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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.
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.
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.
Last year, in the article Photographing the Prostitutes of Italy’s Backroads: Google Street View vs. Boots on the Ground, I compared the work of artists Mishka Henner and Paolo Patrizi both of whom were making images of prostitution on the back roads of Spain and Italy.
I argued that the photographs by Patrizi, due to their physical and emotional proximity had more relevance. Patrizi actually went to the roadside locations whereas Henner, making use of Google Street View, had not.
Shortly thereafter, Mishka Henner emailed me and mounted an impassioned defense of his work. Henner felt he had been “thrown to the cyber-lions.” Not wanting to see anyone with his or her nose bent, I offered Henner a platform on Prison Photography for right of reply.
PB: What was your issue with the commentary on No Man’s Land?
MH: There’s a section of the photo community judging No Man’s Land according to a pretty narrow set of criteria. So narrow they’re avoiding one of the elephants in the room, which is what role is left for the street photographer in the age of Google Street View? Comparing No Man’s Land to other projects on sex workers could be interesting but the way it’s done here is resulting in a pretty narrow discussion about whether it’s valid, ethical or just sensationalistic. I don’t see how that helps move documentary forwards. All the projects you mention, including mine, assert themselves as documents of a social reality. But in your discussion, this is secondary to how they make you feel and Colberg even argues Patrizi’s approach makes you care. My motivation isn’t to make you feel or to care – it’s to make you think.
MH: No Man’s Land uses existing cameras, online interest groups, and one of the subjects interwoven in the history of photography. And I think the ability to combine these elements says something about the cultural and technological age we live in. In some photographic circles, that’s the way it’s being discussed and I’m surprised Colberg and yourself have dismissed it in favour of more reactionary arguments that seem to hark back to what I see as a conservative and nostalgic view of the medium.
PB: Well, if preference for boots on the ground and a suspicion of a GSV project is reactionary, then okay. Why did you use GSV for No Man’s Land? Are you opposed to documentary work?
MH: This is documentary work, how can it not be? And what’s this suspicion of GSV? Would you have been suspicious of Eugene Atget walking the streets with his camera? I’m sure many were at the time but that suspicion seems ridiculous now. And your response is reactionary because it validates and dismisses work according to quite spurious and nebulous criteria. What does it matter if I released the shutter or not? A social reality has been captured by a remote device taking billions of pictures no one else ever looked at or collected in this way before. You’re only seeing this record because I’ve put it together. The project is about the scale of a social issue, not about trying to convince a viewer that they should have pity for individual subjects. Yet in these circles, the latter uncritically dwarfs the former as though it’s the only valid approach.
MH: Paolo Patrizi’s Migration is evidently an accomplished visual body of work, as is Txema Salvans’ The Waiting Game but to argue they offer a deeper insight into the plight of sex workers is, I think, generous to say the least.
MH: The assumption underlying much of the critiques of No Man’s Land (in particular Alan Chin’s) is that there’s no research and it’s a lazy, sensationalistic account of something fabricated. But what if I told you it was researched and took months to produce; what basis would there be then for dismissing it? Doesn’t research inform 90% of every documentary photographer’s work (it did mine, maybe I wasn’t doing it right)? What’s left unsaid in these critiques is that No Man’s Land doesn’t fit a rather narrow and conservative view of what one community believes photography should be. The fact we’re drowning in images and that new visions of photography are coming to light are a scary prospect to that community, hence the reactionary and defensive responses. But there’s more to these responses than simply validating boots on the ground. You’re prioritizing a particular way of seeing and rejecting another that happens to be absolutely contemporary.
PB: I think we can agree Patrizi is accomplished. I was deliberately lyrical in my description of his work and I meant it when I was personally moved by Patrizi’s work. That is a personal response.
MH: That’s fine, but what does Patrizi tell us that is missing from No Man’s Land? Is the isolation and loneliness of a feral roadside existence and the domestication of liminal spaces really that much more evident in one body of work than the other? Surprisingly – given your sympathy for Patrizi’s’ approach – even the women’s anonymity is matched in each project. No captions, no locations, no names, and no personal stories. Just a well-researched introductory text that refers in general terms to the women’s experiences. I think you’re viewing the work through rose-tinted spectacles.
PB: I can’t argue with your point about anonymity. There may be an element of gravitating toward [Patrizi’s] familiar methods. This might be because reading the images resultant of those methods is safe for the audience; they find it more easily accessible, possibly even instructive in how they should react?
MH: Working in documentary for many years, I can’t deny I aimed for these lofty aspirations. But I now consider the burden of sympathy expected from a narrow language of documentary to be a distracting filter in the expression of much more complex realities. Pity has a long and well-established aesthetic and I just don’t buy it anymore. In themselves the facts are terrible and I don’t need a sublime image to be convinced of that. In the context of representing street prostitution, striving for the sublime seems a far more perverse goal to me than using Street View and much more difficult to defend.
MH: Alan Chin’s comments surprised me because I wouldn’t expect such a knee-jerk reaction from an apparently concerned photographer. But his work is a type of documentary that I’m reacting against; a kind of parachute voyeurism soaked in a language of pity that reduces complex international and domestic scenarios into pornographic scenes of destruction and drama. It’s the very oxygen the dumb hegemonic narrative of terror thrives on and I reject it. Why you would pick his critique of my work is beyond me – we’re ships passing in the night.
PB: I quoted Chin because he and I were already been in discussion with others about the many photo-GSV projects. He represented a particularly strong opposition to all the GSV projects including No Man’s Land.
MH:No Man’s Land is disturbing, I agree. And it troubles and inspires me in equal measure that I can even make a body of work like it today. But it isn’t just about these women, it’s also about the visual technologies at our disposal and how by combining them with certain data sets (in this case, geographic locations logged and shared by men all around the world), an alternative form of documentary can emerge that makes use of all this new material to represent a current situation. It appeals to me because it doesn’t evoke what I think of as the tired devices of pity and the sublime to get its point across.
PB: It’s not that I don’t like No Man’s Land, but I prefer Patrizi’s Migration; it is close(r) and it is technically very competent work. There’s plenty of art/documentary photography that doesn’t impress me as much as Patrizi’s does. A clumsy photographer could’ve dealt with the topics of migration and the sex industry poorly. I don’t think Patrizi did.
MH: I don’t know what you mean by clumsy. If by clumsy you mean a photographer who shows us what they see as opposed to what they think others want to see then bring it on, I’d love to see more of that. No Man’s Land might seem cold and distant, it might even appear to be easy (it isn’t), but it’s rooted in an absolutely present condition. What you consider to be its weakness – its inability to get close to the photographic subject, its struggle to evoke pity – is what I consider to be its strength.
PB: The detachment is the problem for all concerned. People may be using your work as a scapegoat. This would be an accusation that I could, partly, aim at myself. Does your work reference the frustration of isolation and deadened imagination in a networked world?
MH: At first, I reacted strongly to your description of my work as anemic but now I think it’s a pretty good description of the work. And it’s an accurate word for describing what I think of as the technological experience today, our dependence on it and its consequences.
MH: I know, like most working photographers, that for all the fantasies of a life spent outdoors, much of a photographer’s workload happens online. And if you’re a freelancer, the industry demands that you’re glued to the web. It’s not the way I’d like it to be; it just happens to be the world I’m living in. And anyone reading this online on your blog is likely to share that reality. So it seems natural and honest that as an artist, I have to explore that reality rather than deny its existence.
PB: For audiences to grasp that you’re dealing – with equal gravity – two very different concerns of photography (the subject and then also contemporary technologies) opens up a space for confusion. Not your problem necessarily, but possibly the root of the backlash among the audience.
MH: Well, it’s surprising to me that few critics have actually discussed the work in relation to the context in which it was produced, i.e. as a photo-book. If even the critics are judging photo-books and photographs by their appearance on their computer screens, then I rest my case.
PB: What difference does the book format make to your expected reactions to the body of work?
MH: For one thing the book takes the work away from the online realm and demands a different reading. That in itself transforms it and turns it into a permanent record. Otherwise I’d just leave the work on-screen. I recently produced a second volume and intend to release a third and then a fourth, continuing for as long as the material exists.
PB: On some levels, people’s reactions to your work seem strange. If people are so affronted, they should want to change society and not your images?
MH: Too often, I find that beautifully crafted images of tragedy and trauma have become the safe comfort zones to which our consciences retreat. It’s something people have come to expect and it doesn’t sit easily with me. When I think of No Man’s Land, I keep returning to Oscar Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray:
No artist has ethical sympathies.
An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.
All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
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No Man’s Land will be on show – from May 3rd until 27th – at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Avenue, Portland, OR 97209. Tuesday – Sunday, 12-5 pm.
Madrid Prison © Gunnar Knechtel
Tree lined corridors and green lawns; swimming pools and squash courts; but this is not suburbia, this is Madrid VI prison. I know very little about the Spain’s prison system. In fact, the only time it has featured on Prison Photography was as it related to Mathieu Pernot ‘s photographs of family screaming over the walls of a Barcelona jail. It would be speculation to wonder if Gunnar Knechtel’s series Madrid (2004) depicts the world into which Pernot’s subjects howled. Instead I, and we, shall reply upon the information provided by COLORS Magazine Issue 50:
“Madrid VI prison (opened 1998) is staffed not by guards but by funcionarios, unarmed civilian servants with college degrees. It’s part of a prison culture that according to one funcionario aims to foster “a certain level of mutual respect and trust” between inmates and staff.”
To American eyes, Knechtel ‘s photography may appear to describe something other than a prison. The human-scale of the design contrasts the dominant modes of American incarceration, especially the dehumanizing Supermax.
Where it makes no effect on function, recently-constructed Spanish prison design includes manipulation of colour, sight-lines and landscaping to lessen the psychological impact of these confined spaces. But more than that, Spanish prisons – as depicted here by Knechtel – provide health and recreational facilities to nurture humanity. No more is this nurturing in evidence than in the prisons’ policies toward family and reproduction.
“A [prison reform] law – the new Spanish parliament’s first piece of legislation – was passed in 1979. It guaranteed prisoners all their civil rights, withholding only their freedom of movement.” Other improvements include monthly family visits in private rooms, as well as conjugal visits with spouses, partners, or even prostitutes is specially designated bedrooms. In the mixed prisons, male and female inmates are allowed to begin relationships and if the prison director agrees can meet and use private rooms as an official couple. Homosexual relationships are also permitted.”
Since 1979, Spain has built 57 prisons that adhere to these standards; each one at an average cost of $42 million. The focus on conditions came about following the demise of Franco‘s Fascist regime (Franco died in 1975, but a new constitution was not passed into law until 1978.) During the dictatorship, many politicians were held in Spanish prisons overseen by Franco’s notorious military police. When these men and women returned to the legislature, prison reform was a top priority.
Madrid Prison © Gunnar Knechtel
Many U.S. prisons with stable populations allow for conjugal visits (“trailer visits”) as an earned privilege for prisoners. For prisoners fortunate enough to have the option, trailer visits provide invaluable human contact; a type of contact that is never forthcoming in dominant prison culture. And this applies to all types of contact, from time with a sexual partner to a weekend with the extended family. Trailers in U.S. prisons are beyond the body of the prison proper, often in a self-contained secure spaces; architectural afterthoughts. By contrast, in Spain the philosophy of the family has shaped the spatial fabric of many prisons.
In terms of child-rearing, there are a handful of pioneer facilities in the U.S. Three of these facilities have been documented by three conscientious female photographers – Cheryl Hanna Truscott at the Residential Parenting Program, at Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW); Angela Shoemaker at Prison Nursery at Ohio Reformatory for Women, Marysville, Ohio; and Neelakshi Vidyalankara at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, the largest maximum security women’s prison in New York state.
In the U.S., at those rare Mother Units, law allows mothers to keep their newborn babies with them until 18-24 months. In Spain, the age is 3 years. From the same issue of COLORS, a mother describes her dilemma:
“My daughter turns three in a couple of months and it’s difficult for me to be separated from her. She’s been with me since she’s been a baby but I can already see that she needs something different. When they take her on excursions to the zoo or to the mountains, I see that she’s really happy. She knows that she has to ask permission for everything; she knows that there are people in charge. She says, “Mommy, tell the lady to open the patio door”, and she knows that she has to respect those in charge.”
No one would want to argue a child should remain with its parent in a state of suspended freedom indefinitely, but discussion about the legal age limit to which they remain together is valuable.
Madrid Prison © Gunnar Knechtel
Whether it two years or three years, the eventual separation of mother and child, or mother and father from child can only be a gut-wrenching unbearable event. Having said that, any parent would surely bear such pain in return for the pleasure of bonding with their children over even the shortest time-span.
Social psychology has shown the most significant bonds and rapid cognitive development occurs in the baby’s earliest months and years. As such, the benefit to mother and child cannot be denied.
The U.S. prison system does not provide the type of Family Unit deicted by Knechtel in which incarcerated parents can (if approved) raise a child jointly. Spain has actualised one of the most progressive penological practices by including the father within a more complex understanding of family. The needs of children are often the same as the needs of the parent.
Knechtel’s photographs are by no means extraordinary, but as with most prison photography projects, it’s the debate about the unseen world they give rise to, that defines their worth. The ambiguity of prison architecture punctuated by soft furnishings and children’s toys fairly reflects the conflicted reality for parents behind bars.
Gunnar Knechtel’s website:
Madrid Prison © Gunnar Knechtel
THE CONTINUING BLOGGING COLLABORATION
Thanks oncemore to Aline Smithson who transcribed. This is our second collaboration done in the interets of shared learning and proof that the photo-blogging community is alive, strong and charitable. Part one: A Visit to ER: Thoughts on Torture, Invisible [War] Crimes and X-Ray Imaging as Evidence. Below is a photograph of Aline’s feet from her portfolio Self-portraits.
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.
This is a neat idea. It tells you nothing about football, but a lot about massive environmental change, process or flux.
Les Hurleurs (The Howlers) – completed between 2001 and 2004 – is a series of photographs of people screaming to detainees in three prisons – Les Baumettes, Marseilles, France; Avignon Prison, France (which is now luxury apartments); and the Unidad Hospitalaria Penitenciaria D’homes, Barcelona, Spain.
Pernot “portraits” are surprising more than anything else and – for me at least – touch upon the diminished possibilities of family and friends when someone close to them gets locked up. The severance, deserved or not, results in desperate and almost pitiful tactics by Pernot’s subjects. Indeed, these images are meant to be seen alongside Pernot’s other series Panopticon which takes a documentary view of structures of the carceral “machine”.
Pernot’s work is intelligent in that it shows both sides of the experience and the deafening silence of his interior prison shots are roundly supported by the unheard vocal efforts of Pernot’s subjects.
View the full set here.