For eight years, Minneapolis photographer Bonnie Fournier has pursued a lighthearted project offering an antidote to our rough-hewed world. Her “Smooch! Project” aims to capture 10,000 photographs of people around the world kissing loved ones on the cheek.
So it’s a jolt to Fournier that her sweet mission has taken her to the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee.
But on a recent Thursday evening, Fournier sits, as she does once a month, in a spacious, well-lit visiting area across from Julie Meier, whom she now considers a friend and collaborator.
The two women met on an idyllic summer day in St. Paul in 2006, a day that turned tragic in hindsight. Six weeks after Meier and her boyfriend, Jason Gonsioroski, mugged playfully for Fournier’s camera with his 10-year-old daughter, Jordan, and their three children together, Jordan was found dead in the couple’s Blaine home. Scalded from a bath, Jordan had burns over 73 percent of her body and suffered brain swelling.
Gonsioroski was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and Meier to 22 years, for Jordan’s death.
“I just can’t believe that can be true,” Fournier said at the time, recalling taking nearly 150 pictures of the family. But it was true. Soon afterward, Fournier’s Smooch! Project display, which included six photos of the Gonsioroski-Meier family, was pulled from the Minnesota State Fair. It was deemed “inappropriate.”
As the sun sets on this late November day, Fournier holds a mock-up of her just-published book for Meier to see. She turns its pages slowly, as Meier reads each sentence thoughtfully. “Smooch! Siblings” features nearly 70 of Fournier’s smile-inducing photographs.
And text written by Meier.
“It’s great to see it,” said Meier, wearing bluejeans, a gray sweatshirt and bright white tennis shoes. She and Fournier worked together on the book for three months. Prison rules limit the number of photographs Meier can receive at one time, so Fournier mailed no more than 20 at once. Meier studied them, then wrote text to accompany them in longhand.
Back and forth until the book was completed.
A portion of every book’s proceeeds (www.thesmoochproject.com) will be donated to the prison’s Restorative Justice Program. Restorative justice is about repairing harm and taking responsibility, concepts Meier has enthusiastically embraced.
“Every crime has a victim. Every crime impacts people,” said Meier, who will not be paid for her writing. “It’s what I live and breathe now.”
While Meier claimed during the trial that she didn’t take Jordan out of the bath due to fear of Gonsioroski, no evidence was found that he was abusive to her. The judge did say he believed that Meier was genuinely remorseful.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the project. A family member who requested anonymity said that Meier deserves “no credit” for the book and shouldn’t have her name on it. “She wouldn’t have this relationship [with Fournier] if Jordan hadn’t been killed.”
Fournier empathizes with the family, and knows that they will always carry pain. But her project is about “love, healing and making the world a better place.” Mentoring Meier has become an added and deeply personal extension of that mission.
“We got tangled up in an odd way together,” Fournier said softly. The December after Jordan was killed, Fournier received a letter of apology from Meier. “My reaction was, you know, the show was not that big of a deal to me,” Fournier said. “I was much more concerned about what happened, what caused you to be here,” she said, looking at Meier.
“You being here, that was a big deal.”
Fournier put herself on the visitors’ list for Meier. She waited for three years for Meier to be ready.
“I didn’t know how to be accountable,” Meier said of her early incarceration. “I was too scared.” Three years into her sentence, she wrote to Fournier. “I’m going to be here for a long, long time. Come if you like.”
Fournier showed up. They talked. Meier braced herself to not expect much after that.
“When you are incarcerated, you lose a lot of people,” said Meier, who is not allowed to contact her three children, who are being raised by a relative. “I didn’t want to be a burden to Bonnie. Sure, come back, but I didn’t expect her to.”
“Now she expects me to,” Fournier said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t have come back every month if I didn’t think Julie was growing in a way I could help,” she said. “We’ve been able to build a friendship.”
About a year after her visits began, Meier asked Fournier if she could volunteer for the Smooch! Project. “We decided on writing,” said Fournier, who works as a personal care attendant to pay her bills and keep Smooch afloat.
“We thought we’d give Julie a try. It wasn’t a planned thing.”
Turns out, Meier had a talent for it. “I always liked English,” Meier said, “but I didn’t really write a lot until I came to prison.” She’s now taking several college courses through a prison program and has written for the prison newsletter, the Reflector.
“You picked me up when I fell down,” she writes on a page featuring two adorable sisters in a happy hug. On another, “You stood by my side and held my hand.”
The prose has dual meaning for Meier. Her own sister, P.J., has been “a rock,” she said, as has Fournier. She has been helped by many others, including mentors through the Salvation Army and Amicus, a prison outreach program. When she is released in about seven years, Meier hopes to pursue a career in social services.
“I’m different,” Meier says. “I’m in a different place.”