Showing posts with label art. Show all posts
Showing posts with label art. Show all posts

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

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Beautiful Death: Photos by Izima Kaoru

Izima Kaoru: Landscapes With a Corpse

From the series "Tominaga Ai wears Prada"

In my experience, death is never glamorous.  The reality of our physical ends has too much to do with our earthly origins and functions to be attractive.  I recall reading in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, the story of a movie star in the 1940s, whose career had gone south on her.  She desired a glamorous end, and so, dressed all in white lace, in perfect makeup, on a beautiful white bed in a beautifully appointed room, she swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills.  However, instead of turning into Snow White for the newspapers, sickness came before death and she died in the bathroom in a decidedly un-photogenic state.
Cautionary stories aside, death is something that needs to be pondered, meditated upon and accepted.  Perhaps those of us in the West can gain something from the Buddhist concept of death and life as two equally important parts of the same whole.  In our culture we concentrate only on the life and deny the death.  Perhaps by contemplating, since we each must one day die, what our ideal moment and place for death would be - even what we'd like to be wearing, we can gain a perspective that will enrich our experience and deal honestly and creatively with what is certain to come to us all.
To this end, I am happy to share selections from the series 'Landscapes with a Corpse" by photographer Izima Kaoru.  This work has challenged me to examine my ideas about death, the effects and significance of death on the world around us, and the significance of my own death and it's consequences.  The text and photos are  taken from the Andreas Binder Gallery, which represents Mr. Kaoru       
From the series "Kuroki Meisa wears Gucci"

Izima Kaoru encourages his female models to develop their own ideas about their transience and their death and translates these ideas into photographs. This eventually led to a series that was totally focused on the requests of his models and the scenario of death. Based on classic depictions of landscapes and interiors, each of his highly aesthetic photographs gradually zooms in on the victim who died in perfect beauty, even down to a detailed close-up of her face.. 
From the series "Erin O´Connor wears Vivienne Westwood"

Apart from the victim, all his scenarios are completely without humans, whether they are secluded streets, landscapes or rooms. They are devoid of any form of life, and nothing else exists. The viewer first experiences this state of desertion through a photograph taken from a distance. We are under the impression that the dead woman is looking at her own body, which is no more than a shell. Death is celebrated by Izima Kaoru in style, as a special event. In doing so he refers to three classic genres: Japanese landscape photographs with the traditional aesthetic element of transience, scene-of-crime photos with their documentary quality - an influence that cannot be denied in Kaoru's scenes - and fashion photography "with its demonstratively erotic and situational artificiality"
From the series "Koike Eiko wears Gianni Versace"

Izima Kaoru himself puts it like this: "Death is inevitable for everyone. Even the fear of death can hardly be avoided by anyone. Nevertheless, it is possible to come to terms with death or with the idea of dying, to work through it in a lengthy process and ultimately to accept it."
In Buddhism the practice of meditating on death is seen as a means of detaching oneself from the diversions of life. Izima Kaoru’s models hardly present themselves as renouncing life, yet Izima does ask us to consider that feigning death will help them towards accepting it. Whether this is correct or not, it is certainly true that death is seen differently in traditional Japanese culture than in the West.
To understand the context of these photographic series, we need to grasp the artist's method of depiction: he certainly does not see himself as a reporter or photographer who wishes to illustrate reports on unusual deaths or human relationship dramas through the presentation of shocking imagery. Rather, he wants to stage death in the context of enticement and temptation and to do so with attention to the most minute detail. He has well and truly mastered the art of depiction. Obviously, his scenes of death in these “Landscapes with a Corpse” are imaginary. Yet they refer to a long tradition of romantic themes, tragic ends and "beautiful deaths".
 for more of the photos and the text, visit

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Vanitas: The Work of Rachelle Soucy

A type of Memento Mori, Vanitas is a genre of art that is often characterized by a combination of enticing still life objects such as fruit, and flowers, along with reminders of the transient nature of life such as skulls and hourglasses.  This juxtaposition was meant to point out the ultimate shortcomings of worldly pleasures and aspirations.  In the past, Vanitas made very predictable moralistic statements about keeping one’s hand on the Lord’s plow and steering clear of the temptations of the world, but they also made a great an excuse to paint and contemplate pleasures of the world.

Rachelle Soucy is an artist who has added her creative spin and considerable talents to this genre in two series of photographic compositions, Vanitas and Vanitas (2).  Ms. Soucy has gracefully agreed to share her work and a conversation about it on The Daily Undertaker (please click on the images to enlarge them):  

Pat McNally: Rachelle, your work certainly has a wonderful sensuality to it, along with some very clear references to mortality, and although there is a playfulness to your work, I do not sense an irony or distancing yourself from the genre itself.  Instead, you seem to be honestly engaging with this theme, rather than making a statement about it.  While your work gives the viewer a lot of food for thought, absent are the simplistic moral preaching and guilty pleasure elements that were often a part of Vanitas pieces in the past.  What drew you to explore this form?

Rachelle Soucy:  The entire series originated through playfulness and discovery. It was a playful experiment that led me to explore themes of Memento Mori and Vanitas – I started by arranging still-lifes on top of my scanner. I was quickly inspired by the shallow depth of field created by the scanner – it shows incredible detail that quickly drops into beautiful shadows. This aesthetic is uncanny in its resemblance to 16th and17th Dutch paintings of Memento Mori. Coincidentally, I was arranging all these symbolic items, flowers, fruits, shells, and hourglasses, which are typically present in these types of paintings to symbolize life’s fleeting moments, futility of pleasure and ultimately reminders of one’s mortality. For my first series, I decided to place myself amongst these items. So you are correct, I am not making a statement about this theme, more so I am engaging directly as subject matter – just as the flowers are decaying, so too am I. In general, decay is an unusual subject matter that I was intrigued by. I wanted to explore this genre personally by capturing myself in a fleeting moment and to remind myself of the shortcomings of vanity.

PM:  I have seen a lot of work done with scanners, but yours really stands out.  It seems that you have avoided the clichés common to this technique and really made great use of the possibilities and limits of the scanners depth of field, creating a kind of dream world.  Could you tell us about your experiences using this technique, and why you chose it for this project?  

RS: Using a scanner is really just an untraditional or atypical form of photography. In a way, my work is a polished descendant of the “face-down-on-the-photocopier” self portraits most of us have enjoyed. With this technique you can achieve unmatchable detail, because the scanner magnifies hidden details such as wrinkles and pores and even miniscule insects. Also, the colour and shadows create this ethereal-type aesthetic that works with the themes of Momento Mori and Vanitas. I didn’t directly choose this technique for the project; it was more of a happy accident. It was the aesthetics of this technical process that influenced my exploration of these themes, and not vice versa. I think this creative process is rare in art making, especially with new media.

PM: The long format and multiple frames of your work really bring us out of the scanner and add to its otherworldly feeling; chopping up single images and bringing multiple images into a single piece.  Diptychs and triptychs have certainly been a part of artistic expression, particularly in  sacred works since antiquity, but in your work, it brings me to the idea of our fragmented experience in the modern world where we have many images bombarding us from different sources at one time.  Do you think that this fragmentation and information overload has changed the way we think and behave?

RS: In these works, there is intentional use of diptychs and triptychs as religious reference. Also, the fragmentation on these portraits reminds me of stained glass. This only references antiquities though. As a modern artist, I find that fragmentation and information overload has led me to create by sampling. This process allows me to combine old world aesthetics and themes with new media and technology – resulting in my Vanitas series. It may not be considered purist, but it brings about unusual combinations, novel insights and discoveries. It has allowed me to be more playful and experimental in my artwork

PM: The skull has become such a common image in our society, that either everything has become a memento mori, or perhaps through overexposure, it has lost its power to bring our thoughts to our own mortality.  Your work makes use of the human skull, but in a very subtle way.  This is certainly a departure from the genre tradition.  Could you share your thoughts on the ever-presence of the skull in our culture, and how you chose to use it? 

RS: I chose not to use a single skull in my work, which perhaps has a negative connotation or has been over popularized in our culture. Instead, I strung these carved skull beads into prayer beads, showing the skull in repetition - symbolizing prayer and meditation. I choose to use the skull as a quiet reminder of mortality and not as a logo of death.
PM: Your sensual use of hair in these pieces ties them together, and creates a kind of oceanic depth and surreal texture to the work.  I don’t think I’ll see hair in the same way again, which is something that art at its best, really can do; help us to see things in a new way.  Has your work and thought in this project changed the way you see death?

RS: This is such a compliment, thank you! It is the hair that ties both series together. Piecing different scans together was easiest by matching the hair in different scans … and it is this which connects all of the works. By piecing multiple scans together, I could create the illusion of long flowing hair, a type of hyper-portrait. So these portraits aren’t completely representational, there are still illusions at work in these portraits connected to vanity.
Rachelle Soucy

RS: To answer your question: It has made me view not only death, but vanity differently, and bizarrely how both are so interconnected. It took a personal unarming to show these self-portraits, especially in large format. There is no hiding or concealing in these portraits, they are hyper-realistic, so signs of aging and blemishes are on full display. As a culture, we are obsessed with youthfulness and vanity, which is perhaps a manifestation of fears associated with aging and death. These portraits show impurities as reminder of mortality, but done in a graceful and whimsical manner. Ultimately, this project simultaneously allowed me to address my own aging and grapple with my own vanity. 

PM: And that is a wonderful testament to the power of creative expression.  Through this process, pieces of the overwhelming and unknowable can be addressed and worked through, both for the creator and the viewer.  Thank you so much for sharing your work and your thoughts with us.
For more of Rachelle Soucy's work, please visit her flickr page.
For more posts on the intersection of art and death, visit Art and Death

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Darshan: A Conversation with Photographer Manjari Sharma

A step in creating the first Darshan image

Manjari Sharma is a photographer from Mumbai, India, currently based in New York City.  Before moving to the U.S., she worked for her national news daily, The Times of India.  In her most recent project, Darshan, Ms. Sharma and her team are creating photographic depictions of Hindu deities.  The extensive project is being partially underwritten through the grass roots support of many individuals throughout the world via the crowdfunding entity Kickstarter.    

Patrick McNally: Thank you so much for sharing your work and this conversation on The Daily Undertaker. Photography is a special medium. Although photography is ubiquitous, it can elicit a wonder in us that other art forms cannot. I remember specifically a book I had as a child that was illustrated with photos of three dimensional models of the characters in the story. Although it was clear that the work was fictional the use of photography brought me into the story like magic. 
What is the importance of using a photograph to evoke a spiritual response? Does creating this kind of image with an art form that is experienced as a reality, and that is used by nearly everyone in the world to create images of themselves and their families bring us closer to a relationship with the divine? What kind of response do you hope to elicit? 

Manjari Sharma: I hope that people realize that this photo is a constructed set and everything fictional has been concretely created by the human hands. So in a sense if you think about it, when every element that goes into the construction of this image aims for perfection the image takes form of god. The creation of this image becomes itself an act of devotion. The photograph is plagued with the baggage of being the record keeper. It has been used to lend a believability, so when people look at an image, they would like to believe it really happened. In this project the photos I make are events that really take place. The event is the making of the photograph, but the result I hope to achieve should let one forget it is a place they can go visit or stumble upon. It's interesting what you bring up because It's a suspension of that belief of reality that allows us to enjoy the mind of a painter or sculptor. My photo may be made of concrete parts but I aim for the final result to feel other worldly or unreal. Unreal moments can be fashioned out of concrete reality and that is my favorite challenge of using photography. 

Maa Laxmi, the first Darshan Image

PM: In western cultures there is an interesting iconoclastic tradition that excludes photographic depictions of the divine. Perhaps it is seen as base or presumptuous, like naming your child Jesus (thought this is common in Spanish speaking groups and the name Chris is quite common), or being too familiar, or informal with God. Perhaps there is also an issue of identifying God in too specific a manner. With a clear photograph, we see the exact color of hair and hair style, the exact complexion and skin texture. Still, there is a long tradition of representations of the divine in paint and sculpture. Do you find any similarities in India? Is there a kind of aesthetic taboo there about photographic representations of the divine? 

MS: I don't believe there is a taboo. But there is responsibility to treat a subject matter with respect and accuracy. There is little tolerance for mockery and inaccurate depictions are just not accepted and are poorly received in the culture. For example, Lord Ganesh shown in a painting or a sculpture or in any medium without the presence of his devotee the mouse will be considered a fault of the artist's rendering. Some may even go to the level of not keeping such a piece of art in their home and considering it a bad omen. There is no restriction of medium as such in Hindusim but the subject matter should be treated in the revered manner it deserves to be. In terms of names also people are often named after the name of gods and goddesses. Laxmi, Krishna, Ram are all commonly used names in India. In fact a child named after a God is done with puprose in order to imbibe the values of that God into the child.

A Team member working on  the set for the Maa Laxmi photograph

PM: Your work is painstaking in its accuracy. Each aspect of the photo must be correct to the tradition of the God it depicts. Is your work a kind of devotional? Is it a way for you, through your careful and creative actions to live out your relationship to these Gods? 

MS: The creation of the image independently of any organized religion is a very spiritual process for me. Painstaking accuracy drives human beings to raise the bar on performance. Spirituality and accuracy both require one to get into a zone of concentration, hence the result mirrors both those concepts soundingly. I have always been drawn to mythology and creative moral based stories. Hinduism is full of them. As I delve deeper into each mythological character, my awe continues grow by leaps and bounds. It makes me respect the tradition I come from extensively. The process of then photographically depicting these characters in the most convincing, accurate and spiritual manner, poses it's own technical challenges. Carrying out photographic process of course pleases a totally different / technical aspect of my mind. So to answer your question, Darshan is my act of devotion to art and to religion. Two aspects of my life that I will continue to be a student of.

An image from Ms. Sharma's Anastasia series

PM: It seems that you operate in this project under a strict set of rules as to what is allowed and what should not be allowed. Do you engage in any post production manipulation of your images? What are the rules under which you operate? 

MS: I try to keep the post production to a bare minimum. One reason why it is being shot on film is that it raises the bar on production from everyone in the team. It's not digital and I say that to crew members very explicitly. I want the colors to be as accurate and the proportions to be perfect. We are in the age and time where everything I am shooting in camera in this project  could be created in Photoshop... then why have a crew and why have people construct from scratch? I am not interested in changing the size of the elephants in my post production. Also I feel it's in tune with the concept. To be dedicated to the process and not give up, whether art or spirituality is a big part of pushing oneself to the next level. By shooting on film which is a more unforgiving format than digital, we all have to leave aside any sloppy post production dependency and spend more time pre visualizing. 

Manjari Sharma

PM: You mention that your parents are members of the extensive team of contributors on this project. What has this experience been like? Do you find that it is difficult to fulfill the roles of daughter and project director? How has ther involvement shaped your experience and the end result? 

MS:  Yes they are certainly heavy contributors. I am in the process of planning compositions and stories for the rest of the shots as I type. I find it is very rewarding or them to see me in the role of a director and realize what magnitude of involvement photo creation entails. It's great for them to learn of the intricacies of my process as I've been learning theirs my whole life. What their involvement has greatly influenced is my approach toward the subjects that play the role of the deities. Trusting that I may control all the aspects as much as I want, but to remember that the piece will still be need the universe's blessing to succeed is the greatest contribution from my parents. My parents have a way of saying things at the height of my most challenging moments that can put me at ease. Having perspective that if you have faith, you will receive the grace you need to complete something of this stature is an important one... and they do a fantastic job of reminding me of the humility a project like this needs. 

An image from Ms. Sharma's Homeland series

PM: One of the most fascinating comments you made in your Kickstarter video was a comparison between temples and art museums. Certainly those interested in art can visit temples to appreciate the artwork present there, and the spiritual can visit galleries to experience the variety and wonder of representations of this and other worlds. I have never really heard the comparison made as you have, but it rings so true to my own experience. What do we have to gain spiritually through a relationship with art? 

MS: It's a matter of context. When you isolate something and change the context you are studying it in, you learn about it from an angle you perhaps ignored or didn't pay as much attention to before. You have very accurately picked up on my intention, Patrick. I am looking for people who may not otherwise enter a Hindu temple to maybe go into a museum and get to study these images in a place that won't have the baggage that a house of worship or religion does. To look at spirituality, photography and mythology and study it's interrelation can be it's own subject for a PHD.  But to answer you succinctly, in my opinion, our reason to respond favorably to piece of art is not something we always sit and dissect,  but it's because the art invokes an emotional response of some sort within us. Art has a way to find a passage to our souls. The art we are drawn to is one way to learn about our what what our mind is composed of. In my opinion, our choices in life certainly define our character, so in a sense studying our relationship with a piece of art and what we get from it is also a self study. And a study of our selves is what ultimately leads to being a truer, more spiritually aware artist and/or appreciator. 

An image from Ms. Sharma's Haridwar series

PM: The art that has become cultural treasure throughout the world, was often financed by patrons who sought glory for themselves or some way to get closer to the divine. In your case, there is an opportunity for people on a grass roots level to underwrite a significant part of your cost through your involvement with kickstart. What does this kind of potential patronage bring to your expression? 

MS: Kickstarter or other crowdfunding websites give an artist access to reaching out the public at large. The crowd comes away with something of value in exchange for their pledge besides feeling good about funding a project they believe should lead to fruition. The same prints being offered on Kickstarter will have a different value once the project is funded so the rewards have an element of collect-ability. The greatest thing about a big crowd backing your effort is that it reinforces the power of the universe. This project as opposed to others I have previously worked on takes a team to create, as you know. Similar to what my parents remind me as I mentioned above, is the fact that it takes the universe, meaning a lot more than what one person can give from within themselves, for an event to occur. The energy of the building press and backers for this project is testimonial to that. Going back to create a project like this with this endorsement is extremely invigorating.

Darshan from Manjari Sharma on Vimeo.

PM: What do you think that art and ritual expression can bring to the experience of death and memorialization? 

MS:  The common thread between all of the above is the study of the human mind. Good art besides evoking a response in a viewer has the ability to become memorable. Art and rituals have a repetitive pattern.  Rituals become memorable through action, and art subjectively becomes memorable for a variety of reasons that are reflective of our nostalgia, memory, emotion and our sense of belonging and relativity to a subject matter. Art and rituals with their sense of repetition certainly contribute to memorialization.  As far as death is concerned, in Hinduism, death is looked upon as regeneration of energy. Some lead their lives believing that certain ritual expression can bring them closer to a desired after life of Nirvana. The study of how various people approach rituals is a fascinating study of the human mind, which is our common thread here. Exposure to Art brings us to decode, appreciate, evaluate and bring humor and reason to life from multiple perspectives. Darshan is about art and ritual expression, but to me it's just as much a study of the human mind and how we correlate and isolate a subject like spirituality. And spirituality undoubtedly is tied to life and death and everything else in between.

Another image from the Haridwar series
My Thanks to Manjari Sharma for sharing her work and thoughts.  to expereince more of her work and to learn how you can help to underwrite this project, visit her site:

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