Over a period of three months, Italian photographer Gaetano Pezzella (Flickr) went inside of Rome’s infamous Rebibbia Prison and made portraits unlike portraiture those we are accustomed to seeing. With bright colors, strong graphic considerations, stark light, diverse posture and proximity it ends up a mixed bag. Some images look lije magazine head shots, others fashion shoots. Some are soft of the moment and momentous, but others are less precious. All-in-all its intriguing.
Recently, Pezzella put out a 144-page book of the work which includes 150 color images accompanied by ten stories by five writers, Pezzella penned two of the stories. The series and the book are titled Hotel Rebibbia. I wanted to know more about Pezzella’s approach so we had a conversation. Before we get into the Q&A though, a little background on Rebibbia Prison.
Rebibbia prison is actually four facilities (3 mens, 1 womens) and it is one of Italy’s biggest prison complexes. Rebibbia has been in the news recently as a site of colourful protest, designer-clock and haute couture manufacture. Compared to other prisons, Rebibbia has a fair number of programs for prisoner education, rehabilitation and jobs training. It also boasts a thriving drama program lead by theater director Fabio Cavalli which spurred the part drama/part documentary hit movie Caesar Must Die (2012). As far as photography goes, Luca Ferrari has shot in the mens prisons and Melania Comoretto has shot in the women’s prison.
Scroll down for the Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about Hotel Rebibbia.
Gaetano Pezzella (GP): Initially, I wanted to dedicate myself exclusively to the places, objects and symbols of the everyday life in a cell. I absolutely did not want to photograph people, especially their hands and arms through the bars and cliches like that. But from the beginning, being emotionally and physically involved with the prisoners, the work took different paths.
PP: Who are the prisoners in ‘Hotel Rebibbia’?
GP: The detainees are mainly common prisoners, who are serving sentences for crimes administrative and criminal. From possession and dealing of drugs, robbery and murder, conspiracy offenses, mafia and terrorism, up to crimes of a sexual nature, pedophilia, rape.
PP: Who is the audience for the work?
GP: The target audience is primarily institutional. From the judiciary to the Ministry of Justice. But it is also relevant to the world of voluntary associations, and I hope, political groups also. At the moment, there is a political current that is very sensitive to prison issues. Of course, we hope that the book is read by civil society to it may bring prisons issue to the a wider audience.
PP: What are you trying to say with the work?
GP: It was my intention to be delicate and light, and allow images to leave the humanity of those detained in place. [To show] their joy, their desire to live, their need to play, whatever their existential condition. To show them as human beings and not prisoners.
PP: Why is that necessary?
GP: Literature and photography on prisons are full of crude and violent images, which too often lead the observer to judge. People conclude that barbarous institutions are acceptable. Some people believes the prison to be today a kind of holiday and wish for tougher penalties. Hence the ironic title “Hotel Rebibbia.”
PP: How did you get access to into Rebibbia?
GP: The bureaucratic process was quite simple. I presented the project to the prison director who accepted it and then the prison’s secretariat forwarded my application to the Ministry of Justice for approval. Unfortunately, a few months ago, a new law passed which which greatly limits the possibility to make reportage inside Italy’s prisons.
PP: What is the reputation of Rebibbia among people in Italy, and people in Rome?
GP: There’s a large part of the population, in Italy as in Rome, that would like prisons and penalties tougher. Rebibbia prison is, along with a few others in Italy, relatively modern in the sense that prisoners participate in treatment programs. There are theater, music, handicrafts and workplace specialization programs.
The crisis of the Italian prison system is its overcrowding. The prison population is over 65,000, but it is only designed to hold 35,000. From this statistic, we can appreciate the state of abandonment and deterioration of prisons in Italy. Being one of the largest prisons in Italy, Rebibbia suffers all problems associated with overcrowding.
When the problem is pointed out to Italians, the prison problem is often met with annoyance and suspicion — as something to be kept as far as possible. Marginalize it, denying the reality of the problem. The prison is seen as a foreign body to society. Even those who work in these facilities, educators, doctors, psychologists, employees, are viewed with skepticism and detachment, if not perceived, as second-class workers.
Added to this, there is also a large part of political activity which focuses on the security of the citizens. This electoral program has instilling uncertainty and fear in peoples’ minds, and that has translated as a tightening of the penalties which have filled the places of detention.
PP: What did the prisoners think of you photographing inside?
I started photographing inside the sex offender ward which is isolated from other prisoners. They have little chance to make treatment programs [in other areas of the prison] so they were very excited to have the opportunity for any type of exchange with the outside world.
The sex offender ward was also my testing ground. Overcoming the difficulties of making a professional but friendly relationship there helped me, later, do my job inside other parts of the prison.
My plan to make pictures of the interior of the cells, soon proved impossible due to the positive involvement of prisoners. Every time I entered in cells or common areas, it became a kind of collective game. I did not have to work hard to be able to make photos. To the contrary.
PP: Did you give the prisoners prints?
GP: Yes, of course. The same prisoners asked me to make pictures to give to their loved ones. It was part of our collective game.
PP: What did the staff think of your work?
GP: I have to say that the entire staff, including the prison guards, were discrete and collaborative making it easier for me to do my work.
PP: You’ve worked in other prisons. Do you like working in prisons?
GP: After working in Rebibbia, I made reportage in Sardinia’s penal colony ‘Mamone.’ I am currently working, along with another photographer, on a project in the women’s prison in Rome.
Work in prisons has always been something special. The first time I entered a prison with a camera, I realized that I had much to learn. Initially, I believed that human relations could be, in some way, influenced by environment. Here I was, a free man, dealing with persons deprived of liberty. This could create, so I thought, a detachment. But I was wrong. We were equal. I do not care about knowing what sins they’ve committed; I’m not a judge, and I was not there for that. I just want to show to those outside that inside the prison there are people who live their lives despite it all.
PP: Some of the portraits look like fashion shoots. Did you direct the subjects in their poses?
GP: I started with taking souvenir photos for prisoners to give to their loved ones Then, I asked them to take pictures for me. So I directed them, a little, but never forced the situation. They were free to present themselves in a very natural way. I only chose the location, where it was possible, and the best light. Only in rare cases I used a flash.
PP: How does this prison work fit in with the other photography you make?
GP: I do not think there is differentiation. Of course, life in prison is very hard, especially on a psychological level, and therefore, the approach to this reality is different to photographing portraits of musicians. In prison, you are pressed for time and you have a responsibility to show a difficult reality. Prison photography requires greater discretion so as not to offend those who are forced to live in a place with no freedom.
PP: Do Italian tax-payers get there money’s worth from prisons? Do Italy’s prisons punish or rehabilitate?
GP: It is written in our constitution that the prison should not be a place of punishment but of rehabilitation. Unfortunately, it is not always true. Sure, compared to many years ago, things have improved.
Today, prisoners have access to a range of measures that lighten the weight of detention — such as improved access (depending on the conduct and length of sentence), discounts and alternative measures, day release, and the ability to conduct conversations with family members in picnic areas instead of in anonymous and gray visiting rooms.
Furthermore, social, educational and recreational activities are available. Unfortunately, due to overcrowding it is difficult to ensure to all have access to such activities. Still, in the consciousness of many, a prison is thought of merely as a place of social revenge.
PP: Thanks, Gaetano.
GP: Thank you, Pete.