Laure Geerts and Sébastien van Malleghem, two members of the photo collective Caravane, have been photographing in Belgium’s prisons for a little under two years. They went to seven prisons including Marneffe, an open prison; Nivelles; Paifve, a prison for the mentally ill; and the now-demolished Verviers Prison.

The series is called Destination Carcerale.

This is the second of a two-parter; yesterday, I published Belgian Prison in Grayscale a Q&A with Sébastien van Malleghem. I know very little about Belgian prisons so I asked them both some questions.

Prison Photography: Why look at prisons?

Laure Geerts: I have always been interested in people, particularly people who live on the margins of society. I want to know more about their reality.

In Belgium, we hear news every week about prisons: overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, strikes, escapes and “famous” prisoners that no one wants to see released. It’s quite a hot topic but you don’t see much documentary on that. The known images are always the same press photo with doors, big keys, guardians and prisoners with the face hidden. I am interested about the psychological aspects of a men being kept between the walls.

So, it is not the problems related to the prison, but the human side, the life stories that interest me. The issue of the prison is complex. Each individual reacts very differently to the deprivation of liberty.

PP: Despite the vibrant colours, your photographs are quite still in a way. Does the prison move slow?

LG: Yes, the prison moves slow. Everything is regulated, organized, timed … everything turns around the schedule, daily or weekly tasks to perform. This leaves little room for spontaneity, freedom of movement. It is not possible to take meals or to wash when desired. Officers dictate the rhythm with calls, opening and closing doors, distributing meals and various movements to workshops, playground or visits. If the prisoners do not get a job or a training, they stay in cell watching television, sleeping or playing with video games. Many know drugs, depression, violence and isolation. Taking drugs and medicines allows them to escape their reality and keep calm.

PP: The look of many of your images suggest you had conversations about composition and positioning of your subjects, which could almost be considered a collaboration. Do you think of your work in those terms?

LG: The images, built my way, express the deprivation of movement & freedom, but even more the loneliness of the people.
 I must say, that when we arrived on a cell wing or in a working area, we explained our project and those who agreed to be photographed sign an authorization. That meant we spend a lot of time talking before taking pictures. I also recorded sounds of the prison and what the prisoners and staff are eager to tell me, to share. The images come before, during or after the discussion.

They do not pose especially. In any case, I do not direct them. I try to capture what they give to me. So they talk and I listen and sometimes everything is just in front my lens. An important thing for me is a trust. When trust is mutual, I feel comfortable and I feel free to take any picture. It’s funny because first I though it would be more difficult; I feel less comfortable in other contexts and working with other subjects in other communities.

PP: Why the collaboration with Sébastien?

LG: We’re part of the same collective of photographers, named Caravane. We wanted to work together on a topic. His interest in prisons is, of course, a logical continuation of his work on the police. He wanted to push the analysis one step further and investigate what happens to people in prison following an arrest.

I am interested in closed universes and masculine spaces. In prison, it is the human and psychological aspects of the prisoners that I wanted to see. How does a prisoner feel during his incarceration? What links remain with the outside world? How is the social network in that closed universe ? I do not remember if it was Sébastien or I that talked about it first, but it is true that rather than taking separate steps, we could join forces. The exchange of ideas and pictures enriches the subject.

Working in the same field, we ask for good organization and good understanding of each other. We meet the same people, we visit the same places, but at the end our images are very different. Sébastien works in black and white, when I need color in photography. Sometimes I can spend time with a person while Sébastien seeks more action with a small group else where. We do not shoot at the same time at all. Given our different personalities, some inmates will go more easily to one or the other.
 It is also rich to share our impressions directly or in the car the way home and then see the pictures chosen by each of us.

PP: What did the prisoners expect of your photography and presence?

LG: Those who wanted to talk do not hesitate to criticize the system, their living conditions, daily problems and the lack of care. They took advantage of our presence to be recognized and to have a voice. Some are rather pessimistic and do not believe that our work is useful.

PP: What did the staff expect of your photography and presence?

LG: Inside the jails, we meet as many inmates, officers and social workers. Officers guided us and they sometimes talked about their work. Often the staff do not want to tell us about their experience or appear on the photos. They are often more cautious than the prisoners themselves. Those who do not accept to talk seem to be afraid of criticism and think they are victims of the bad image prison-guards may have to the public.

For them, they are seen as gatekeepers who spend the day playing cards, drinking coffee and being bored. Their everyday life is not very fun; they are somehow locked up and must also undergo regular staff shortages and insecurity. Their role is facing many limitations. They end up closing their eyes to illegal practices lacking real methods of control. Some are even tempted by little traffics to win a bit more money at the end of the month. These ones avoid us, of course, but we hear and see many things.

PP: What are your attitudes towards prisons?

LG: As in our discussions with prisoners, staff and having visited seven prisons very different in size and operation, my impressions and feelings are quite mixed. Generally, the prisons did not help to make men and women better or ready for reintegration. There are too few efforts to work in depth with everyone, to help them realize the gravity of the act for which they were punished, and especially how not to reoffend.

Society believes that to enclose a human being and deprive him of freedom for a while will be a good lesson and he will get back on track. It is complex because each person has a personal story, each case is different and it is difficult to propose a single method. Given the rate of recidivism and what I’ve seen, the prison today is not the solution.
 I have met very few inmates confessing to realize they had taken a wrong path, and that every day they had a thought for their victims.

Some are determined to use this time to learn a maximum of things through trainings, education or reading books. Others also get back in touch with religion. It takes a more prominent place than outside. They take some time to focus on God, to discover or rediscover their faith and prayers. And when the family remains, this is an essential support for the inmate.
 Otherwise, for the majority of the prisoners it is for them only waiting, complaining and dealing to improve the daily life (drugs, food, gaming & phones).

There is not enough psychological attention, motivation and education to young people and many of them do not see a bright future. Rehabilitation is difficult and the label “prison” rather indelible.

PP: Have your attitudes changed during your time working on the project?

LG: Maybe yes. It’s interesting to hear stories of many different persons and to see so many different jails. I have talked a bit with families. It’s another piece of the subject, but quite important also.

PP: Anything else you’d like to add?

LG: I would like to add a few extracts from sound recordings (translated from French):

”Look at me right in the heart. A train line in the dark. I am neither inside nor outside. It is as if I walked a life without you. I’m jealous that you are there in the country. I’m here all alone with four walls. All this time should make you forget you love me. I think about you all the time. I cry for love and boredom your face there in my head you’re very pretty nicely this is adorable. I rage and I write to you darling who are there with your great happiness when I get out of my hell but you know I love you so I would not want to seem sad but I have no sorrows not have you next to me.”

— Poem by a patient of the psychiatric prison.

“What is the most beautiful thing, the most comfortable? It is having a place in the heart of your mom. No? You’ll always get the support of your mom. Always.”

— Patient of the psychiatric prison.

”I would say there are cheaters and non cheaters, I am one of the non cheaters. In my head, I’m just a kid.”

— Patient of the psychiatric prison.

“It’s been 6 months since I arrived here. I have 69 months in total. When I have served 2/3 of my sentence, I will have 24 months until release. Otherwise, here, it goes rather well. I’m training in mathematics, computer science, French and cooking. We have two hours of yard per day. We can go to church here. I am a Catholic. 
I am 25 years old, this is my 4th time in prison. Here you can go to the gym, there is also table tennis, football, otherwise watch television. Most of the time, we remain locked in the cell. I have not told my parents. As this is the fourth time I do not want my parents to come here again. The first time they came often. I am at war with my father-in-law so I did not phone when I returned back here. The only people who are aware, it is two or three friends of mine and as they have a criminal record, they have no right to come here to visit me in prison. I’m all alone, but I came here with a friend.

I keep the spirit, even having no visits. I do not need to see my family to feel good. As I know they think of me, I am okay. It is not too hard either. The guards are friendly. I get on well with them, we laugh often. Keep up, we must say to ourselves everything okay, and we do some sport. Two years will pass quickly, I think.

Otherwise, I’m doing two or three small trainings: cooking, accounting so that when I get out I’ll try to find a job. Otherwise, I’m doing the paperwork to get an apartment . I wrote several letters, called a few places and now I’m waiting for answers.

We try to get released as soon as possible with the right conditions. I do not want to repeat the same mistakes that I made in other prisons. In other prisons, I was doing nothing I was just waiting for my pain, I got free and then I started again the bad things. Now, I have a longer sentence to do, I’ll take the time to think about what I want out for that I would not come back here again. I’m 25, I go out of here for my 27 years. I need to stop my bullshit. Otherwise, it will not be okay for my future. I want to have a wife, children and all. So I try to reinsert correctly. “

— Young prisoner in Nivelles.

“There are so many things that are officially banned in prison. There are things that are prohibited with reason, and things without reason. Forbidden things, but they are more than tolerated and demonstrate the terrible hypocrisy of the system. This is what disgusts me in prison. Here in this department, it is not very much prison. We have the doors open. We have a good comfort in our cell. I’ve lived outside with less comfort than this. Here we have everything. I have two hot plates, fridge & TV. But that gives us what? We have nothing. We are not punished, it’s true. You can live 50 years like that, we have everything we need.

That’s the hypocrisy of the system, we are put aside for a number of years. We are totally and ridiculously useless. We serve no purpose to the system, we cost money to the system. The system is not protected as when we go out, we are worse than when we got in. I’ve been in prison since 1995. I’ve seen a lot happen. I escaped. I’ve never seen anyone or very few people who amend and become nice sheep because they have been in prison. I think the system is hypocritical. Drugs are prohibited, but it is more than tolerated. Many guards – though they’d never admit it – prefer to see people smoking a joint to avoid problems. The drugs enter. I know a lot of people that do not touch any drugs outside, not even a joint or alcohol. But here they are down with hard drugs. They are not drug addicts that fall in jail but the prison can makes them addicts. Drugs are is much easier to find here than outside. “

— Prisoner in Verviers.

“What I have noticed in jail is that different social relationships we can have in jail, it creates a psychology. Most people are always stuck together, and it becomes a group. And this group has the same psychology. They all have the same social links and that’s what creates people who still hold the same discourse: officers are bad, the state is the bastard and we are the victims. And it is those people who are getting out, come back, leave, and so on.

The officers are now trained to be more social with prisoners. Before they were executioners. You have those who do not care about the prisoners, you have those who are serious and those without emotion, that do the job to get their money. “

— Young prisoner in Ittre.


Laure Geerts (b. 1978, Belgium) is a founding member of Belgian photo collective, Caravane. Laure studied commercial sciences in Brussels, before moving into photography in 2006 to study at the Contrast photography studio. She went from spinning images to making and challenging them and found it easier to approach strangers and subjects she’d not before encountered. Laure has exhibited at group shows in Cork, Paris, Brussels, Lille, Liege, and Bamako in Mali.

Follow Laure on Twitter and Caravane Collectif on Facebook.