Honolulu-based portraiture photographer Marco Garcia took on an assignment that he’ll never forget. Below, in his own words, Marco describes the shoot and a subject like none he’s had before:
This past September, Hyphen Magazine, an Asian-American publication out of California, called out of the blue and asked me to do a portrait of an ex-con who was on Oahu. The story focused on Native Hawaiians who were incarcerated and sent off-island to serve their sentences, due to state budget matters. The subject was one of the first Native Hawaiians to be shipped off in the late 1970s. After finding out how much they could pay, I turned them down. However, the photo editor for the project, Damien Maloney, believed I would be the best candidate to capture this unique portrait. He told me the story of Delbert Wakinekona and I was sold.
According to a legal record found on the web, in 1970, Wakinekona and a partner entered a local store to buy sashimi when the outing turned deadly. The shop owners were robbed and beaten with one later dying from his injuries. Wakinekona and his partner were, “indicted for the crimes of first-degree murder, first-degree robbery (two counts), and aggravated assault.” Although he claims he was not part of the attempted robbery and the beating was unintentional, Wakinekona was given a life sentence for the murder. He felt he was framed by the other accused’s testimony and tried to fight his conviction, but lost.
While serving time in prison, Wakinekona was found to be a troublemaker and officials sent him off-island to serve the rest of his sentence at Folson Prison. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because it was made famous by the man in black, Johnny Cash. Wakinekona was part of the first wave of Hawaiians shipped off to the mainland, thus breaking his family and cultural ties to Hawaii. He sued to remain in Hawaii, even having his case argued in the US Supreme Court, but eventually lost.
I drove out to Waianae to meet Delbert Wakinekona and Lilian Harwood — his new wife who helped him get out of prison on a compassionate release due to his declining health. Throughout the drive, I was filled with the dread and anticipation of dealing with a man who might be maladjusted to the outside world. However, the few hours I spent with Delbert Wakinekona helped me understand not just what life is like inside prison, but what prison does to a man.
Wakinekona, whose looks give him the air of a weathered Santa Claus, greeted me with a gentle smile, but his demeanor made me realize he was a tiger. He looked through me, intimidated me, and outplayed me instantly. I knew I was dealing with someone who understood the nature of survival. Wakinekona lived within a silent world where life and death were separated by a glance, a sudden mood change, a split decision. There was no trust nor any basis of friendship or loyalty in his mannerism. He was dangerous — but as a means of survival.
We began to chat and get to know each other. We talked about his case, his life, his escape from several prisons including Folsom, and life outside. He talked about some of the more infamous inmates he knew at Folsom including Charles Manson. He spoke of battles with wardens, judges, and prison itself. He talked of life on the lam and shining the light on Native Hawaiian struggles as they are sent off-island. He was a walking history book of American crime figures and prisons.
When I finally felt he trusted me enough to pose, we went down to the beach near Yokohama Bay at sunset and I was able to snap some haunting images of this man who some feel still belongs in prison. It wasn’t hard to have him give me that prison stare as it seemed natural to him. I never posed him pretentiously or expected him to show me some deep emotion. I wanted to capture him as the man I saw in front of me.
His body was covered in “jail-house tats” and he was more than willing to show me his history told on the folds of his skin. He had the names of his children, Hawaiian folklore icons, dragons, roses, and a mythological faun hugging a naked woman. His crude tattoos told a story that no hipster skin could ever begin to tell. These were the stories of a man whose life took a turn for the worse on a faraway night back in 1970. Across his belly were the words “Hawaii No Ka Oi’,” or simply, Hawaii…the best.
In the end, Wakinekona was grateful for the attention and kindness I showed him and gave me a bear hug. It was kind and tender, but quickly felt the power of a man who had survived decades in the toughest prisons in the US. It was then that I realized that I wasn’t meant for prison, but a young Wakinekona had probably thought the same thing.