Slavery, the Prison Industrial Complex by Calhoun and McCormick
The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) presents an exhibition of photographs by New Orleans natives Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick. On view June 16–October 27, 2019, “Slavery, the Prison Industrial Complex: Photographs by Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick” features the husband-and-wife team’s poignant photographs of life and labor practices at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest maximum- security prison in the United States. The exhibition consists of approximately three dozen mostly black-and-white images and videos that record the exploitation of the men incarcerated at the Angola prison farm while also revealing the nuances of their individual narratives. Included among these works is a group of portraits, images of living and working conditions in the prison and the annual prison rodeo, emotionally charged photographs of men furloughed to attend family funerals, and videos of exonerated men being released and testifying to the difficulties they faced while incarcerated. The BMA’s presentation includes a video and photographs dedicated to Norris Henderson and Gary Tyler, formerly incarcerated men who have achieved major civil rights victories in the struggle against mass incarceration.
“Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick’s photographs are extraordinary not only for revealing links between slavery’s legacy and the current economic practices at Angola, but also for how they capture the humanity of the men incarcerated there,” said Christopher Bedford, BMA Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director. “Their commitment to the lives of the people they work with at Angola and in their New Orleans community will have an impact for generations to come.”
Since 1980, Calhoun and McCormick have made regular visits to Angola, which was founded on the consolidated land of several cotton and sugarcane plantations and named for the country of origin for many of the slaves who worked the land. Angola is also called “The Farm” because the 18,000-acre campus continues to grow cash crops—as much as four million pounds a year—using inmate labor.
There are currently more than 6,000 inmates at Angola and roughly 75 percent are African American. As first-hand witnesses to exploitative labor practices, Calhoun and McCormick are committed to bringing attention to how incarceration, which has more than quadrupled in the United States since 1980, can fuel and abet capitalism. The problem is complicated further because the economic welfare of local communities largely depends on the penal system for civilian employment.
Largely self-taught, the couple began their artistic careers photographing festivals, second line parades, and neighborhood gatherings in New Orleans. The post-Katrina recovery process after 2005 led the couple to redouble their community engagement efforts. Their intimate understanding of prison culture and the importance of intervention before incarceration has informed their activism not only on behalf of individuals directly involved with correctional facilities, but also in their own New Orleans community, where they teach photography to at-risk youth and have made their studio a welcoming environment in the neighborhood.