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One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana


Deborah Luster
American, born 1951
One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana
, 1998-2002
249 gelatin silver prints on aluminum; steel cabinet with lamp
Gift of Julia J. Norrell, in Honor of Claude Simard and the 25th Anniversary of Photography at the National Gallery of Art
© Deborah Luster, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

In the aftermath of her mother’s unsolved murder, Deborah Luster became obsessed with the effects of violence and crime on families and society. In 1998, she began a multiyear project making portraits of inmates at several prisons in Louisiana, including the maximum-security penitentiary at Angola, where many serve life sentences. Working against the dehumanizing nature of the prison system, Luster hoped “to photograph people who happened to be in prison” in a way that would personalize them. Hundreds of inmates lined up for portraits. Some performed playful or threatening poses for the camera, while others appeared in costumes or masks alluding to the prisons’ Mardi Gras and holiday celebrations; several held prized possessions, such as pictures of friends and family. The 249 portraits are printed on aluminum plates, evocative of 19th-century tintypes, and bear inscriptions with information provided by each sitter, such as their names and length of sentences or their number of children. Luster loosely arranged the plates in a black metal cabinet reminiscent of a card catalog or an archive. One Big Self is a disquieting reminder of the systems built to punish violence and crime, as well as of the lives lost or put on hold both inside and outside of prison.