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Spanish photographer Fernando Moleres has embarked on a singlehanded and single-minded mission to improve the lives of juvenile prisons in Sierra Leone. His interview Visa Pour l’Image: Fernando Moleres’ struggle to help juvenile prisoners in Sierra Leone at the British Journal of Photography is a must read.

Moleres speaks of the incredible difficulty to raise money for his work – not his photography work, but his work to connect these children with their families (many of whom are unaware their children are incarcearated) and also his work to provide bail so as to “prevent the children seeing the walls of a jail in the first place.”

Moleres is clearly disillusioned by the lack of forthcoming support from groups he’d expect to be solid allies. Here’s some choose quotes that are a challenge to politicians and NGOs alike (my bolding):

“[In African prisons] you have more chances of dying in these prisons than anywhere else – you can die of diseases, malnutrition. Also, injustice is more flagrant than anywhere else. There are barely any lawyers, some detainees have spent years in prison without even going in front of a court. There is a deep injustice – deeper than in any other country such as Russia, India, Israel or the United States.”

“People don’t realise the extent of the injustice present in these prisons. They are forgotten by everyone. When I was asking for help to NGOs – the Red Cross, Médecins du Monde, etc. – no one, absolutely no one wanted to help me. Of course, I was there on my own initiative; so I didn’t have a project they could study, send to Europe for the green light, which would then be rescinded… There’s so much bureaucracy that in these cases it would just not be possible.”

“I’m the only one paying for all of this. I’m spending my own money. This exhibition, which is travelling around Spain at the moment, has received an award from the NGO Medecins du Monde. During the award ceremony, I asked them if they could help me finance this project. Their answer was no.

“I think it would be easy for an organisation to force Sierra Leone to do something. The United Nations, for example, would be the perfect organisation to do so. Talking about the United Nations, when I was in Sierra Leone, a representative from the organisation came to the prison to visit the detainees. I went with him. He talked with a few dealers, the guards, etc. But when other detainees came to see him to denounce the injustice of the entire system, his answer was: “I’m not here to solve your personal problems.” This man, whose name is Antonio Maria Costa [his official title is Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Director-General of the United Nations Office in Vienna], has access to the country’s vice president and home affairs minister. He could have done something about it, but he chose not to.

Depressing stuff.

For my more general thoughts on Moleres’ work from Sierra Leone and other photographers who’ve documented juvenile detention in Africa see Fernando Moleres: ‘Merciless Justice’ from January, 2011.

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Recently, I published an article on Wired.com about the opulent interiors of private jets. The owners of these jets remain anonymous as photographer Nick Gleis must protect client confidentiality.

For Gleis’ most recent and high profile showing, The Brighton Photography Biennial (BPB) described Gleis’ photographs as aircraft of African dictators. Gleis refutes outright the suggestion. “There are NO African Dictators that own any aircraft I have ever photographed. My clients are hard working people that have been fortunate enough to acquire wealth,” said Gleis via email.

Gleis and BPB need to get on the same page.

THE WEAKNESS OF THE VIEWER, MYSELF

In my mind, the term ‘Dictator’ (applied to any continent) brings up notions of human rights abuse and blood money, and of constructed and contested narratives. There are many contested narratives about African government in the fourth quarter of the 20th century.

My naive understanding of a continent’s countless ruling structures would be ridiculous enough, if I didn’t then try to guess if any of my limited-knowledge-based narratives were to be applied to the lavish interiors of aeroplanes.

I will not apply such narratives to Gleis’ then, but others likely will – especially as long as BPB and other institutions make use of questionable captioning.

MANIPULATING THE IMAGE, MESSAGE

The unavoidable information-gap in Gleis’ imagery is its Achilles heel. My basic point is that that if we as Westerners are suspicious of wealth, we are really suspicious of wealth originating in a developing country.

My argument here is not about Gleis’ imagery, nor about the specifics of any imagery. My argument is about the innate bias of viewers and about how “the Other” is  consumed and constructed based upon such biases in the context of image.

EL HADJ MAMADOU KABIR USMAN, Emir of Katsina, Nigeria © Daniel Laine

Think back to Daniel Laine’s African Kings series. It is old work now (completed between 1988/91) but I am still impressed by the access Laine secured – based, I presume, on respect between photographer and subject ruler. But, due to exotic costumes Laine’s work is open to misinterpretation and misappropriation. In the light of BPB’s description, Gleis’ work too is being peddled as something it is not.

Often when I look at photography, I feel as though I am loading an image with my own baggage, criticism, emotion desires to see what I want to see in and about the world.

I am increasingly certain that images are boons to our own narratives and as more and more images fall into our laps and onto our laptops, I worry we are able to create the world we want and avoid the one we don’t.

Ambiguity in images is sustenance for the egos of men and women (but mostly men). Can we escape ourselves enough to view images unbiased?

We might never see Africa, unless, of course, we get on a plane and go there.

HALIDOU SALI, Lamido of Bibemi, Cameroun © Daniel Laine

AGBOLI-AGBO DEDJLANI, King of Abomey, Benin © Daniel Laine

ABUBAKAR SIDIQ, Sultan of Sokoto, Nigeria © Daniel Laine

DANIEL LAINE

Daniel Laine is a former storekeeper, professor, and hotel concierge turned photographer. Between 1988 and 1991 he made twelve trips to  the African continent tracking down and photographing figures of royalty, and leaders of kingdoms.  During this time he managed to photograph 70 monarchs and descendants of the great African dynasties. The book, African Kings: Portraits of a Disappearing Era was published in 2000 by Ten Speed Press. Laine lives in France.

[Author’s Note: This is the first in a three part series on prisons in Africa. Through the lens of three different photojournalists, we will see the conditions and lives within prisons of Guinea, Burundi and Sierra Leone.]

© Julie Remy. Inscriptions by young prisoners.

Julie Remy has photographed stories in Rwanda, Mali, Zambia, Malawi, and for her series on prisoners – Guinea.

In September 2008, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) began an emergency intervention in the civilian prison of Guéckédou in southeastern Republic of Guinea. Remy’s documented the food and medical aid effort.

“We have problems with food and illness here. There are no medications. There is no doctor. Since 2007, 30 people have died here and the doctor didn’t come.” Inmate, 19 months in prison

Guéckédou was over-crowded, unhygienic and without proper ventilation. As a result, some inmates were malnourished, most dehydrated and many with respiratory and skin diseases. It was recorded that prisoners with tuberculosis shared cells with the general population. Incubation of disease was a major concern.

I have no idea how the prison conditions of Guéckédou compare fifteen months on.

© Julie Remy. At the Guéckédou Civilian Prison, inmates wash only with water on a non regular basis. This prisoner shows the photographer his scabies. Due to poor sanitation prisoners suffer various skin diseases.

Remy worked in dark surroundings. As MSF vouched, “The scene that meets the eye upon entering the chambre noire “dark room” is beyond belief. Some 26 prisoners, crammed into a space of about three by four meters, can only be made out by squinting.” These images are part of a specific, urgent campaign, so it would be offensive of me to pay them any aesthetic critique. The awareness is what matters here.

MSF made good use of Remy’s photographs to produce a short video explaining the situation and dire need for intervention.

I’d like to emphasise that Remy (as a photographer) and MSF were in Guéckédou because of extreme circumstances at the national level. The poor conditions in the prison can be attributed to a number of larger structural instabilities. The men in these photos are one constituency suffering from a regional crisis. MSF explains; “The failure to ensure basic minimum standards in Guinea’s prisons can be linked to the country’s generally poor human and economic development. Ongoing instability and conflict in neighboring countries have long impacted on Guinea, while strikes and civil unrest have emerged in-country over the past few years. The ongoing international increase in food prices, especially in 2008, has exacerbated Guineans’ already precarious living standards and food insecurity.”

© Julie Remy. Malnourished prisoners received plumpy nut provided by MSF at the Guéckédou civil prison.

© Julie Remy. Malnourished prisoners received plumpy nut provided by MSF at the Guéckédou civil prison.

© Julie Remy. A prisoner tells us that he is innocent. That he has done nothing and still has not been judged. He says he does not know why he is held here in the  “Chambre noire” where a dozen prisoners are tied to a bar and held with another dozen in a barely lit cell. Guéckédou civil prison.

© Julie Remy

© Julie Remy

When the opportunity arises, I think it is important for audiences to view images like those two above within each others context. The first image is a dank, alienating environment in which the oppressive shadows and walls dominate. Whereas the second image (probably taken within a matter of seconds) is a well lit portrait centred on the gaze and associated emotions of the man; the prison environment is not stated. Precisely because MSF and Remy were present due to the physical effects of this environment on these men, both are valid photographic approaches.

The consequent written report from this aid intervention released in February 2009 continued with a call for systemic reform:

“Although the sub-standard conditions in Guinean prisons can be attributed partly to poverty and the country’s limited resources, these factors alone do not explain the absence of response to recurring malnutrition and the unacceptable living conditions in Guéckédou and other prisons. Guinean national authorities bear the ultimate responsibility to uphold the fundamental human rights of its inhabitants, including its incarcerated population.”

I, like many others invested in the photojournalism/documentary community, want to see less images of suffering in Africa and more images of the uneventful days; the boring normal times, perhaps some quiet smiles and tears. Add to that some local African photographers and we’re on the right track. (See recent commentary by Paul Melcher, Daniel Cuthbert and Ben Chesterton for more on this).

© Julie Remy

In closing I’d like to offer a caveat for the three part ‘Prisons in Africa’ series.

African prisons – that is, sites of incarceration across a land mass the size of Western Europe, Argentina, China, India and the USA combined – are each unique. Generally, conditions will be poorer than in prisons of developed nations, but every prison has its own culture, rules and circumstance. In Africa, as in the rest of the world, prisons usually exhibit the worst of a nation; retribution and anger, neglect and apathy.

Photographers are compelled to visit prisons known to them through local knowledge or national notoriety; we must expect there is a story to be told. The prisons I will feature in this three-part series will not be pleasant, but I think the three featured photographers are sincere and the stories are important.

While the men in these images may deserve pity, Africa as a continent does not. Africa deserves our respect and our time.

Nations in Africa, as with all places featured in the photojournalism we consume, should be places we think about visiting. I seriously encourage anyone and everyone to make an extended visit. Opportunities to dilute the media images of places and people with first hand interaction with those places and people will only have positive results. If only we had the opportunities, good reason and resources to visit and live in new places frequently.

(Disclosure: I lived in East Africa for five months. That time made more complex and less harried my perspective of the world. The largest culture shock was returning to the UK.)

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Official Bio: Julie Remy is an award winning documentary photographer specializing in human rights, health, travel and the environment. What she captures through her viewfinder and what she tells in written word she believes will contribute to bringing hope and respect and perhaps assist in gaining access to the care and knowledge they deserve.

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