By Timothy Gillis
Even behind bars, prisoners serving life sentences are finding dignity and compassion. In an evocative photo exhibit at Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, photographer Lori Waselchuk has captured inmates in their last stages of life, being cared for by hospice workers who are likewise incarcerated.
“Grace Before Dying” tells the emotional story of an extraordinary breakthrough in humanity that has helped to transform one of the most dangerous maximum security prisons in the United States, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, into one of the least violent. By allowing volunteer inmates to comfort fellow inmates who are elderly or terminally ill, this new hospice program helps convicts assert and affirm their humanity in an environment designed to isolate and punish.
“It started out as an assignment for a little magazine called Imagine Louisiana,” Waselchuk said. “It was a photo essay for a short-lived publication on philanthropy. When it was time to publish the article I felt I was only being introduced to the program. It was difficult to get in (to the prison). I asked permission to continue working on the project on my own, and after a series of discussions, was permitted to.”
Waselchuk, an award-winning photographer, not only shows a culture of caring and compassion that challenges stereotypes of the incarcerated, but also provides an intimate and personal perspective on what long-term and life sentences signify for those inside.
“I wasn’t sure what would become of it,” she said. “I wanted to make photographs that would describe and emote the things I was seeing. I knew I wanted to keep going.”
Her exhibit, on show at Salt’s Congress Street school until April 12, features poignant quotes from the incarcerated hospice volunteers and patients accompanying searing photographs that chart the development of the program through a carefully built sequence.
Waselchuk is a full-time photographer, who does editorial work and is starting to do some portraiture. Meanwhile, she continues to work on documentary projects.
Her work at the Angola state pen has moved her emotionally more than most other projects.
“The guys that I was able to photograph – Jimmy, for example, I knew him for the entire two and a half years that I worked on it,” she said. “I got to be friends with the caregivers, and keep up with a few.”
The photographs in the exhibit are augmented by quilts made by caregivers and volunteers on the outside. Waselchuk said she continues to meet with the quilters, staying in touch even after her photographing has finished. The exhibit has been shown across the country, with two exhibitions traveling fulltime. One traveling show is a pop-up exhibit with quilts, launched at the prison itself. From there, it traveled to three prisons in Louisiana and one in Mississippi.
Waselchuk photographs have appeared in magazines and newspapers worldwide, including Newsweek, LIFE, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. Her work is exhibited internationally and is part of collections including the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Portland Museum of Art and the South African National Gallery.
Her next photo project focuses on Philadelphia. It’s called “The Black Captains.” In this work, she turns her lens on neighborhood block leaders.
“It’s a project about people who step up and do things without being asked,” said Waselchuk. Her photo exhibit of dying inmates and the fellow prisoners who care for them is another great example of people stepping up. Sometimes, however, these subjects can be challenging for an image-maker.
“It’s scary for a lot of photographers to approach people they don’t know and photograph them when they are feeling vulnerable, but I love it,” she said. “I want to talk about people and place in my work, but mostly people.”