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I had a quick chat with Sébastien van Malleghem about why he is crowdfunding a photobook following his three years photographing prisons in Belgium.

It’s over at Vantage: Making Photos Inside To Bring The Stories Out

In short, this:

“The book is, for me, the closure of the story. Photographs must end on paper. That’s how the medium exists — in print. On paper, with full context, you can touch the pictures, understand the whole story. Things fade away on the Internet. Clicked, Like, then something else. Good photos in a book stick to your head. The largest part of my photo story will be exclusive to the book.”










Sébastien van Malleghem has been awarded the 2015 Lucas Dolega Award for Prisons his four years (2011-2014) of reportage from within the Belgian prison system.

I’m a big fan of the work having previously interviewed Sébastien while the work was ongoing and applauded the time he spent three-days locked up in Belgium’s newest most high tech prison. That experience helped van Malleghem understand that there are some very thin but very significant thread that connect the cameras and lenses of security, with the cameras and lenses of photographers and journalists, with the cameras of news and entertainment.

In his formal statement to the Lucas Dolega Award, van Malleghem says:

These images reveal the toll taken by a societal model [the prison] which brings out tension and aggressiveness, and amplifies failure, excess and insanity, faith and passion, poverty.

These images expose how difficult it is to handle that which steps out of line. This, in a time when that line is more and more defined by the touched-up colors of standardization, of the web and of reality TV.

Always further from life, from our life, [prisoners] locked up in the idyllic, yet confined, space of our TV and computer screens.



In an interview with Molly Benn, Sébastien (mashed through Google translate) says a couple of valid things. They answer key questions young photographers have, firstly about access, and secondly about behaviour in the prison.

No one will tell you up front “You should contact so-and-so.” I went to see the mayor of Nivelles. I forwarded to the director of the prison in Nivelles, who referred me to a government worker. Those exchanges took  8-months. Every time I was asked to re-explain my project. Eventually, I received written permission by email but, still, each warden could still refuse me if he wished.


In prison, everything is constantly monitored. My first challenge was to get out from under the constant control. Upon entry into prison, you are immediately assigned an agent, supposedly for your safety but mostly to monitor what you’re doing.

But the prison officer ranks are often understaffed. I quickly noticed that they preferred to work their usual job than  be my baby-sitter. So. I asked questions, showed interest in their profession, and I gained their confidence. After this, they let me work quite freely. 

Basically, photographing in prison is a precarious exercise. I recall the words of one photographer who reflected on this best when he told me he never presumed he’d be let back in the next day or next week. He made images as if that day in the prison was his last.

Van Malleghem’s prison work follows on from years documenting Belgian police.



Lucas von Zabiensky Mebrouk Dolega grew up between Germany – his mother’s homeland, Morocco – his father’s – and France. Never one to respect authority for authority’s sake, he needled the inconcstencies and the inbetween spaces of persons’ experience and identity. On January 17th 2011, in Tunis, Lucas died on the streets amid a riot. He was covering the “Jasmin Revolution” in Tunisia.

The Lucas Dolega Award honours Dolega’s spirit and contribution. The award recognises freelance photographers who take risks in the pursuit of infomration and informing the world. Previous recipients are Emilio Morenatti (2012), Alessio Romenzi (2013) and Majid Saeedi (2014).


Follow Van Malleghem on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.


W. simply asked for a picture of his daughter playing near her mother’s house. “I used to take a lot of pictures of her myself.”

When Dutch photographer, Desiree Van Hoek visited Leuven Prison in Belgium, her intention was to photograph the pictures on prisoners’ cell walls. To look at prisoners’ use of — and values placed within — photographs would have been an anthropological study of sorts. Alas, as with many a proposed prison photography project, the administration would not allow it. Her plans for a camera workshop were also nixed. Undeterred, Van Hoek conceived of another way to use photography to connect with the prisoners.

“I was visiting a very outdated prison, and noticed that there were only very small windows. There was nothing to see for the prisoners but a wall, some mud and an old goat,” explains Van Hoek. “This seemed very depressing to me, so I asked the prisoners if there was an image they would like me to photograph for them. Something that would make them feel better.”

The resulting series, titled Leuven Centraal, is essentially a pen-pal project, but making use of pictures not words to forge connection. After successfully getting approval for the project at Leuven, Van Hoek repeated the formula at Turnhout and Hoogstraten prisons, also in Belgium.

The methodology of Van Hoek’s project is akin to Mark Strandquist’s Some Other Places We Have Missed and the Tamms Year Ten project Photo Requests From Solitary. Both these projects I’ve applauded in the past (here and here). In the same spirit, I wanted to ask Van Hoek about the outcomes and motives for her project.

Scroll down for Q&A


D. gave me a blue piece of paper ripped out of a magazine. He wanted a picture of a blue sky with soft white clouds. “Sun and a light breeze keep depression away.”


Prison Photography (PP): Describe the types of requests.

Desiree Van Hoek (DVH): It could be anything, as long as it wasn’t related to their crimes. The men came up with all kinds of ideas: family members, cars, dogs, their favorite soccer team, sunsets, etc. I also asked them to write down why they wanted these particular images.

PP: How did you come up with the idea?

DVH: I wanted to do a photography project and a workshop with prisoners. During an earlier project in the streets of Los Angeles, I had met several ex-prisoners who got their life back together thanks to (among other things) painting and photography. This had inspired me, and I had an appointment in the Leuven prison to see what was possible. The office of the person I was visiting was right in the middle of the prison.

PP: What was your initial interest?

DVH: I’ve always been interested in the way people live under different circumstances, and what they do with their homes. My work always has a social component.


K. spent 13 years breeding and training Dobermans. Prison management wouldn’t allow a picture of a big dog, so he chose a puppy. “Dobermans are sweet dogs, although most people think they are not.”

PP: What is the state of criminal justice in Belgium right now?

DVH: From a Dutch perspective, many Belgian prisons are old and outdated. There are often uprisings. Prisoners with psychological problems are mixed with other prisoners. Many prisoners told me they would rather be in a Dutch prison. They had heard good stories about the living conditions and the food (french fries once a week).

PP: How are prisoners perceived in Belgium?

DVH: That is hard for me to say. But I think the Belgians in general don’t perceive them as victims of society, but really as criminals who should be put away. In Holland, this used to be different, but nowadays more and more people seem to have the same view.

PP: Did any of the requests surprise or touch you?

DVH: What I found touching was that they were all very polite. Only one guy asked for a picture of a sexy girl, which was okay with me, but the prison wouldn’t allow it. Also touching: one guy asked for picture of me (this wasn’t allowed either).

What I found surprising and painful was that they didn’t ask for more people. I expected them to ask pictures of their family, but most of them asked for nature, animals or objects. This was because, they said, they had no one.


L. asked for a picture of the latest model BMW, Audi or Mercedes, taken in a showroom. “I’ve always loved beautiful cars.”

PP: What were the reactions of prisoners?

DVH: Very positive. The staff later sent me letters with their reactions. One prisoner who hadn’t participated said he regretted it seeing the results. A father who had asked for a picture of his daughter started to cry in front of all the other men, and everybody was touched by this.

PP: What were the reactions of staff?

DVH: Also very positive. I financed the projects in Leuven and Hoogstraten myself, and then got an offer to do another one in Turnhout for which I got paid. Staff was very cooperative, and one of the directors sent me a thank you letter to say he was grateful.

PP: Would you like to do any more work with prisoners or in prisons?

DVH: I would really like to repeat the project with female prisoners. But I’m back in Holland now, and it’s much harder here to get into prisons.



 S. wanted a picture of Muntplein, the only legal graffiti spot in Antwerp. ‘This is where I would hang out with my friends.”



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



Usually when we hear of a photographer in jail we fear the worst. A foreign correspondent imprisoned; a street photographer detained in violation of civil liberties; a protest photographer swept up in riot police mass arrests.

Belgian photographer Sebastien Van Malleghem went to prison of his own free will. In fact, he was invited. Early this year, the authorities were preparing to open Beveren Prison, a new facility in the north of the country designed for 312 prisoners. Prior to the opening, the authority invited members of the press and criminal justice professionals to experience life inside. Joining Sebastien Van Malleghem in the temporary prison population were reporters, a TV crew, lawyers, a judge and even some prison guards. Collectively, they were guinea pigs to ensure the smooth running of the new state-of-the-art systems … which were not always smooth.

“We underestimated the influence of technology on the daily scheme of the prison,” said Beveren Prison spokesperson Els Van Herck. “Yesterday, it started already with the discharging of a visitor, a prison cell that wouldn’t open, and a lock that we had to drill out, as well as intercom systems that didn’t work thoroughly.”

Van Malleghem was locked up for three days. We talked. He recounted his “weird feelings.”


Prison Photography (PP): You were on assignment?

Sebastien Van Malleghem (SVM): Yes, for De Standaard, a Flemish newspaper. I made 45 photographs and they published 10.

PP: You’ve photographed in prisons before.

SVM: Yes, in the prisons of Marneffe, Ghent, Nivelles, Namur, Ittre, Forest, Berkendaele, the now-demolished Verviers, and Paifve a prison for mentally-ill prisoners.

PP: How did Beveren compare?

SVM: There are many fences. Many doors. You can’t have clear vision, you can’t see any landscape. Vision is limited to, maybe, 15 meters. It is not going to be especially better for the minds of the prisoners. So I’m ambivalent about it.


PP: In the past, you have shot in black and white (as opposed to your colleague Laure Geerts who photographed in colour) Why black and white here, too?

SVM: I took the option to do something really cold, clear and disturbing. To get at people’s emotion. In the beginning [my fellow prisoners] were smiling and I watched them to see how they would be after five hours being in a cell of 8-meters square. Obviously they were looking a bit stressed and tired.

My point of view was a tiny bit different from the others guest-prisoners because I had press authorization, so the door of my cell was a open a bit more to let me shoot some pictures.


PP: What was your goal?

SVM: I was thinking about the prison riot. And why. The punishment of prison is to deny freedom. The punishment is not to give no freedom to your mind or to let you live inside these cold buildings without anything. Why not let prisoners have something more comfortable? They’re already outside of society.

You’re already inside of a prison with a full range of walls and a huge perimeter boundary with razor wired and electric fences. So, why not put inside something more human? That’s exactly what I’m fighting for.

PP: Better conditions?

SVM: There is no emotion. You go into a closed square, and then another one, and then another one. Squares and squares and squares. I’m not sure that prisoners will see more psychologists or people like that to help them [at Beveren].

PP: It’s a tightly controlled, sterile, modern prison. Small, clean boxes.

SVM: Why must we — in the 21st century — have jails like those in the middle ages. So small. When you need to eat and get your plate you just don’t have space to move your arm, space to turn around. You cannot open the window. There is a security system. You turn a button to get fresh air from outside but you can’t open the window. Suddenly, you just feel like you don’t even have space to fall forward.

While I was sleeping, the guards would come by every two hours. There is no agenda; they just come and check, open the little hatch in the door. You have no privacy.



PP: How many people from the media went inside the prison?

SVM: I was with a writer, there was another photographer/writer team, two teams from a TV channel. Maybe, ten media persons.

It was training for the guards, to see what was wrong inside the prison. A journalist wrote that there were real problems.

PP: What is Prison Cloud?

SVM: There is a flat screen in each cell. In this new prison they wanted to try new “modern” things. Prison Cloud is a basically a kind of internet designed for prisoners. Keyboard, flatscreen, and the mouse. Prisoners can order a tiny bit more food or cigarettes and pay. Stuff is a bit more expensive but it’s easier for the prisoners to order through the computer. Also they have very restricted access to internet — only a few pages that they can go to such as the employment office, government websites. They can also order and pay for movies to watch.

When men enter inside the prison, they are fingerprinted and given a USB key where all their personal information is recorded. They need to put the USB key in the computer to gain access. The prison checks everything they’re doing on there.

PP: It sounds oppressive, but we’d expect that, no?

SVM: I deeply believe that a cell of 8-meters square makes you nervous and/or lazy. When you’re locked up, your thoughts turn quickly: “What’s my option in here?” You can struggle to stay in shape doing some exercise, reading books and keep your mind busy with some crazy plans that only your brain can imagine or just lose it all and spend your time laying on your bed.

From your cell, you can hear what’s happening in the wing, but you can’t see it and so you start to play stories in your head. The sounds of the voices and the steps of the guards are like an echo in your head. Always a background noise that could be compared to the type of headache that you catch when you’re tired.

PP: Your overall thoughts from the experience?

SVM: In this prison, it is as if the point of punishment is not only to separate a prisoner from freedom, but to box the prisoner in the smallest and the most claustrophobic space possible.

Follow Van Malleghem on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.


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.

An agent is looking on his colleague during the visit of the food storage in Forest, Brussels, Belgium on Oct. 10, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem

Sébastien van Malleghem and Laure Geerts, 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 first of a two-parter – see Belgian Prison in Polychrome, Laure’s photographs and Q&A also Prison Photography.

I know very little about Belgian prisons so I asked them both some questions.

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Your B&W documentary approach to photography is different to Laure’s way of shooting.

Sébastien van Malleghem (SvM): Yes. I chose this approach to photography several years ago. I’m concerned by the world that surrounds us. I like to go deeper into stories and take time to do them.

PP: Why did you and Laure decide to collaborate on this project on Belgian prisons?

SvM: We’re part of a collective. Initially, we talked a lot about doing something together in photography. Laure as always been interested by strong universe (sic)*, and I wanted to continue to work on stories about criminal justice after my long documentary work, Police. (Interview about Police in French.)

It’s a challenge to do reportage together but we wanted to share a vision, and ask ourselves questions about the ways we can create photo documentary. Many documentaries are done alone. After months, it’s interesting to see the difference between our works, especially as we were at the same place all the time – Laure’s colors pictures  are different to mine. So, we are questioning objectivity in photojournalism, also.

Three patients smoking at the entrance of their  ‘block’ in Paifve, Liège on Feb. 16, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem.

A guard is speaking behind a safety glass in Verviers, Belgium on May 6, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem

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

SvM: At first, they didn’t seem very interested in the fact we’d received the authorization of the Head Director of the Belgian Prisons, so every director at every single prison would begrudgingly say, “Okay, if you got the authorization, it’s fine.” Then, after few weeks some prison administrations became very interested in our pictures. Some directors began showing us everything inside inside their prisons as if to say, “Look how can we work in these conditions.” So we got some great access and different points of view.

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

SvM: Honestly, I don’t think that they expected anything from us. Some of them didn’t want to be seen. Some of them are playing the game of honesty [for the camera]. They expected that the prison conditions may improve. They were interested by our work because we were/are speaking about their present universe. We are showing the reality inside the prison which is not so good. In fact worse than ever in Belgium.

PP: This is a long-term and committed project. What do you hope to achieve with its completion?

SvM: We’re giving a real and true alarm signal to the authorities and to the government; they are looking on our work and they will certainly watch it in the press. 
That’s will create another debate.

And maybe, with a deep and concrete story, and by showing this work to the public and show why there are so many problems in our prisons, maybe they will get access to a more telling information than that in the daily news-feed?

A woman is sunbathing inside the prison for women of Berkendaele on July 25, 2012. © Sébastien van Malleghem.

Women are dancing in their cells inside the prison for women in Berkendaele on July 25, 2012  © Sébastien van Malleghem.

Cuddle in the courtyard of the prison for women in Berkendaele on July 25, 2012. © Sébastien van Malleghem.

View from the window of the prison in Verviers, Belgium on May 6, 2011. Verviers is one of the oldest prisons in Belgium and is currently being destroyed due to the collapsing of the walls © Sébastien van Malleghem

PP: You depict a prison being demolished. Are there more or less prisons being built/occupied in Belgium currently?

SvM: The government is destroying old prisons like Verviers and building new prisons in the north and the south of the country. The prison was not maintained during years because of budget problems. There is certainly not enough space. Inside the prisons, every inmate is a victim of our society, which is another sign of the actual crisis in our country.

PP: Anything else you’d like to add?

SvM: We should think about the ways we punish criminals in the 21st century and to help victims of crime more too. Currently, we are running with an old system of exile which doesn’t benefit anyone. The authorities remove the prisoners away from the society but put them in the middle of nothing which, seems to me, is another way to torture the spirit. They lock the gates but they are not trying to understand crime, or allieve it.

PP: Thank you Sébastien

SvM: Thanks!

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van Malleghem’s forthcoming book Police by Yellow Now Editions (Belgium) is released in Belgium in November and will be available internationally from December onwards.

A patient inside his cell, in Paifve, Liège, Belgium on Feb.16, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem

Four prisoners are seen inside a cell debating reentry into society after prison. Marneffe, Belgium on Feb. 27, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem.

Two patients are eating their meal in the kitchen of the prison of Paifve, Liège, Belgium on March 3, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem

Writings made with a lighter on the ceiling are seen in a cell of Forest prison, Brussels, Belgium on Oct. 10, 2011 © Sébastien van Malleghem.

A patient pushed down the courtyard by his roommates in Paifve, Liège, Belgium on Jul. 12, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem.

The prisoners of Marneffe have the opportunity to play music in a band. The repetitions takes place inside a chapel inside the prison of Marneffe, Belgium on Dec. 8, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem

A prisoner during his daily work: preparing pieces of metal€™ in Marneffe, Belgium on Feb. 27 2012 © Sébastien van Malleghem.

Toilet for the prisoners inside the prison of Forest, Brussels, Belgium on Oct.7, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem.

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Sébastien van Malleghem is a freelance photographer (b. 1986, Belgium) who studied photography at the Ecole Superieure Des Arts De L’Image Le 75 in Brussels from 2006 to 2009. He is working on a major project about Belgian police and in line with his interest in criminal justice began documenting the Belgian prisons in January 2011.

Sébastien is a member of CARAVANE photographic collective and is personal assistant to Tomas Van Houtryve/VII. In October 2010, he was selected for the Eddie Adams Workshop, Barnstorm XXIII, and in August 2012, was an artist in residence at Halsnoy Kloster, Norway. Sébastien was awarded
the Jeune Artiste Plasticien for his work Police.

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* In editing this interview I was not sure what a fair translation of, “Laure as always been interested by strong universe.” I thought it might mean, “Laure has always been driven by strong determination”? or Sebastian was saying, “Laure has always been interested in societies’ shows of strength”? or possibly, “Laure has always been interested in oppressive places”? or maybe “Laure has always been interested in environment dominated by strong characters”? Then I realised the mistranslation is quite beautiful in itself and worth reflection. We should all be “interested in strong universe”!


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