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Guillaume Pinon spent over a year negotiating access and photographing inside a prison in Málaga, Spain. He shot exclusively in a single wing called Module 9, in which the majority of prisoners were non-EU citizens incarcerated for drug-trafficking crimes.
Pinon undertook the project as part of his Masters degree, for which he was required to produce a book. You can view the book, Modulo 9 on Issuu.com.
“During three months I was allowed by the inmates of the Module 9 of Málaga prison, to take photographs of their daily life,” says Pinon. “This is an intimate story of what it means to be a pre-trial detainee stuck in the middle the Spanish criminal system.”
Pinon is interested in populations on the margins of society and his past work includes series on children’s disability, hospitals, gypsies, liminal spaces and religious practice. Due to the restricted nature of the prison subject, Modulo 9 was the greatest challenge Pinon has taken on. We first made contact over a year ago, but due to sensitive negotiations with the Spanish authorities we are only able to publish our conversation and Pinon’s image now.
Click any of the images for larger versions. Scroll down to read our Q&A.
PP: Why the interest in the subject?
GP: I have a great attraction towards entering spaces with very restricted access to document people living within. When I am told, “You will never be able to photograph there,” I am even more convinced about a project.
I have always come across dramatic, painful stories, which has made my activities more motivating and rewarding – as a photographer AND as a human being.
PP: Any prison photographers who’ve sparked your interest?
PP: Featured in the past on Prison Photography, if I may add.
GP: As the project progressed, I looked at the portfolios of many photographers from different time periods. I watched movies and documentaries on the prison subject – two impressive examples are A Prophet by J. Audiard and Prison de Fleury, les images interdites, an Envoyé Special by France 2.
PP: The detainees in Málaga Prison are awaiting trial. Did you deliberately want to photograph in a facility that had prisoners “in limbo” and awaiting judgment?
GP: Initially, I wanted to work with three different types of prisoners; those not categorized by their legal position, but those that captured more my own interests. I wanted to explore the situation of female prisoners, the “gitanos” (gypsies), and the Maghrebian prisoners. The prison of Málaga principally incarcerates remand prisoners. It was not a deliberate choice of mine; I took what was available to me.
PP: MODULO 9 is your MA thesis project for the London College of Communications MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography. Tell us about your experiences on the MA.
GP: I am a father of two young boys. The oldest, because of his disability, requires much of the time and presence. In the circumstances, an online MA was the perfect opportunity; it suited my complex family life.
The LCC MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography taught us all the issues surrounding the moments before, during and after pressing the shutter. With this I mean to find a story, to do a research on the topic, to sort out all the administrative aspects, to approach and tell the story, to edit photographs and finally to present the completed work. I realized that photography is not only about the “click” if you want to achieve a good project.
However, nothing can replace a face-to-face conversation, even Wimba [which the class uses for class webinars and crit]. I am not sure whether I could be able to recognize Paul [Lowe] or John [Easterby] if I was in the same room! Which is a bizarre feeling. Overall, my MA has been a very beneficial and enriching experience.
PP: I was told you received a 3-month deferral for the submission of this work because of problems with access. Can you explain what happened?
GP: It is complex story, but I’ll cut it short. To be allowed to work inside of the prison came with very strict conditions. One of them was to take photographs only when I was accompanied by a nominated staff-person. However, that person had his own work to do and, therefore, could not dedicate as much time as had been initially agreed. So, in December, during a board examination where the evolution of my work was assessed, I received the extension. By that time, roughly, only the portraits had been completed.
PP: Apart from the delay, did you face any other hurdles?
GP: To work in such environment is a great and unique opportunity; however, it is very difficult, even more for a photographer with little experience like me. On many occasions I found myself upset and frustrated with the situations or the people.
I kept my mouth shut and with a smile because I was aware of how rare the opportunity was “to be inside” with the camera. Even though life inside the prison was structured on routines, each day there appeared to be a new challenge. Life was always disturbed by external and internal factors of the Modulo 9 – the mood of the guards, a newcomer to the module, a conflict, an inspection of cells, the weather. Insignificant details could have a snow ball effect within minutes.
PP: I presume each prisoner signed a model release?
GP: A signed model release from each prisoner appearing on my photographs was another unbending condition of the authorization. I eventually managed to get more than fifty signatures.
PP: What did the prisoners think of your presence and your work?
GP: I came across all kinds of reactions during the three months, from suspicion (“You’re from Interpol”) to hope (“Help me to get free”).
None of them knew that the work was part of the MA. I purposely never mentioned it thinking that I would lose some credibility.
Mostly, they asked about the reasons of me doing this work and how I was going to present the work. They didn’t like the idea of a publication in a newspaper or magazine, but on the other hand a book seemed to be a more attractive format to them.
PP: What did the staff think of your presence/your work?
GP: Again, varied reactions. Mostly, the prison authority supported the project and it is pleased with the final result. However, the staff of the Modulo 9 perceived my presence with the camera as another source of potential problems which meant more work and pressure for them. They were mainly protecting the reputation of their module and the rights of each of the prisoners. Eventually, we managed to spend the three months without a major outburst and occasionally I did receive unexpected help.
PP: Your photographs depict a stark but violence-free environment. Is this the reality in Málaga Prison?
GP: My photographs only document the daily reality of the Modulo 9. The prison of Málaga is divided into 14 modules. Each of them has its own type of prisoners – foreigners, females, youth, Muslims, remand-prisoners. Therefore each module has its own routine, problems and activities.
I can only share what I experienced within Module 9, which has greatly improved in recent years. Improvements have come about for two main reasons: first, the willingness of some staff to improve the quality of life inside of the module and, second, the fact that the majority of the prisoners now are Muslim.
Because of the Islamic faith, you sense great respect between prisoners. Moreover, most of them are in jail for the same reason (drug-trafficking), and they’re under the same conditions (no family living in Spain, no money, no friends, no knowledge of the language). They try to help each other.
Nevertheless, as a module of remand prisoners, the population changes quickly and therefore an established but fragile stability can be quickly jeopardized. During my last visit, a year later, I barely knew the prisoners. Talking to some of them and looking around, I could feel a change; Modulo 9 was not the same any longer, and may be not have been for the best.
GP: Sometimes, the Málagueños are like me; life inside of a prison creates a sense of curiosity. They want to know if what they see on TV is the same in the reality. However, at present, there are other overruling problems, such as the current financial crisis, which take all the attention. As a consequence, the situation in prisons is generally ignored.
PP: Why photograph in black and white?
GP: I have always felt more comfortable photographing in black and white. To think about colour in the process of taking a picture it is not yet an instinct I have. It generally distracts me from the subject.
PP: It is a large book with a diversity of images. Tell us about your editing choices.
GP: I have mixed feelings about editing. On the one hand, I enjoy the process of selecting and playing with the photographs in order to tell the story. But on the other hand, the process relies too much on my mood of the day. It is very difficult, for me, to come up with a pragmatic selection and order the pictures in the ways I have seen great professionals do.
Módulo9 was my first experience editing. Throughout the process I regularly shared privileged conversations and received very useful comments from Paul Lowe (course director) and Ed Kashi (project tutor).
I ended up with two edits. The first, used a geographical and linear approach – the buildings of the prison, the corridors, the access to the module and finally inside of the module.
The second, which was presented as the final result, was elaborated with the support of Chema Conesa, a Spanish photographer and editor. It no longer focused on location but more on the emotions of being confined in a hostile environment where it is difficult to keep contact with reality.
Common to both editions were the double pages with the portraits and the separate chapter focusing on the story of Mouhcine.
PP: Why follow Mouhcine? Why did he stand out?
GP: Throughout the first month, each morning was dedicated to interviewing inmates. The first recorded conversation with Mouhcine lasted around 35 minutes. Only after just 11 minutes, asking him about his first night in the prison, he could not control his emotions and broke down into tears. I suggested having a break for him to recover.
By the end of the interview, I became conscious of his sensibility and his eagerness to share with me. So our relationship, day after day, conversation after conversation, grew into something more personal. On some occasions, I felt concerned about leaving him alone being aware of how depressed he was.
Apart from being deeply tragic, Mouhcine’s story emerged to be, on some aspects, optimistic. His faith in God and his willingness to learn Spanish, to work, to be involved with the life of the module helped him to handle the daily challenges of the prison. I felt privileged to be allowed to witness, share and document those moments.
PP: What do you hope your photographic study of Málaga Prison will achieve?
GP: At the beginning of the project, my only hope was to get a good grade for the MA!
Now, after showing the photographs, listening to people’s comments and with a higher confidence in the work, my plan is to go back to the prison of Málaga. This time I would focus on the female module. I’d change the concept and aim for a deeper involvement with the prisoners. And then, taking into account the best options, I hope initially to diffuse the work in and around Málaga.
PP: Final thoughts?
My intention has never been to criticize the prison system. Though, from my short experience into “the remand prisoner world” and having interviewed magistrates dealing with criminal cases, some suggestions should be made in order to improve the conditions.
I want the viewer, after looking at the photographs, to go home keeping in mind the feelings of being restricted in harsh conditions. I want the viewer to sense what it means being a remand prisoner, with his fears and anxiety, inside of Module 9.
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Thanks to Ciara Leeming for the tip.