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© 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.

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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.

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As if on cue…

Blatant racism. If we needed any more convincing that racism is thriving in parts of the US

Interracial couple denied wedding licence in Louisiana “because of the children”.

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“At one time Angola was well known as the bloodiest penitentiary in America. And now you don’t have nearly as much as the violence as you woulda had.”

Troy West, Angola Inmate

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate per capita of all US states. over 1,100 per 100,000 – that’s more than 1 in a 100. Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary) is the mother of all prisons, carrying a weighty reputation and weightier history.

Only Georgia has a rate above 1 in a 100, as Louisiana does. The other Southern states make up the top five (Texas, Alabama and Mississippi).

These stats are due in most the more frequent sentencing of men to life without parole. The disproportionately high rate of prisoners who die within Southern prisons as compared to other state institutions makes for a very different culture.

Many photographers including Damon Winter and Lori Waselchuk have focused on the unique aspects of Angola culture. The rodeo is well known, the hospice less so, but least well known may be the football league.

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I have noted before the value of sports in prison, and Angola Prison Football a film-short by Charlie Gruet supports my position.

In it, Angola warden Burl Cain states his philosophy, “Good food, good medicine, good play and good pray. Lose any of those elements and you’ll have violence in your prison, but you would in your home. You think about it.”

The inmates back up the third point. It’s a well done documentary and to think that over 70% of the men in the film won’t ever get out just blows my mind. (Source: 2008 LSP Report).

Watch closely from 4.03 onward.

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Chris Jordan was low on my list of priorities but this timely post by Mike Kelley at Change.org (a blog as impressive for its readers’ comments as it is for the straight forward presentation of Jordan’s work) compelled me to bump it up and champion the depressingly and unfathomable figures that arise when one simply runs the numbers.

Chris Jordan. Depicts 2.3 million folded prison uniforms, equal to the number of Americans incarcerated in 2005. The U.S. has the largest prison population of any country in the world.

Chris Jordan. Prison Uniforms, 2007. 10x23 feet in six vertical panels. Depicts 2.3 million folded prison uniforms, equal to the number of Americans incarcerated in 2005. The U.S. has the largest prison population of any country in the world.

In reading Change.org’s straight forward commentary on America’s broken criminal justice system, I signed up for Change.org and read a few of their older posts. In doing so I was presented with the catalyst to comment on Obama’s momentous inauguration without repeating the media-lovefest that has surrounded the 44th’s swearing in. This post will cover Jordan’s astounding artwork, Obama’s astounding tasks-at-hand and where they politically overlap.

Chris Jordan. Prison Uniforms, 2007. Partial zoom.

Chris Jordan. Prison Uniforms, 2007. Partial zoom.

Chris Jordan has spent his time making larger and larger photographic constructions to communicate the scale at which American society wastes its resources, its environmental future and its grasp on logic. In his effort to catalogue the linear and thoughtless waste of the US, he has progressed from crushed automobiles, to cell phone chargers, to polystyrene cups to American prisoners.

Jordan is a bright guy, now consumed by his photography (which to be quite frank is eco-hip and brilliantly executed). He talks passionately about a sea-change in our cultural consumption. He specialises in highlighting “the behaviours that we all engage in unconsciously on a collective level … the actions we are in denial about and the ones that operate below our daily awareness … like when you’re mean to you wife because you’re mad about something else or when you drink too much at a party because you’re nervous.” Jordan is no prophet, he just sees the necessary u-turn we must all make in our habits and thoughts to move toward sustainable existence.

Prison Uniforms, 2007. 10x23 feet in six vertical panels. Detail at half actual size.

Chris Jordan. Prison Uniforms, 2007. 10x23 feet in six vertical panels. Detail at half actual size.

I like to think the strength of Jordan’s visual framework that deals with soda cans to the landfill as it does with prisoners to the cell blocks is deliberate. As hard as it is to acknowledge, the majority of Americans have turned their back on a seven-figure-minority as if it were worth no more thought than discarded packaging. Mass imprisonment is the result of widespread apathy, denial and unpinnable responsibility. How unconscionable is this situation? We are all responsible. Barack Obama talked very little about criminal justice and prison policy during his electioneering. This is not surprising as helping the invisible incarcerated masses is on the electorate’s mind as much as the whereabouts of their last twinkie wrapper. But, Obama also made it very clear that this was the time for personal responsibility and accountability.

Chris Jordan. Prison Uniforms, 2007. Installed at the Von Lintel Gallery, NY, June 2007.

Chris Jordan. Prison Uniforms, 2007. Installed at the Von Lintel Gallery, NY, June 2007.

So after a week of photography gallery after gallery, the militarised eye vs. the personal touch, Gigapan-assisted user-generated snooping, faux controversy, minor mishaps, cult worship, sentimental clap-trap, unending debate, media catfights, nerdcore details, celeb fluff and even UFO’s isn’t it time we adopt the same realism that Obama trusted in for his inaugural speech?

A wonderful article from the Wall Street Journal lays out the realism and “the audacity of hope behind bars”. (Via Change.org). Angola prisoner, Mr. Dennis served up some REALISM: “He’s got his hands full: Two wars, the economy is going in the tank and the health-care costs are skyrocketing – I’d be surprised if he has time to brush his teeth in the next four years.” While another prisoner took care of the HOPE: “If the men here can have hope, then why can’t the rest of the country?”

Prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary ("Angola") were given the day off to watch Barack Obama inaugurated as America's 44th president.

Prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary ("Angola") were given the day off to watch Barack Obama inaugurated as America's 44th president.

So how does this all connect? Jordan and Obama share the same call to think, with serious intent, about the things invisible to us. Both call us to consider the reality of our society and accept our shared responsibility for its faults, weaknesses and injustices. Both men challenge conventional wisdom; the logic that just because we didn’t turn the key nor bring down the gavel, we are not complicit – by our silence – in America’s mass incarceration.

What can you do? You can start by signing this petition immediately and by using web2.0 to access Obama’s administration as his team reached you during the election.

If you’d like to know more about Chris Jordan you could do worse than starting with this interview, this interview and this interview.

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