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COLORS magazine first fell onto my radar last year when reviewing Broomberg & Chanarin’s work. It cropped up again in March when I delved into Stefan Ruiz’s early career. All three were creative directors in COLORS continually rotating roster of aesthetic leadership.

Based in the north Italian town of Treviso, COLORS is part of the publishing activity of Fabrica, Benetton’s communication research centre. Benetton’s searing brand-making hit my young retinas with its controversial United Colours of Benetton (billboard) ad campaign of the early nineties.

Besides Saatchi and Saatchi, Benetton was the only time in my childhood I was aware of the names behind billboard products. That is an assumed level of cultural penetration, but I’m working from precious memory too much to determine its significance.

[As an aside, Enrico Bossan Head of Photography at Fabrica and Director of COLORS Magazine was co-curator for the 2011 New York Photo Festival. He also founded e-photoreview.com in 2010, which delivers without no-nonsense video interviews with photographers.]

The 50th edition of COLORS (June 2002) focused specifically on prisons. From the introduction:

With over eight million people held in penal institutions the prison population is one of the fastest growing communities in the world. In the United States, a country which holds 25% of the world’s prison population but only 5% of the world population, prisons are now the fastest growing category of housing in the country.

For COLORS 50 we have visited 14 prisons in 14 countries and asked a difficult question: Is it possible to rehabilitate a person back into society by excluding them from it? We spoke to murders, rapists, pedophiles, armed robbers, thieves, frauds, drug dealers, pick pockets, high-jackers and prison wardens. In most cases the stories we heard confirm one thing. That prison does not work. In COLORS 50 we ask the inmates themselves to suggest alternatives.

The magazine is 90 pages of portraits and interior landscapes. I came to this collection of work late (in my research here at Prison Photography) and in many ways it challenges many of my former presumptions. This edition is a precursor to the “VICE-aesthetic” celebrating the battered and broken, and I’d be happy to dismiss it if it weren’t for the long-form statements made by the prisoners, which are printed with care and without censorship.

The issue includes bodies of work by photographers I was previously unaware of including Juliana Stein, Vesselina Nikolaeva, James Mollison, Charlotte Oestervang, Suhaib Salem, Federica Palmarin, Mattia Zoppellaro, Ingvar Kenne, Kat Palasi, Dave Southwood, Gunnar Knechtel, Pieter van der Howen and Sye Williams. I will be featuring selections of these photographers over the next few weeks.

I bought the paper edition, but you don’t have to as the entire Prison/Prigione Issue 50 can be viewed online.

Above all, while browsing the images and stories of the magazine, I am really pressed into thinking about the ease with which a commentator can politicise and argue against the prison system in America, but be flummoxed when asked to appreciate prison systems elsewhere. Benetton uses the common theme of incarceration to raise questions, but I am at a loss to think of common answers to tackle the pain, blood and damage done to individuals in their lives before, during and after imprisonment.

At a surface level this is car-crash photography; a look inside worlds we’ll never know, but at its heart it is a call to think about the nature of humanity and to think about the capacity for humans to kill, to survive, to get addicted and to repair and to forgive.

Back cover
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