Saturday, November 9, 2013

Grace Before Dying: Interview with Photographer Lori Waselchuk

The cover of Ms. Waselchuck's upcoming book, Grace Before Dying

A life sentence in Louisiana means life. More than 85% of the 5,100 inmates imprisoned at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola are expected to die there. Until the hospice program was created in 1998, prisoners died mostly alone in the prison hospital. Their bodies were buried in shoddy boxes in numbered graves at the prison cemetery. But the nationally recognized program, run by one staff nurse and a team of inmate volunteers, has changed that. 
Now, when a terminally ill inmate is too sick to live among the general prison population, he is transferred to the hospice ward. Here, inmate volunteers work closely with hospital and security staff to care for the patient. The volunteers, most of whom are serving life sentences themselves, try to keep him as comfortable as possible. Then, during the last days of the patient's life, the hospice staff begins a 24-hour vigil. The volunteers go to great lengths to ensure that their fellow inmate does not die alone.
 The hospice volunteers' efforts to create a tone of reverence for the dying and the dead have touched the entire prison population. Prison officials say that the program has helped to transform one of the most violent prisons in the South into one of the least violent maximum-security institutions in the United States. The hospice volunteers must go through a difficult process to bury their own regrets and fears, and unearth their capacity to love. Grace Before Dying looks at how, through hospice, inmates assert and affirm their humanity in an environment designed to isolate and punish. Lori Waselchuk is a documentary photographer whose photographs have appeared in magazines and newspapers worldwide including Newsweek, LIFE, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. She has produced photographs for several international aid organizations including CARE, the UN World Food Program, Médecins Sans Frontières, and The Vaccine Fund. -Grace Before Dying

Patrick McNally:  Ms. Waselchuk, thank you so much for sharing your moving work and your thoughts on The Daily Undertaker.  Your photos tell the story of the transformative effect that the hospice program at Angola Prison has had on dying prisoners and those involved in caring for them.  It’s difficult for me to think of a situation that on its face is more depressing, or one that is ultimately more uplifting, inspiring and life affirming.  Certainly we all have much to learn from this story about humanity and what we stand to gain by serving others.  What parts of this story were you most inspired and compelled to share with your photographs?

Lori Waselchuk: I am inspired by the journey these men have made. Most of the incarcerated hospice volunteers have lived very painful lives and have inflicted great pain on others. Their story shows me that we need not define ourselves by our worst acts. Their work in hospice isn’t about fixing the past, it is about the recognition that they can help others, even in an environment constructed to isolate and punish. I continue to be inspired by their ability to wrestle with their regrets as well as their fears in order to show great love and compassion for others.

PM: What kinds of challenges did you face in gaining access and building the trust necessary to create this project?   

LW: I was initially given access because I was commissioned to do a story about the hospice for Imagine Louisiana, a small magazine dedicated to covering philanthropy in Louisiana. Once published, I knew I wanted more time to tell a deeper story about the program. I asked for permission to continue photographing the hospice program.

The challenge was access, not trust. Access to work as a photographer in a prison depends on cooperation from security personnel and leadership. It also requires extra resources and time from those departments, so I am very grateful for each visit that the prison staff organized for me.

Trust is the most essential tool a journalist or documentary photographer can have. I am also grateful for the openness and generosity shown me from the volunteers and prison staff.

PM: We all die.  This can be something that unites us and offers us an opportunity to show compassion, providing an act of love that cannot be returned by the recipient, but that hopefully can be ‘paid forward’ so that we in turn are shown compassion in our last hours.  If involvement in this kind of care provides the prisoners with an opportunity to renew or regain a part of their humanity, can it also be said that those of us on the ‘outside’ for whom the care of the dead has been delegated to medical and quasi medical professionals, that for us there has been a loss of a part of our humanity?

LW:  In watching the Angola prison hospice volunteers sit with and care for their patients, I learned that their compassion not only benefits the patients, but also resonates throughout the prison. The Angola prison hospice volunteers work four-hour shifts to stay with a patient. I spent a lot of time just sitting with the dedicated volunteers. I became conscious of the beauty of simply sitting with another person, whether in conversation or silence. I felt awakened by that simple act – how it demonstrates love; and how that love comforts not just the dying man and his family, but the prison community at large. It was enormously powerful to witness. We truly need each other. Death connects all of us. And sometimes it can help us recognize our shared humanity.

PM: I imagine that the loss of ‘humanity’ that is experienced by prisoners has as much to do with the humiliations and degradations that are part of their punishment, and a mechanism to survive in a hostile and dangerous environment as it has to do with the antisocial nature of their crimes.  While I don’t propose that violent criminals should be allowed to roam free, not compelled to face the consequences of their actions, how can anyone benefit from the dehumanization of convicts? 

LW: I am not sure I can answer that question for anyone else but myself because we (as in mankind) are capable of wretched inhumanity towards others. I assume that people who are cruel towards others do so thinking there is some kind of benefit for themselves.

I don’t believe it is possible to benefit from the inhumane treatment of others, prisoners or otherwise. When I use the word ‘benefit’ I guess I mean a spiritual and/or communal benefit.

PM: As an artist who deals with issues of death and dying, what are your thoughts on the contribution that arts and ritual can make to the dying and to those of us left behind?

LW: I think the role of the artist is to observe, respond and communicate. We are storytellers and interpreters and can add critical feedback in social conversations. But most art seems  more difficult to access than advertising or religion. Artists will, nevertheless, always create. I will continue to look towards art to challenge my thinking and enrich my life. 
Travelling Exhibition with Quilts

For more information about Grace Before Dying, and Photographer, Lori Waselchuck, please visit

To Purchase Ms. Waselchuck's forhtcoming book, please visit


Charles Cowling said...

This is wonderful work - and a subject very close to my heart. Two things, especially. First, that 24 hr vigil. Yes, the dying of everyone should be marked and ritualised. It is a huge event. But how often does that happen anywhere else but this prison? How wonderful that it is held sacred here. Second, we are most certainly not defined by our worst acts, and the penal systems of both our countries (I'm English) are guilty of a terrible neglect of the best in those they incarcerate. I've worked in prisons and I've seen what good there is in 'bad' people. Only love can heal, and that is something these photographs so richly demonstrate. I am in awe of your work, Lori, and your witness. Thank you.

funeography said...

I found this body of work very moving and beautiful. I felt a strong connection to your creative thinking Lori. As a funeographer (funeral photographer) I continuously strive to create such images that remind us that we all enter the world in the same manner and despite our mistakes on whatever scale; we can all show compassion.

I look forward to owning the book.

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