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[This is part two of a three part series on prisons in Africa. Part one featured Julie Remy’s photography in Guinea.]

Muyinga prison

Nathalie Mohadjer and I sat down and talked about her vital photographic series The Dungeon.

Click on any image for its larger version. Please note, the four images of Gitega prison are not part of The Dungeon series, but were included because they related to our conversation.

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PB: Can you explain how you came to work in Burundi and how you gained access to the detention jails?

NM: I was looking for organizations I could work with during the summer. International Bridges to Justice (IBJ) were searching for photographers and journalists. There was work being done in Burundi so I contacted the office. I was there for two months. I worked with the writer, Laura Gabriella Dix.

Through IBJ, Laura and I got to go out with local NGOs, particularly the Association for the Protection of Human Rights (APRODH) – the biggest local NGO. APRODH is very powerful and is one of the few Burundi NGOs with the ability to get people out of the detention cells straight away. With them we could get into the detention cells. We made appointments through them.

We worked together with them and later with another NGO, the Association of Burundi for the Defence of Prisoners Rights (ABDP) whose staff are all Burundians. Both groups were great, they knew who to talk to, and they knew all the detention jails that were hidden.

International NGO’s usually have no idea that the jails exist.  There are detention jails all over Burundi – almost one in every small village. Also there exist detention jails that are illegal. People just get thrown in there when the police don’t know what to do with them. Prisoners have not been legally recognized, which is madness.

But local NGO’s know where the jails are because they have contact people.

[My visit] was not very planned; the NGOs don’t tell the police before they arrive. They arrive in the town and tell the administrator they expect to see the jail cells within half an hour, “We want to know who is there; how long they’ve been held; why they’re being held.”

If there is anything improper then prisoners can be set free straight away – at least in the case of APRODH – which was effective in releasing people immediately. That was amazing.

Muyinga prison

Muyinga prison

PB: ‘The Dungeon’? Tell us about the title of your series.

NM: I tried to find the most appropriate word. If you think of the word dungeon, you think of history, dark walls and holes. Dungeons are hidden and there is no light. It felt exactly like that. You can be in the centre of a village and people shall walk you around the back of houses and [show you] behind locked doors. The rooms are full of people just looking back at you. The walls are red and black, scratched with names of people who have been there. You almost feel like you’re witnessing a place of hell.

PB: Do the local communities sanction this mode of justice?

NM: For most, it is just the common practice. One of the problems is that Burundi is over-populated. There is no real law system; it has so many faults, they don’t know where to put these people.

In Giterany, there was a man in the jail who was a practitioner of witchcraft. The local people wanted to kill him. The police did not know what to do with him, so they put him in the jail [for his own protection]. It’s out of control. It’s not that people are aware or unaware, it is that they don’t know what else to do.

Of course, you’ve lots of people in the bigger towns and cities who protest [the situation] and make calls for a proper legal system. So people in Burundi realize [a need for reform], but they also realise it takes ages to establish this.

In December, there was a riot in Mpimba, the biggest prison in Burundi because it is so overpopulated.

Insight the detention cell of Cibitoke, where 38 man and children are captured. Most prisoners are held there up to 2 Years. By law the prisoners have to be judged after being captured for max. 14 days.

PB: According to Human Rights in African Prisons (ed. Jeremy Sarkin), Burundi’s prison system is operating at 230% of its designed capacity. This is among the worst prison overcrowding on the African continent. Burundi also has an incredible amount of pretrial detainees.

NM: Exactly, it was pretrial detainees in the jails who have not stood trial that I photographed. Sometimes it will be a year, or perhaps two before they see a judge.

In one image (above) the prisoners look directly into the camera. This is in Cibitoke, two hours away from the capitol Bujumbura. Prisoners there said they’d been incarcerated for two years.

Officially, it is illegal [to hold someone] after 14 days. Staying two years in a single room with 30 or 40 other persons is crazy. There are kids in there too. And kids have died in there.

The prisoners were so keen to tell us about the jail. They were well aware of why we wanted to show this [to the outside world]. My colleague Laura was writing everything down. The armed policeman told me I had one shot, but I took more discretely.

The prisoners who were held would go between me and the policeman to talk to him, so that I could take more pictures. They were helping me. I was more afraid of police than the guys inside.

14 year old Jamila (front) has been in Muyinga prison for four days. She helped her friend steal money from her landlord. Women  sleep in the corridor. The Policeman say that there is no contact between the men and the women.

Muyinga prison

Jamila in Muyinga prison

PB: Lets talk about shared cell spaces.

NM: Males and females were separated in Cibitoke.

Buhinjuza, near Muyinga, was a site where you have girls mixed in the prison population. Muyinga is close to the Tanzania border. I show images of Jamila and her friend behind.

PB: This seems extremely problematic.

NM: Very. I was so shocked. They were 14 years old and the boys were grabbing them everywhere. But, when we were there it was an exciting moment for them, you know, 14-year-old girls …

In the image (below) of 11-year-old Marie scratching something on the wall, do you see the blue blanket behind? And the second picture? This is where the girls sleep. On the right hand side is a red door and that is the toilet. Behind the blue door to the left, is where the guys are held.

We asked the police if there was any contact. And he said “No contact, no contact”, grabbing the girl as he said that. Disgusting.

Every time the guys needed to use the toilet they’d cross this space. So we asked the prisoners for clarification, “Every time you use the toilet you have to ask the guard to unlock it?” and they responded, “No sometimes the door is open.” Which of course mean that there is contact.

In the detention cells that was the only site where boys and girls were mixed in.

11 Year old Marie who is captured since 3 weeks after stealing the cell phone of Muyinga Administrator.

Muyinga prison

NM: In Burundi’s main Mpimba prison, in the capital Bujumbura, men and women are separated by a wall with holes in it. They have sexual contact through these holes. While I was in Mpimba I even saw women walking around in the men’s area. In Mpimba, there are babies born there. Relationships aren’t only among prisoners but of course between the guards and the women.

PB: But you took no photographs in Mpimba prison?

NM: No, it was not permitted.

Gitega prison

Gitega prison

PB: Tell us about these images (two above, two below) of Gitega prison and its women’s quarters.

NM: Gitega is a mixed prison. It is interesting because it is an old structure.

PB: It looks like a fortress.

NM: There is an outside wall and then just inside is the exterior wall of the building so you have an open-air corridor which circles the prison.

The director was naïve. I told him I was taking pictures only of the walls and not of the people. I must say that otherwise I would not be allowed to take pictures.

In this outside corridor there were condoms on the floor. There are male guards who go into the women’s area and have sexual contact. It’s horrifying.

PB: Are there any women’s only prisons or jails in Burundi?

NM: Ngozi is the only female prison that exists in Burundi.

Women’s quarters, Gitega prison

Women’s quarters, Gitega prison

PB: I read there are ethnic inequalities among the populations held in Burundi’s jails; that there are disproportionate number of Hutus in Burundi jails. Most people think only about Rwanda when they think of Hutu’s and Tutsis.

NM: Rwanda and Burundi used to be the same country,Ruanda-Urundi, so of course they have similar issues [and common conflicts].

After the revolution in the sixties Burundi established its own state and separated from the Belgian colonies. The difference [with Rwanda] is that in Burundi they stopped marking down who was Hutu and who was Tutsi in the Burundi passport. In Rwanda they still made the distinction.

As in Rwanda, the Tutsis were the more “sophisticated” because the Belgians had assigned them the higher race. Of course, there is no difference. Historically, ‘Tutsi’ means ‘owner of cattle’. That is all it means.

The Belgian authorities saw the Tutsis as taller, skinnier and looking “more European” … which is total bullshit. Consequently, Tutsis had higher standards [of living], more opportunities and more education and all services. [Tutsis] were more privileged. Even now if you talk to a lawyer he is probably Tutsi. They hold higher qualifications.

Judges waiting in Buhinjuza, near the city Muyinga.

NM: In 1972, there was a huge war in Burundi. It is not recognized as genocide but the Tutsi military went out and killed many Hutus. Hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled to Rwanda, to Congo and to Tanzania.

In 1993 the war actually began in Burundi when the Hutus started killing the Tutsi population.

PB: This aggression spilled over into Rwanda, I presume,

Laura and I met Hutu child soldiers who were recruited into the Hutu-led Palipehutu-National Liberation Forces (NLF) and started fighting because they had no food and they were angry about the situation. The Hutus are definitely the less privileged, the poorer people in Burundi.

NLF military forces still existed when we were there [Summer 2009]. They were out in the woods, not really active anymore. We went to some dissident camps; now demobilization camps.

Insight the detention cell of Cibitoke, where 38 man and children are captured. Most prisoners are held there up to 2 Years. By law the prisoners have to be judged after being captured for max. 14 days.

Cibitoke prison

PB: Would you say the Hutus are disproportionately represented in Burundi’s jails because of a typical class structure? Simply because, in current circumstances, they are a disempowered lower class?

NM: I would say so, I don’t really know the full reasons why there are more Hutus [in the jails]. I know Hutu fighters are now outlaws.

Generally, I think there are more Hutus living in Burundi than Tutsis, but I don’t know the percentages.

The National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) is the political party of the president Pierre Nkurunziza, and he is half Tutsi/half Hutu. The military used to be predominantly Tutsi. Now it’s a mix. The president had progressed the mix. Very few NLF dissidents still operate in remote areas.

PB: Explain more about over-population and the returning refugees.

NM: Burundi is very over-populated. Recently, Tanzania has been closing all its [refugee] camps. The Tanzanian government would say refugees could stay two more months, for example, and then they’d need to leave. You’d have 200,000 refugees coming back into the country. There have been 800,000 refugees since 1972.

These are Hutu refugees and now they must come back. There are so many Hutus who have never lived in Burundi, who were born outside of its borders. And now they must go back. They try to find the places they come from to get their old land back and of course others are now living on the land. Land conflict is the biggest issue in Burundi.

PB: Has Burundi had an influx of refugees from Congo these past few years? Is it a significant pressure?

NM: It is not significant. Congo has its own internally displaced people. The rural parts of Congo next to Burundi are where the war is and then other parts of Congo far away from Burundi are peaceful.

Rwanda, Burundi and Congo got all mixed up in the same war; it started in Burundi, went to Rwanda and now continues in Congo. Hutus killing Tutsis, Tutsis killing Hutus.

Prisoners in Citiboke receive no food by the government. Family members outside have to bring it to them. Some prisoners have no food for weeks and they beg the others for the left-overs.

PB: Moving back to the detention cells, what tensions existed in these small jails?

Laura wrote a good piece about how the system works when one is imprisoned in a detention cell. They ask you to buy a candle. The candle costs 20,000 Burundi franc – which is 20 Euros approximately – which is the equivalent of three months wage. If you can’t afford the candle, then you don’t get any food and you don’t get a place to sleep and you stand in the shit corner, where people shit.

PB: Have you photographs had much circulation? Can you measure the effect in the six months since you did the work?

NM: I have hope that people will want to know more about the jails. The images are important to for the NGOs because they are evidence of conditions and of kids being held.

Let’s face it, Burundi is just not important for the world.

I was talking to so many newspapers and they’re not interested. Maybe they’ll be interested when the presidential elections are held in Spring this year … but maybe they’ll only be interested if something bad happens?

Most magazines said The Dungeon is too specific, too dark, and it is not part of a war.

I am not getting any money from it, I don’t expect to, but the issue is getting out there. People can actually see it and ask questions. The most important thing is that the organizations can use the images.

The Dungeon will show at Visa pour l’Image, Perpignan 2010.

I’ve never worked on the topic of prisons or jails before, but I have worked – most of the time with NGOs – in refugee camps before (Buhomba, Burundi, Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina 2005, Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2007). It was important speaking to the people in the jails. I’d tell them I’d try to get the story out and create some awareness.

PB: Thank you Nathalie

NM: Thanks Pete

Muyinga prison

If you ever needed a reason to question America’s prison system, the Daily Kos gives you dozens

… and then some.

Louie Palu, a photographer I much admire because of his past photographic exploits has just secured the Alexia Foundation Grant for Professionals. The $15,000 award will allow Palu to continue his project Kandahar.

NPPA quotes Palu:

“I wanted to start balancing the coverage of the war and look more at the Afghan civilian situation. Once labeled as ‘The Forgotten War’ by many in the media only a few years ago, when I arrived in Kandahar in 2006 and up until 2008 very little international media was interested in Afghanistan. I hope we never forget like that again.”

I don’t think we will, not in today’s media climate that has swung full circle back to great emphasis on the politics of the nine year old conflict.

See Palu’s full proposal and portfolio at the Alexia Foundation website, and view his video work at the Atlantic.

– – –

Juliette Lynch won the Alexia Foundation Grant for Students.

And despite all her amazing work, I just had to post this image (not from her portfolio) of her celebrating the win! I think it deserves an award itself.

Photo by Andrew Maclean. Bruce Strong and Juliette Lynch rejoice as Lynch is named winner of the 2010 Alexia Student Competition. SOURCE

Well done Juliette.

– – –

The Alexia Foundation for World Peace was established by the family of Alexia Tsairis, an honors photojournalism student at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University who was a victim of the terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight #103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988. She was returning home for the Christmas holidays after spending a semester at the Syracuse University London Centre.

Don’t get lost in the impressive Alexia Archives

Edmund Clark who I’ve mentioned before here, here and here, was named in the Photolucida 2009 Critical Mass Top 50.


“I am trying to see through the eyes of these men to look for images in their surroundings in Guantanamo and their post-prison homes … which explore themes of imprisonment or entrapment, and which contrast the humanity of domestic life with the demonised representations of them that were used to justify their treatment.”


“The narrative is confused and unsettled as the viewer is asked to jump from prison camp detail to domestic still life to naval base and back again … [and] to explore the legacy of disturbance such an experience has in the minds and memories of these men.”

© Edmund Clark. Ex-Prisoner Home: Censored letter from daughter brought back from Guantanamo.

Green has strong emotional correspondence with safety. Green is the most restful color for the human eye; it can improve vision. Green suggests stability and endurance. Green is used to indicate safety when advertising drugs and medical products. Dull, darker green is commonly associated with money, the financial world, banking, and Wall Street. Dark green is associated with, greed, and jealousy. Aqua green is associated with emotional healing and protection.


I was looking over the following images of the protest/vigil outside San Quentin Prison on the night of Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams’ murder by the state of California.

The verdant tones of green dominate and they reminded me – like some ironic twist of a krypto-knife – of California’s death-chamber itself. San Quentin has since constructed itself a new fan-dangled killing suite … and it needed to. The Golden State had taken to injecting people with poison within its old hexagonal gas chamber.

The site became an insult to the escalating industry of death, out of sync with the newest sterile modes of person-erasure. The heavy air-locked lantern no longer suitable for the clinical 21st century methods of snuff so developed by scientists, physicians and judges.

The pea green pod that transports, transforms and accelerates passage to elsewheres; An echo of an echo-death-chamber..

One switch, one injection, one mistake, one outcome.

Two switches, two injections, two mistakes (original crime vs. retaliatory murder), two outcomes (original verdict vs. appeals all boiled in a single decision-cauldron).

A theatre reenactment. Perfect palette.


Back in San Quentin, the gurney straps itself to itself.


As a ten year old, I remember the same night time visions of green tinted destruction. John Major was in power and war seemed just.

I’ve seen them again recently …

Different century, same annihilation.

People will disintegrate, body parts will fall off, limbs will be poisoned and charred.

Democracy will teleport itself for its own arrogance, implicating a dictatorship and a sorry hybrid shall limp to an uncertain future.

And the toll shall be personal, unsuspected, for the love of the state and its rhetoric.

And the children will be the unhindered beneficiaries of a world not of their own, but the world of their violent predecessors, their decisions, amalgamations, actions and murders.

Kids become sad reminders that nostalgia, film photography and wildlife cinematics were forsaken before they could be rightfully demanded back. A new sterile age sports no death cells, no faces, no conscience, no history.

Immunology becomes the new high stakes industry …

By the way, have you ever noticed that the beat in Boards’ Kid for Today is the clickclack of a slide projector carousel?


I ran across the University College Dublin’s Photography & International Conflict project this week. It operates out of UCD’s Institute for American Studies … and it’s awesome.

Or as awesome as something about war can be … or at least the best academic offering on photos and carnage since Photography and Atrocity served up at Leeds University a couple of years ago.

If you fancy going all rogue-scholar then this is the site for you: Imaging, Africa, ethics, Northern Ireland, the political economies of photography, America, Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia and well known academes of the media/photo/critic world.

Anyhoo, this is all by the by, because amongst this thinkers-paradise are some straight video interviews with leading photography editors.


Roger Tooth, Head of Photography for the Guardian UK says (at about 18 minutes and 30 seconds):

I would have thought we are at saturation point for photojournalists, but then you have the colleges churning out thousands of graduates each year, so its all a bit worrying really. I haven’t got a clue what these people are going to do? I would have thought we’ve got enough people to go around at the moment. What I suspect they’ll do in the future, I suspect they’ll do video because that’s going to be the currency.

Well, how’s about that?! Seriously, great site and plenty of food for thought.

Found via the reliably excellent CONTACT blog, which keeps me real with all things Britski.


As if on cue, A Photo Editor has this interview with Vincent Laforet about his switch over to moving images.

© Bob Adelman/Magnum Photos. Washington DC. 1963. At the climax of his "I Have A Dream" speech, Martin Luther KING Jr., the final speaker at the March on Washington, raises his arm on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and calls out for deliverance with the electrifying words of an old Negro spiritual hymn, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!"


When doing research for Wired’s Raw File piece on Dell’s acquisition of 185,000 Magnum press prints, reactions were unanimously positive.

The deal was understood as incentivised in the right ways so that Magnum, Dell’s MSD, the Harry Ransom Center, the individual photographers and – last but not least – the public would all win; the deal meant advanced archiving, preservation, research, lectures, education and access to the materials.

I leant particular weight to the feedback of Eli Reed and Susan Meiselas, two senior Magnum members, both grateful for the collection’s new lease of life.


I’d like to quickly bring to your attention two differing opinions I’ve come across this past week.

Firstly, Stephan Minard takes a suspicious view. Minard is the former director for stock-sales and archives of Magnum (Paris, London, New York & Tokyo) between 2008 and 2009. Here is Minard’s article (French) and here is a poor Google translation.

Minard sees the issue of the deal as “bigger than just a deal for money and posterity. It is more the sign of the incapacity of the photographers to protect a common treasure, to build a common project for the agency.”

Minard puts the Dell acquisition in the context of recent acquisitions of Magnum photographers’ works by outside parties (Capa’s “Mexican Suitcase” owned by the ICP, Henri Cartier Bresson’s archive owned by the HCB Foundation in Paris).

I think Minard deals somewhat in hyperbole and paints Dell as an unsuitable custodian. He believes Magnum has sold its ability to own and write its own history, whereas many in the industry feel the retention of all rights by the photographers has ensured exactly the opposite.

Magnum is a business and as such it would be useless hoarding sections of its past collections if in so doing they jeopardised the careers of its current and future members. Magnum is not a museum.

In the other corner, George Zimbel speaks of Michael Dell as an ever-benevolent father figure of documentary photography. Read here.

Zimbel asks a general question as applied to any number of hidden collections and obscured archives, “Where are those prints? I don’t know. No one will have to ask that question about the Magnum archive. Thank you Michael Dell.”

Zimbel knew Cornell Capa in the 1940s. Zimbel did the annual report for Xerox Corp. in 1961. When he couldn’t repeat the contract the following year, Xerox hired all of Magnum to continue the documentary approach.

Zimbel then rattles through a numbers of folk, generations and degrees of seperation to end up at the desk of a family friend Alex Gruzen, Senior Vice President Consumer Products Group at Dell Computers in Austin Texas, “I am sending Alex Gruzen a copy of my catalogue “George S. Zimbel, IVAM 2000″ to give to Michael Dell. He really values documentary photography. It’s like family.

Salman Rushdie made a statement yesterday attacking Amnesty International‘s decision to partner with Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners, Begg’s advocacy group for Guantanamo prisoners.


“Amnesty International has done its reputation incalculable damage by allying itself with Moazzam Begg and his group Cageprisoners, and holding them up as human rights advocates. It looks very much as if Amnesty’s leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy, and has lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong. It has greatly compounded its error by suspending the redoubtable Gita Sahgal for the crime of going public with her concerns.”

Gita Sahgal was the former Head of Amnesty Internationals Gender Unit. Sahgal had described Begg as “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban” and contended the partnership severely brought into question AI’s ethics. Rushdie is a long time friend of Sahgal and supports her position.

From the Times:

Amnesty’s work with Cageprisoners took it to Downing Street last month to demand the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Begg has also embarked on a European tour, hosted by Amnesty, urging countries to offer safe haven to Guantanamo detainees. This is despite concerns about former inmates returning to terrorism.

Of course, one’s thoughts on this affair depends on whether or not you think Begg is seditious as his critics state.

If we are looking for impartial perspectives then Fahad Ansari, spokesperson for Cageprisoners is probably not the best source (although he states important facts about Begg’s past). I prefer to rely on British journalist Andy Worthington who has devoted his past eight years to researching and writing responsibly on Guantanamo.

Worthington looks at every angle, but states at the outset that Sahgal and the Rupert Murdoch owned Times may have been pursuant of an “editorial policy”:

That Sahgal also chose to air her complaints in the Sunday Times, a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, is also significant, particularly because the Times first attempted to smear Begg and Cageprisoners a month ago, in connection with the failed plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in an article by the normally reliable Sean O’Neill, entitled, “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had links with London campaign group.” To me, this suggests that Sahgal may have been used as part of an ongoing attempt to vilify Begg that was part of a specific editorial policy.

The danger here is that people will dig in their heels on previously staked ground; that legitimate criticism of the illegal Guantanamo will be eclipsed by accusation and counter-assertion about the character of Begg.

One to watch ….


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