It’s rare one gets such a fine art look at incarceration. Lieven Nollet‘s images of Belgian prisons are contemplative set ups. The majority of his 50+ strong portfolio focuses on the fabric, wall textures, light and shadow of prison. Here I’ve selected three of his portraits, which I think hold attention the longest.

The same disquiet and still of Nollet’s interior studies continues in his shots of people. This isn’t quite Roger Ballen or David Lynch territory but Nollet’s photographs edge toward dark-chamber otherworldliness.


Generally, anonymity reigns too, so I’m being a contrarian by selecting Nollet’s portraits. Crafted to seem outside of our reality and certainly outside of time, Nollet’s photography doesn’t give us a social justice narrative to latch on to, but they may provide an emotional response that has us decrying shady, forgotten corners of prisons. Some of Nollet’s frames resemble hospital and morgue interiors and I’m certainly left with a feeling that these spots off the map are reserved for quarantine and/or civil death.

For the sake of positioning the work, I’d say it has elements of Jean Gaumy‘s tight European jail photographs, the spiritual element of Danilo Murru‘s photographs of Sicilian prisons and, to a degree, the cool observances of Donovan Wylie.

One of the few humanising components of the work is the presence of birds. A few years back, I was speaking with a prisoner in Washington State who spoke of a sparrow that had lived in the rafters of his old cell block for months. The sparrow had not gone unnoticed by any prisoner and all were concerned for its wellbeing. At once anthropomorphised, the sparrow was seen as another victim of lockdown. The bird brought a slice of life to the cell tier, but no prisoner didn’t wish for its eventual escape.

When we see animals behind bars these days, it is usually down to a dog-training program news story. Such stories are gold for a local paper, but the dogs and the photographers are groomed for a neatly packaged tale. Before the economics of the prison industrial complex took a grip, many prisons operated their own farms and many with pasture, cows and milking parlors. Prisoners in Louisiana’s Angola Prison still today breed horses for the New Orleans Police Department. In dank and crumbling prisons, complaints about rodents are common; mice and rats about the ankles are a reminder of the hole prisoners are in, whereas birds becomes a symbols of, and connection to, the great beyond.

With phrases such as jailbird and “the caged bird sings,” avifauna metaphors may seem cliche to us on the outside, but I understand why a lot of prisoners’ creative writing turns to freedom as embodied by flight and birds. And I understand why they nurture them.


All images: Lieven Nollet. See more at De Zwarte Panter