Documentary photographer Lori Waselchuk teamed with inmates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for a unique traveling art exhibition that visits both prisons and galleries around the country.
Waselchuk, one of this year’s Pew Fellowships in the Arts recipients, arrived at the Germantown Mennonite Church on Thursday night to celebrate the Germantown stop of her traveling exhibit, Grace Before Dying, with the Church’s Museum of Art and Peace initiative.
There, a small crowd heard Waselchuk speak about the prison hospice program captured in her raw yet graceful black-and-white photos.
Whether seen from behind or beyond the walls, Waselchuk said she hopes the discussions prompted can become an “incubator” for change in a country whose incarceration rate — far outstripping that of any other nation — has become “insane.”
Also, she hoped images of lifers tenderly caring for their most vulnerable brethren to “break the visual stereotypes of incarcerated people.”
The back story
Waselchuk, a professional photographer for more than 20 years who hails from West Philadelphia, first encountered the inmate-run, all-volunteer prison hospice program at Angola in 2007, when she sought to photograph it for a magazine assignment.
“They thought I was just another journalist who would fly in and fly out and be done,” she said of inmates’ perception of her original visit.
The scenes she witnessed in the prison hospital compelled her to return again and again, fighting for continued access to the program for more than two years.
Her determination culminated in a three-day vigil behind the walls to capture an inmate’s death and burial.
More than just taking pictures
The hospice program began in 1998, when a group of inmates, through course work administered inside the prison, earned national certification as hospice workers.
For Waselchuk, capturing their work wasn’t just about the photography.
“I learned a lot about what hospice was,” she told Museum of Art and Peace attendees.
At first, the program faced deep skepticism from administrators who feared the initiative was a cover for access for drugs.
But “you can’t fake being a caregiver in hospice,” Waselchuk insisted. “You can either do it or you can’t.”
The men of Angola’s hospice program proved their true intentions, many of them ministering to the comfort of lifelong friends while working to reconnect the dying men with their families.
The gentle touches — like a burly hand resting carefully on a sick man’s thin chest — of camaraderie, and grief captured in Waselchuk’s pictures belie the usual notions of prison life.
She noted that as the hospice program flourishes (with up to 40 caregivers involved at a time), prison officials have seen a marked reduction in violence within the walls.
Inmates who saw the photos of themselves at the bedsides were “looking into a mirror they weren’t allowing themselves to see,” Waselchuk said.
Even if only for a moment, the men saw themselves in a “generous” light of being more than the crimes they committed, she added.
Bringing Louisiana to Germantown
The program receives general support, but no funding, from the prison administration.
Beginning in 2000, inmates began to sew quilts for sales and raffles to benefit the hospice program. (Two are on display in Germantown.)
Funds raised have helped transform the hospice program’s rooms from solitary confinement units into areas offering radios, books, coffee pots, favorite foods, sweatpants and slippers to comfort the inmates who die there.
Waselchuk noted that many of the program’s caregivers have a perspective on their work that eludes many hospice workers on the outside.
Since more than 85 percent of Angola’s 5,100 inmates are serving life without parole, caregivers know they’re looking at their own fate when shepherding companions through those final breaths.
They support the program (many men volunteering up to 200 hours a month in addition to their full-time jobs within the facility) in the knowledge that if it keeps functioning, they’ll need its care in the years to come.
Questions at the event
Attendees at Thursday’s event were curious about how the inmates’ pasts affected their hospice work.
One asked how the inmates, many of them convicted of murder, reconcile their crime with such gentle, love-affirming work.
Another wanted to know whether inmates’ interest in the program is a sort of atonement for their crimes.
“You don’t come to hospice from where you’ve been,” Waselchuk replied, downplaying any interest in what crimes her photographic subjects had committed, or whether those crimes motivated the men’s work. “It’s about where you are.”
Grace Before Dying will be on display in the lobby of the Germantown Mennonite Church through the end of the year.
It is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays and by appointment on weekdays.
Douglas Witmer, who curates the art-and-peace initiative launched in 2011, encouraged local incarceration activists, hospice workers, prison chaplains or anyone else who feels drawn to Waselchuk’s themes to contact the Museum of Art and Peace through its website for programming options.