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Richard Wayne Jones was convicted and sentenced to death for the February 1986 kidnapping and murder of Tammy Livingston in Hurst, Texas. Photographed on Aug. 2, 2000, executed Aug. 22, 2000 (AP Photo/Brett Coomer)
Rian Dundon, photo editor at Timeline, has pieced together 20 years of Texas Death-Row Portraits, a photo-gallery depicting some of the men executed by the state of Texas since the early eighties. The images are made by a host of photographers down the years working for the Associated Press (AP).
“As the only non-local news organization with a guaranteed seat at every execution, the AP is granted special access to prisoners, and as a result the agency has accumulated an unusual set of portraits made shortly before inmates’ executions,” writes Dundon.
Never intended to be seen in aggregate, Dundon argues that the portraits assume a weight and significance when brought together. Prisons are a time capsule so regardless of who is shooting, the visiting booths, prison issue uniforms, standard spectacles and prisoners’ pallid skin are constants throughout. The lighting is artificial adding to the sense of unnaturalness in which the subject and photographer operate. Dundon makes comparison to lauded photographers of our time.
If art exists here, I’d argue it is not in the individual portraits per se but in Dundon’s grouping. A whole greater than its parts. Looking into the eyes of these condemned men provides a view into the soul of a nation. Here’s a gallery of American vengeance. An album devoted to violence in response to violence.
Sean O’Hagan writes:
Lyon was a pioneer of what might be called immersive photojournalism, steeping himself in his subject matter in the manner of pioneering 60s writers of the New Journalism school such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson. He builds the visual narrative around extended personal accounts by selected inmates, the often intimate descriptions of life inside illuminating his already powerful images. “The text of the book, compiled from prison records and convict writings, presents the lives of a few of these men,” he writes in his introduction. “They are the heroes of this book. I knew each of them as well as a free man can.”
[…] On every level, then, Danny Lyon’s approach flies in the face of detached documentary reporting, but it is this that also makes his work so viscerally forceful.
Read the full piece: Conversations With the Dead: Book review – 60s prison life in the US
This week, The Marshall Project published an illuminating piece Prison Plantations about Bruce Jackson‘s work from inside Texas and Arkansas in the 60s and 70s. As far as I am aware, it is the best presentation of Jackson’s work on the web. 27 images.
Jackson a professor in history, writer and photographer, focused on the work songs of prisoners to trace the progression of arable land in the South from plantation to prison. For a century, between the outlaw of slavery and the era of mass incarceration (approx. 1865-1975), the Texas Department of Justice bought up old family plantations on which to house and work inmates.
For the black men who had once been slaves and now were convicts, arrested often for minor crimes, the experience was not drastically different. As Jackson writes in his introduction to the 2012 photo collection Inside the Wire:
“…Everyone in the Texas prisons in the years I worked there used a definite article when referring to the units: it was always “Down on the Ramsey,” not “Down on Ramsey,” and “Up on the Ellis,” not “Up on Ellis.” It made no sense to me until I realized that nearly all of those prison farms had been plantations at one time, so it was like an abbreviated way of saying “I’m going to the Smith family’s plantation,” or “I’m going to the Smiths’.”
This was the end of an era. Right after these photos were taken, in 1980, William Wayne Justice, a federal judge, issued a sweeping decision in the prisoner rights case Ruiz v. Estelle. Justice forced Texas prisons to modernize in all sorts of ways, from adding staff to improving working conditions to stopping the policy of allowing prisoners to guard one another with weapons. Jackson photographed prisoners with rifles, an image unthinkable today.
It’s a great little piece putting into stark perspective our very recent history. And Jackson’s pictures take us straight back there. Read Prison Plantations.
Image: White Construction.
SMALL STEPS TO A BIG PROBLEM
If we’re ever wondering how and when we transformed into a society supporting a Prison Industrial Complex, then we can and should look to events in Karnes County, Texas this week.
Playing out in Karnes Co. this week is a scene that we’ve seen thousands of times before. And ultimately, we’ll see a decision to build or not to build.
For every one of the 6,000+ prisons in America (Federal penitentiaries, State prisons, County Jails, private prisons and ICE detention facilities) there has been a process of planning, discussion, budgeting and approval. The degree to which these political mechanics are visible and accessible to the public and the degrees to which public are aware or activated for and against prison in their earliest proposal stages, of course, differs wildly. But, I want to make the point here that prisons don’t simply emerge as a natural consequence of crime. Prisons are buildings with construction and operating costs. Prisons are places of labor and sites of capital. Prisons are designed and they are manufactured by men who want to assume some type of responsibility for them.
PRISONS FOR IMMIGRANTS IS A BOOMING BUSINESS
The GEO Group, a corporation with a long history of poorly-run facilities and abuse of prisoners on its watch stands to benefit most from the proposed expansion of the facility from 532 women and children to more than 1,300.
Watch Karnes Co. this week, because it is in its Commissioners’ offices that the absolute decision by some humans to put more humans behind chain-link and razor-wire will be made.
Watch Karnes Co. this week because this is one of thousands of current battle sites in the nation, right now, in which activists are intervening and slowing or stopping our insane march toward incarceration.
Watch Karnes Co. this week because those opposing the expansion are true American heroes.
Watch Karnes Co. this week because not since WWII internment has the United States put so many non-criminal women and children behind bars.
According to local channel KSAT, opinions are split, but in the VT those in favour were making simple arguments based upon the jobs the GEO prison would bring. Opposing views are nuanced and based in a broader and ethical perspectives.
When the family prison opened in 2012, NPR did its best to distinguish it from other places by describing it as “less like prison.” Well, such a *new dawn* and such an enlightened approach to the sick practice of looking up women and children has not yielded results. This new type of prison, apparently, leads to a bigger prison and not *a solution* to the perceived problem!
WHAT TO DO
If you’re concerned sign the petition. Your letter will go directly to the Karnes County Commissioners.
Watch a 30-minute documentary about the Karnes facility. Here’s the trailer.
If you would like to show the film in your commnunity, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Again, please, sign the petition.
Xavier Randolph dances with his father Frank Randolph during a Hope House summer camp program for youth with imprison fathers at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD.
RAYMOND THOMPSON JR.
Raymond Thompson Jr. is a photographer, video journalist, educator and father.
In his Justice Undone Project, Thompson Jr. documents the leaching and negative effects of mass incarceration. He shows us how the poor are criminalised by society and kept down. He’s trying to get past stereotypes of Black America and does so by photographing the families and the communities outside of prison. So far, chapters of Justice Undone include A Dream Denied and The Browns.
Prisons touch nearly everyone in America’s poorest communities. One person’s imprisonment effects many others’ lives. The knock-on effects are profound. Locked up, exiled parents can mean extended family members are the primary care givers. Young children can lack a mother or a father or both for long periods. A child’s emotional and social development can be hampered and the incarceration of a parent vastly increases a child’s chances of being locked up later in life. The cycle continues.
In film, print and photography, America has a history of demonising young black men. In response, Thompson Jr. works to image all generations and races from America’s lower classes in an attempt to build empathy in his audience. So far, Thompson Jr.’s work has focused on African American communities but soon he is to venture into poor white communities in the Midwest, and to demonstrate that our broken criminal justice policies impact the poor. Prisons are a class issue just as much as they are a race issue.
The closer you look at the prison industrial complex, the better you understand society. Thompson Jr. is holding up a mirror in which we are all reflected. He was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about his photography.
[Click on any image to view it larger]
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): It seems your work on issues surrounding community, the war on drugs and incarceration is an ongoing endeavour. Is this the case? If so, tell us what you’re up to and what you’re working on now.
Raymond Thompson Jr. (RTJ): My project Justice Undone started as my master thesis while I was in graduate school in Austin, Texas. I originally intended only to do a story about the long term effects of incarceration on families and communities in East Austin, which is a predominantly African American and Latino part of the city. After I received a grant from the Alexia Foundation to continue the project, I expanded the project to Washington D.C and New Orleans.
In the 18 months since then, my wife and I had our first child and I took a job working as a video producer for West Virginia University. So, most of the last 18 months have been consumed with adjusting to life as a parent. The sleep deprived nights are decreasing. So, I’m slowly moving into the next stage of this project.
Even though I have never been incarcerated and my immediate family has not been directly affected by mass incarceration, I still feel a deep connection to the issue. I saw myself in the faces of the men, women and children navigating the prison system. Now with the birth of my son, I feel it is even more important.
There are several story angles in my project that still need covering. I’m currently in the process of researching and planning local Justice Undone stories for trip this fall and a trip to the midwest in the early spring. I’m currently based in West Virginia, which offers a chance to approach this work from beyond the lens of race and move it more towards class.
A boy stares though a window during a Friends and Family of Incarcerated People (FFOIP) car wash fundraiser in Southeast Washington, D.C. Friends and Family of Incarcerated People, a non-profit based in Washington D.C., offers a summer camp for children of incarcerated parents and other children whose parents are absent.
Members of ‘Mix Emotion’ go-go band pray before a performance at a community gardening event in the Lincoln Heights area of Northeast Washington D.C. Lincoln Heights is a crime plagued area and has a large number of low-income residents.
Several D.C. teenagers relax and socialize during the Friends and Families of Incarcerate People annual retreat in outside Charlottesville, VA. The goal of the retreat is to give youth a chance to experience life outside of their depressed D.C. neighborhoods.
A child looks at a car that had been broken into the night before a Friends and Family of Incarcerated People (FFOIP) summer camp in Southeast Washington, D.C.
PP: When and how did you move toward your current political conscience?
RTJ: In the 1990s, I was a teenager living in the suburbs of Virginia outside of Washington D.C. I watched the War on Drugs rage on my television screen. It was in these moments that I started to feel something was wrong. But I was not equipped with the knowledge or maturity to understand what I was seeing. On my television screen, I watched images of black men and boys dead or being led away in handcuffs. These visual images negatively affected how I felt about myself and other African Americans. Part of the reason for working on Justice Undone is to heal myself and to start to reclaim the visual history of African Americans in the United States.
My political awareness stemmed from my undergraduate studies. I was an American Studies major with a concentration in human rights. In my course work, which spans from American literature and history to sociology, I learned to recognize the complex weave of racial, economic, and political threads that form the social blanket of America. But, what really set me on this path was a senior seminar on the American Prison Industrial Complex. That class expanded my thinking on the subject, which later became my intellectual basis for the project.
PP: How did you decide on strategies to talk about these issues with your photography?
RTJ: There have been so many images about prisons and about the War on Drugs. A lot of the pictures work to reinforce stereotypes about minorities as “The Other.” In the first part of this project, I focused on children and families left behind in mass incarceration’s wake. I felt I had to avoid images of black men in the beginning because I did not want viewers from outside of these communities to immediately write the project off. I needed those viewers to move beyond the stereotypes and to have a empathetic reaction, without relying too heavily on people being portrayed as victims. In the next stages, I will focus more on the men, who are actually directly affected by prison.
Many of the great documentary photographers of the past three decades have produced work that is great but also problematic because they reinforce stereotypical images of urban black life. One of those photography books I have on my bookshelves in Eugene Richard’s Cocaine Blue, Cocaine True. It is an important work, but if you don’t dive into Richard’s words that were published along with the images you can come away with a skewed meaning. It is this decontextualization that worries me.
My strategy to combat this decontextualization is to create images of black life that focuses on the everyday. By searching for images that show African Americans in the mundane ritual of daily life, I hope that people not directly affected by mass incarceration will be able to see themselves in the pictures the way I do, as an antidote to years of self-hate and willful ignorance.
The Booker T. Washington Public Housing complex, in Austin, Texas, is plagued by a revolving door of single-parent households and incarceration.
Nicholas Brown, 19, speaks with his girlfriend before leaving. He has a stained relationship with his mother Vicky who has spent the majority of his childhood away in prison and drug treatment institutions.
Marquis, 18, BB and Leroy Brown hangout on the front porch of Beverly Brown’s house in Austin.
Tyler Pippillion works on a math puzzle during a skills class at the African American Men and Boys Harvest Foundation, a non-profit in Austin, TX that works with at-risk minority youth.
PP: What are the main points you want to communicate in your work?
RTJ: The first thing I hope my audience gain from this project is that U.S. laws have been unequally enforced in poor minority communities. Second, I wanted to make understood that the large numbers of men and women cycling in and out of prison has an immeasurably negative effect on their communities. Finally, I want the audience to realize that the impact of incarceration is falling on small geographic areas within cities, because a large portion of these men and women are being taken from identified communities.
PP: Can you explain the title ‘Justice Undone’?
RTJ: I think that justice and fairness are central to the American ideology. If you follow the rules you will be rewarded. If you break them then you will be punished. For African Americans, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, was “justice” for generations of discrimination and abuse. But, the gains of the 1960’s were essentially rolled back by the War on Drugs, the tough-on-crime movement, three strikes laws, and drug sentencing laws, which unfairly fell on the shoulders of African American communities.
So the title is meant to reflect the havoc of three decades of drug policies and the resulting explosion of the U.S. prison population that has played a big role on the agency and self esteem of African Americans in the United States.
I wanted the title to reflect critically on the U.S. justice system, which has failed to protect its most vulnerable members. While I was writing and reporting for my masters thesis, I was inspired by the hip-hop song Tip The Scale from the Roots’ album Undun.
Lot of niggas go to prison
How many come out Malcolm X?
I know I’m not
Shit, can’t even talk about the rest
Famous last words: “You under arrest”
Will I get popped tonight? It’s anybody’s guess
I guess a nigga need to stay cunning
I guess when the cops comin’ need to start runnin’
I won’t make the same mistakes from my last run in
You either done doing crime now or you done in
I got a brother on the run and one in
Wrote me a letter, he said when you comin’
Shit man, I thought the goal’s to stay out
Back against the wall, then shoot your way out
Gettin’ money’s a style that never plays out
‘Til you end up boxin’ your stash, money’s paid out
The scales of justice ain’t equally weighed out
Only two ways out, digging tunnels or digging graves out
Through the lyrics of this song, I felt the frustration of many black men who have limited choices, but still must navigate the challenges of being a black male in the United States.
A boys listen to instructions on keeping a proper boxing guard during a rally to protest the shooting death of Almeded Bradley by an Austin Police Officer.
Boys play a game of basketball in the Booker T. Washington public housing complex, Austin, Texas.
Teenage boys play basketball at the Youth Study Center juvenile detention facility in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Chelsea Shorts set up a studio in a shed in the backyard of her east Austin home. She uses the space to make clothes, draw and paint. The shed is a refuge from the crowded house that she shares with her parents, grandparents, cousins and one sibling. Chelsea biological father was incarcerated for most of her life.
Beverly Brown covers her eyes as she rest in her living room. Members of three different generation of her family have been incarcerated or had problems with drug addiction.
PP: Is there an easy way to describe the massive effect harsher sentencing and imprisonment has had on communities you’ve documented. How, in other words, do we put it into words?
RTJ:There is no simple way to discuss the topic because it is so complex.
A lot has been put in words, but I don’t know if we have reached the same level of understanding in the visual. Part of my goal is to reimagine the image of African Americans in Americans’ visual memory. These days there is always public outcry at any sort of overt racial discrimination in words, written or verbal. There is a bit of a lag in the public’s response to visual stereotypes of minorities. Responding to these stereotypes and creating what bell hooks, calls the “oppositional black aesthetic,” is a way that image makers can help challenge mainstream biases.
PP: What can we do as audiences to photography and as citizens to improve the situation?
RTJ: The next time they see a newspaper article or a television news report about a drug arrest or a drug sentencing I hope they start a conversation with a friend of family member about what is happening in their name as taxpayers. I want people to see beyond the individual situation and start to see the overarching pattern of crime, punishment, drugs, and incarceration in America.
PP: How do you describe photography’s role in relation to social justice?
RTJ: I don’t know if social justice can happen in a visual vacuum.
Photography’s first purpose is to pass information about an issue to an audience. Its second purpose is to move the social conversation past exposition. There are details in the everyday that offer unique paths to understanding.
PP: And empathy.
RTJ: From the expression of someone’s eyes, to the color of a summer dress, to the chaos of a kitchen before serving Thanksgiving dinner. It is in those common areas that we as human beings find ways to related to each other. Photography as a quasi universal medium is perfectly suited for this task.
PP: Thanks, Raymond. And thank you for your work and conscience.
RTJ: Thank you, Pete.
Chelsea Shorts walks alone railroad tracks in Austin, Texas. Shorts father was incarcerated for most of her life.
Raymond Thompson Jr. is a freelance photographer and multimedia producer based in Morgantown, WV. He currently works as a Multimedia Producer at West Virginia University. He received his Masters degree from the University of Texas at Austin in journalism and graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a BA is American Studies. He has worked as a multimedia photojournalist for the Door County Advocate, the Times of Northwest Indiana, the Kane County Chronicle, Times Community Newspapers and the Washington Times.
Children’s graffiti covers the walls of a cell at the Youth Study Center juvenile detention center in New Orleans, LA. The center serves as the pre-trial detention for youths charge with committing a delinquent offense.
Final Words, launched today, is a sprawling documentary project that focuses on the humanity at center of the death penalty in America. It is the brainchild of photographer Marc Asnin known for his brick of a book Uncle Charlie. Well, this project takes Asnin from the personal to the political, but it is no less massive. Asnin’s got form.
Asnin is asking photographers and non-photographers alike to submit selfies as statements against the death penalty. I’ll get to that in a moment but first the project and the cause.
Final Words is a book and traveling exhibition, featuring the final statements of the 515 prisoners executed by the state of Texas since 1982. Final Words will shape and deliver curricula to American high-schoolers. If we can get the youngest generation talking then perhaps we can engineer a future without the barbaric death penalty?
The project statement explains that more than one person every month for thirty-one years has been executed by the Lone Star State:
Just before the execution is completed, each prisoner is given the opportunity to share their final thoughts. […] It is their words, their final words in this life, that allow the reader to experience the underlining humanity central to the death penalty debate. […] Final Words comprises a part of the legacy that will live on beyond us and it will stand as a testament to the kind of society we were—who our criminals were and how we implemented our idea of justice. Final Words interrogates our presuppositions about the death penalty. […] While this book is a document of death—the death of both the guilty and innocent, the criminals and the victims—it attempts to create a dialogue about life.
All this takes a movement. And money. An IndieGogo campaign will launch in a months time.
The editioned Final Words books will cost a pretty penny. Their sales will help raise money to pump simpler versions of the content and curricula into the bloodstream of the education system.
Each page of the book features a prisoner’s mug shot, their age both at the time of the crime and when they were put to death, a description of the crime for which they stand convicted, and their final words.
Photographers Selfie Against the Death Penalty
In other efforts to corral some cash, Neverland Publications (cofounded by Asnin) and VII Association are collaborating on Photographers Selfie Against the Death Penalty, an international photo campaign to call for an end to executions in America. Highflying pixelmakers & imagershakers will submitting alongside us flailing Instagram plebs.
Note that the word “selfie” is used as a verb. I like that. Jury’s out as to how much a collection of selfies can effect entrenched moral politics, but it’s worth a try. Social media does nothing if not surprise regularly. And besides, all this just gets people talking ahead of Final Words‘ big fundraising campaign that ignites in October.
As the 501c3 sponsor of the project, VII Photo has asked all its photographers to participate in the selfie campaign. Get yourself in there too:
1. Make a selfie, save it to your computer.
2a. Upload selfie to http://www.final-words.org
2b. Fill out form (name, age, email address, location, how you heard about Photographers Selfies Against the Death Penalty, your preferred photography genre)
2c. Personalize your statement against the death penalty, by completing the following “I stand against the death penalty because …” in 140 characters or less.
Go on, selfie against the machine!
[Oh, if you’re wondering how and why Asnin and his colleagues have the last statements of 515 men and women, it is because for some reason the state of Texas keeps a public online database of them. Weird, no?!]
The 15th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty takes place in Houston, Texas on Saturday October 25th at 2pm. Details on the exact location in Houston will be announced later.
Parting Words was just featured on the Huffington Post, for which I wrote a few hundred words. That didn’t seem enough, so I asked Amy some questions about the project to gain a fuller picture.
Prison Photography (PP): You made Black is the Day, Black is the Night (BITDBITN). Now Parting Words. Both are about the harshest imprisonments and sentences in America. Do overlaps between the projects exist? Are the overlaps visible? If so, is the overlap in your personal politics, in the project, or in both?
Amy Elkins (AE): I started the two projects in 2009 and am still wrapping up final details with each. Black is the Day, Black is the Night came first. Through the execution of the first man I wrote with for that project, I stumbled into Parting Words.
Parting Words has taken me a few years to complete and, even now, it remains a work in progress — currently the project has 506 images but it is updated yearly, growing with each execution.
The research behind it all, especially while writing to men on death row (two of which were executed during our time of correspondence) made reading and pulling quotes from the roster of those who had been executed in the state of Texas a dark, taxing experience. Not only was I reading through all of their statements, but detouring into description after description of violent crimes that land one on death row. Honestly, it felt too heavy at times.
PP: What was the impulse then?
AE: I was intrigued that the state of Texas documented and kept such a tidy online archive for anyone to explore. As a photographer (like many, doubling as a voyeur) I already had my own connection to the subject matter through BITDBITN, and I suppose I allowed my obsessive side to surface in order to create a visual archive. It was an important story to tell.
PP: What are your thoughts on American prisons and the criminal justice system?
AE: Over several years of correspondence with five men serving death row sentences and two men serving life sentences who went in as juveniles, I have learned a great deal from the inside about what it is like to exist in the conditions of maximum security and death row units; what those units provide; and what they deny.
A system that uses long-term solitary confinement and capital punishment is broken. Housing someone in infinite isolation has been proven to be hugely damaging to one’s psychological and physical state. This type of isolation breeds behavioral and emotional imbalances that are bound to cause most to remain in a perpetual state of anxiety, depression and anger. Which means they are set up for failure. There is absolutely no way to rehabilitate in such conditions. But clearly rehabilitation isn’t what they have in mind.
I have written with one man in particular who has served 20 years in solitary confinement as part of a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence for a non-murder related crime he committed aged 16. He has written about going years talking through concrete walls without ever seeing the men he holds daily conversations with. He spends nearly 23 hours a day in a small cell by himself and when he is let out, he is shackled and permitted to exercise in a slightly larger room by himself for an hour. How he’s gone 20 years in these conditions and not gone completely mad is mind blowing.
That said, most men that I wrote with serving death row sentences were in fairly similar conditions, some having served onward of 16 years in solitary confinement while waiting for their execution. Two of the men I have written with have been executed and through the experience of writing letters to them and in some cases reaching out to family members leading up to such events, I have seen how capital punishment seems to create a continuous cycle of violence, pain and loss within our society. It leaves not one open wound, but several. If there’s closure for anyone, it’s temporary. And unfortunately the loss that the victims family originally endured remains. But now there is a new set of mourners in the mix. The system seems so incredibly flawed and barbaric.
PP: Do archives for last words exist for those killed in other states?
AE: I have yet to come across an archive as in-depth and publicly accessible as the one compiled by the state of Texas.
PP: Are you afraid of death?
AE: I think I’m more afraid of the physical pain associated with dying.
PP: Where do we go when our time is up?
AE: Sounds cheesy, but I think we stick around and linger in some capacity with those who love us the most.
PP: Given the images “read” very differently if the viewer is close or far away, what’s the ideal size for these works?
AE: Ideally I would like to show these images on a smaller scale but include all of them. This forces an intimacy that I want, where the viewer has to get close to each image in order to experience the depth of the project.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
AE: In both projects, I always remained neutral. I refrained from projecting my own feelings into whether I felt those I worked with or made work about were guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted. Making BITDBITN, I was more interested in hearing stories from those within prison systems in America, about the psychological state they might be in while in such conditions, while potentially facing their own death. I was interested in discussing with them what it was like to be removed from the world most of us take for granted, to lose memory by being removed from the source of memory, to not always have a strong sense of self-identity. I felt I hadn’t enough information to warrant my own judgment, and so, if I had projected any, neither project would have manifested.
PP: Thanks, Amy.
AE: Thank you, Pete.
In December 2013, Daylight Digital published a presentation of Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night with an accompanying essay by yours truly. The 1,500 words were built upon a conversation Elkins and I began in late 2011.
REST IN PEACE, PETE
Musician, folklorist and champion of the vernacular Pete Seeger died Monday. His legacy is formidable. The New York Times wrote:
His agenda paralleled the concerns of the American left: He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.
Part of Seeger’s widespread collection of folk songs took him, in March 1966, to the Ellis Unit of Huntsville Prison in Texas.
He traveled south with his wife and constant ally Toshi and their son Daniel. Bruce Jackson also joined them.
Afro-American Work Songs In a Texas Prison (30 mins.) documents the music African American prisoners used to survive the grueling work demanded of them. The prison work songs derive directly from those used by slaves and plantations and those directly from West African agricultural models.
Bruce Jackson wrote in his notes about the film:
“Black slaves used work songs in the plantations exactly as they had used them before they had been taken prisoner and sold to the white men. The difference was this: in Africa the songs were used to time body movements and to give poetic voice to things of interest because people wanted to do their work that way; in the plantations there was added a component of survival. If a man were singled out as working too slowly, he would often be brutally punished. The songs kept everyone together, so no one could be singled out as working more slowly than everyone else.”
Mechanization and integration of farming and forestry methods would soon lead to the disappearance of the work songs. There was an urgency to record them.
I spoke with Jackson in late 2011, when he said, “It is, to my knowledge, the only treatment (of that genre and era) that had ever been done. It was Pete’s idea and Pete paid for it.”
Seeger understood the contradiction. A significant type of folk music — a music that reflected the very survival of an oppressed group — was soon to be consigned to the history books, and yet that loss signified an improvement in their circumstances. As the film’s narration notes:
“The songs are still there but sometimes something is missing. The urgency is eased. Gone is that tension born of the original pain and irony of the situation that a man who could not sing and keep rhythm might die. The prison is the only place left in the country where the work songs survives. And it’s days are numbered. Another generation or two and its only source will be the archives. But given the conditions that produced the songs and maintained them for so long one can hardly regret their passing.”
Seeger understood people’s stories are wrapped up in their art. And with it their dignity. His curiosity was a rare and beautiful thing.
A NOTE ON JACKSON
Bruce Jackson is a prolific prison photographer. Most of his work was made in the sixties and seventies in the South, from his Widelux images at Cummins Prison, his collected mugshots from Arkansas, his 1977 book Killing Time: Life in the Arkansas Penitentiary (Cornell) and his very recent 2013 book Inside The Wire (University of Texas Press) about Texas and Southern prison farms. Bruce Jackson’s book Wake Up Dead Man (University of Georgia Press) is a highly recommended study of work songs in Texas prisons.