In 2012, Swiss photographer Patrick Gilliéron Lopreno documented – alongside journalist Jean-François Schwab – three prisons: Prison Champ-Dollon and Prison La Brenaz in Geneva and Bochuz Prison in Vaud, Switzerland. The result was the series Puzzle Carcéral.
Two of the prisons were at that time subject to national scandals. Skander Vogt, a prisoner at Bochuz died of asphyxiation after setting fire to his mattress. Prison Champ-Dollon was notorious for its overcrowding. Prison La Brenaz was built purposefully to reduce the population at Champ-Dollon from its bloated 200% capacity, although with mixed results.
I wanted to ask Patrick a few questions about working inside Swiss prisons that were at that precise moment under scrutiny.
How did you gain access to the prison?
Bochuz was closed to journalists because of the recent death of Skander Vogt, a prisoner. I managed to gain access because my work was outside of traditional news media. I was working toward an exhibition in a gallery. I worked in the prison for nearly a year.
How are the prisons in which you photographed characterised?
Champ-Dollon still suffers from overcrowding. Bochuz is for prisoners serving long sentences.
What are attitudes in Switzerland toward criminal justice and prisons?
Swiss prisons are not like Rwandan prisons, but there is a lot of dysfunction. The current trend is to move towards more secure and less social (rehabilitative) prisons.
Can you explain the title Puzzle Carcéral?
Puzzle Carcéral refers to Baudelaire‘s theme of the fragmented body. As a story, this body of work builds like a “photo puzzle”.
What did the staff think of your presence and your photography?
The relationship with management was not always good; there was a lot of mistrust on both sides. Some guards did not help me at all because they did not like my approach, other guards would help.
What did the prisoners think of your presence and your photography?
At first, the prisoners were suspicious of my camera which is normal. After explaining my approach, some were willing to be photographed, others not. Those who agreed to be photographed signed a consent form which explained that the photographs would be seen – on the outside – in a newspaper and in an exhibition.
Puzzle Carcéral was included in Swiss Press Photo 2011 and exhibited at Halle Nord Gallery in Geneva. What was the reception to the work?
The Halle Nord Gallery is a contemporary art gallery. Puzzle Carceral was the first time that this gallery exhibited documentary photography. Television, press and radio still work in this way so for me the story is that documentary is not yet quite dead!
Why choose the documentary approach?
I always use Black & White 400 ASA Tri-X Kodak film. This is not an artistic bias; it’s a practical decision. I love the texture and thickness of the film.