The following interview was conducted for the Museum of Art and Peace in the summer of 2012 by Howard Zehr, himself a noted photographer and Professor of Restorative Justice at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia. His blog on the intersection of photography and restorative justice may be found here.
Howard: Lori, I’m honored to have been asked to have a conversation with you about this project in conjunction with the Philadelphia exhibit.
Your photo essay documents the prisoner-run hospice program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana. I’ve been to that prison a number of times years ago. I even did some photography on death row there. It’s not a nice place. Your photographs capture the humanity of prisoners – both those prisoners who are dying, and those prisoners who are their caretakers. In showing this humanity, you challenge some common stereotypes about prisoners.
There are many questions I could ask about how you got access and conducted this project, but those are covered well in another on-line interview that is accessible by readers. So I’d like to start by inviting you to reflect on how you envision your photography in this project and in general. What do you hope to accomplish with a project like this? And what are the risks and obstacles that might interfere?
Lori: I remember setting more difficult goals for my photography when this project transitioned from an assignment to a long-term personal project. I wanted to make photographs that could communicate the complicated and difficult stories of the hospice volunteer caregivers; to come close to expressing the courage and love needed for hospice caregiving as well as the regrets and fears that come with serving long-term or life sentences in prison. I also wanted to create a story that could describe fully the Angola Prison hospice program. It seemed that this program could be used as a model for other correctional institutions.
Because I was never sure the prison would let me finish the work, I put off planning an exhibition until the photography was completed. I thought this project would be very difficult to publish too, because of the unusual format of the panoramic photographs.
The obstacles were mostly felt while I navigated access to the prison. Access was difficult and precious. So when it was granted, I felt internal pressure to work courageously and smartly. I felt I was taking risks with my photography – but I knew I wanted to challenge my visual storytelling.
Howard: I can certainly relate to the complications of prison photography. You seem to have done a good job of navigating those.
Since you mentioned the format, I’d like to ask about that. You used a Hasselblad Xpan panoramic camera that uses 35mm film but has a much wider frame than the usual 35mm camera. As you say, those are hard to get published because they don’t fit normal book formats. I had one of those cameras and loved it, but reluctantly gave it up when I turned digital. Can you say something about why you use film, and why you used that unusual format?
Lori: When I started this project, the Hasselblad was very new and I found myself using it to get close to subjects. And inside the 8’ X 10’ cells, I loved how I could come close to a subject and still have space left in the frame to include the environment. It really felt like the right tool to work in these small spaces. I used film to avoid worrying about the prison lighting – which I know I would have found it to be very distracting. I also wanted to be able to push the film because the lighting was also low.
Howard: At one of my exhibits of prison portraits, a person (presumably a college professor) who identified herself as an ethicist wrote on the feedback wall that I was being dishonest in portraying photographs as I did. Have you ever gotten that kind of feedback? How did you, or would you, answer that?
Lori: One reviewer said he did not “buy” my reasons for my aesthetic choices. But I still don’t understand how that is useful feedback. I have been criticised for not being critical enough of the American prison system in this project. I hear their criticism, and now try to be more vocal about the current problems with U. S. corrections during speaking engagements. I also defend my project as having different goals than those of activists. I am more interested in storytelling – coaxing people to empathize with the caregivers’ stories, to recognize their humanity, and think about their experiences.
Howard: Some of the lifers in my Doing Life book wished that I had been more openly critical of life sentences, but my goal was to get people to think and to start a dialogue by interacting with real people. So the goal of storytelling is an important one. But I agree that it is also important to be outspokenly critical of our prison policy in public engagements. Michelle Alexander’s critique that the prison system is “the new Jim Crow” is especially relevant given the predominance of African American prisoners in your project.
What new projects are you working on now? I love the panoramic format – are you continuing to use that in any of them?
Lori: My current project is forming around Block Captains in Philadelphia. Block Captains are people who volunteer to be a civic leader on their city block. They help connect residents to public services, they organize neighborhood beautification, they liaise with city government when needed and even organize social gatherings. I want to look at regular people who remain optimistic that they can make a difference – especially because they are motivated to step up for their most immediate community.
At this point it is a portrait series. I will make portraits, gather stories and find the path for this project to follow. I envision collaboration and neighborhood exhibitions in the project’s future.
Regarding that Hasselblad: I intend to use that in my work for the foreseeable future. It feels intuitive and satisfying to work with. I’ve got some ideas in my head for that camera. To be continued….
Howard: One of the good things about a personal project like that is that you can, as you say, watch for the path the project is taking. The downside, of course, is that funding for such projects isn’t easy.
Given the nature of your projects, how do you think of yourself as photographer? A documentary photographer? Journalist? Visual storyteller? A visual peace/justice worker? An artist? Or do you try avoid such characterizations?
Lori: Can I say all of the above?
I am happy to share with you that I have recently won a Pew Fellowship for the Arts. This is an incredible honor as well as amazing support. My work will be supported for the next two years. And because the Block Captains is a local project for me, the cost of working is much more manageable.
Howard: Congratulations, Lori – that’s wonderful. I will very much look forward to seeing what emerges.