I have told many people in person that Deborah Luster’s One Big Self is the most impressive prison photography endeavour to date. I have been slow to state as such on this forum because the scope, details and inspiration of the project are so overwhelming.

Every portrait deserves an essay, but that obviously is not possible. Rather than delay any further, my aim here is to present many of Luster’s portraits, describe the bare facts, and provide some further resources to understand the work.


Completed between 1998 and 2003.

Portraits taken in many different prisons – mens and womens facilities; minimum to maximum security throughout Louisiana; and with different levels of supervision.

Tens of thousands of portraits taken.

Luster estimates she gave away 25,000 portraits to prisoners over the course of the project.

Luster worked fast – 10 to 15 portraits per hour. At a point working in sheer volume became the only reasonable way to respond to the size of the prison population with which she was engaged.


Luster got involved in this longitudinal study through a chance request. Luster’s emotional standing at the time of beginning was – is – atypical and unexpected.

Luster’s mother was murdered in 1988; “Although I was interested in photography prior to that time, I didn’t study or practice it. I began photographing in response to her murder.”

Luster did not deliberately go in search of the subject. In 1998, she was driving near Lake Providence, Louisiana when she came upon East Carroll State Prison Farm. She literally knocked on the front gate. There and then Warden Dixon gave her sanction to begin the endeavour.


SFMoMA has done us a great service in recording and publishing the following video shorts.

In four videos, Luster describes the ORIGINS of the project, elements of ACCIDENTAL PERFORMANCE, printing on ALUMINIUM PLATES, and comments on INDIVIDUAL WORKS.

Remarkable tales.


Deborah Luster is represented by Catherine Edelman Gallery, who present the best online selection of her portraits.

Good background information is provided by Doug McCash of the New Orleans Times Picayune; David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown; and Grace Glueck of the New York Times.

In 2000, One Big Self was exhibited at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, providing an overview and gallery of the project.


The best in-print interview with Luster is included in recent publication, PRISON/CULTURE (City Lights), which I reviewed two months ago.


The book is at a premium now and you’ll struggle to find it for under a $100. It is published by Twin Palm Press.



Luster collaborated with writer/poet C.D. Wright. Luster’s images and Wright’s poetry are a great complement to one another. Listen to Wright read her poetry from the project.


Despite the passage of seven years since the projects official closure, Luster’s career continues to be defined by her ground-breaking, genre-defining project. Her lectures are vital in that she describes the many facets of the project – from security arrangements, to gear (she generally worked with digital), to processing (she made use of tintype imitation technique printing onto small metal sheets), to the specifics of exhibition.

The image below shows a steel cabinet and lamp (containing 288 silver-emulsion aluminum plates) as it was displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and other institutions. Luster wanted to create a tangible viewing experience in which the audience were required to handle the archive of human life in the same way the state of Louisiana organised and disciplined the bodies under its supervision.

In the video (below) Luster talks us through the senses and noises of the exhibit design.