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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

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NORRIS: Today, we bring you another story in our series, The Hidden World of Girls; Girls and the Women They Become. This story, produced by The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, takes us to Louisiana and the intersection of family, crime and art. It's called One Big Self.

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BLOCK: My mom, she was very glamorous but, you know, she never put on any sort of airs. There was no sadity with her. She was infected with that Southern ancestor worship thing. All into the arts of dress and manners and the home and the table and conversation and storytelling. She was a shutterbug.

My name's Deborah Luster. My mother and father divorced when I was a baby. And I lived with my grandparents, so we communicated a lot through photographs. You know, if I got a new coat, I would have to be photographed. And usually I wouldn't want to be photographed and it would be the back of the coat.

There would be photographs of me and my cat, my grandfather and me. And from her I would get posed photographs. She would dress up, even when she was cooking - designer clothes and high heels. I mean, she would wear a mink coat to a tractor pull. Red hair, big glamourpuss.

My mom was murdered on April 1st, April Fool's Day, 1988. She was murdered in her bed by a contract killer, who came in through her kitchen window, down her hall and shot her five times in the head. And so, since I was the only other person that had seen this guy, I reasoned that he might be after me as well. So for about seven or eight years I was pretty much a mess.

After she died, I started trying to photograph. My mom had photographed constantly, my grandmother had photographed constantly, documented our family. Sort of something that I could think to do to try to dig out a little bit from the place I had found myself.

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BLOCK: My name is C.D. Wright. I'm a poet, originally from the Arkansas Ozarks. And I collaborate with Deborah Luster, the photographer, who is also originally from Arkansas.

Debbie had moved to northern Louisiana, to Monroe. She'd started noticing that the landscape was fairly emptied out. Then she noticed that it was fairly emptied out but for the fact that there seemed to be a lot of prisons. And she thought, well, maybe that's where everybody is, which, in fact, is where everybody is.

BLOCK: It was a Sunday afternoon and I knocked on the prison gate and the warden came out and I asked him if I might photograph some of the inmates there. I photographed there once and realized that it was a project that I had been looking for for a long time, something in response to the murder of my mother. It was like it lifted when I went in the gates. It became something else.

BLOCK: She got entrance to the women's prison at St. Gabriel and the minimum security male prison in a place called Transylvania, and Angola maximum security prison.

BLOCK: I started taking very straightforward, formal portraits.

BLOCK: Most of the inmates posed themselves. Some of them wrote messages that they held up.

BLOCK: One woman wanted to hold her shoe. I photographed in the cotton fields. They still pick cotton by hand at Angola. I photographed the women at their Mardi Gras celebration, the Halloween haunted house at the women's prison. There are all these costumes - Alligator Girl and Rat Face. And one inmate sits in an electric chair and the other is the executioner and she throws the switch.

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BLOCK: At Angola, where, you know, 90 percent of the men that go there die there. It was very sober. There was no clowning around - and very formal. The way they would pose themselves was very sort of 19th century. They would all receive images back. I returned 25,000 prints to inmates. They made themselves so vulnerable for me. And it's not often that you have an encounter like that.

I know a lot of it was that they were actually posing for the people that they loved - their husbands, their wives, their children. There was a woman who asked to be photographed. She said, I've been here 15 years. I'm down for 99 years. I have 19 children. My children haven't spoken to me since I came to prison. Perhaps if I had some photographs I could send them it would soften their hearts to me. A few months later, she said, four of my children came to visit me. The baby came and he's now 19 and he was five years old when I came to prison.

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BLOCK: The last photograph for many of them is their mug shot. Debbie's working out a long-term relationship to violence.

BLOCK: My mother, I think it's the kind of thing she might have done. She had this way of looking right through the veneer, right into people. She could sort of see the bottom in people. She liked to photograph her family, the food on your plate, you brushing your teeth. She photographed what she loved - and that's what she loved.

NORRIS: Our story, One Big Self, was produced by The Kitchen Sisters and mixed by Jim McKee for the series The Hidden World of Girls. You can see some of Deborah Luster's prison portraits and a poem by C.D. Wright on our website, NPR.org.

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