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Last December, as the D.C. Department of Corrections was moving the final inmates out of Lorton Correctional Facility, Karen Ruckman was venturing back in. Ruckman, who had spent eight years in the ’80s teaching the basics of black-and-white 35 mm photography, developing, and printing once a week to the prison’s inmates, wanted to capture Lorton on film one last time.
Ruckman has been drawn to Lorton ever since she first went there, in 1981, to take photos of prison volunteers. At the suggestion of a prison administrator, she began the Lorton Photography Workshop with the goal of teaching photography as a trade.
At first, the prisoners were skeptical students. “They said, ‘We’re in prison. There’s nothing to take pictures of in here,’” Ruckman recalls. But each soon developed a distinctive style: Sidney Davis liked to set up shots to create politically provocative photos; Calvin Gorham was more interested in light and shape; Michael Moses El took pictures of his wife and arranged them in a kind of pyramid on the wall next to his bunk. In 1986, Ruckman and photographer Gary Griffin, who helped teach the class, produced a documentary on the workshop; they also compiled Inside Out, a book of their students’ photos.
By 1990, Ruckman had moved on to teaching photography to women in halfway houses and shelters. But she came back to the Lorton photos about three years ago, when she heard that the facility was going to be shut down. “With the prison closing, [the program] is a part of D.C. history,” she says. She showed some of the Lorton images to renowned National Geographic photographer Sam Abell, who encouraged her to do more with the material. So Ruckman decided to follow up with her former students by putting out a new book and doing another documentary . Griffin agreed to direct.
For the film, Ruckman tracked down all 37 of her former pupils; five accompanied her to the prison in December for the new documentary. Among them was Anwar Abdul-Adil, who signed up for the class in 1982, during his second stint at Lorton. After he was released 11 years ago, he found work as a wedding photographer. “Guys came out and got married and called me,” he says. Photography is still his hobby, but these days he makes his living working for Home Depot.
“Initially, the camera was taboo,” Abdul-Adil recalls. The inmates couldn’t take photos inside the mess hall or the dorms. They couldn’t point a camera at the fence line or the watchtowers. Once, after spotting Ruckman and her class snapping photos on a basketball court, correctional officers herded them all into a van and didn’t release them until authorities assured them the course had administrative approval.
Outside the workshop, Abdul-Adil took a job as an official institutional photographer. He took pictures of fender benders on the complex, mug shots of men as they came and left Lorton, and snapshots for prisoners. “I didn’t look at it as a career; I looked at it as a means of income,” he says. “Everybody wanted their picture taken to send home to their people.”
Over time, Abdul-Adil and his fellow photographers produced mundane yet memorable images of life inside Lorton: a couple of guys sitting in a desolate room watching television, men playing cards on a bed inside one of the dorms, a crowded baseball field that could be anywhere—except for an ominous watchtower in the distance.
“The pictures show the community that existed inside the prison,” says Ruckman, who says she hopes to finish the film and sell it to a distributor by next spring. “The humanism has always surprised people.” —Annys Shin