Written by Douglas Ljungkvist
I had been photographing for my Ping Pong project for a couple of years when I started thinking about new and different venues that I could capture the game, or sport rather, that I had grown up playing in Sweden in the late 70’s.
I had already photographed bar play, outdoor public park action, the upscale SPiN member club in Manhattan, professional tournaments, and more. For some reason I wondered if they offered ping pong in prison as recreation. After all it’s great exercise. But could the rackets be used as weapons? Or perhaps you could choke someone with a ball?! After some research I learned that ping pong was played in four New York state prisons. When I sent an e-mail request to photograph some ping pong action there I did not have high hopes for a positive answer. But I was pleasantly surprised. In no time I was asked which of the four prisons I wanted to visit. Since I didn’t know the difference I went with the medium-risk Oneida State Prison. I liked the name and it was a reasonable drive from Brooklyn to Rome, NY. And knowing that New York Giants wide-receiver Plaxico Burress was doing his time there I was hoping he had taken up ping pong. But there was no Plaxico sighting. Perhaps ping pong would have been good hand/eye coordination practice for him before his release and comeback to the NFL?! Just saying…
Once at the prison I was greeted by an Irish-American gentleman named Pat who was in charge of the inmate recreational programs, and a really nice fellow, too. My visual fantasy of a packed recreational room with inmates in orange jumpsuits did not really come true. In fact the room was empty except for a few inmates that had volunteered to play during my visit as they each had to sign a release form. Most of them were dressed in sweats or gym clothes. The room was institutional feeling with painted cinder block walls, metal tables and chairs, and fluorescent lighting. Guards walked by the windows regularly to make sure everything was under control. After introductions I talked a bit about my project and they started playing matches where the winner would stay at the table and take on the next challenger. I was photographing and asked them to carry on as if I wasn’t there. Pat gave the inmates snacks and candy as prices which they were excited about and the winner of the evening would get a plastic drinking cup.
I noticed early on how they were playing sets to 21 points instead of 11 which is now the norm. They didn’t get that memo and kept playing to 21. It made me wonder how long they had been incarcerated and what they had done to end up there. I think partly to impress me, Pat had made available two brand new ping pong rackets for them (yes, I call it a racket except when used for spanking, when I would refer to it as a paddle). Up to that time they were playing with two old rackets that didn’t even have rubber on them, just the sponge. But most of them preferred the old rackets knowing what to expect from them. It made me realize how much prison life must be about habit and not wanting anyone to have an advantage over you. Not even at ping pong. Any doubts over edge balls or let serves were handled without conflict. No trash talking or gambling was observed. The table itself was made by the German brand Kettler known for simple and affordable tables. You could tell it had been around the way the undercarriage was partly held together with what looked like a ripped up sheet or t-shirt, how it sloped in the back/middle sections, and nicks on the playing surface from what was probably player frustration over the years.
I continued photographing and once a champion was crowned they insisted that I play against him. I reluctantly agreed and grabbed one of the new rackets (I knew I should have brought my Stiga racket with me). Each of the players had demonstrated very unusual grips, strokes, and techniques, the kind that can drive a traditionally trained player crazy. And I had never played against a sponge racket and didn’t know what to expect spin wise. I suffered a 21-19 defeat to the cheers of the other inmates. And so we wrapped up the evening. It was time for them to return to their cells and me back to Brooklyn. The player who beat me and won the plastic cup insisted that I have it to remember my visit by. He said he already had several of them. It’s sitting on my desk as I write this. I’m still not sure if it’s a drinking cup or a cup for large urine samples.
It’s strange how normal it felt to hang out with these guys. For a couple of hours we were just guys having a good time around a ping pong table. It didn’t feel all that different from playing ping pong at a bar or a club. Well, except for the alcohol, or lack thereof. Are they ever able to forget where they are and enjoy a moment, like when playing ping pong, I wonder? What stuck with me most was how child like their behavior was. I guess that’s what happens when you lose your freedom and live in a world of restrictions and repetition. After I returned home, and since it is public information, I couldn’t resist the curiosity to learn what crimes they had committed to end up at Oneida. There were some pretty bad dudes that I had photographed and played ping pong with! Not the kind you would want around your kids or meet in a dark alley. But I will always appreciate that they allowed me to spend a few hours in their lives. Months later, at a ping pong social for Brooklyn hipsters, I met a guy who had actually done time at Oneida and learned to play ping pong there. While most others at the Gowanus bar that night were there for the drinking and social part he was hoping that his unorthodox prison ping pong style would net him the cash price ($50) of the evening, as he really needed the money.
Since my visit the Oneida State Correctional Facility has closed and the property is for sale by the state. I bet and hope that Pat is retired by now. Most of the inmates, if not all, are now at other prisons serving their sentences. But I can’t help but wonder, what happened to that ping pong table?