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Lucky Peach

Art Director: Walter Green
Associate Designer: Helen Tseng
Writer: Kevin Pang
Photographer: Armando Sanchez

Heidi: How did you get connected with Lucky Peach?
Armando: Kevin Pang, the writer of  “Fixed Menu” is a food critic for the Chicago Tribune. So when Lucky Peach contacted him about the piece, he asked a few photo editors at the Tribune about finding a photographer, and I was lucky enough to be recommended.

How did the work in your  “Incarcerated” portfolio help capture the images from Westville? Is that one of the reasons they came to you?
“Incarcerated” acclimated me to working around inmates. It also helped me develop a small flow to working with the jailers or guards, which is much easier than most people think. But the approach to both shoots was so different. When I was working on the “Incarcerated‚” project, I was really trying to understand how the small spaces and restrictions of prison affect a person’s  well-being. When I was in Westville, my focus was the influence of food played in the lives of inmates and whether or not it had an impact on their long-term outlooks and behavior. I’m not sure if that’s why they selected me for this story but I’m sure it helped.

What sort of direction did you get for the story and were you with the writer?
One of the editors at Lucky Peach told me that this story would focus on the types of foods that inmates can create with ingredients you find in a 7-11, and how those foods contrast with the world outside prison. So I knew what to focus my pictures around. Kevin, the writer, was with me during the entire two-day shoot and he was really great to work with. If I was working a situation or if I saw something that I wanted to stop and photograph, he would always ask if I was ready to move on or if I needed more time to shoot. He never made me feel like I needed to work at his pace, which you don’t always get when working with a writer. Actually, when we were in the maximum security wing while they were serving food, I found myself shooting images that may not have related to the guidelines of the assignment, but were just pictures I wanted to make of the recreation room and medical treatment area. Kevin let me do that and never gave me the impression that I needed to move on.

Did you feel threatened or scared at any time?
Never. Everyone I talked to was basically trying to make the best of a bad situation. Prison is full of routine. It’s the same thing every day, down to the minute. You see the same people, guards, other inmates. So I think anytime you add new people to the routine, it’s almost welcomed. Everyone stares at you and asks you small questions. They were curious about why we were there. Once we told them who we were and what the article was about, everyone wanted to talk.

What struck you about the inmates? Tell me about your interactions with them?
Actually, the only time I felt nervous was when we visited the main kitchen. We were talking to some of the inmates who worked in the kitchen, and one of them told us to go look in the walk-in refrigerator. When we went into the refrigerator, the smell was overwhelming, kind of like an old dirty mop and rotten eggs. I have a pretty strong stomach but I was close to heaving. Anyway, the inmate was trying to show several trays of egg casserole to Kevin. The inmate was basically telling Kevin that the casserole was inedible, but one of the prison employees was defending the casserole and told us it was fine to eat. It got kind of tense, so I quietly stepped away and photographed the egg casserole. That picture actually made it into the layout.

Most of the inmates were extremely receptive and friendly. They seemed interested in what we were doing. They were always polite and willing to share their opinions about the food. Some inmates seemed kind of nervous, but once we started talking to them and asking where they were from, most of them opened up. The only people that we didn’t really talk to were the inmates in maximum security. They were kept in their cells and behind several walls of thick glass and steel doors.

Did you taste the Disciplinary Loaf?
I wish. There was no loaf available. Just finding the recipe was kind of difficult. I got the impression that it wasn’t something that was made very often.

(“Nutraloaf aka Disciplinary Loaf is reserved for offenses such as taking part in a riot or assaulting prison staff.”)

Did you eat anything while you were on location? Did you bring your own food?
I ate the first day during a culinary class. They were serving the kinds of food you would eat at Thanksgiving dinner. The prison had a culinary cooking class that served turkey, mashed potatoes, shrimp cocktail, all prepared by the inmates. It was pretty good. But I never ate the creations the inmates made with food from the commissary. I really wanted to try some, but the inmates save up money to buy the ingredients; Ramen, condensed chicken soup, packaged cheese. I didn’t want to take anything they had saved up for. Other than the Thanksgiving-style meal the first day, I didn’t eat while I was there.

You’re a recent graduate, interned and were published several times in the Chicago Tribune. Tell me about your process for handling those shoots.
It’s been a learning experience. I interned at the Tribune from June 2012 to November 2012. I started freelancing for them immediately after the internship was over, but I had to go back to Kentucky to walk at my graduation ceremony in December. I’ve spent most of my college career interning at newspapers. The Tribune was my last of four internships, and I was pretty sure that I wanted to work for a newspaper when I was done at the Tribune. But after I finished my internship at the Tribune, I found myself in a pretty cool situation where I could immediately start receiving work as a freelancer and still pursue local news, all from the Tribune. From there, I started reaching out to other editorial clients, pursued commercial work and have been trying to teach myself the ins and outs of working as a freelance photographer.

When did you start shooting photos and knew this is what you wanted to do?
I started shooting photos after my mom made me take a photography class while I was a junior in high school. But I knew I wanted to do this when I was a senior in high school. I was watching John Moore present work from Iraq at a high school journalism conference at the University of Texas. He was still with the AP at the time and I was pretty moved by his photos and the team he oversaw that won the Pulitzer. I actually talked to him for so long that I followed him outside until he had to cross the street. After that, I was pretty determined to work on stories I care about.

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