These pictures are presumably in Italy? Is this one prison or did you visit several?

This was seven different prisons in Sardinia and Sicily. Being from Sardinia it was a lot easier to get permission to photograph. I also knew someone in Sicily. But saying “easier” doesn’t mean it was easy. It took a year and a half to get my permission. Two of the seven prisons are juvenile facilities.

Why did you arrive at this subject?

Two things. Firstly, I was doing my BA in photography at the London College of Printing and I started photographing [London] prison walls in my second year. I have never done anything with those images; I never even scanned them. But they made me curious and for my final project I wanted to go inside. So, I sent letters to prisons here in London, but it was very hard to get permission. Being Italian, I resorted to try in Italy.

Secondly, the main thing that inspired me was Envoi a poem by Octavio Paz:

Imprisoned by four walls
(To the north, the crystal of non-knowledge
a landscape to be invented
to the south, reflective memory
to the east, the mirror
to the west, stone and the song of silence)
I wrote messages, but received no reply

It is absolutely beautiful, so simple.

What does Envoi translate as?

Envoi? It is a bit of a mystery. I was reading a book by Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, and on the very first page there is Paz’s poem. Now, Octavio Paz was Mexican, Henri Lefebvre is French, but I have never found this poem in Spanish of French. So, only the English version, yet the title is in French. Envoi means to “send out” and in French it is also used in a way that means not to just send out a letter, but to send out emotion … communicating emotion to other people.

This project was based around this poem. It is a poem that describes the four directions – north, south, east, west and these are the four walls. They describe the life of a prisoner.

But your photographs are of Sicilian and Sardinian prisons and yet your explanation seems to describe something more universal – something based in emotion, not in geography.

Precisely. I did not say where these prisons were on my website. It doesn’t matter where they are. It is about the idea of a reinvented life within four walls. Obviously, it doesn’t apply to every prisoner. If you only have a six-month sentence your cell is less important, but if you have a life sentence then I feel that experience is applicable to this poem.

Right, and within your images of cell interiors we can see details. Are you interested in individual objects? Do you want them to act as substitute for the inhabitant? For this is a common ploy – I am thinking of work by Jeff Barnett-Winsby and Jürgen Chill.

Yes and no. Let me jump to one of your other questions. You asked if it was my decision not to photograph inmates. Yes, it was deliberate, and beyond the fact it would be difficult to get permission. Again, based on this poem, I didn’t feel I needed to show these people.

I didn’t want to show a face. I thought it was enough to see their belongings and witness their presence that way.

What was the reaction of the inmates and staff at the prisons?

The staff didn’t understand why I wanted to photograph at the prison. They make jokes and suggest I should go to the beach to photograph, as it was “more beautiful down there.” That’s fine, they have a job and support their family and they’re happy that way.

The inmates were very enthusiastic. I mean, it’s a different day. A day different to all the other ones; to have a photographer come into your cell.

I was continually escorted except for at two open-prisons where I was free to go anywhere I wanted. Whenever I saw a cell I wanted to photograph, I had to ask permission from the inmate, not the guard. That made me understand that it was his house. I had to ask him, just as I’d ask you if I knocked on your door. Sometimes we’d have coffee. Some of the guys gave me recipes about how to make certain types of pastas. It was a very strong experience.

Do you know if any of the guys have seen your work – did you provide prints or may they have been released and looked it up online?

I grew up in an area of Cagliari that wasn’t the best so I knew some of the guys inside. Some of them were surprised to see me there; I was not so surprised to see them there.

As far as I know they are still in. There was another guy who was famous in the area for being involved in the mafia. He was on a life sentence. I expect not many have seen the work. Really though, I have no idea if they have looked at the pictures or not.

Is photography an adequate tool for communicating stories about prisons?

Yes it is, but you need to be very careful. You could make things a lot more dramatic. For example, I could have chosen a 24mm lens, got very close-up, shown rotten teeth of inmates … I could make it dramatic.

But, my position was a central position. Really, I know nothing [about prisons]. I didn’t, I can’t, stand on any side. I try to be neutral.

Tell me about your use of light.

I used long exposures. I wanted the light to flow from the windows. The light behaves as a one-way system; in the same way Octavio Paz’s poem spoke of writing messages but receiving no reply. In prison, communications are always interrupted; they become one-way communications.

At times “your” prisons seems quite spiritual? Was religion ever an undertone for your work? These could by cells that monks live in.

I’ve never thought of the spiritual aspect of the images. However in terms of environment, the ascetic life of a monk and the imprisonment of an inmate are not too different – only one is a choice, and the other not. Two of the prisons in Envoi used to be convents.

Pursuing that notion of religious visual cues – this isn’t a typical prison as we expect (in the US at least). Instead of barbed-wire, these prisons have rounded arches, some have vaulted ceilings. Some of the detail evokes ecclesiastical spaces.

The entrance with the rounded arch is the entrance to female section of the prison. This is in Sicily, which doesn’t have enough female prisoners to warrant a designated female facility. There were perhaps forty of fifty female inmates in this section.

I was actually quite intimidated by this gate – it was very heavy and very loud. It really gave the sense of being incarcerated.

How did you work while in a state of intimidation?

The first day I got in I took no photographs. I didn’t know where to start; immediately I felt like I’d got in too deep. Over time I got excited, I got focused. In Italy we have a saying that all things – good and bad – are felt in the stomach first. It’s the centre point of the body; everything important is felt there. I took these images after feeling emotion from the stomach.

How many times did you go to these prisons?

I went to Italy twice – both times for a month. I visited some prisons only once, others eight or ten times. I visited the prison in Cagliari, my hometown the most.

Did you do any research before the project? Did you look at other photography done in prisons?

Lucinda Devlin’s Omega Suites was a huge inspiration. Her work is beautiful.

Another project I like is Ghetto by Broomberg and Chanarin, although they completed it since Envoi (which was done in 2003). Broomberg and Chanarin photographed in South Africa and in Central and South America, not just in prisons but other institutions.

Yes, I have looked at their work before. My conclusion was that they now have the luxury of reputation, time and money to take a very slow approach to their photography. That is how I explain their remarkable results.

I think they deserve all the recognition they get. Their work is astounding. I was in a show last year, which also had their work. Their prints are amazing.

Tell us about your exhibition of Envoi?

It was a bit problematic. Firstly, I think they [The Ministry of Justice] gave me permission to photograph in order to get rid of me.

After the project, I wanted help to organise an exhibition. The exhibition I had in Sardinia was great but it was also a compromise.

The Ministry of Justice didn’t provide me money but they involved the town hall and private galleries and it became good publicity for them.

I used them and they used me for their own interests. They never understood my concept. They kept advertising the show as a one about Sardinian and Sicilian prisons and I kept telling them it was about a broader concept.

In the exhibition I used labels beneath the images to identify each prison.

[At the opening] I didn’t want to give a speech but they forced me. The Ministry of Justice didn’t really know what to say either but they had to say something; it is politics.

What are your politics on prisons now?

This was the first and only experience I have of prisons. I made my own personal interpretation of prison, but I don’t really know what happens inside. I want to take the position that this exists and is part of our society. Now in America, as you’ve said, there are the most prisons in the western world, and that is something relevant, but the way I looked at it from the start was that I was not going to make a judgement. I was curious about this place. It is a place we’d not want to experience but [about which] we’re all curious. My father was a cop and he worked in the anti-narcotics division for many years. He’d go to interview people inside jail. As a teenager, I always wanted to join him.

Do you aim to inspire curiosity?

The show was quite successful. Somehow people were reading what I was reading. I could see the majority of people reacting as I expected which doesn’t happen with my other projects! [Laughs] Generally, I was happy with the comments.

I did hear many people at the exhibition say, “It [prison] is not as bad as I expected.”

How did you respond to those readings? Did you challenge your audience?

No. I mean they didn’t see what I saw and they didn’t hear the doors slamming. Every step you take, there’d be another door closing at your back, one after another. It took a long time to get through the prisons.

Do you consider your images a literal description of the space. Is that enough?

No, no, certainly not and it is not enough. “This is the concept of prison and it is in these 20 pictures?” No, no, no, no. [laughs]. It is one piece of truth in an infinite world.

What are you working on now?

I am working on observations of tidal movements, the change in landscape. It is a study of seaside societies and the way they relate to coastline. I have visited Norfolk a lot – it’s amazing. In Italy you have the sea, the beach – it is always there, you don’t have these movements.

In Norfolk and other places, I take two pictures; one at low tide, then I wait six hours and take one at high tide.

Soon, I’ll be taking up a residency in Holland – the BADGAST residency – and I’ll look at Dutch sea society. Then, maybe Canada. Nova Scotia has the largest tidal movements in the world – as large as 52 feet!

Thank you Danilo.

Thanks Pete.

To see more of Envoi and Danilo’s other portfolios visit