Exhibition Review: Prison Nation
By Ava McLaughlin
The “Prison Nation” exhibit at the Aperture Gallery in New York showcases images captured in various prison settings. The idea of this collection sprang from the fact that most prisons don’t allow prisoners to have cameras, so how can there be images representing those imprisoned? This exhibit gathers work from different photographers that have explored prison environments in order to create representation of those who cannot produce their own. When 2.2 million people in the US are incarcerated, 3.8 million are on probation, and 870,000 former prisoners are on parole, these photographers give a voice to those imprisoned discussing what is out of view from everyone on the outside of prison walls. Photographers including Bruce Jackson, Chandra McCormich, Keith Calhoun, Nigel Poor, Deborah Luster, Lucas Foglia, and many more use photography to create a visual, lasting record of this national crisis.
Chandra McCormich and Keith Calhoun’s collection of images are all black and white and set in native New Orleans. Together they chose to highlight the social history of the black working class in Louisiana along with the entangled history of the slave trade, French colonialism, and American expansion. Their photos of prisoners in Angola show a disturbing resemblance to images of slaves in the American South, reflecting on the poor conditions of the criminal injustice system as well as its potential racial bias. They emphasize that the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slave labor, does not apply to prisoners.
Nigel Poor’s images, also black and white, feature real, unposed shots taken at the San Quentin State Prison. He collected and processed images taken by the correctional officers there that document everything from weddings to stabbings, lunches to attempts to escape. These “depressing and funny and bizarre” shots immortalize both the trauma and beauty of the unfair life these prisoners face through gory images of gashes and stitches to posed pictures of weddings and celebrations.
Deborah Luster features portraits of inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola before the debut of their in-prison production of “The Life of Jesus Christ”. These portraits, all shot with the actors in costume against black backgrounds, show the individuality of the prisoners, a side that wouldn’t be recognized without Luster’s skilled framing. All of the prisoners photographed have life sentences except Bobby Wallace, who played Jesus and was eventually set free.
Lucas Foglia presents colored, sundrenched images of prisoners in orange striped jumpsuits amidst a prison garden. The Horticultural Society of New York, with the Department of Correction and Education that created this island jail, is ranked as one of the top 10 worst facilities due to its inhumane conditions and the abuse to their inmates. The individuals are shown socializing and lounging and report, ironically and disconcertingly, that “it’s the only place where we feel like human beings.”
The photographers mentioned are only some of those featured in this important exhibit. Their images acknowledge the fact that incarceration affects even we who are not physically imprisoned. We are involved in the form of governance that uses these prisons as a solution to social, economic, and political issues. This exhibit strives to create the awareness needed for systematic change, provoking the audience to recognize parts of themselves in the lives of those facing torture inside of prison walls.
“Prison Nation” is on view at Aperture Gallery from February 7-March 7. For more information visit www.aperture.org.