For nearly 40 years, New Orleans photographers Keith Calhoun (b. 1955) and Chandra McCormick (b. 1957) have been documenting the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as “Angola,” and the lives of the men incarcerated there with unstinting dedication and unflinching honesty. In doing so, they have given new life to the genre of social documentary photography while supporting a growing movement against unfair sentencing and felony disenfranchisement laws led by formerly incarcerated men like Norris Henderson, the couple’s close friend and frequent subject. McCormick and Calhoun’s images depict seemingly contradictory aspects of prison life—from living and working conditions on the prison farm, which grows millions of pounds of cash crops annually using coerced and virtually unremunerated inmate labor, to the prison rodeo, a violent yet carnivalesque spectacle that attracts thousands of visitors annually.
Calhoun’s Who’s That Man on That Horse, I Don’t Know His Name, But They All Call Him Boss (1980) captures how little has changed since the antebellum period. Named for the country of origin of many of the enslaved people that toiled there, Angola sits on the site of several consolidated former plantations. In Calhoun’s image, the rows of horizontal furrows bridging the distance between the armed foreman in the foreground and faceless workers in the background provides a visual metaphor for recurring patterns of power and powerlessness. In contrast, McCormick’s poignant image of an incarcerated woodworker displaying his wares at the craft fair which accompanies the prison rodeo, Father Forgive Them (2013), invokes the spiritual traditions which have sustained and defined African-American culture in Louisiana for centuries. McCormick’s image is not without irony, however. If the crucifix ostensibly asks for divine mercy on behalf of the accused, it also pleads forgiveness for those of us who, knowingly or unknowingly, profit from the prison-industrial complex in all its guises.