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San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia is a singular type of prison. It accepts tourists. It also attracts professional photographers. For me, the story of San Pedro has always been the sporadic schedules of guided tours within the prison. First they are on, then they are off.
The very existence of images made by free-wheeling tourists tells us a lot more about the administration’s attitude to security, social priorities and moneymaking than the visit of any single photographer. One might presume that a professional photographer’s visit would be a rare thing … if it wasn’t for the thousands of photographs made by amateurs.
Still, I like very much a few of Giovanni Cobianchi‘s portraits in his San Pedro Limbo series.
If these images from San Pedro interest you, consider looking at Toby BInder’s work I featured earlier this year in Photos of Infamous Bolivian Prison Go Beyond Common Tourist Snaps
Photographer Pascualin in his Fotografo studio, San Pedro Prison, La Paz.
San Pedro Prison in Bolivia’s capital La Paz, is well-known. It is also well-visited. It is renowned for being a society within itself.
Access to the prison – which holds 1,500 men – is generally not a problem. Persons in the media visit regularly. More astonishingly, access for tourists is common. Over three years ago, I wrote extensively about prison tourism at San Pedro. Changes in security, scrutiny and administrations sometimes close the gates temporarily for tourists, but over the years an open gate policy at San Pedro is the norm.
TThe open gate policy is for the benefit of families. Many women and children live with husbands and fathers locked up, but are free to come and go to school, work and recreate. Without the informal economy – driven by family input – that feeds and clothes the prisoners, San Pedro would grind to a halt. There is also tolerated drug use – and even rumours of manufacture – in San Pedro.
In this context, Toby Binder‘s image are slightly less remarkable. The issue of access is almost obsolete, but the breadth of his study does provide valuable information on the daily lives of prisoners and their families.
San Pedro is probably not the best example of a foreign prison to ask Americans to draw comparison to with U.S. prisons. Maybe, we should think about how the visibility of this Bolivian prison compares with U.S. prisons. But, then again the two culture and visibility are probably forcibly linked.
What I want to do most after seeing Binder’s work is fly to La Paz and interview Pascaulin, the prison portraitist (above.)
Thanks to Toby for sharing his full portfolio. Captions by Binder, edited by myself.
Right in the city center, there is a 12-meters high wall surrounding one whole block. Locals and tourists can be seen on the plaza in front of the main gate which is heavily guarded by policemen. Inside, seven cell blocks with 1,300 prisoners surround a courtyard in the center.
The cell is kitchen, living-room, bedroom and workstation for the whole family.
This man runs a kiosk out of his cell. The family sleeps upstairs.
Each of the seven blocks can fields two teams in San Pedro’s soccer tournament,. The tournament is taken very seriously and highly organized. Sometimes, skilled players are headhunted by another block, thus enabling him to live a more comfortable life.
Andres (39), photographed here with his son Andres Junior, earns a living by making wooden toys which his wife later sells outside.
Children play table football.
Ramiro Quispe and his family in his 4metre square cell. Ramiro (31) was caught with 5 kilos of cocaine in El Alto, the city on the altiplano above La Paz. He serves his time in cell 39 in the “San Martin” block. While two of his children live here with him, his wife, his baby and his oldest son are in El Alto, trying to continue to run a smallholder’s business. Eva (5) spends her time in San Pedro playing. Mirabel (10), her sister, leaves the prison every morning in order to go to school – children are allowed to pass the gate from 9 am to 6 pm every day.
Eva in the corridor in front of her father’s cell.
Washing day next to the pool.
There are lots of playmates for Eva and Mirabel in San Pedro. Up to 300 children live in the prison with their families. “Despite the food rations for all family members, scores of children suffer from malnutrition or neglect”, says Inge Alvensleben, a German pediatrician in San Pedro. Since drug consumption and violence among the prisoners is a daily occurrence it is especially the weak who suffer, whereas those who are better off enjoy a life with good food, expensive clothes and a sauna in their cell block.
Prisoners working in the kitchen – there is a free lunch for every person living inside San Pedro.
The shops are run by the prison- ers and their families. At Nicol’s shop, for instance, chicken broth is offered today.
Kiosk selling ice cream, vegetables and medicine.
Eva’s favorite place in San Martin is a candy store.
Although there is lots of business inside the prison, boredom is a daily companion of the prisoners.
In San Pedro there are restaurants, kiosks, hairdressers, shoemakers, and a photographer. Only the cells remind one of being in a prison and not in any district of La Paz.
The gates connecting the seven blocks – named Prefectura, Palmar, Cancha, San Martin, Guanay, Alamos, and Pinos – are only closed at night. During the day, the inmates are allowed to move freely in the whole facility.
Often it seems photographs of South American prisons are presented in North American media only to emphasise the gulf that exists between the conditions of incarceration in the two regions.
I have posted before about prison beauty pageants in Bogota, Colombia; about the rise and fall of prison tourism at San Pedro in La Paz, Bolivia, and I have looked twice at Gary Knight‘s photography at Polinter prison in Rio de Janeiro – latterly featuring the conspicuous acts of a celebrity evangelical minister.
(Nearly) all photo essays I see coming out of prisons in South or Central America fall into one of two categories, or both:
1) A colourful contradiction to the dour, authoritarian environments depicted in US prison photojournalism.
2) A claustrophobic assault on our emotions as witnesses to desperate overcrowding and poor hygiene. The example par excellence of this is Marco Baroncini’s series from Guatemala.
What leads me to a narrow, ‘boxed’ categorisation of such documentary series is that I am convinced photographers know either the media or their editors well enough to know what flies with Western consumers and as such deliver an expected aesthetic.
On the invitation of the Centro Colombo Americano, an English language school for Colombians in Medellín, Vance Jacobs ventured to the Bellavista Prison with an inspired assignment: to teach documentary photography to eight inmates in one week.
“One of the things that gets the inmates’ attention is responsibility, that there is a stake in what they do. In this case, their ability to work together as a team, and to pull this together in a very short amount of time would determine whether other similar projects were done not only at this prison but at other prisons in Colombia,” says Jacobs. “Once they bought into the idea that there was a lot at stake, they really applied themselves.”
In the past, I have wondered how the camera can be used as a rehabilitative tool and it is a question that can be answered from different angles. In this case the responsibility given to the inmates is how we can derive worth. I have shown before that performance and team work in front of a camera can be good for exploring the self and ones own identity (and the results are of huge intrigue). The common denominator for any photography project is surely that it immediately relieves the boredom of incarceration.
San Pedro Prison in Bolivia has ceased tours for foreign visitors.
I regret my one missed opportunity. I’d been mildly obsessed with the La Paz prison for a couple of years before I arrived outside its gate and got turned away. That was July, 2008. I had read in Lonely Planet it was a piece of cake to get in and get a tour. Apparently not in my case. I surmise, that I had experienced the beginning of the end for La Paz’s most bizarre tourist attraction.
It’s definitely over now. This from yesterday’s Guardian;
It used to be one of South America’s most fabled tourist attractions. Celebrated as unique in the world, San Pedro in La Paz, Bolivia, was a prison like no other. Foreign tourists would pay bribes to enter, gawk, shop, dine and even do drugs. A sweeping crackdown has barred tourists from the complex, replaced corrupt guards and challenged bizarre practices which had become the stuff of lore.
Tours have never been officially recognised and the vagaries of securing visiting privileges for foreigners stems from the fact that prison guards have different rules/corruptions and relationships to outside ‘tour-guides’. Basically, foreigners had to be lucky or connected to get inside.
Flickr searches prove that “wide-eyed travellers” have visited in all the months since my failed attempt.
The reason for the end of this bizarre tourist ritual? Seemingly, tourists got too cocky and too brazen. The new prison warden ended the debacle. This was a peculiar decision (on first glance) given years of international coverage and tolerance by the authorities, but basically, everyone involved had become too comfortable – objectionably so – with the institution-turned-circus.
The group most guilty for giddy spectacle was of course the tourists. In February the self-titled “Wild Rover Group” posted this video.
And it was the tipping point. The video doesn’t show anything that wasn’t commonly known, but it spells it all out with clarity and (critically) to an unrestricted worldwide audience.
This thorough dissection of the events by a Bolivian source, explains;
In an irreverent tone they boasted about their tour, were seen laughing and enjoying it, and they filmed some of the cocaine manufactured inside, as well as the facilities, rooms, kitchen and other areas. Days later, tourists began to show up in record numbers at the Plaza across from the prison. This drew the attention of neighbors and the general population. There were too many and it was too obvious.
It is surprising that a single video should be the tipping point, especially after a decade of widely circulated photographs. Nevertheless, the circus could no longer be ignored, nor controlled.
Interest online was mirrored by interest on the ground. Tourists filled the square outside wishing to visit; such numbers could no longer be surreptitiously ghosted in the side-door.
Vicky Baker explains,
The tours have been run on and off for years, but this time the (totally unofficial) organisers pushed it too far. There was an increasing lack of discretion. Travellers were being allowed to take cameras in and were uploading pics on to flickr and videos on to YouTube (Were all prisoners asked permission about this?). Rumour had it that local tourist offices were offering tours under-the-table, while those that turned up at the door, like I did, found that money was exchanging hands in a sideroom on prison premises.
The prisoners leading the tours had become greedy. If they’d had any sense, they would have halted them on the six-month anniversary of the arrest of Leopoldo Fernández, a controversial ex-governor accused of genocide. That day inevitably brought protesting crowds and film crews. According to James Brunker, a photographer based in La Paz, when one of the film crews got wind of a tour group inside, they decided this was “far more interesting!”.
Here’s the local media shining a big spotlight on activities with long-overdue questioning and coverage of the tours. Foreigners reacting to the attentions, flipping off the camera and scampering away under jackets were only ever going to look bad!
Governor, Jose Cabrera, is emphatic, “The prisoners have to understand that this is a penitentiary.”
The tourism, while exploitative, was a reliable source of revenue for the prisoners and their families. By shutting down the tours, incomes for over a 1,000 men, women and children was dragged out from under them.
San Pedro was/is indelibly tied to society outside. Family members come and go daily to bring goods and services to the self-made micro-economy. The decision to close the tours down was exacerbated by new restrictions on visiting privileges. Discord grew.
On March 26th at about 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon, what apparently began as a small discussion and fight escalated into an all out prisoner mutiny. Hundreds of police officers were sent in to control the situation. The police shot canisters of tear gas into the prison’s interior patio. Soon prisoners were scrambling up walls and onto the roof.
As the Bolivian news crews were present to film the hoards of foreign tourists in the square, they captured the three hours of unrest from start to finish. Families, including children, of the prisoners were caught in the tear gas clouds. Unfortunate scenes.
The riot was a predictable end point to the new warden’s crude (but probably) necessary shut-down of this dubious spectacle. Many Bolivians didn’t like the fact the nation’s biggest prison was a site of titillation for foreign visitors; many were understandably ashamed and angered.
Paradoxically, one of the factors that allowed mass visitation was the accommodation of family members to spend unlimited amounts of time with incarcerated husbands & fathers during daylight hours. The institution had a generous (and unAmerican) protocol for the relaxed coming and goings of non-inmates.
Money and the necessities it brings are key to solving the tensions. According to a prisoner interviewed by La Rázon, “70% of the [250 peso] fee goes to the police and the people who organize the foreigners for the tours,” the rest being split up among prisoners. This monetary ecosystem may not have been fair but it was consistent.
The new warden has since negotiated and agreed new rules for San Pedro, presumably taking into account the stymied income for all inside. Time will tell. As an indication of how fragile authority is at the prison, the new warden has adopted a fast rotation of guards to prevent foreigners … the suggestion being, a guard needs only to get comfortable at his gate post before he can start manipulating bribes to get tourists in again.
I’ll leave you arguments for permanent closure of San Pedro to foreigners with the thoughts of two Bolivians;
This type of tourism contributes to a blatant abuse of prisoners’ rights and human rights in general. A handful of pesos from tourists is not a substitute for the government providing the inmates with basic food, shelter and medical care (and as many as 75% of prisoners in San Pedro are simply awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crime). Thousands of pesos a day being poured into the prison via tourism serves mainly to maintain and sustain the system of corruption that governs the prison and turns its inmates into the rough equivalent of animals in a zoo.
Isn’t it possible to be more responsible? To be more respectful? When touring a foreign country must it be treated like a traveler’s playground with no regard for local inhabitants? Not to mention, is your own safety actually worth it? And what kind of message is being sent to those who are imprisoned? That they must pay for their crimes but foreigners can get away with illegal activities for Bs. 250 per tour?
The photographic legacy is wide and varied. Amateur snaps prevail here, here, here and here. Enthusiasts occasionally turn their skills, and professionals such as Hector Mediavilla have focused on cocaine manufacture and drug addiction in San Pedro Prison.
Cornell Capa, to some extent, lived in the shadow of his older brother Robert. I guess, it is easy for complacent men to adore the still and fallen martyr than to keep apace with a passionate and piqued practitioner. Cornell’s and Robert’s legends are one; Cornell ceaselessly fought his brother’s corner authenticity debate surrounding The Falling Soldier.
Cornell’s indebtedness to his brother was fateful and self-imposed:
Disappointingly, it is only in extended surveys of Cornell Capa’s career that mention of his fifties photojournalism in Central and Southern America arises. Otherwise, Cornell is celebrated for his political journalism and particularly his campaign coverage of Adlai E. Stevenson, Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Cornell’s photographs from Latin America are often neglected, even demoted.
The Kennedys were the foci of American progressive attitudes, and so, in the sixties, Cornell documented the concerned politician. Cornell was (not in a negative way) passive and the sixties were not formative. It was in the fifties that he actively worked to define the persona, the ideal: ‘The Concerned Photographer’.
Cornell’s work in Latin America:
Beginning in 1953, Capa traveled regularly to Central and South America. He focused extensively on the explosive politics of the region, particularly issues such as elections, free speech, foreign investments, and workers’ rights. His first trip was to Guatemala for Life. Capa photographed banana workers and peasants, and the complicated relationship and struggle for power between the local leftist leaders, President Jacobo Arbenz and the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company. In his most dynamic news story, he covered the collapse and fiery aftermath of the regime of dictator Juan Peron in Argentina in 1955. A year later he photographed in Nicaragua following the assassination of dictator Anastasio Somoza.
In 1956, he was sent to Ecuador by Life to cover the brutal murder of five Christian missionaries. This was to be a life changing experience. Typical of the way Capa was to engage with his subjects over many years, rather than taking the photographs and leaving the scene, he continued to photograph the story over time. In particular, he focused on one of the widows, Betty Elliot, and her extraordinary, understanding relationship with the Indians with whom she and her young daughter lived for several years, as she pursued her missionary work and research into the native language and customs.
In 1956, Cornell was in Nicaragua reporting on the assassination of President Anastasio Somoza García. Somoza was shot by a young Nicaraguan poet; the murder only disrupting slightly the Somoza dynasty that lasted until the revolution of 1979 (that’s where Susan Meiselas picks up).
In the aftermath of the assassination over 1,000 “dissidents” were rounded up. The murder was used as an excuse and means to suppress many, despite the act being that of one man.
I have no knowledge of what happened to these men after Cornell photographed them and I am sure you haven’t the patience for speculative-art-historio-speak.
I do wonder … if having witnessed revolution, early democracies, military juntas, coups, communism, social movements, grand narratives and oppression in various forms, if Cornell picked his subjects with discernment back in the United States.
As early as 1954 Cornell was working on a story for Life about the education of developmentally disabled children and young adults. Up and to that point in time, the subject had been regarded by most American magazines as taboo. The feature was a breakthrough.
In 1966, in memorial to his brother, Robert, and out of his “professed growing anxiety about the diminishing relevance of photojournalism in light of the increasing presence of film footage on television news” Cornell founded the Fund for Concerned Photography. In 1974, this ideal found a bricks and mortar home on 5th Ave & 94th Street in New York: The International Center for Photography.
This institutional limbo that eventually gave rise to one of the world’s most important photography organisations was not a quiet period for Cornell. In 1972, he was commissioned to Attica, NY, to document visually the conditions of the prison. Capa presented his evidence to the McKay report (PDF, Part 1, pages 8-14) the body investigating the cause of the unrest. Cornell narrates his personal observations while showing his photographs to the commission.
At a time when, the photojournalist community seems to have crises of confidence and purpose at an alarming rate, it would be wise to embrace his spirit in full recognition his slow accumulation of remarkable accomplishments.
Rest In Peace, Cornell.
Robert F. Kennedy campaigning in Elmira, New York, September 1964. Accession#: CI.9685
New York City. 1960. Senator John F. KENNEDY and his wife, Jackie, campaigning for the presidency. NYC19480 (CAC1960014 W00020/XX). Copyright Cornell Capa C/Magnum Photos
Three men pushing John Deere machine, Honduras, 1970-73. Accession#: CI.3746
Watching family planning instructional film at Las Crucitas clinic, Tegucigalpa, Honduras], 1970-73. Accession#: CI.8544
Political dissidents arrested after the assassination of Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, Managua, Nicaragua, September 1956. The LIFE Magazine Collection. Accession#: 2009.20.13
NICARAGUA. Managua. 1956. Some of the one thousand political dissidents who were arrested after the assassination of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. NYC19539 (CAC1956012 W00004/09). Copyright Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos
Prisoners escorted from one area to another, Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York, March 1972 (printed 2008). Accession#: CI.9693
Two men walking around prison courtyard, Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York, March 1972. Accession#: CI.9689
Inmates playing chess from prison cells, Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York, March 1972. Accession#: CI.9688
Man on scooter carrying coffin, northeastern Brazil, 1962. Accession#: CI.8921
All photos courtesy of The Robert Capa and Cornell Capa Archive, Promised Gift of Cornell Capa, International Center of Photography. (Except for ‘The Concerned Photographer’ book cover; the Jack Kennedy photograph; & the second Nicaragua prison photograph.)