does things and they want people to know about it. I think they are also keenly aware of how the lack of hope not only destroys the human spirit but also makes prisoners much more difficult to handle. If the prisoners have a reason to get up in the morning then they see a value in toeing the redemptive line that Angola is pushing.
The staff know it is expensive and pointless to incarcerate grey-haired old men who are no longer a threat to society. It seems that Angola is trying to re-humanize prisoners in the eyes of the general public in an effort to change the way our legal system approaches punishment and justice.
Frank McMains is a jack of many trades. He’s got a lot of Flickr. I thank Frank for his time to share his work and thoughts. You can read more about Frank’s time photographing at Angola at his own website Lemons and Beans.