Yes folks, a US prison runs a rodeo for the entertainment of the public (from Louisiana and beyond). Believe it.

I have only ever discussed this event in terms of is dicey ethics, but being a weak-spined liberal never gone full-throtle in condemning it as exploitation. Matt Kelley and I were both agreed that we couldn’t fully judge the spectacle without having been ourselves or talked directly with participants.

I met Tim McKulka, one of many photographers to have shot at Angola, and asked for his impression.

The rodeo of course exploits the prisoners. It is gladiatorial . It is taking people without the skills to ride a bull and putting them on a bull for peoples’ entertainment. For the prisoners themselves, it gives them the opportunity to be a normal person a couple of weekends in the year. It is an opportunity to make some money, to see their family, to earn a belt … so what have they got to lose?

Do you think any of them are taking part precisely because they are on life sentences?

I don’t know what the percentage of the participants is in terms of lifers. I know in the prison itself has about 92% [of offenders on life sentences] Some of them for some absurdly minor crimes – a third offense or an unarmed robbery. But I don’t know. What I do know is that – from the prisoners I talked to – it’s a voluntary program and no-one is forced to do it.

They are being exploited but that prison in particular is the only prison in America that turns a profit so it is an exploitative institution anyway.

McKulka has since moved far away from the cultural mores of the American South. He has crossed an ocean and continent but continues documenting the politics of race and identity.

Tim McKulka started shooting for Edipresse Publications in 2003. With Jean-Cosme Delaloye, he covered diverse feature stories such as the crisis in Haiti in 2006, the Angola Prison Rodeo, the US presidential elections in 2004, illegal immigration into the US and New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. In 2005, he covered the presidential elections in Liberia. In 2006, Tim started with Jean-Cosme this project of a news agency. He later joined the UN as a photographer in the fall 2006. He is now based in Juba, in Southern Sudan.