Ioana Cârlig in Târgşor Prison

When I learnt of Ioana Cârlig‘s work in Romania, the name Târgşor Prison rang a bell. Indeed, Târgşor (alternative spelling, Tirgsor) was the site of photographer Cosmin Bumbuţ’s six camera workshop I wrote about two years ago.

I thought the chances of two photography events happening in the same Romanian prison were pretty slim, until I discovered that Târgşor is one of the few – if not the only – women’s prison in Romania.

From these two examples, I was assuming the Romanian prison authorities were progressive when it came to arts, access and rehabilitation. This may or not be the case. For a more informed view, I was excited to speak with Ioana Cârlig (25) who kindly agreed to talk about her approach and very recent experience photographing in Târgşor Prison.

Q&A

Can you describe your project?

The project at Târgşor women’s prison is a collection of portraits and Polaroids. I wanted to find out what they think about the stuff they can’t do while they’re inside – what they miss, especially ask about the little things like taking a walk in the park, or having a beer on a terrace, or dressing up to go out on a date. Basically, I took a Polaroid of one of the things they said they miss. I show the Polaroids next to the portrait.

The goal was to show a person, a woman and not a spectacular bad-girl who is fascinating to the public because she looks dangerous.

Can you describe Târgşor Prison, in which you’ve been making these photographs?

The first thing I thought about Târgşor is that it’s so much cleaner and nicer and better smelling than a men’s prison. They have pink bed linen, stuffed animals neatly organized on the beds, all kinds of objects that are of no use other than being nice and making their rooms feel more home-like. I became very attached to the place and to some of the girls, even though I didn’t have as much time as I had hoped.

You ask the women what they miss. Why?

I think what people miss when they don’t have access to their normal routine is what is in fact essential to their spirit, their life. All the women said they miss their family and friends. That’s the first, probably most painful layer.

Then, they think about something smaller that was probably part of their everyday life, like sitting all Sunday in bed or going out for dinner or going dancing. I don’t know if the answers are memorable, they’re just normal stuff. A lot of the women said they missed taking care of their homes or going to the seaside with their family or cooking a certain dish. The younger ones said the missed going out dancing or on dates or hanging out with their friends.

What do the women think of your project?

Some thought it was interesting, some didn’t really understand what I was going on about, some thought it was fun to talk to me and get their picture taken, it helped pass the time I think. All of them were really happy that they were getting pictures to send home. Every Wednesday, I went there with an envelope full of printed pictures.

What do the staff think of your project?

The staff was nice enough. I initially had approved access for four months, but ended up with two, which meant 2-3 hours every Wednesday. I went there 9 times and got “guarded” by different people, they were nice and helpful, but probably my activity was disruptive to their usual routine so the people in charge decided to cut it short. Maybe I’ll try again after some time passes and they forget about me.

What does the prison administration think of your photography?

I’m not sure what they think. I know they don’t understand why I’m doing it and they probably think it’s kind of silly. They’re also probably happy it stopped.

What negotiations did you go through with the administration to get approval for the project?

First, I got a signed approval from A.N.P, which is the Nation Prison’s Association. Then I went to Târgşor and spoke to one of the people in charge, who spoke to one of the people even more in charge and so on. I was granted a few hours every Wednesday. It wasn’t what I had hoped for but I knew from the beginning there were slim chances of getting a lot of time.

Why the two different processes (square portraits and Polaroids)?

I used Polaroids to take a picture of one of the things every woman said she missed, just as a symbol. I thought the picture would have a more personal effect. I use squares for the portraits because I love shooting portraits on medium format film.

Do you have a particular view on prisons and/or their worth?

I think society relies to much on just imprisonment to make everything bad go away. In Romania, we have serious problems with education and social services. We have serious problems with lots of things, as I’m sure most societies do, but I think just creating a functional prison system in not enough. And a lot of people seem to be convinced it is, even though they may not admit to it. A lot of the people incarcerated come from poor families and bad entourages and after a few years most of them will be back on the streets doing the same things.

In Romania, what is the general public’s attitudes towards prisons, crime and punishment?

The general public attitude is that bad people should be locked up and taken off our streets and prisons are the quick solution.

A few people have asked me why take pictures of prisoners and not poor children or some other socially disadvantaged group; why photograph these women who kill, steal and deal drugs? I suppose it’s easier to have everyone categorised, but I try not to.

And, in Romania, what is the general public’s attitudes towards female prisoners in Romania?

I think women prisoners are seen as something a bit more exotic because a pretty woman with long hair wearing a flowery dress doesn’t go well with the stereotype we have for the criminal.

What are you thinking about when you are making photographs? How are you conducting yourself with your subjects?

I tried to talk to them as much as I could in the little time I had. Once I start photographing, I try to say things to make the person as comfortable as possible. With some people it’s very easy. While I’m taking to pictures I’m just focusing on the changes in the person’s face and body posture and try to get connected to the atmosphere and the moment. To me photographing is a magical experience, as cheesy as that might sound.

Is this work complete? Is it long-term? What are your goals with it?

Last week, before I left Târgşor, I was informed that I cannot continue, so for now I’m done photographing there. I hope to go back and maybe expand the project to other prisons in the future. After I finish scanning all the film I will make a selection and upload it on my blog and on the website that I hope to have ready soon. I also hope to have an exhibition in the near future.

Are people surprised that you’re going into prisons and working with a population that many consider dangerous?

My family and non-photographer friends are a little worried I think, but by now they have probably got used to my unconventional passion.

Your friend and supporter Constantin Nimigean introduced me to your work and suggested it needed a helping hand. What sort of support do you need?

I organized some crowdfunding to help me go through with this project. Money is always an issue; documentary photography isn’t exactly a gold mine! Between my job and my freelance work that help me save up for my personal projects, there’s not much time left to apply for grant and funding opportunities and work on the self-promotion part.

Right now I have to focus on getting the money to fund an exhibition with these pictures.

All Images: Ioana Cirlig

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