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Often it seems photographs of South American prisons are presented in North American media only to emphasise the gulf that exists between the conditions of incarceration in the two regions.

I have posted before about prison beauty pageants in Bogota, Colombia; about the rise and fall of prison tourism at San Pedro in La Paz, Bolivia, and I have looked twice at Gary Knight‘s photography at Polinter prison in Rio de Janeiro – latterly featuring the conspicuous acts of a celebrity evangelical minister.

(Nearly) all photo essays I see coming out of prisons in South or Central America fall into one of two categories, or both:

1) A colourful contradiction to the dour, authoritarian environments depicted in US prison photojournalism.
2) A claustrophobic assault on our emotions as witnesses to desperate overcrowding and poor hygiene. The example par excellence of this is Marco Baroncini’s series from Guatemala.

What leads me to a narrow, ‘boxed’ categorisation of such documentary series is that I am convinced photographers know either the media or their editors well enough to know what flies with Western consumers and as such deliver an expected aesthetic.

I was therefore left without anchor when cyber-friend Nick Calcott sent over this latest offering by GOOD magazine on Medellin’s prison in Colombia. The images are by the inmates themselves:

On the invitation of the Centro Colombo Americano, an English language school for Colombians in Medellín, Vance Jacobs ventured to the Bellavista Prison with an inspired assignment: to teach documentary photography to eight inmates in one week.

“One of the things that gets the inmates’ attention is responsibility, that there is a stake in what they do. In this case, their ability to work together as a team, and to pull this together in a very short amount of time would determine whether other similar projects were done not only at this prison but at other prisons in Colombia,” says Jacobs. “Once they bought into the idea that there was a lot at stake, they really applied themselves.”

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In the past, I have wondered how the camera can be used as a rehabilitative tool and it is a question that can be answered from different angles. In this case the responsibility given to the inmates is how we can derive worth. I have shown before that performance and team work in front of a camera can be good for exploring the self and ones own identity (and the results are of huge intrigue). The common denominator for any photography project is surely that it immediately relieves the boredom of incarceration.

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Fabio Cuttica‘s 2006 photo essay in Nerve from the Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd) Prison, Bogota was brought to my attention via industry-insider Rachel Hulin’s A Photography Blog. She describes a well-rude awakening.

I woke up in the middle of night after dreams of Sarah Palin, and realized that in my subconscious I had placed her into a photo essay I ran years ago as a photo editor at Nerve. She was a beauty queen in the Prisoner Pageant in Bogota, and she was glorious.

If you can get past this description from Hulin’s subconscious, I encourage you to think about the merits of this particular pageant. Despite the obvious interest from media (who are unlikely to refuse such a unique/titillating story) the benefit here seems to be predominantly for the women of the institution.

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The pageant in is honour of the Virgin Mercedes, the patron saint of prisoners. Ada Calhoun – in the intro for the Nerve photo essay – hams up the language to sensationalise the event, but I don’t think there is a need. Cuttica’s photographs are brimming with the fun, the nerves, ecstasy and community of the event.

It is obviously novel day. It would seem to me that the opportunity to celebrate femininity and to express notions of beauty normally obscured by the institution would be a welcome relief for many female prisoners; I hope its a hell of a lot of fun.

But, this is a curious contradiction to how I usually feel about beauty pageants. I generally consider beauty contests as shallow, if not ridiculous. They make a whole lot of noise over very trivial matters. To my mind, a beauty contestant on stage is as pathetic as a dog in a sweater; cringe-worthy, vulnerable and compromised.

I suppose an answer lies in who has the power and the organising authority. I may be wrong, but I presume the women of Buen Pastor prison have a huge investment in the pageant – supporting their friends, stage preparations, making costumes and accommodating guests to the prison on their day.

This is, of course, in contrast to the usual female beauty contestant who is likely genderised by her community, normalised into swimsuit & high heels at an early age and conditioned to not question the strange gaze of a town’s older (men) folk.

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Fabio Cuttica resides in Bogota, Colombia. His work is distributed by Contrasto & Redux agencies. He has worked across Latin America, recently winning acknowledgment from the College Photographer of the Year for his work documenting the La Maria & their struggle for land rights in the Cauca Region of Colombia. In 2008, Cuttica was honorably mentioned at the National Press Photographer Association’s Best of Photojournalism Awards for his extended essay about gang violence in Barrio Petare, Caracas, Venezuala. He has also worked on assignment for GEO about the Basque Region of Spain and covered the traditional family life and weaving in Valledupar, Colombia.

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