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Vintage polaroids of female prisoners paint an intimate picture of womanhood and identity

By Zoe Whitfield, CNN

(CNN) — What is perhaps most striking about the 32 photographs that make up Jack Lueders-Booth’s new book, “Women Prisoner Polaroids,” is the intimacy that occupies each frame. Inmates wear their own clothes and pose in cells embellished with personal effects, much like any regular college dorm room; one woman clasps a biography of Mick Jagger, others are pictured with their arms wrapped around friends. A warm sensibility, typically foreign to portraits of incarceration, is notable throughout.

“Miriam Van Waters, the first superintendent at Massachusetts Correctional Institute Framingham (in 1932), was insistent that they not use this unfortunate period in their lives to form their identity,” the photographer told CNN in a video interview, relaying the Massachusetts’ prison’s early objectives. “To foster that, she tried to make it look like home. For that reason, (when I was there) the inmates wore domestic clothes and prison guards were also un-uniformed. Often the same age as the prisoners, many of them were studying criminal justice at Northeastern University, a co-operative college.”

Established in 1878 as a reformatory confining women for the crime of having children out of wedlock, by the 1970s much of the prison’s population were being held on counts of shoplifting and sex work, or as accomplices to crimes of male companions. As per Van Waters’ previous intentions, the facility was at that time the site of many experiments in rehabilitation, an effort intended to reduce the psychological toll of being incarcerated.

‘We came to trust each other’

Lueders-Booth arrived in 1977, initially to spend just a year running a photography course as part of his master’s thesis for Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (though already lecturing at the college, he didn’t have a teaching degree). “I had specific ideas about what I wanted to do,” he recalled. “Teach photography to people in institutions of confinement, as a way of increasing morale and teaching them a skill.” The invitation to MCI-Framingham was serendipitous: another Harvard professor headed up a prison arts project and happened to be looking for someone to initiate a photography course.

Accompanied by his 18-year-old daughter, Laura — “she gave me a level of credibility, that this old guy knew something about youth” — Lueders-Booth was given a corridor of old cells to run his program, which the pair transformed into studios and darkrooms. With classes of about 10 women at a time, the groups began by creating photograms (photographic prints made by laying objects onto photographic paper before exposing it to light), eventually moving into portraiture. “I was apprehensive about them and they about me. I didn’t know anything (about the prison system) except for what I’d seen in the media,” the photographer noted of those early sessions. “But we came to trust each other in a matter of months. They had confidence in me that I was there to help them.”

The Polaroid pictures, which the photographer shot alongside a wider black and white series, weren’t intentional, he suggested. In 1980 however, having been awarded two consecutive fellowships with the instant camera company, Lueders-Booth had access to infinite film and began making, “probably the most important project I did in my life. It was rewarding and wonderful, the comfort and trust with which the women came to the experience of being photographed.”

He would end up staying on at Framingham for seven years, only concluding his workshops in the mid-80s, in which time he had become an accepted feature amongst staff and inmates alike. “I had increasing access and became quite trusted by the administration. I was doing photography for them, making portraits for their annual reports, and sometimes processing family photographs,” said Lueders-Booth. “Over the years, my photographs were appearing on their walls as part of their photo collections, which was very rewarding. I felt I was contributing something, and that was important.”

“The women and the unusual character of their lives kept drawing me back,” he continued. “It became an education, about this prison but also the unfairness of the system and how much depends on the womb factor — where you come from, how you were nurtured. Many of the incarcerations were economically determined. So I came to appreciate the humanity of it, really, that was the largest thing. That these women were very much the victim of circumstances.”

A collection of anonymous testimonies closes the book, largely highlighting vehement accounts of the women’s experiences of arriving and returning to the prison. Their fervent words, recorded objectively by Lueders-Booth, initially appear contrary to the relaxed composure exhibited in the images which precede them; ultimately however, this speaks to the work’s broader function. “Very often, the most obvious characteristic of a person is not the most significant,” observed the photographer. “I may have identified them as a prisoner, but that’s dismissive and superficial. While it is true, other things are true, and many other things are perhaps more true.”

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