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Alonso Castillo is a freelance photographer based in the state of Sonora in northwestern Mexico. Predominantly, he works as a stringer for Reuters. Most of his work focuses on the border and he is a specialist in reporting on migration and social issues. He has instructed workshops in the past, is a college teacher and, since 2009, has worked as an editor at www.numerof.org.
Mauricio Palos, a mutual friend of Castillo and I, contacted me to tell me of Castillo’s 2013 photography workshop in a local youth prison, the Instituto de Tratamiento y de Aplicación de Medidas para Adolescentes (ITAMA) which is in the city of Hermosillo, in Sonora, northwestern México.
ITAMA houses approximately 450 boys and men. All the prisoners were convicted as juveniles but currently 70% of the prisoners are adults as they’ve turned 18 during their incarceration. Castillo led a photography workshop with 10 boys aged between 15 and 21. When he sent me the photographs I was floored by how sparse and rudimentary the environment for these kids appeared. I wondered if this was a case in which, more so than others, the camera didn’t lie?
All these photographs were made by the 10 participants. Castillo and his colleagues only made technical recommendations in order for the boys to take advantage of available light and framing. “The boys decided how to work and what to photograph,” says Castillo.
Kindly, Castillo answered some questions about the project to accompany this exclusive showing of the juvenile prisoners’ photographs.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Did you find prisons/social justice first? Or did you find photography first?
Alonso Castillo (AC): It is hard to say, I come first of photojournalism but this area is combined with social justice; that is, I do believe that our work is for the other. In this case this two territories are combined with an equal third one that is working with young people who have committed crimes.
Anyway, due to my job, I suppose I found photography first.
Alonso Castillo and his students in the middle of a workshop session.
PP: What gave you the idea to do a workshop in the prison?
AC: I’ve taught, and participated in, workshops before—in Mexico, Cuba, El Salvador, Ecuador and Colombia. I try to make workshops part of broader and more complete projects of research into specific topics, or provide media training, or instruct on the practices of street journalism.
I knew a writer, Carlos Sanchez, who taught literature and creative writing at ITAMA. Together, we planned to work with young prisoners and teach photography. Carlos usually facilitates writing workshops so this was the first in which we worked with photography. For me, as a journalist and teacher, it was also a means to research and observe [the prison]. And the way things worked out, it was a very enjoyable observation.
PP: How did you get access?
AC: The workshop was organized in conjunction with Fotoseptiembre an annual photography festival which recently celebrated its 25th year anniversary. Although Fotoseptembiere no longer takes place in all countries, it still exists in the city where I live. The festival served as a pretext to get authorization and work with these guys as part of a program that also included an exhibition to show the end results.
PP: How long was the course?
AC: It lasted about 40 hours but we sometimes relaxed the formal schedule to adjust to the schedule of the boys or what was needed to complete the exercises. It is more accurate to say that we worked during the months of July and August 2013, and mounted a small exhibition in September. First we worked in the classroom with classes on theory; we saw some portfolios and documentary photography and we talked with the group and watched movies about photography. Later, disposable film cameras were given to each participant.
Participants were ten young people from five cities in central, northern and southern Sonora. Some of them came from the border municipalities for drug trafficking and murder.
The first exercise was carried out, then the cameras were processed and together we reviewed the work they had done. Then they were given yet another camera and had a chance to improve the ways they were seeing.
Much of the discussion topic was “everyday life”—their daily lives within ITAMA.
PP: What was the aim of the course?
AC: We wanted to share with them tools and skills to help with their rehabilitation and reintegration; they could acquire knowledge and then approach a job when they finished their detention. We also wanted to give them occupational therapy during their time inside the ITAMA.
As we move forward in the activities it became a very human exchange of experiences between us and them, in which analyzed and talked topics of art, history, music, cultural references and social problems.
The photography and talk about photographs was as a part of healing.
PP: Did you achieve the aims?
AC: It is difficult to know if what we did at that time will serve for something when they came out, which was an important part. With what happened in the classroom, yes, I am satisfied.
While in detention because they committed crimes (and some of them very serious), it was very emotional to reveal their “other faces”, the other sides to these young people.
AC: Although criminals, they remain children. This plain fact is something that the system ignores or cannot sufficiently deal with. All these boys are in the middle of a long learning process and maturation; they experience the same intangible fears as any of us. It is a matter of influencing the values and beliefs they have, rather than corrective measures and punishments.
There are also other related matters. The environment has a very strong and decisive weight. These facilities provide for the operation of organized crime on the streets and in the offices of government. Rehabilitation doesn’t work if the institution operates in the midst of corruption. The Mexican political system besides not favoring conditions for social security and education, seems to be working to do otherwise.
PP: Any unexpected surprises?
AC: They showed huge interest in the workshop, which very often does not happen when you’re outside teaching boys in the regular education system and even in college. It is sad but sometimes you find more resistance in a student who had better educational opportunities. With this group, everything happened in an easy way.
There was a boy with a natural look, he made some of the best photos of the workshop; he had a sophisticated way of seeing that gave the images a very contemporary look.
That happens sometimes in the workshops: anyone can worry so much about making a picture look easy and then someone comes in and just do it.
PP: Anything you’d want to do differently if you wanted to/could teach another prison photography workshop?
AC: Of course. Working on more personalized projects. The conditions are limited but we could work with them in a better recognition of the environment. Projects could be designed for collective or personal response — online journals, a newspaper produced by themselves, and so on.
PP: Why did the prison authorities let you in?
AC: I think they did not take us seriously to consider us as a threat, except for us to fulfill the security conditions such as the introduction of dangerous objects or not allowed.
PP: Had you been in a prison before? What did you expect to find? What did you find?
AC: Yes, I had been before taking pictures for a story. The access we now had was restricted only to the area to teach the workshop, so we only saw facilities from afar … and in photographs!
PP: What were the boys’ reactions? How did they work?
AC: The first reaction kept at a distance but then it broke. There were different profiles and even some involving more than others, empathy was virtually total. Then we work with maximum freedom. Sure, they are young and at some point they laughed at us but at no time was any kind of rejection or problem.
AC: After the workshop we had a very modest exhibition in the courtyards of ITAMA, with some family and other visitors. When we worked on that, we processed some film close to the date and we found a picture of the soles of the boys feet. As the exhibition was to be called Desde Adentro (From Within), the boys did a special photo for that—they sat on the floor and wrote the name of the exhibition on the soles of the feet. That was something we were not expecting.
In 2014, a selection of work from the boys won an honorable mention in a local photo competition.
PP: What was the staff’s reactions to the boys walking around with cameras?
AC: We did not know of any reaction. You know, reading the photograph depends on the social construction and context. It is that possible for them and the staff of the detention center, there was no threat from outside, were themselves taking pictures around. We did not go as journalists and we weren’t there to make a report or complaint or observation of human rights in the prison.
In a subtle way, these photographs depict these young people for whom we have used the prison to delete their presence and hide them … and we’ve done so only for our own convenience. These photographs confront us with facts that lay counter to our simplistic thinking.
PP: Do prisons work?
AC: Prisons serve as a reflection of human behavior in which the administration of justice becomes confused with revenge.
We want justice but don’t think very deeply about its application. People go to prison for many different types of crime but when they’re inside we make no distinctions. Initially, justice is operational and later it is a process that becomes bureaucratic, expensive and exhausting for those who experience it. The legal part of the system is a mess; it is much harder to get out even with the law in your favor. Prisons may be where all traffic comes to a dead end.
PP: Can photography heal social ills?
AC: Yes. It is an effective tool to communicate, to visualize and generate impact to social problems. Although it’s not a massively used tool for educational purposes, I think no efforts are small and everything we do is important.
In the near future, I want to train groups of people to jump-start local journalism projects involving vulnerable sectors of population and minorities (native groups, sexual minorities, neighborhoods, and others.
PP: So reach is a big factor too.
AC: Yes. César Holm, who works on a project for the professionalization of photographers in Mexico, in a conversation we had recently, mentioned the need to get an audience for photography and the promotion of a profile for teaching. I agree with him.
I say it is not a massive tool because although photojournalism represents a broad global distribution circuit, I have the impression that we are producing for ourselves. This phrase I heard a few years ago and I still like it, “only photographers know photographers”. We like to publish books that we read, there are contests and scholarships for specialized circle of consumers, who are we and our friends.
I think we could expand that circle.
Alan Pogue is one of the best documentary photographers you’ve never heard of. Not one to get mixed up in the social media conga line, Pogue instead spends his time hunting down important stories. Very important stories.
Rosa Moreno lost her hands last year in an industrial accident in Reynosa, Mexico. Pogue writes:
“They needed to step up production and Rosa was asked to operate a machine that stamps out the back plate for a particular model of flat screen monitor because it was a little complicated and she was good and she was faster than most. She was also a little more brave. It scared some of the others who declined to work at this machine on the line. She stepped up.
It happened just after 2 in the morning February 20, 2011. As she was positioning a piece of steel plate, the machine suddenly jumped into action and clamped down on her hands with tons of force. She knew she had to maintain her presence of mind, since it would be necessary for her to argue for being taken to the right hospital. […] but the company would not allow an ambulance to be called. They did not want her taken to the hospital Rosa wanted because it might be more expensive, and because the accident would be on the record. With her hands now flat as tortillas and meshed into the monitor back plate, she walked to a co-worker’s car and was taken to the hospital, where they amputated her hands, still enmeshed in the steel plate.
She gets by on the Mexican government’s equivalent of Social Security disability, about $230 dollars a month. There is no workman’s comp. She had no insurance. There was no union. Some church groups help her out a bit with food and some money. The company offered to give her a one time payment of $4500. But she refused. Even though it is not clear that there is a way to obtain a better settlement through the court system under NAFTA, she holds out.”
Alan Pogue has photographed extensively across North and Central America focusing on social issues, labour issues, civil rights, criminal justice and the Texas prison system. I had the pleasure of meeting him last year and when we talked about his stories, water gathered in his eyes and his voice wobbled. This is work that he really feels and Rosa’s is a cause he deeply, deeply believes in. Please think about helping this holiday season.
via Susan Noyes Platt.
The Global Post has just launched ENCARCELACION an investigative series about the correctional systems of Latin America that “have gone horribly wrong.”
We’ve seen the headlines of jailbreaks in Mexico, riots in Venezuelan prisons, and fires in Honduran jails, but often these stories seems a world away. The politics underpinning the strife in Latin American prisons is not my area of expertise but the importance of the stories is undeniable. It is interesting that the Global Post has used photography as an anchor to the front page.
After digging down into ENCARCELACION‘s trove of info, you may want to follow links to Prison Photography‘s irregular coverage of various aspects of life in Latin American prisons:
Gary Knight – Joao Pina – Jackie Dewe Matthews – Valerio Bispuri – Pedro Lobo – Vance Jacobs and Columbian prisoners – tourist photography in Bolivian prisons – prison tattoos (some from Central America) – Kate Orlinksky’s portraits of Mexican female prisoners – Fabio Cuttica at a Columbian prison beauty pageant – Patricia Aridjis in Mexico – even Cornell Capa was in Latin American prisons at one time.
– – – – –
Thanks to Theo Stroomer for the heads up.
Nancy Lilia Núñez, 22, and her daughter, Claudia Marlen, 3. Ms.Núñez is in prison on a kidnapping charge.. © Katie Orlinsky
Katie Orlinsky‘s photographs, including her incredibly powerful portraits from El Cereso, the Ciudad Juárez prison, in Mexico accompany Damien Cave’s New York Times Sunday Review article Mexico’s Drug War, Feminized.
Ms. Núñez is only 22. She grew up here, in one of the world’s most crime-infested cities. But was she just hanging out with the wrong crowd, or is she a criminal deserving decades behind bars? With her case and others, this is what Mexico is struggling to figure out. The number of women incarcerated for federal crimes has grown by 400 percent since 2007, pushing the total female prison population past 10,000. No one here seems to know what to make of the spike. Clearly, the rise can partly be attributed to the long reach of drug cartels, which have expanded into organized crime, and drawn in nearly everyone they can, including women.
With 80% of the female inmates at Ciudad Juarez Prison imprisoned for narcotics related crimes, the war on drugs cartels is certainly having results – one wonders though if the results in terms of incarceration are having an effect on lessening the organised crime. A pessimistic position would suggest that these women (and their children) are easily replaced by others to be used by the cartels in identical ways.
One of the most common threads I’ve observed through photographs of female prisoners is the solidarity and sisterhood that exists in female prisons. Whether or not this truly exists is another matter, but in a world where many women are locked up because of men, in institutions usually associated with (violent) men, the notion that the majority of women are victims and only have each other is one worth pondering.
Particularly, Orlinsky’s portraits against a white prison wall are powerful introductions to the personalities of women who’ve lived lives of – and through – severe conflict. More of Orlinksky’s documentary shots can be seen at her website.
FEMALE PRISONERS ELSEWHERE ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY
– Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo
– Former Prisoner, Diana Ortiz, Inspires Confidence and Healing in Female Inmates
– Photography Workshop for Romanian Women Prisoners Produces 14,000 Images
– Women’s Prisons in Afghanistan
– Women Behind Bars: Jane Evelyn Atwood’s ‘Too Much Time’
– Women Behind Bars: Vikki Law
– Women Behind Bars: Silja J.A. Talvi
– “Angels Without Wings” Momena Jalil
– Fabio Cuttica: Colombian Prison Beauty Pageant
– “It was like being in front of a mirror.” Melania Comoretto and Women Prisoners
– Neelakshi Vidyalankara
– Patricia Aridjis: The Black Hours / Las Horas Negras
– Prison Nursery, Ohio Reformatory for Women, by Angela Shoemaker
Friend of Prison Photography, Emiliano Granado, likes football as much as he rocks at photography.
We pooled our knowledge to pair each country competing in South Africa with a photographer of the same nationality.
ALG Algeria – Christian Poveda
ENG England – Stephen Gill
SVN Slovenia – Klavdij Sluban (French of Slovenian origin … I know, I know, but you try to find a Slovenia born photographer!)
USA United States – Bruce Davison
Emiliano has been posting images from each of the photographers and doubled up on a few nations where the talent pool is teeming. You can see them all over on his Tumblr account, A PILE OF GEMS
* Don’t even begin arguing about who should represent the USA. It is a never-ending debate.
* I’ll be honest, finding photographers for the African nations was tricky, even for a web-search-dork like myself. But then we knew about the shortcomings of distribution and promotion within the industry, didn’t we?
* For Chile, we had to look to the past legend Larrain. I’ll be grateful if someone suggest a living practitioner.
* North Korean photographer, by name, anyone? We had to fall back on van Houtryve because he got inside the DPR.
* Rineke Dijkstra was one of approximately 4 thousand-trillion dutch photographers who are everywhere.
* Araki was the easy choice. Ill admit – I know next to nothing about Japanese photography (Marc, help?)
* I wanted a few more political photographers in there, while Emiliano goes for arty stuff. I think we found a nice balance overall.
* And, SERIOUSLY, name me a Paraguayan photographer! PLEASE.
‘Duck and I’ © Pete Brook
Last month I went to Big Bend National Park, on the border with Texas and Mexico. The Chihuahuan desert is very hot during the day, even in spring. We took an 18-mile day hike, walking before and immediately following sunrise and later in the three hours before sundown.
On the trek out I was surprised to see (and super-amused by) the artistry of some ducks (called cairns in the UK); even in the inhospitable desert, some folks had taken the time and care to build these things. It occurred to me that I’d seen typologies of most things but not these essential, non-owned, geo-marking, petra-sculptures. On the way back, I photographed them.
As I have said before, I am not a photographer and I rarely want to share my images but I’ll share this bit of fun.
‘ROBODUCK’ © Pete Brook
I was made aware of this set of photographs last week (sorry I forget the source!). They’re an interesting document of a bustling metropolis’ prison with an open program of movement, activity and an array of inmates.
The number of visitors and family members involved in many of the images leads me to think of this prison as an institution where people remained until the peculiarities of their situation could be agreed upon and then communicated to ensure release.
The social engagement of inmates with those from outside suggests to me (with an acknowledgement of harsh lockdown-modern-prisons) that the authorities of 1950s Mexico City either weren’t convinced of prisoners guilt, could be convinced otherwise, or simply didn’t map the denial of family-involvement on to the landscape of criminal punishment.
Schershel’s photographs recalled Richard Ross‘ image from Architecture of Authority. Schershel’s images doubled my visual knowledge of Mexican prisons, and so know I find myself in the unacceptable position that Mexican penitentiaries are – in my mind (at least temporarily) – the Palacio de Lecumberri … which means I have to do more research to get away from that inadequate knowledge base.
Until Schershel’s photo set, I had thought that Ross’ picture depicted a tower in the centre of a modestly-sized jail, but Schershel’s image puts the tower and rotunda into its larger setting (top left octant).