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I’ve seen Bettina Hansen a few times in recent months (she’s a recent transplant to Cascadia) but never once did she think to mention this awesome photo.

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.)

© Damon Winter

Too Much Chocolate

When Jake Stangel put out a call to interview Damon Winter for Too Much Chocolate I didn’t hesitate. How often do you get to bend the ear of a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer?

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.

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Angola Rodeo

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.

© Damon Winter

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.

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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.

Winter1

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.

Winter2

Winter15

1

The blogo-photo-sphere has been spinning the past couple of days with the 2009 Pulitzer Prize announcements. Damon Winter took one gong for “his memorable array of pictures deftly capturing multiple facets of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.” (Featured Photography). Patrick Farrell secured the other with his “provocative, impeccably composed images of despair after Hurricane Ike and other lethal storms caused a humanitarian disaster in Haiti.” (Breaking News Story)

Winter’s images are eye-catching, but to be honest I am suffering from ‘Obama-fatigue’. So saturated were we with so many high-quality images of the new 44th President, I now look for different material. A quick shufties through Winters website revealed all. His portraits of sports stars show a precocious willing to improvise with technique and composition. Winter has a seriously sentimental side also epitomised by his portraits of American Olympians from the 1984 Los Angeles games.

I guess, my hope is that he doesn’t become known as ‘that guy that did Obama’ … which is why I am more interested in his Angola Prison Rodeo photojournalism.

4

The rodeo featuring the prisoners of Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola, is an old – even traditional – event in the Louisiana calendar. Damon Winter is one of many photographers that have covered the community event. It is a raucous spectacle that brings together populations in and outside of the prison.

I still cannot reconcile this event my existing ethics which this event. There’s a charge that the rodeo is exploitative entertainment for which prisoners can suffer serious injury. Yet, I have not witnessed the rodeo-weekend first hand and I have read in the past that this is an event that provides long-term focus and short-term adulation for the prisoner-competitors. All I want to do is bring Winter’s photographs to your attention and hope they’ll compete with Obama for your attentions!

3

Winter’s pictures capture the strong forces and consequent risks of rodeo competition. I deliberately picked his colour images. The black & white stripes of inmates harry within Winter’s ‘red, white and blue’ palette. The star-spangled palette imbues the series with patriotism, pomp and faux-purpose. I almost feel we are subliminally less inclined to question Angola’s unique display of pseudo-gladiatorial entertainment when the games are suffused with hues of the American flag.

2

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View Damon Winter’s Obama campaign coverage for the New York Times, and listen to an audio interview with Winter about his experiences. Winter and PDN did an interview in 2008.

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