I was invited by a counselor, Dee, to photograph animal therapy sessions within a prison. Dee would usually go to the local shelter where she had made arrangements, and "free" an older dog for the day. After a good walk and romp, there would be quiet time in the local human detention center where love and affection awaited.
That's the short, simple version.
On this particular day, my first day, Dee brought an older Pit Bull named Lucy. We could easily imagine the life Lucy had before her rescue. Seeing old scars on her face while she gazed steadily into my eyes, looked away, then returned her gaze with gentle trust, spoke volumes and choked me with emotion.
We entered a very small empty room with glaring fluorescent lights, spoke with a couple guards, and waited. I sat in one corner with my very small, very quiet camera. The guards left and soon the door opened. About 12 men dressed in prison clothes filed in (no guards), and the door closed. The men sat on the floor in a semicircle, looking curiously at me and talking amongst themselves. I had no idea what to expect, and felt a little anxious.
Dee and Lucy sat on the floor opposite the men. Most of them knew Dee from previous sessions. The first thing she said was that she didn't want to know their reason for being in prison. Without stating it, she made it clear that in her eyes these men's identities, their real souls, were not mirrored in what they did. She introduced Lucy and shared a brief story of Lucy’s past and present life. Then it was time for "work."
Dee asked who wanted to do some training work with Lucy, and a tall thin man raised his hand. His forearm was completely covered with old burn scars, so thick I wondered how much use he had of it, how much feeling there was. There were also scars on his face — which had a frozen look with little expression. This could have been from the scarring or something else.
After Dee coached him a bit about the signs for "sit," "stay,” and other commands, she guided Lucy over. As Lucy maneuvered around the man, he gently took his right thumb and index finger and touched the end of her tail. This seemed to help Lucy to know how to place herself, as she relaxed quickly and sat beside him. Dee returned to her place.
The man looked quietly at Lucy, and she at him. Dee continued to talk to others as I observed this man not saying a word, with Lucy beside him. He made no effort to "work with" Lucy, just occasionally stroked her face and body, always gently looking into her eyes. Then I really got it — I understood Dee's approach. Coaching the men in training methods was just an excuse to give them an opportunity to connect and feel empathy for Lucy. Opportunities to deeply feel and connect with their hearts are rare for most of them.
I wondered: how does one photograph this? I gradually stopped thinking and just opened MY heart. The shadow of fear quickly faded. That beautiful moment of connection and yes, love, between this scarred man and Lucy showed itself to be photographed. They took no notice of me.
The conversation turned to pets remembered from childhood. A soft-spoken man, sitting erect and quite still, quietly began talking about his early life in The Congo. As a child he lived in a mud adobe house with his family. They would create small depressions within the walls, and each year the children would collect butterfly chrysalises and gently place them in the depressions. They would carefully nurture and protect them until the butterflies emerged, fluttering within the room. He recalled being completely entranced, and clearly remembered his feeling of being a part of creation as the butterflies darted in and out of streaming sunlight — and being happy.
I couldn't help but feel that Lucy's “elder” age was perfect for this gathering. Her life experiences, whatever they were, seemed to equip her for being surrounded by the life experiences of these men. Like a quiet, simple dance of wordless understanding. As Lucy and these men “worked with” each other, they began to open their hearts and to share their stories — intimate communication I couldn’t imagine was easy or common within this prison culture.
Lucy helped create a space of empathy and trust. She also had the opportunity to receive love, and through that gift to help heal very old wounds in others . . . and maybe even herself.