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Alonso Castillo is a freelance photographer based in the state of Sonora in northwestern Mexico. Predominantly, he works as a stringer for Reuters. Most of his work focuses on the border and he is a specialist in reporting on migration and social issues. He has instructed workshops in the past, is a college teacher and, since 2009, has worked as an editor at

Mauricio Palos, a mutual friend of Castillo and I, contacted me to tell me of Castillo’s 2013 photography workshop in a local youth prison, the Instituto de Tratamiento y de Aplicación de Medidas para Adolescentes (ITAMA) which is in the city of Hermosillo, in Sonora, northwestern México.

ITAMA houses approximately 450 boys and men. All the prisoners were convicted as juveniles but currently 70% of the prisoners are adults as they’ve turned 18 during their incarceration. Castillo led a photography workshop with 10 boys aged between 15 and 21. When he sent me the photographs I was floored by how sparse and rudimentary the environment for these kids appeared. I wondered if this was a case in which, more so than others, the camera didn’t lie?

All these photographs were made by the 10 participants. Castillo and his colleagues only made technical recommendations in order for the boys to take advantage of available light and framing. “The boys decided how to work and what to photograph,” says Castillo.

Kindly, Castillo answered some questions about the project to accompany this exclusive showing of the juvenile prisoners’ photographs.

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Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Did you find prisons/social justice first? Or did you find photography first?

Alonso Castillo (AC): It is hard to say, I come first of photojournalism but this area is combined with social justice; that is, I do believe that our work is for the other. In this case this two territories are combined with an equal third one that is working with young people who have committed crimes.

Anyway, due to my job, I suppose I found photography first.

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Alonso Castillo and his students in the middle of a workshop session.

PP: What gave you the idea to do a workshop in the prison?

AC: I’ve taught, and participated in, workshops before—in Mexico, Cuba, El Salvador, Ecuador and Colombia. I try to make workshops part of broader and more complete projects of research into specific topics, or provide media training, or instruct on the practices of street journalism.

I knew a writer, Carlos Sanchez, who taught literature and creative writing at ITAMA. Together, we planned to work with young prisoners and teach photography. Carlos usually facilitates writing workshops so this was the first in which we worked with photography. For me, as a journalist and teacher, it was also a means to research and observe [the prison]. And the way things worked out, it was a very enjoyable observation.

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PP: How did you get access?

AC: The workshop was organized in conjunction with Fotoseptiembre an annual photography festival which recently celebrated its 25th year anniversary. Although Fotoseptembiere no longer takes place in all countries, it still exists in the city where I live. The festival served as a pretext to get authorization and work with these guys as part of a program that also included an exhibition to show the end results.

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PP: How long was the course?

AC: It lasted about 40 hours but we sometimes relaxed the formal schedule to adjust to the schedule of the boys or what was needed to complete the exercises. It is more accurate to say that we worked during the months of July and August 2013, and mounted a small exhibition in September. First we worked in the classroom with classes on theory; we saw some portfolios and documentary photography and we talked with the group and watched movies about photography. Later, disposable film cameras were given to each participant.

Participants were ten young people from five cities in central, northern and southern Sonora. Some of them came from the border municipalities for drug trafficking and murder.

The first exercise was carried out, then the cameras were processed and together we reviewed the work they had done. Then they were given yet another camera and had a chance to improve the ways they were seeing.

Much of the discussion topic was “everyday life”—their daily lives within ITAMA.

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PP: What was the aim of the course?

AC: We wanted to share with them tools and skills to help with their rehabilitation and reintegration; they could acquire knowledge and then approach a job when they finished their detention. We also wanted to give them occupational therapy during their time inside the ITAMA.

As we move forward in the activities it became a very human exchange of experiences between us and them, in which analyzed and talked topics of art, history, music, cultural references and social problems.

The photography and talk about photographs was as a part of healing.

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PP: Did you achieve the aims?

AC: It is difficult to know if what we did at that time will serve for something when they came out, which was an important part. With what happened in the classroom, yes, I am satisfied.

While in detention because they committed crimes (and some of them very serious), it was very emotional to reveal their “other faces”, the other sides to these young people.

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AC: Although criminals, they remain children. This plain fact is something that the system ignores or cannot sufficiently deal with. All these boys are in the middle of a long learning process and maturation; they experience the same intangible fears as any of us. It is a matter of influencing the values ​​and beliefs they have, rather than corrective measures and punishments.

There are also other related matters. The environment has a very strong and decisive weight. These facilities provide for the operation of organized crime on the streets and in the offices of government. Rehabilitation doesn’t work if the institution operates in the midst of corruption. The Mexican political system besides not favoring conditions for social security and education, seems to be working to do otherwise.

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PP: Any unexpected surprises?

AC: They showed huge interest in the workshop, which very often does not happen when you’re outside teaching boys in the regular education system and even in college. It is sad but sometimes you find more resistance in a student who had better educational opportunities. With this group, everything happened in an easy way.

There was a boy with a natural look, he made some of the best photos of the workshop; he had a sophisticated way of seeing that gave the images a very contemporary look.

That happens sometimes in the workshops: anyone can worry so much about making a picture look easy and then someone comes in and just do it.

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PP: Anything you’d want to do differently if you wanted to/could teach another prison photography workshop?

AC: Of course. Working on more personalized projects. The conditions are limited but we could work with them in a better recognition of the environment. Projects could be designed for collective or personal response — online journals, a newspaper produced by themselves, and so on.

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PP: Why did the prison authorities let you in?

AC: I think they did not take us seriously to consider us as a threat, except for us to fulfill the security conditions such as the introduction of dangerous objects or not allowed.

PP: Had you been in a prison before? What did you expect to find? What did you find?

AC: Yes, I had been before taking pictures for a story. The access we now had was restricted only to the area to teach the workshop, so we only saw facilities from afar … and in photographs!

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PP: What were the boys’ reactions? How did they work?

AC: The first reaction kept at a distance but then it broke. There were different profiles and even some involving more than others, empathy was virtually total. Then we work with maximum freedom. Sure, they are young and at some point they laughed at us but at no time was any kind of rejection or problem.

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AC: After the workshop we had a very modest exhibition in the courtyards of ITAMA, with some family and other visitors. When we worked on that, we processed some film close to the date and we found a picture of the soles of the boys feet. As the exhibition was to be called Desde Adentro (From Within), the boys did a special photo for that—they sat on the floor and wrote the name of the exhibition on the soles of the feet. That was something we were not expecting.

In 2014, a selection of work from the boys won an honorable mention in a local photo competition.

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PP: What was the staff’s reactions to the boys walking around with cameras?

AC: We did not know of any reaction. You know, reading the photograph depends on the social construction and context. It is that possible for them and the staff of the detention center, there was no threat from outside, were themselves taking pictures around. We did not go as journalists and we weren’t there to make a report or complaint or observation of human rights in the prison.

In a subtle way, these photographs depict these young people for whom we have used the prison to delete their presence and hide them … and we’ve done so only for our own convenience. These photographs confront us with facts that lay counter to our simplistic thinking.

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PP: Do prisons work?

AC: Prisons serve as a reflection of human behavior in which the administration of justice becomes confused with revenge.

We want justice but don’t think very deeply about its application. People go to prison for many different types of crime but when they’re inside we make no distinctions. Initially, justice is operational and later it is a process that becomes bureaucratic, expensive and exhausting for those who experience it. The legal part of the system is a mess; it is much harder to get out even with the law in your favor. Prisons may be where all traffic comes to a dead end.

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PP: Can photography heal social ills?

AC: Yes. It is an effective tool to communicate, to visualize and generate impact to social problems. Although it’s not a massively used tool for educational purposes, I think no efforts are small and everything we do is important.

In the near future, I want to train groups of people to jump-start local journalism projects involving vulnerable sectors of population and minorities (native groups, sexual minorities, neighborhoods, and others.

PP: So reach is a big factor too.

AC: Yes. César Holm, who works on a project for the professionalization of photographers in Mexico, in a conversation we had recently, mentioned the need to get an audience for photography and the promotion of a profile for teaching. I agree with him.

I say it is not a massive tool because although photojournalism represents a broad global distribution circuit, I have the impression that we are producing for ourselves. This phrase I heard a few years ago and I still like it, “only photographers know photographers”. We like to publish books that we read, there are contests and scholarships for specialized circle of consumers, who are we and our friends.

I think we could expand that circle.