Deborah Luster Statement

Artist Statement
"One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana" is an on-going documentary project presenting formal portraits of hundreds of Louisiana's incarcerated population. It seeks to challenge accepted philosophies of documentary photography and presentation.

Since 1998 I have been photographing inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel, and the East Carroll Parish Prison Farm at Transylvania. Inmates volunteer to be photographed and in return receive wallet-sized copies of each frame taken (usually 10-15 photographs). In addition, each inmate signs a release and provides minimal personal information including date of birth, place of birth, number of children, work at the prison, etc. This information is etched on the backs of the 4x5 inch black aluminum plates that carry the final finished images of the inmates. These small plates call to mind the 19th Century tintype and suggest both the long history of the penal institution and the intimacy of the family photograph.

These images (currenty numbering around 350) are presented in a black steel cabinet-archive hidden away in drawers. To see the images the viewer must actively participate by opening the heavy drawers and removing handfuls of the small photographic plates—forcing the free-world viewer to physically touch the images of the inmates contained there. The cabinet also contains a small handmade book describing the prisons represented, dedication, etc.

There is always a complex tension in any art of human portraiture, between the subject's awareness and the artist's intent. Sometimes there is a large gap, and the danger exists that the artist's aesthetic ambitions are realized through a kind of "going beyond" the subject's participation in, and understanding of, the collaboration. This project is not about the powerful taking a portrait of the powerless for the powerful to view. It is not about glamorizing or demonizing the inmate (inmates present themselves as they would be seen). This project is a simple and direct collaboration between photographer and subject—a marriage of aesthetic and political energies that will allow the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions concerning this emotionally and politically charged subject.

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