Documentary photographer Lori Waselchuk’s “Grace Before Dying” and the ethics of narrative activism
Lori Waselchuk describes herself as a “documentary photographer and arts activist.” We’ve wanted to talk with her for a while about her latest project, “Grace Before Dying,” which focuses on a prison hospice program in Louisiana. In light of the recent discussions around visual documentary and accountability spurred by “Kony 2012,” we also thought she might address the ethical quagmire that documentary activists can fall into when creating stories in communities outside their own.
Waselchuk has worked as a freelance photojournalist for many major U.S. newspapers and magazines. In addition to “Grace Before Dying,” her long-term personal projects include years of gathering images in Africa and tracking the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We talked with her earlier this month by phone about how she approaches her work, and about simplicity vs. complexity in storytelling. What follows are excerpts from our conversation and images from “Grace Before Dying.”
You’ve done freelance photojournalism for Newsweek, Time, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times – and other Times that I’m probably not remembering. And then you have these portfolios of extended projects, like your work documenting a prison hospice program or a hurricane. How do you think of the short-term assignments vs. the long-term projects?
Usually, the short-term assignments are how I get out into the world and I get to learn more about what’s going on. I learn best when I’m face to face with things. And it affects me more deeply than reading about it. So usually my long-term projects come from assignments that I’ve done.
Hurricane Katrina was not just an assignment, it was my experience. So that work is coming from an entirely new place. Even though I did a lot of work for newspapers and magazines while I was working on longer-term projects about New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf, usually the assignments are where I can enrich what I know, and it provides access and introduction. And they also help me earn a living.
I’m particularly interested in “Grace Before Dying.” How did that project get started? Did it come from a photojournalism assignment? How long did you spend on it?
Yes, that started as an assignment. I was commissioned by Louisiana Magazine to do a story, which was unusual. They wanted a photo essay about this hospice program, and so that was my introduction. It took a while to get in, about three months. And then the deadline for the magazine was pushed back as far as they could push it back, but it still came up very shortly after I started working.
I realized after the magazine had published the project that I really wanted to do more work on this, so I asked for permission to come back, not with any publication waiting for work, but on my own to try to see how deeply I could tell this story that was incredibly beautiful and moving to experience and witness.
You did the short-term project, and then when you came back in a more free-form situation. Did you approach the people differently? Did you shift gears?
I didn’t come back as a different person or with a different attitude. I always had the same sort of goal, which was to try to say in photographs how important the work that the hospice volunteers were doing was, and to somehow show the complicated journey that these men were on, and the complicated space in which these men were doing this work.
So photographically, I went from a traditional 35 millimeter digital camera to using the panoramic camera as my main tool. I wanted to see if it could do close-up work. I think this camera is more traditionally thought of as a landscape camera, but I wanted to see how it would describe what I was trying to describe. I thought it worked very well, and so I changed completely how I was approaching the project photographically. I went to black and white film and pursued my personal vision of what the work could be.
Can you talk about exactly who you were photographing at Angola, and what Angola is?
Angola is the nickname given to the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It was given that name when the land that the prison was built on was a plantation, for a century and a half. It was nicknamed after the people who were brought in as slaves. Most of the slaves came from the Angola slave port. And it kept that name, but it’s really the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Louisiana’s maximum security prison.
The program I was photographing was the hospice program, where both the patients and the volunteers are incarcerated. The volunteers are incarcerated serving either life sentences or very long-term sentences, as are the patients. I was really interested in how you get to that place of incredible humanity and love and selflessness in an environment that’s designed to punish and isolate. And also coming from a history that was most likely filled with violence or hurt, they are extraordinary examples of what we are capable of as human beings.
I don’t mean to put them on a pedestal, because they definitely have their problems. They’ve got their difficult days. And they’ve got a terrible history, most of them. In spite of all of that, what mattered at that moment was someone else.
You work the humanitarian side with your projects, and the journalism side of things, too. Do you see yourself as a storyteller, an advocate or something else entirely? What are you trying to do with your work?
This is a very crucial moment for me, because I’m in the middle of what’s possible, and what’s survivable. Right now, I consider myself a storyteller, and I feel like that’s my primary mission, but I’m interested in placing my work in community.
When I’m shooting, I’m in storyteller mode, and that to me is creatively wonderful and challenging. With the “Grace Before Dying” project, I think about how important it is to have the conversation around the work.
So through that I’ve built this traveling exhibit that was designed for prisons, initially, and it continues to tour the country in all kinds of venues. It moves around through grass-roots efforts. So small organizations can bring it to their community, and they move it around their community, and they then take charge of how this body of work inspires the conversation they’re interested in maintaining and putting in front of the public.
It’s been a powerful example to me in how I can really direct thoughtful and engaging conversations based on my own work. It’s also let me research how other photographers are trying to do this kind of work and getting their work out in the world.
I guess I’m both. The storytelling comes in the gathering of images, and the advocate comes in asking, “How do we then put this in community and encourage an intellectual or an emotional conversation, or both?” You want people to be smart, and also to feel.
When you think of a print story that’s a narrative, something in the story usually changes over time. Do you think of your work as having a narrative component? How do you think of visual storytelling?
In the book, the sequence had sort of a narrative structure. It’s not about the same people, but I had different ideas and aspects of the program that I wanted to show. So I brought people through the care part, and I also wanted to describe the prison and then (go)into the final days. It felt very sequential.
I think it was important for it not to be cryptic. It’s such an emotional story, I needed to ease people through it. I approached care, the final days, and then the dignified funeral. In the book, that’s the way it went.
It went almost the same way in the exhibition. The exhibition came first and broke down the different aspects of the program. I built it for other correctional facilities to host, because I really thought people could use the information to trigger conversations on “How can we incorporate some of these things in our end-of-life care program?” or “Can we start an end-of-life care for our prison population?” So I really broke it down into the different programs and how they helped the families of the prisoners, and how they did their own caregiving, the different aspects of it. The exhibition started out as an emotional but informational project.
The film “Kony 2012” has been in the news a lot this month.
I’ve been watching it.
It’s spurred a lot of discussions about voice and who gets to document stories. As someone who has gone many times to Africa, how do you weigh the question of telling someone else’s story in pictures?
It’s been a fundamental question I have continued to ask myself. I was based in Africa for 10 years. I have been asking myself that since the beginning, and it continues to push me. And I think that, more than anything, pushes my personal projects. I feel like my personal work – I don’t make it for anybody but myself. I can control how it moves in the world and how it’s seen.
The “Grace Before Dying” project has been transformative in a way, in that I have been able to do what I do, which is make photographs that focus on human connection and empathy and have an understanding of the way I am inspired by our best – the best in us. I’ve been able to jump outside of the working world and create something that has its own life, has its own distribution qualities. It continues to resonate with audiences.
I feel like even the traveling exhibits are collaborative. The quilts that travel with the exhibit are made by the hospice volunteers. So their hands, their work, their own visual art are part of the photographic story. That collaboration will influence my future projects. And as I think about future work, collaboration with community is going to be part of how I work in the future. How the work is placed is fundamental to an ongoing conversation that I have with myself about telling other people’s stories.
Who does it benefit? What is the value of the information of the issue versus the empowerment of the actual community being affected by the story? All of these issues continue to be part of how I work.
I think when I’m working on my own projects, when I turn the story about the hospice program into a personal project, with nobody needing this work from me, I’m able to pursue a more honest line of thinking and produce work where I can slow down and have conversations with people, like the guys at the prison.
For people just coming up, who maybe haven’t had as much time to ponder these issues, one clear suggestion that rises out of what you just said is to think about what kind of role your work will have in the community and collaborate with the community. Do you have other tips for how people can approach something like a “Grace Before Dying” project?
Look outside the traditional field of journalism for inspirations on how to get your work out. Right now I’d say the Internet can be considered traditional. To me in journalism, your feet have to be on the ground. You have to be interacting with people. You can’t report without coming face to face with people and feeling as well as hearing as well as seeing. How can you honestly translate that in different ways?
Think of a way to get your project out in different directions. You can publish in a magazine. You can publish online. You can put prints up somewhere. You can have a conversation with your subjects about how they might want to see it.
Certainly “Grace before Dying” has been published around the world by magazines and newspapers, but nothing can compare to the way an exhibit creates conversation out in the community. It gathers people around a topic in different ways and inspires different kinds of conversations. But always the conversations are intense and, I think, enlightening.
Can you talk more about “Kony 2012”?
The great thing about it is that it’s an in-your-face example of so many things. I can list like 10 things off the top of my head.
Do you want to talk about some of those things?
I was alerted to this by my 13-year-old daughter, as it seems like many people out in the field were. She came to me and talked about it. Ten years ago I (had done) a story on the reintegration camps up in northern Uganda, so I told her about my experience.
Then the emails (about “Kony 2012”) started coming in, with all kinds of different conversations: “This is good,” because now everyone knows about him, or “This is bad,” because it doesn’t really represent the situation. It got very interesting. There were people who tried to look at it broadly.
Very few people talk about who’s funding the Invisible Children, besides all the people who want wristbands to demonstrate their concern for another continent’s conflict. The source of funding is always something that needs to be gone to first, but it still hasn’t reached that point. The self-serving documentary where the subject is not the actual issue, but the person who made the documentary is the issue – you can’t get a clearer example of having a documentarian incorporate himself in a story. That was to me truly bizarre.
I struggle with the viral video a lot. I don’t see a lot that’s helpful, except for how it helps this organization. And a lot of people disagree with me, but I think that part of the thing that I like to do with my work is to introduce complexity in a way that people can absorb it and maybe start to think about it and not decry a situation by making it simple, with a good guy and a bad guy.
I hope that’s what “Grace Before Dying” does, because these are the last guys on earth that we would consider to be heroes. They’re serving life sentences in Louisiana’s maximum security prison. So I think that trips people when they see this story – and angers some, but I really believe that we are more than our worst act. We have to be.
Here I’m coming into the advocacy thing – I think our prison system is unwieldy and overarching. We need to find a way to reduce sentences to make them more in line with international standards, reduce our incarceration rate and find a way to reintegrate felons and people who have served prison time, so our prison system gets reduced rather than continuing to grow.
What do you say to those people who argue that to convey a story to a big audience, you have to take off the rough edges of the complexity? That you have to tell the truth but not get lost in the complexity?
I do think you can take off some of the rough edges, but I also really think you can draw people in with a universal. We are connected to each other in really fundamental ways, and in order to tell stories that will connect with others you have to use those tools and look for common ground.
You can start with that, but you have to deepen the conversation, and you have to be honest about who this is serving, and what your goals are. If the goal is to inform people about the ongoing war and terror that the Lord’s Resistance Army is wielding against people in East Africa, you can certainly boil it down to a few facts, but you probably need to be more specific about what’s going on and clearer about those facts. One of the things that upsets me is that I don’t believe that their goal of capturing Joseph Kony is really their goal. I’m suspicious of it. The movie was just too self-serving. I think they themselves were surprised, but I think their goal was to continue to raise funds for their organization.
I’m kind of cynical, but I just can’t imagine creating a documentary without having the research and understanding the depth of the issue. It was built for the Internet, it wasn’t built for broadcast. It was built to be something they could put up without having any sort of scrutiny before it went out in the world. There was nobody it needed to pass by before it was published; they just put it online. It just makes me wonder what their real intentions were.
All images appear courtesy of Lori Waselchuk.