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“Life in Prison: Artists Bear Witness”

Thursday, November 13, 2014 – 6:00pm – 8:00pm

MIST Harlem – 46 W 116th St, New York, NY 10026


The Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia University and OF NOTE, the award-winning arts & activism magazine, hosts a conversation with three dynamic artists who use their creative voice to examine the complex experiences, both personal and political, faced by the two million men, women, and youth currently imprisoned in the United States. Via theatre, photography, and video, these artists, Samara Gaev, Russell Frederick, and Lori Waselchuk illuminate the ways in which our society treats those within our prison systems with compelling work that engages and troubles our notions
of ‘justice.’


Grace Aneiza Ali is founder and editorial director of OF NOTE Magazine
, one of the first online magazines focused on global artists using the arts as catalysts for activism and social change. In 2014, she received the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Curatorial Fellowship in partnership with Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art for the upcoming exhibition, “Guyana Modern,” which will feature a new generation of photographers from Guyana and its major diasporic communities in New York, London and Toronto. She’s an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at The City College of New York, CUNY and the recipient of the “Outstanding Faculty of the Year” award for 2013-2014. Grace is also World Economic Forum Global Shaper and a Fulbright Scholar.

Russell Frederick is a self-taught Brooklyn-born photographer of Panamanian heritage. He is the recipient of grants from the Open Society Foundation, New York Foundation of the Arts, Brooklyn Arts Council and the Urban Artist Initiative Foundation. Frederick is a member of the African-American photo collective Kamoinge and is represented by KEYSTONE photo agency in Switzerland. As an educator, he dedicates time to mentoring at-risk young men with the Kings Against Violence Initiative as the Men’s Program Director.

Samara Gaev is the founder and artistic director of Truthworker Theatre Company, a social justice based hip-hop theatre company for high school and college-aged youth in NYC. Its recent original productions include “BAR CODE,” a performative analysis of the school to prison pipeline, and “IN|PRISM: Boxed In & Blacked Out in America,” which examines the practice of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.

Lori Waselchuk, is a Philadelphia-based visual storyteller. Her award-winning photographic documentary “Grace Before Dying,” which chronicles the prisoner-run hospice program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, in Angola, LA, aims to challenge stereotypes about people that are imprisoned and offers a compassionate perspective into an environment designed to isolate and punish.


Samuel K. Roberts
, Columbia University. 
Director, Institute for Research in African American Studies, and Associate Professor of History & Sociomedical Sciences.

Jon Lowenstein

This is the third and final post about Photoville. We’ve had the beginning, the middle and so now, the end.

Of the two dozen photographers in the show, only three had actual objects (Sye Williams’ darkroom prints, Jane Lindsay’s bottle caps and Deborah Luster’s tintypes). Given the cost and hassle of shipping, it was decided that the re-used Noorderlicht exhibition prints would not be returned.

I was given instructions to destroy all prints.

It occurs to me that a lot of people don’t talk about this aspect of contemporary exhibition-making. It’s not really sad to see them go, because they never belonged to anyone. They only belonged to the show. And besides, knowing they were to be destroyed, I put most of them up with double sided sticky tape, so there was no preserving them after that ultra-adhesive abuse anyway.  Super-strong magnets are hardly kind to bare prints either!

We do plan to travel Cruel and Unusual (make Hester, Noorderlicht and I an offer!) and as such we’ll see shiny versions printed again.

Until then, think on these images of photogaeddon, wanton destruction and image massacre.

Araminta de Clermont

Stephen Tourlentes

Jenn Ackerman

Steve Davis

Richard Ross

Jeff Barnett-Winsby

Tim Gruber

Yana Payusova

Lori Waselchuk

Joseph Rodriguez

Adam Shemper

Sean Kernan

Marilyn Suriani

Scott Houston

Lloyd Degrane

Harvey Finkle

Lizzie Sadin

Nathalie Mohadjer

Brenda Ann Kenneally

Alyse Emdur

There’s a new photo festival on the scene. It’s called Photoville and it is in New York. Specifically, it is in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Photographs will be displayed in 30 shipping containers. Public submissions will hang on a big fence.

Hester Keijser, my co-curator, and I are honoured that Noorderlicht selected Cruel and Unusual as the exhibition to represent them on these American soils.

We’ll have two containers to fill. Cruel and Unusual showcases 11 photographers work in the main part of the exhibition. I shall be installing a wall with the images of 20+ more photographers that I met during Prison Photography on the Road.


Yesterday, Photoville announced its schedule of talks and events.

Included is a panel discussion that I’ll be moderating titled “Cruel and Unusual: The Prisons, the Photography or Both?” Panelists include the hyper-talented Deborah Luster, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Lori Waselchuk and Yana Payusova.

Photoville literature describes a talk by me “about documentary, institutional, vernacular and legal photography and the political uses of images by media, activists and families” but this is in fact going to be a very brief introduction by way of explaining my interests. The majority of the time will be exploring the stories behind the Luster, Kenneally, Waselchuk and Payusova’s images (sampled below).

The panel discussion “Cruel and Unusual: The Prisons, the Photography or Both?” is from 3:30pm – 4:30pm, on Saturday, 23rd June. It would be great to see you there.

Stick around for Michael Shaw/BagNewsNotes‘ discussion about “The State of the News Photo” immediately after. I’m looking forward to that.


This welcome opportunity for the photographers, Hester and I at Photoville comes at a worrying time. Well-documented is the threat of Noorderlicht’s closure (here, here, here, here and here) after being refused 500,000 Euros of funding from the Dutch government for the years 2013-2016.

Ironically, the Dutch Advisory Board to the Cultural Council thinks that Noorderlicht doesn’t engage enough with other global organisations. This is false. Cruel and Unusual at Photoville is a typical example of Noorderlicht – a pioneering institution of international scope and influence – collaborating with an equally pioneering organisation.


Photoville director, Sam Barzilay, used to work with the New York Photo Festival (NYPH). He doesn’t any more. If it is a schism, or a parting of ways, a clash of ideologies or just new opportunities being seized I don’t know.

I do know NYPH had come under some criticism for poor prints, a certain lack of organisation and even elitism. I should say I have never attended NYPH; these are things I’ve read or heard. I have not heard how this years NYPH (last month) went either.

Given that Photoville runs over nine days with six days of viewing, given that it is free, given that they’re involved the public’s photographs, given that there’s a beer garden and a dog park and it is in a park, I suspect Photoville with be quite different in character to many photo festivals, NYPH included. I’m imagining something quite free and easy, welcoming and fun, underpinned by serious photography. It wouldn’t surprise me if I end up juggling a hacky-sack while discussing the merits of the documentary tradition!?

I digress.

On the talks and events schedule alone there is Ed Kashi, Janelle Lynch, Ben Lowy, Michael Itkoff, Taj Forer, ICP, Adriana Teresa, Wyatt Gallery, Elinor Carucci, Lori Grinker, Glenn Ruga, Lomography, Mediastorm, ASMP, En Foco, Michael Foley, Ariel Shanberg, CFAP, Jennifer Schwatrz and Camera Club of New York.

I’m intrigued by the ‘Activism & Photography’ panel, but the panelists are yet to be announced. It’s the mystery card, so to speak. There’s a stack of socially engaged photographers I’d like to hear speak. We’ll have to wait and see.

The exhibition containers will showcase an impressive line up of which you should just read through.


© Deborah Luster

© Yana Payusova

© Brenda Ann Kenneally

© Lori Waslechuk


Running from June 22nd – July 1st, 2012, Photoville is a new Brooklyn-based photo destination; “a veritable village of 30 freight containers transformed into temporary exhibition spaces.”

Occupying more than 60,000 sq. feet in the heart of Brooklyn Bridge Park, Photoville includes exhibitions, lectures, hands-on workshops, nighttime projections, a photo dog run, a camera greenhouse, and a summer beer-garden with food trucks to “create a photography destination like no other.”

Photoville will be located on the uplands of Pier 3, along the Brooklyn Waterfront between DUMBO and Atlantic Avenue.

It is a project by United Photo Industries.


In operation since 1980, Noorderlicht is a many-faceted and international platform, originally only for documentary photography, but now for any photographer who has a good story to tell. It has a sharp eye for new developments, but averse to trends and hype.

Noorderlicht organizes an annual photography festival, mounts exhibitions in its photo gallery, organizes photographic commissions and arranges discussions, lectures and masterclasses. Noorderlicht publishes exceptional catalogues and photo books.

With its distinctive, cutting-edge programming and outstanding publications, Noorderlicht has built up an international reputation as an institution that is able to couple engagement with visual beauty. Noorderlicht productions are imaginative and compelling, enthusiastic and critical, personal and socially committed.

Noorderlicht is headquartered in Gronignen, The Netherlands.


The title of the exhibition refers to the English Bill of Rights from 1689 and the Eighth Amendment to the America constitution, which stipulates that citizens must not be subject to  ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ But when is punishment cruel and unusual? To assist in the public discussion of this issue, photography helps by providing insight into the various facets play a role in the question.

Cruel and Unusual looks at how the prison system is presented in images, and how these images are created, distributed and consumed. How do citizens – tax payers and empathetic humans – come to an understanding of life in prisons on the basis of the information – politicized or not – which they receive? 

Photographers Alyse Emdur, Amy Elkins, Araminta de Clermont, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Christiane Feser, Jane Lindsay, Natalie Mohadjer, Deborah Luster, Lizzie Sadin, Yana Payusova and Lori Waselchuk, each use their own strategies, materials and techniques. Given the extent of access to prisons, they work with amateur photography, alternative processes, texts, painted images, digital manipulation or traditional black and white documentary photography.

Cruel and Unusual takes a startling and sometimes disconcerting look behind prison walls around the world. It asks: how do current practices of mass incarceration reflect our changing sense of decency and justice?

Grace Before Dying by Lori Waselchuk is a rare thing. It is a prison photography project that holds a mirror up to only acts of compassion and dignity. The love – in the form of palliative care – shared among incarcerated men at Louisiana State Penitentiary (known commonly as Angola) is not as rare as we might think among America’s imprisoned classes.

But, the hospice at Angola may be as rare as it seems.

Angola is not like other prisons. Some of the harshest State sentencing laws in the country mean that 85% of prisoners will never be released from the penitentiary. Angola more than most prisons has a burden of responsibility to its aging and dying lifers. The end-of-life care is given by a team of trained medical professionals and inmate-volunteers.

Waselchuk describes the preciousness of touch:

And then something happened. The carpenters eager to demonstrate their love for their friend, started to take over the care-giving tasks. Massaging Richard’s swollen wrist, Randolph explained that the rubbing helped circulate his blood and reduced the swelling. Very timidly, Joseph picked up the other arm, and Carlo began to rub Richards ankles.

The physical contact between these men was new territory. For Richard, this moment seemed beyond description … it seemed to me that he felt overwhelmed by it. It was profound moment of grace, during which these men allowed themselves to break physical boundaries and accept physical expressions of friendship.

I witnessed how the Angola prison hospice team sparked a movement of empathy that not only spread throughout the prison population, but also influenced the prison’s security and medical staff.

We as a society have a choice to make if we think prisons are suitable environments for the infirm and the dying to see out their days. The prisoners have their own decisions to make as to how they interact while we mull those decisions. And they act daily.

But the circumstances of daily routines are shaped by past events.

The frighteningly thorough foreword by Lawrence N. Powell describes the unrest, corruption and social violence both inside and outside Louisiana prison walls through history. In the 19th century, Major Samuel L. James, with the state governor “in his pocket”, ran Angola for profit, “When James died in 1894, he was worth a cool $2.3 million, or nearly $60 million in modern day equivalents.”

The early 20th century in Angola was brutal. In 1933 alone, 1,547 floggings with hickory sticks or leather bats were administered. A grand total 23,889 blows. By 1941 the floggings-per-year had climbed to over 10,000. Powell asks, “Who was doing the counting?”

Throughout the 60s and early 70s, conditions went form bad to worse. The early 70s “represented a nadir in modern Angola history. Inmate cliques and gangs tore the place apart. There was a raft of serious knife wounds and stabbing deaths.”

In 1975, a federal judge and magistrate in Louisiana declared the states confinement “cruel and unusual”. Even then political games were played. Funds for improving the fabric of Louisiana’s prison were appropriated for an extension on the LSU stadium. Then governor, David Treen attempted to legally sanction double-dunking as a solution to overcrowding; the courts rejected his proposal as ludicrous.

The big prison boom came in the 90s when former governor Edwin Edwards convinced the legislature, while incarcerated himself, to float bond issues to pay for prison expansion and decentralization. It was the biggest prison boom Louisiana ever witnessed.

Waselchuk’s photography is an act of witness but it does not ensure the ongoing operations of this sanctuary of humanity. The hospice is partly supported by the fundraising efforts of a cadre of prisoner-quilt-makers. Full colour reproductions of the quilts have their place in Grace Before Dying.

Just as I praised Edmund Clark for giving over a large portion of his book If The Lights Go Out to the letters of Guantanamo detainee Omar Deghayes, so too I praise Waselchuk for giving pages of the book over to the quilt-makers. The auction of these quilts allows volunteers to buy coffee machines, radios and books for the isolation cells now serving as hospice rooms. Purchased items such as sweatpants, specialty foods and slippers provide the same small comforts we’d all hope for at our hour.

A quilt covers every casket on its way to the grave.

The prison atmosphere weighs heavy on anyone inside. Add to that, the gravity of death and burial, one might think Waselchuk’s book is hard to love, but as she asserts, ” This project is not about death. It is about life, its limits, and the choices made within those limits.”

Her photographs draw out the exhaustion, discipline and friendship of the volunteers, the physical pains and emotional toil of the dying and the persistent community from incarcerated and non-incarcerated persons working in the hospice. Grimaces are balanced by grins and past indiscretions are obliterated by present duty … some might call it heroism.

As close as we can get try to understand the tumult of emotions within those locked into a cycle of friendship and loss in a prison in the floodplains of Louisiana, these photos are the starting point.


Grace Before Dying. Umbrage Books, Hardcover / $39.95 USD, 11″ x 8.5″ / 120 pages / 47 B&W photographs, June 2011, ISBN: 978-1-884167-22-5

View the Grace Before Dying website. You can see large online images at the Critical Mass website.

The Grace Before Dying exhibition is currently on tour. Lori is presently in Boise, Idaho and the show will continue to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., where Lori will speak on September 9th.


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 reproduced photographs for several international aid organizations including CARE, the  UN World Food Program, Médecins Sans Frontières, and the Vaccine Fund. She is a recipient of the Aaron Siskind Foundation’s 2009 Individual Photographer Fellowship, a 2008 Distribution Grant from the Documentary Photography Project of the Open Society Institute, the 2007 PhotoNOLA Review Prize, and the 2004 Southern African Gender and Media Award for Photojournalism. Waselchuk was also a nominee for the 2009 Santa Fe Prize for Photography, a finalist in the 2008 Aperture West Book Prize, and a finalist in the 2006 and 2008 Critical Mass Review.

© Eyevine / Lori Waselchuk

© Eyevine / Lori Waselchuk

Last weeks article, Rough Justice in America, by The Economist repeats many truths of America’s broken prison system we know already, here summarised:

“The system has three big flaws, say criminologists. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.”

As expected the arguments made against mass incarceration here are on based on financial sustainability and fortunately such thinking is melding with the notion of social sustainability. The stories of George Norris and Michelle Collette form the anchor to the piece which posits that “Never in the civilised world have so many been locked up for so little.”


I recognise the photographs as those of Lori Waselchuk whose work Grace Before Dying from the Angola Prison Hospice should not be missed. For it, Waselchuk won a Soros Documentary Photography Grant (2007), a Photolucida Critical Mass Top50 (2008). Here’s a great interview with her by Nicole Pasulka of the Morning News.

– – – –

Thanks to Joerg for the link

A few things emerging today to which I’d like to doff my cap.


Aline Smithson at Lenscratch, rumoured to be in Santa Fe (Good Luck, Aline), celebrated all Lori Waselchuk’s documentary work; Waterlines, one project of many projects wrapped up in Louisiana, and Grace Before Dying community portrait of the Prison Hospice at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola).

Lock Down Visit. Lori Waselchuk

Lock Down Visit. Lori Waselchuk

Lori, a member of the New Orleans Photo Alliance, launched her project Grace Before Dying April 3rd at the Louisiana State Prison Museum in conjunction with the Louisiana-Mississippi Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (LMHPCO), the Louisiana State Prison Museum, and helped along with a Distribution Grant from the Documentary Photography Project of the Open Society Institute and Moonshine Studio.

The issues of age and health in prisons – together and in isolation – have been reasonably well covered. But, Waselchuk succeeds where so many others fail (with the exception of Edmund Clark) in really communicating the infirmity and vulnerability of the inmates

Fraction offered a good summary, as does Waselchuk’s Alma Mater. Critical Mass has the best gallery of Grace Before Dying

Bint PhotoBooks on Internet

Bint PhotoBooks on Internet got to grips with Martin RoemersRelics of the Cold War which includes a Valencia orange room within a Stasi Prison. Roemers goes tête-à-tête with the Fuchs brothers in the communist-archaeology-photo genre.

Germany, East Berlin. Visitor-room in former Stasi prison Hohenschoenhausen. Political prisoners were held in this prison. Martin Roemers

Germany, East Berlin. Visitor-room in former Stasi prison Hohenschoenhausen. Political prisoners were held in this prison. Martin Roemers

Unrelated to prisons, I am also a fan of Roemers’ Lourdes Pilgrims series.


Subjectify grapples with the latent appropriation of images since the 2004 release of Abu Ghraib photographs.

much has been written about the ways in which war photography often echoes iconic religious imagery.  but i have been wondering how, in turn, the iconography of the new war and torture photography is also influencing fine art photographers today?

Subjectify offers Jessica Somer‘s work ‘Origin’ from the Bend So Not to Break series as a case in point. I drew some interest along with disbelief and derision when I skirted the issue regarding Ballen and the torture aesthetic.

Origin. Jessica Somers

Origin. Jessica Somers

I believe artists biggest problem is to work away from viewers natural tendency to superimpose meaning so easily. I think Somers is safe. She’s got a style that stands on its own – it doesn’t get drowned out by media noise or green gloves.

AN Other

Yusuf Sayman‘s work on individuals going through Re-entry programs after long term prison sentences presented itself in the Independent‘s bizarre and confused “Britain’s Best Crime Photography” competition.

Starlene from the Free Again: Starlene series. Yusuf Sayman

Starlene from the Free Again: Starlene series. Yusuf Sayman

Starlene Patterson is one of three former prisoners, Sayman has collaborated with after prison release for the Free Again series. Starlene is at college to qualify as a Social worker. “People need help.”

Starlene has written a book, Up Against the Wall. She says, “My book has a message. There’s a lot of young people who need guidance and they my not have that. If my book can help one [of those children] than I’ve achieved.”

Non-prison related I like Sayman’s Henry’s World series.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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