Gravity and Grace: An interview with Lori Waselchuk

Event: Jul 22, 2011

Lori Waselchuk. Portrait by Aubrey Edwards
Lori Waselchuk. Portrait by Aubrey Edwards

By Aubrey Edwards

Over 90 percent of the roughly 5,000 inmates in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola will die on its grounds, their sentences too long to live out. Warden Burl Cain and prison administrators have responded to the graying population by implementing a hospice program, through which inmates care for those who are about to die. Lori Waselchuk—whose documentary photography has appeared in the New York Times, LIFE, Newsweek, and many other places—began photographing within the hospice program in 2006. What originally began as a short-term editorial assignment for Imagine Louisiana magazine evolved into a three-year photographic journey that explores the complex relationships between incarcerated men and presents a pictorial study of humanity, dignity, love, and human bonds.

Grace Before Dying is a collection of intimate black and white photos and accompanying interview excerpts that provides access to a world behind bars most will never see. The book—which is a counterpart to a traveling exhibit of the same work—transports us to eight-by-ten-foot concrete cells filled with vulnerability and devotion, forcing us to challenge our preconceptions of the incarcerated. Grace Before Dying humanizes a nameless population—it bears witness to a community of men who provide love and support in an institution that was constructed to provide neither.

The book includes an essay by Waselchuk about her work in Angola and an essay about the history of Angola by Tulane professor Lawrence N. Powell. The traveling exhibit is touring to prisons in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as museums, libraries, and special events nationwide. For more information, visit gracebeforedying.org.

Lori Waselchuk will present Grace Before Dying and answer questions at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, October 25, at Octavia Books, along with Lawrence Powell.

Felton Love watches Timothy Minor in the hospital courtyard at Angola Prison.

Room 220: One of the major things I took away form your book were the relationships—not just between the caregivers and the dying, but the relationships between the men and the security, the staff, their families. Can you talk about some relationships that really affected you or stand out in your memory?

Lori Waselchuk: The whole thing was so intense. Jimmie, the man who’s on the cover, was really special to everybody. He survived cancer for about four years. He was probably on his deathbed twice, and he just kept fighting back. He was amazing. One of the more special moments was when I was able to stay when he and his mom were having their visit. It was so nice to see Jimmy become a little boy with his mom, and you could see how much he just let go of the tension and the stress and the worry and the fear, and just collapsed in his Mom’s lap. It was wonderful. And his mother was so relieved that she could be there for that moment.

The other relationship that was profoundly inspiring was Felton and Timothy. Felton is not one of the official hospice volunteers—he was a friend of Timothy’s, probably his closest friend. They were short on volunteers when Timothy started to take a dip and they couldn’t arrange a full-time person to be with him, so Felton volunteered. He worked his job then volunteered in his off hours. He was there seven days a week for months, never left his side. Hospice knew they didn’t have the manpower to be at his side, and they felt that he needed someone there a lot more than what they could give at that point, because there were so many patients and so few volunteers. So Felton stepped up. It was so important to both of them. It wasn’t as if Felton was doing Timothy a favor, it’s not like that. This was critical to both of their lives. You could see that. Hospice is as much about the survivors as it is about the patients.

On the cover of the book, hospice volunteer George Brown places his hand lightly on Jimmie Burnett's chest. Jimmie is in a vigil and receives 24-hour care from a six-member hospice team.

Rm220: Perhaps these relationships were some form of redemption for these men. George B., a caregiver, says, “The hospice program has shown me another side of life. By caring for someone who has a terminal illness, I can ease their pain and not be the source of it.” Can you talk about how you may have witnessed that?

LW: I think redemption is too much of a complete word. I get a sense that this saved their hearts. I think it was part of the work to try to save their sense of self—which is a lifelong journey for everybody, as much for us as it is for them. These guys are always struggling to be at peace, and some days are better than others. But, certainly, to be a positive force in the world is important to some of them. I think it helps them to deal with their reality and their regrets.

Hospice is significant in their lives, but I really don’t think it’s the end-all, and many of the guys who are involved in hospice are not part of a deeply religious community in prison. When you can be involved in a religious community, oftentimes you’re taught that preachers have all the answers for all of your troubles, and these communities embrace you and provide answers for all of your troubles. Hospice is more of an internal struggle to become a better person, and it comes from inside. It’s an intense reality for the caregivers.

Aaron Washington, left, sits with Jimmie Burnett as Jimmie's health worsens. Washington, also incarcerated at Angola, is considered one of Jimmie's prison family members and is granted special visitation privileges.

Rm220: When the caregivers would hold 24-hour vigils, when men were dying and they had caregivers bedside around the clock so they wouldn’t die alone, how did you, as a photographer and a documentarian, carve out your space in the room?

LW: Most of these guys are comfortable with and—to the degree that you can—understand the death process. It becomes something where they know signs, they know what they’re supposed to be doing. My presence added to their experience in some ways because I was able to ask them questions and talk to them about what they were experiencing. Most of the time you’re sitting, and it’s quiet, and that’s when I would talk to them and ask them what was going on, what their experiences are, and that’s when the interviews happened. It wasn’t as if my presence distracted in a negative way. In those quiet times it was a distraction in a positive way because I was curious about who they were. While everybody there might not have understood what I was working on, or why I kept coming back, they appreciated my inquiry.

Rm220: For some at Angola, the idea of going into hospice seemed synonymous with dying more quickly. Are there dying men in prison who reject hospice and this program?

LW: I don’t think everyone who’s dying of a terminal illness signs up for it, and in the beginning, no way. People thought that anything involved with the hospital had to be bad. Once the word of mouth got around about what hospice is about—and certainly by now it’s thoroughly saturated because the exhibit has been throughout the prison—everybody started to get it. But in the beginning there was a lot of fear. They just didn’t trust it. Even the guys who I met in the hospice program told me they didn’t sign up for the longest time because they thought it was crazy, that the prison was trying to kill them.

Hospice volunteer Randolph Matthieu, right, shows Paul Krolowitz, Carlo DeSalvo, and Joseph Greco how to reduce swelling in their friend Richard Liggett.

Rm220: I loved your ability to capture intimate moments of touch between two men. When you think of prisons, you think of isolation, each man on his own. Can you talk a little bit about these moments of bonding and touch and what that meant to these men?

LW: To me, that experience, watching these men cross this boundary, was when I was like, “Okay, this is new territory for everybody!” I’m still profoundly moved thinking about some of those moments. And there was one relationship I didn’t get a chance to photograph. A guy, Charles, had served most of his time—close to 30 years—in solitary. He didn’t have access to other human beings very much. He got an hour out in the courtyard, but certainly nothing physical. He was dying, and the idea of a hospice volunteer helping him with the basics—taking a shower, going to the bathroom—he was so disturbed and so angry and so hostile. He fought his volunteers. One said Charles even bit him a few times. He just didn’t want anybody to touch him, and he died with that feeling. But he and the volunteers kind of had to work out a truce, a working relationship, because he literally couldn’t get out of bed to go to the bathroom. So unless he wanted tubes, he needed some help. They just had to figure it out.

But, on the other hand, for the guys who kind of let themselves experience this and let the volunteers touch them, I feel it wore away a lot of the hurt that prison causes. That was very redemptive. And being that close to death I think it was very calming and affirming. Incredible. So, for me, I wanted to communicate that—that was my focus.

Hospice volunteer Randolph Matthieu prays as he waits for the prison doctor to pronounce Jimmie Burnett dead.

Rm220: A recent New York Times piece,  “Focusing on Prison Photography,” showcased prison photography projects around the world, including yours. Prison photography is important for many reasons—mainly, it makes an invisible population visible to the world. Along with your contemporaries who do similar work—like Deborah Luster here in New Orleans—why do you believe these images are so important?  Why is Grace Before Dying important to you, and why do you feel people need to see this work?

LW: I’ve been touring this work in the traveling exhibit and in the fine art exhibit, and it definitely moves people and it makes people think things they never thought of before. For me, I want people to not go away saying, “I saw a bunch of pictures of prisoners.” I want people to go away saying, “I saw a bunch of photos of prisoners and I can completely relate to their experience. Holy shit, I can learn something from men in prison. I never thought that was possible.” And that is, indeed, the kind of feedback I get.

I shot this because the men were teaching me something and I felt I wanted to share what they were teaching me. I was learning from these men about what it means to be a human being even when your entire environment, your entire world, says you are just a number. So these guys are classified as numbers, not as people, but these numbers were able to show me what it means to be a human being. And I felt like by touring this work, they might show others what’s possible in all of us. The people that we have dismissed can also be contributing to our conversation, to our ideas of who we can be, and to our aspirations of who and what we can be to each other.

Lloyd Bone, incarcerated at Angola since 1971 for murder, guides a horse-drawn hearse carrying the body of George Alexander to Point Lookout II, Angola's cemetery.

Aubrey Edwards is a photographer and educator. She lives in New Orleans.

All images © Lori Waslechuk, from Grace Before Dying, published by Umbrage Editions, used with permission.

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