Exploitative Labor Practices At Louisiana State Penitentiary

Men Going to Work in the Fields of Angola. 2004. Courtesy of the artist. © Chandra McCormick

The impact of a photographer’s long-term commitment to a subject matter can’t be denied. When a body of photographs portrays people and a place over an extended period of time, viewers get the rare opportunity to start piecing together a much more holistic understanding of a subject. And when the subject is the mistreatment of incarcerated men and its ties to slavery and capitalism, that understanding is particularly devastating.

Slavery, the Prison Industrial Complex, photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, is on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art until October 26, 2019. The husband-and-wife team, both New Orleans natives, have been visiting the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the United States, since 1980.

The exhibition offers Calhoun and McCormick’s first-hand witnessing of the exploitative labor practices at the prison and its link to slavery. Known as “The Farm,” Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is 18,000 acres of land—formerly cotton and sugarcane plantations—that yields up to 4 million pounds of cash crops annually using inmate labor. (While the 13th Amendment of the Constitution prohibits involuntary servitude, it excludes convicted inmates.)

Two to a six-by-eight-foot cell at Angola Prison. 1980. Courtesy of the artist. © Keith Calhoun

Comprising about three dozen mostly black-and-white photographs and videos, the exhibition includes photographs of the prison’s living and working conditions, as well as poignant portraits of the men that reveal the nuances of their personal stories, images from the yearly prison rodeo, emotional portrayals of inmates furloughed to attend family funerals, and videos of exonerated men testifying to the challenges they faced while incarcerated. New photographs and videos of Gary Tyler and Norris Henderson will also be on view to honor these two exonerated, former inmates and their major contributions to civil rights breakthroughs against mass incarceration.

Committed to documenting prison culture’s role in fueling capitalism, Calhoun and McCormick also actively promote intervention before incarceration through their work at the prison and in their own New Orleans community, where they teach at-risk youth and provide a welcoming atmosphere at their studio in the neighborhood.

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