Spanish photographer, Bandia Ribeira Cendán‘s images of vibrant body-painted theatrics inside a Barcelona jail in celebration of International Women’s Day are startling. They might even encapsulate hope. Yet, as Bandia describes in our Q&A it was a fight to gain access to the jail, a struggle to achieve semblance of artistic freedom, and difficult to overcome staff skepticism. Bandia’s biggest frustration was her inability to deeply connect with the women in limiting circumstances. The paucity of support and materials, and some initial reluctance from women prisoners limited the accomplishment of her goals for her photography workshop Corners (Racons). Nevertheless, Corners was recognised as a valuable participatory arts projects at the City Of Barcelona Awards in 2012.

I’ve extolled the benefits of photography workshops in prisons and the empowerment that comes about through self-representation. My views are based somewhat on anecdotal information and also the feedback of people (photographers) always directly involved with such projects and, therefore, perhaps a narrative to perpetuate. Thus, it is pause for thought to hear Bandia say, “I don’t think that a prison is the best place for the rehabilitation […] Photography inside the jail can just be a way of evasion, a way to pass time and to avoid thinking about the own problems.”

I appreciate Bandia’s realism. I also appreciate that she has shared these images with Prison Photography as she has been rounded censored from publishing her photographs in print in Spain.

Scroll down for our conversation.

Q&A

What  is the public attitude toward this prison and the women inside?

This is a “transit” prison with a special section for mothers and little babies. That means that people inside are waiting for a trial and once they got it they are sent to a “permanent” prison or they are set free.

The attitude toward the prison, as you can imagine, is not very positive. Once someone steps into a jail he or she is seen as a criminal and stigmatized by the society. Most of these women are gypsies or citizens of South American countries and the majority are here because of drug traffic, so they belong to the lowest strata of Spanish society. Most of them were victims of violence by their husbands, boyfriends or relatives and it’s not common to meet someone with an education.

I met women who couldn’t even write and had problems reading correctly. We are talking about people with really hard lifes and usually from very poor families. Victims of the social injustice.

Our society doesn’t deal with poverty and margination as a part of itself, so instead of looking for solutions we turn our eyes to another place and try not to see these kind of problems. The people in jails are excluded from our society.

You were working as a photo teacher there. Tell us about your work with the women.

It was really an enriching experience for me to share a time with the women. Initially, some of them rejected photography because it was included in their internet workshop and they didn’t see the utility of knowing how to use a reflex camera, which I understand perfectly.

But with the passage of the time, they started to go inside and enjoy it. We built the learning around a common project called “Corners” and I proposed to them to shoot the best and the worst corners of the prison, and even the good and the bad corners of themselves.

A good corner for most of them was the toilet room, where they can smoke cigarettes and chat for a while far from the eyes of the guardians. A bad corner for many of them was the playground, where they have the obligation to spend few hours every day even when it’s raining or very cold weather, and this is especially hard for those women of advanced age who suffer some form of sickness. At the end we made a little exhibition in the jail which people really enjoyed.

During my visits to the center the people were preparing a theatrical production with body painting. They proposed I shoot the process. I accepted with enthusiasm because I had the opportunity to make photos far from the guards’ control, limited to the jail’s hair-dressing room.

Can photography be a tool for rehabilitation?

I don’t think so. First of all, I don’t think that a prison is the best place for the rehabilitation of any single person. Photography inside the jail, in my opinion, can just be a way of evasion, a way to pass time and to avoid thinking about the own problems.

Photography is positive as a weapon of expression, but for this you must go inside the technical skill-set and we didn’t have the means and the time. We only had one camera for 10 persons. No one helped me to get more cameras for the girls. We are talking about a public institution and a NGO who gets money from the government and they were not able to buy materials for the workshop.

You were finally able to make a reportage, with all the limitations that it takes to work in this kind of places. What negotiations did you go through to take photographs inside?

It was a real mission. First of all I sent my project to the authorities of the Government of Catalunya and didn’t get any answer. I knocked on many doors. Afterwards, I got in touch with some theater companies who make workshops inside and offered to document their activities. Again, no success.

After months and months of trying and almost abandoning the idea, one of my school-mates introduced me to a woman from the Fundació per l’Innovation Social Action (FIAS) which organizes activities inside the jails in the city of Barcelona to introduce prisoners to the new technologies. Here was the key for me. She liked my ideas and proposed that if I wanted to shoot inside I had to offer something, so we decided that making a workshop of photography would be the best.

After 9 months of searching I could go inside this prison.

What celebration was occurring that led to body paint and theatre?

They were celebrating the international day of the working women, the 8th of march. Every year, they host a party in the prison. There are a few activities such as a picnic in the playground, live music, and an exhibition of photography about Africa. The women inside get really involved in this party.

Does this body painting drama take place annually?

Yes, they have done it for a few years. It’s a collaboration between the people from the hairdress workshop and the people from the fitness class; the teachers and the women make the show together. Generally, there are plenty of activities from the morning until evening; school to get a basic education and also working areas in which they earn a very minimum salary.

Are colorful activities such as those you document common in all Spanish women’s prisons?

I don’t really know but I don’t think so. This prison is very small with around 150 prisoners. The population changes frequently. I’ve been told that the tranquil ambience is an exception inside Spanish prisons. Still, when you step inside, some depressing feeling invade you and the celebrations have a touch of sadness. The women get really involved because they don’t have many similar events throughout the rest of the year.

In other prisons there’s not such an offer of activities and they use to have problems of overpopulation. Spain has the largest imprisoned population of all Western Europe, although behind other countries with biggest criminality tax. This means that in Spain the low delinquency is highly punished. And the jail is the solution, instead of the social actions.

What have been the reactions to your images from staff, women prisoners and the public?

Some of the staff didn’t like so much and they said that the images were not as “artistic” as they expected. What I understood from this reaction was that they supposed that I would “hide” more the jail situation and customise a view. However, it was my intention from the beginning to show a sad reality.

The women prisoners were happy about the photographs, and happy that I could show the images while I was working there – I know that after this there was no one from the staff who showed them the final work.

About the public, I’m not allowed to show these photos in my country.

Jail policies are so stringent that the authorities don’t want that these photos go out from the walls of the prison, even when I’m not showing anything about the life conditions inside. It looks amazing that this facts happen in a so called “western democracy”. This hermetism is unbelievable.

What are your thoughts on prison policy in Spain? What is being done correctly and what could improve rehabilitation for women prisoners?

My thoughts are not positive. First of all, the jail penalties for small delinquency are too harsh. This increases the prison population making it overcrowded. In the last 10 years, Spain’s prison population has doubled. The consequence is the deterioration of conditions and the welfare of the people inside.

Another facet [of prison management] which is denounciable is the FIES regime, an isolation regime used to condemn prisoners considered “dangerous.” This term “dangerous” sometimes gets very flexible. This isolation makes the prisoners more vulnerable and includes violent episodes from the guards and we have lots of files from humanitarian associations, like International Amnesty, denouncing FIES.

Rehabilitation is not possible when people are condemned to 20 years in FIES. They lose their identity, values and sometimes dignity as a persons; this goes against rehabilitation.

Were there any downsides to your experience?

I missed out on making very close contact with the women. We were controlled all the time by someone from the jail and it was impossible to have long conversation outside of the workshop. I listened to some stories and made surface-level inquiries but did not really get deep inside.

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