When Life Ends in Prison: Talking to Documentary Photographer Lori Waselchuk

March 12, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

Grace Before Dying photo

Next month, on April 5–6, CUSSW will host its third annual interdisciplinary criminal justice conference.

Many words will be exchanged about how America, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world, can move forward and reform its system, which places an unfair burden on groups at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale.

But sometimes a picture can say a thousand words, and what better proof of this principle than the seven large, powerful photos on display right now on the 4th floor of the Social Work Building? Called “Grace Before Dying,” the photo series is the work of documentary photographer Lori Waselchuk. It originally formed part of the Open Society Institute’s “Moving Walls” exhibition.

The topic of Grace Before Dying is the prison-run hospice at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola—and nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the South” and “The Farm.” The largest maximum security prison in the United States, Angola has achieved worldwide notoriety for its brutality.

Waselchuk’s photos are of the incarcerated volunteers, who have been certified as hospice caregivers (they work under a staff nurse), tending to their patients. Such images—which are accompanied by poignant quotes from caregivers and the dying—serve as a reminder that in America, a sentence of “life imprisonment” often means dying in prison. This is especially the case in Louisiana, which has some of the toughest sentencing laws in the United States. In Angola, around 85 percent of the five thousand some prisoners are expected to die there.

But until the hospice program was created in 1998, prisoners mostly died alone in the prison hospital.

At the same time, the photos challenge commonly-held stereotypes of incarcerated people. In the face of death, the photographed prisoners appear to take solace in the volunteers’ capacity for kindness and empathy. What is more, the work of those volunteers has touched the entire prison population. According to prison officials, the hospice program has helped to transform Angola into one of the least violent maximum-security institutions in the country.

Julien Hawthorne, an intern with the Communications office, tracked down Lori Waselchuk to talk more about this remarkable photo display and the book she wrote to accompany it.

—ML Awanohara

Lori Waselchuk

On your Web site, you identify yourself as both a photographer and an activist. Do you think art can serve as a form of activism?
Art interacts with community and inspires conversation. It can be a high form of discovery and inquiry. My goal is to use photography to tell stories about people’s lives and experiences, and then use my work to encourage people to participate in and contribute to their communities.

What compelled you to begin a photographic series about a Louisiana State Prison?
The project started as a magazine assignment. I became very inspired by the hospice program at Louisiana State Penitentiary and I hoped to tell the story of the program visually—try to describe in photographs the unexpected story of courage and compassion inside this notorious prison.

You’ve taken photos for several international aid organizations, and you also have an ongoing project on the bridges of New Orleans. How did photographing inmates compare?
I don’t believe there was a difference in the way I made the photographs. I love learning about and photographing the human experience. The environment, however, is unique and difficult to maintain access. I worked hard to demonstrate a level of respect for the hospital and security staff as well as the incarcerated men.

Did your conception of the inmates change throughout the project?
I worked on the project for nearly three years and in those three years, I watched them work selflessly and care for their patients compassionately. I watched as they lost patients. I know my respect for the caregivers grew over the years. I care about them very much.

You begin your book with an essay by the prominent Civil War and Reconstruction historian Lawrence N. Powell, titled “Up from Slavery: The Angola Story.” Can you talk a little bit about this essay’s provocative title and why you chose to include it?
I commissioned Professor Powell to write an introduction to my book with the help of a grant. He researched and wrote about the history of this feared and infamous prison, which is tied to slavery, to contextualize just how extraordinary the hospice program is. I love that his essay precedes the photographs. By the way, if there are teachers or students at the Columbia University School of Social Work who work or volunteer in prisons and would like a free copy to deliver to a corrections facility, please contact me.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when you were working on the photo series, and was it the same as your audience for the book?
When I began this project, I thought it would be an exhibition that could be shown in prisons around the country. And after the traveling exhibition was launched, I had achieved this. I wasn’t sure if a book could add anything new. But I received many requests to create a book, and after much thought, I realized that I could create something that deepened the project’s conversation and broadened its audience. I created a book that would add context to the emotional photo essay, and more strongly represent the voices of the hospice volunteers. I also received funding to print and distribute a paperback edition that passes security inspections into prisons throughout the country.

Has this project changed your own personal views on larger issues of life and death?
Yes. I learned so much about life and death from witnessing the work of the Angola Prison Hospice program. I learned how important it is for both patient and loved ones to be able to express love and care during the last days.

What are you working on now?
I am working on a project in Philadelphia called “The Captains.” It is about Philadelphia neighborhood block captains. The project documents volunteer block captains as they work to solve local problems and rally their communities.

Do you plan to return to the subject of prison inmates in the future?
I will return to the issue of incarceration in the future. I have not figured out what story I will tell, but I really want to dedicate my efforts to talking about America’s over-incarceration of its citizens.

Related link:

“Talking to Ara Oshagan about His Photos of Youth Behind Bars in California,” by ML Awanohara

External links:

Images: Photograph by Lori Waselchuk courtesy Open Society Foundations; Lori talking about her book, by Diane Ronayne (courtesy Idaho Writers Guild).