Now based in New Orleans, Deborah Luster grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks. She studied literature, creative writing, and dance at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and only began photographing in 1989 as a way of coping with the death of her grandmother and the murder of her mother, both of whom had been passionate amateur photographers. She has been the recipient of many prestigious awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Robert Gardner Fellowship from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Luster’s tendency is to work on long-term personal documentary/archival projects. She is best known for the series, One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, published by Twin Palms Publishing in 2003, with text by poet C. D. Wright. This large archive of formal photographic portraits portrays inmates from three Louisiana prisons, including the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. It was through her work in the prisons that Luster was first able to directly address the loss of her mother, explaining that she needed “an aesthetic equivalent to the endless and indirect formality of loss.”
Her photographic work was interrupted for a time by the devastation in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, but in 2008 Luster began a companion project to One Big Self—Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish. Tooth for an Eye involved deep mapping of a place long associated with the highest homicide rates in the United States in an effort to generate the thick knowledge so necessary for understanding, potentially of the mechanics of murder, but for Luster more about the metaphysics of the “porousness between the worlds of the living and the dead, where time bends and flows and neither lives free of the other’s space or influence.”
Southbound draws exclusively on Luster’s Passion Play series, for which she returned to Angola Prison and invited prisoners to pose while wearing their costumes for “The Life of Jesus Christ,” a Passion play staged in 2012 and 2013, one of a series of measures designed to further rehabilitation by encouraging more religious programs. Luster took portraits of the inmate actors offstage, under the arena’s bleachers, including female actors from the nearby women’s penitentiary in St. Gabriel. Afterward, she gave each sitter prints to share with family and friends, adding to the more than 25,000 photographs she returned to inmates as part of her One Big Self project.
Many Americans whose lives have not been touched by violent crime or incarceration may largely ignore the incarcerated or even see them as a separate, untouchable group. Luster’s photographs bring humanity to this largely invisible sector of society. Mary Bell #305026 (Incarcerated at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women), Anna (2013), for example, shows a female inmate clothed in black-and-white robes playing the role of Anna, a prophetess. Luster presents her as stately and calm, with a direct gaze. The gravitas she holds bypasses her current disempowered social and economic status to connect her with a deeper power that transcends individual identity, time, and place. Luster’s striking portraits invite viewers to consider the incarcerated in new ways and to reflect on the intangible issues of guilt, loss, shame, forgiveness, and remembrance.