Twenty-six inmates involved in a photography workshop at the District's Lorton Correctional Facility have documented aspects of prison life in a provocative exhibition of black-and-white photographs.
Called "The Hill: Photographs from Lorton," the exhibition shows the inmates' unique viewpoint and unusually sensitive perceptions about their unchanging environment. The exhibition will be shown at a benefit reception featuring blues singer Nap Turner Thursday at the International Club of Washington at 1800 K St. NW and this week at the downtown YWCA at 624 9th St. NW.
Different glimpses of Lorton and the inmates themselves, the images are often puzzling and startling: A toddler, presumably an inmate's child, stares wide-eyed in expectation; an inmate stands in an empty room in a boxer's pose that at once suggests invulnerability as well as vulnerability and a snapshot of family members and inmates shows them joined together in spirit and a profusion of handshakes and embraces on visitors' day.
"I don't ever plan on being back at Lorton, so I will take pictures of it, so I can say this was when I was at Lorton, 10 years ago, and look back on it," said inmate Rodney Abney, who took a stark, desolate photograph of "The Tunnel," one of Lorton's residential areas.
"You get to capture an expression that probably will never occur again," said inmate Joseph Sweat, whose right-place-at-the right-time shot of an inmate pitching a ringer in a game of horseshoes, called "One in a Thousand," seems to convey hope and hopelessness at once. "It's just a lifetime memory. I've taken a few that I think I will never forget."
Another inmate in the photography program, Howard Poole, said the training provided marketable skills but also much-needed encouragement. "And that feeling, the feedback coming back to you, somebody appreciating and accepting your work, gives you that motivation and determination to continue on and be the best photographer possible."
The photography program started in 1980 when Karen Ruckman, a Washington freelance photographer, offered the idea of a photography workshop to George Strawn, chief of volunteer services for the D.C. Department of Correction. Strawn encouraged Ruckman to set the program up, which depends on a $5,000 matching grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Ruckman also has received help from Washington professional photographers, who often volunteer to lecture at the workshop and show their own portfolios or slide presentations in class discussions.
It wasn't always easy for Ruckman or the inmates. "The first day I went down, I was scared to death," she recalled. "And there I was in a room with 12 guys. And nobody else. That first day, I had a two-hour lecture prepared and I was so nervous I went through the whole thing in 15 or 20 minutes.
"We went through a period of testing," Ruckman said. "Here was this white girl at Lorton. What was in it for me? They didn't know what to make of me at first. Now they're also very protective in many ways. They shelter me from where we are, that we're in prison."
Ruckman teaches two three-hour classes a week, using a one-time utility closet in the Academic School building for a darkroom..
"We're funded through Career Development, so the focus of the workshop has always been on photography as a means of employment, developing marketable technical skills," Ruckman said. "For someone who has a record it's very hard to get a job. But freelancing is something they can do without having to say 'I was in prison.'
"We cover events in Lorton just as though they were freelance photographers going to a job," said Ruckman, adding that her students have covered the Special Olympics, Lorton's Family Day and several UDC events at Lorton. "We also talk about esthetics, about composing a photo, shapes and tones, lights and darks."
Like many of the other inmates, Sweat, 24, who has been at Lorton since age 16, says his favorite photographic subjects are the children who come to visit their fathers and brothers at the prison.
"The children, the family are very important to the men here. And somehow, the kids, when they're here they see themselves in a place other than a prison. And it doesn't seem to matter how high the fence is or how thick the walls are. I mean there's just a special love there. And they show that."
Despite the success of the program, Ruckman said she is concerned about how to hand the project over to someone else when she leaves inevitably. "The concept was I would train instructors and they in turn would teach," Ruckman said. "Howard Poole serves that role now. He's about to get out, so he's grooming Michael Moses to take his place. Someone on the outside has to fight for funding, too. It's either self-perpetuating or it dies."
The men seem to think the photography workshop has been beneficial. "It depends on how engrossed in it you get," Michael Moses said. "It also allows you to get away from the things that are going on in the institution. The serenity in the darkroom removes you from all the hustle and bustle and pandemonium. It helps me get through this place. Yeah, it helps me get through."