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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.

More on Richardson’s work here and here.

© 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

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