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This weekend, the BBC ran a piece about a pinhole photography workshop in a women’s prison in Argentina. I greatly admire pinhole photography in prisons.

The images are atmospheric – retro, a little blurred and with almost fish-eye perspective in some. They look like stills from some 90s skate video or something (I don’t know why that matters). They are awash in color, not unlike every hipster’s favorite, the aura portrait (not sure why that matters either).



Maybe it was precisely because these images didn’t look like a prison that I was attracted to them. If they weren’t the feature of an article about prison and rehabilitation, they’d have scuttled right by during my day of contestant image flow. naturally, I wanted to know more about their production.


They were made during a workshop offered YoNoFui, a organization that provides teaching, community, skills, personal development to prisoners. The organization was founded by Maria Medrano who believes prisons can become productive places for women, cultivating their individuality, esteem and confidence. Currently, they offer nothing of the sort. Medrano has ben recognized as an esteemed Ashoka Fellow and upon the Ashoka website we can find out more about her and YoNoFui’s philosophy.

“Convinced that the prison is the last link in a chain of exclusion and disenfranchisement that ensnares poor women, Medrano pioneered a relationship-centered continuum of education and engagement for women prisoners and ex-convicts to create concrete opportunities for women out of prison and to change the mindsets of prisoners, their families and communities,” it reads.



YoNoFui (translated as “It wasn’t me) also offers courses in poetry, journalism, textiles, bookmaking and carpentry. It’s providing a “holistic approach to transform the way the criminal justice system conceives of and treats women prisoners, making it a productive and more nurturing place. […] Maria’s program deals with the root problems affecting the women, including their lack of labor skills, emotional marginalization and poor self-confidence.”

Some of this language is familiar to us, but a lot of it has not been implemented in Medrano’s home country.

“Women prisoners are the most marginalized segment of Argentine society,” writes Ashoka. “The vast majority are mothers and housewives from very low economic segments of society. 90% of them also come from broken and dysfunctional families, with abusive or drug-addicted husbands and children—whom they often bore while in prison. Many come from two or three generations of women who have been unemployed, and who lack formal education and the social customs that familiarized them with a culture of work. Most never learned the values a healthy workplace inculcates, such as personal responsibility and self-respect. The children of these women are often either neglected or abandoned outright, sent to live with a relative or put into state institutions. About 41% of these women are immigrants with few connections to the local society, having migrated on their own without official papers to seek a better fortune in Argentina, or who were victims of transnational trafficking rings.”

Women end up committing low-level crimes and misdemeanors in Buenos Aires, more out of desperation or necessity rather than from a pathological sense of criminality. However, once sentenced the path is predictable. Argentine prisons reflect upon the most disenfranchised exactly what they had experienced in free society – social exclusion, and permanent second class status. The effects of this exclusion are ben more pronounced upon immigrant women. The majority of people in Argentina are unsympathetic to female prisoners unaware of the complex web of causes to their situation.

Rehabilitation has not been the way.

“Prisons in Argentina function in a militarized way, due to a law passed in 1973 under the military dictatorship. They bear very little emphasis on policies and practices that help support reinsertion of men and women into the labor and social mainstream, leading to high rates of recidivism—although the public ministries do not even care to record the exact figures,” says Ashoka.


Until Medrano’s efforts, reform efforts were largely absent. Focuses first on building individual relationships, belonging and interdependence, Medrano hopes to break the cycle. It’s hard for us to believe but many women in prison have not been exposed to, shared in, or shown how to believe in themselves.

Medrano is going further than just offering classes; she is tying all education into self-improvement and cultivating buy-in from all constituents. Only with the support of the authorities is she implementing cultural change.

“Success for the effort requires a complex series of negotiations with multiple ministries whose support will be required,” says Ashoka. “Negotiations have already begun with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labor, where YoNoFui is holding workshops. By developing broad constituencies among multiple ministries, Medrano is beginning to overcome bureaucratic intransigence, while also shifting the program’s dependence on the penitentiary system, which is part of the Justice Ministry, to other ministries with less of a “law-and-order” stigma attached.”

YoNoFui is working in two of the five federal prisons in Argentina, both in Buenos Aires, with some 600 women prisoners each. Medrano plans to scale up and move into other facilities.



Financial support comes a number of governmental departments astutely identified by Medrano — subsidies for micro-enterprises through the Social Development Ministry; job training grants through the Ministry of Labor; seed capital from the Ministry of Industry. YoNoFui connects women with housing and jobs subsidies.

What they begin in the prison they continue outside. YoNoFui also works with agencies for Social Issues, Prisons, Migrants and Gender Issues, with the Secretariat for Children, Youth and Families — both of which have responsibilities related to the young people whose mothers are incarcerated.

Former prisoners return to the jails to work as teachers, and they are new positive role models to the women inside. Relationships are key. Skills ALONGSIDE psychological and emotional health. Arts and trades continue outside of the penal institutions — carpentry, bookbinding, textile design, textile machinery, weaving, graphic design, silkscreen, photography, poetry and journalism.

The organization is young but Medrano wants a permanent, staffed, full-time “School for Work” inside the prison. In the way, YoNoFui considers young people too in helping them re-establishing their bonds of family, re-adapt to society, YoNoFui can be though of as akin to The Harlem Childrens Zone. Targeting both the practical and the attitudinal is key, that is to build key skills but also to shift the mindset of an entire downtrodden group.


Inspiring stuff. Now, aren’t you glad you took a closer look? I am.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Automotores Orletti, Buenos Aires. Plug used for the picana eléctrica (cattle prods) in the torture chamber. © Erica Canepa

The Remaining by Erica Canepa is mostly interior photographs of the sites used for detention and torture during Argentina’s Dirty War (1976-1983). Also included are a few portraits of survivors, notably Victor Basterra whose photos taken while he was prisoner have been used in trials for crimes that occurred at the main prison, The School of Naval Mechanics (ESMA).

Canepa’s title for the series comes from a quote by Basterra:

“The military dictatorship began with the idea of culturally changing Argentinian people. It has been a progressive change towards a more individualist, selfish and insensitive society that reached its apogee during the Nineties, but where the basis was brutally planted during the dictatorship era. What you see outside the window is what’s remaining, what we are left with. It is today’s Argentina, that shows the indelible marks of genocide, but in which I can still see the ideals that we fought for.”

– Victor Basterra, ex detainee of the Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination ESMA, 2011.

Though not apparent in the photographs alone, Canepa’s project is not just a tribute to the students, university professors, intellectuals, artists, sports men, workers and others who opposed the Jorge Rafael Videla military dictatorship, but also a call for us to view the aftermath of extreme political violence. It is about the acknowledgement and attachment – or not – of subsequent generations.

Canepa’s work is laudable but the photographs are surely just an entry point to the massive and terrifying details of the Dirty War (1976-1983), a terror that “disappeared” over 30,000 Argentinians. Canepa’s lengthy accompanying text would suggest she is aware of the limitations of photography:

The junta did not achieve its goal, the deletion of a generation’s ideals. The lives of the ex-desaparecidos are living proof of this. […] Sometimes, a smell takes them back to the horror, sometimes a tear rolls down their cheek. They cannot explain the reason why they survived and they ask themselves this question every day. They are alive, and they feel the responsibility to help justice make its course. […] The country is rebuilding the truth and owning it, learning how not to commit the same mistakes, learning how to live without fear. The scar left by the military dictatorship is painful, but not crippling. The survivors are no longer victims. They resisted: they went back to school, they now have families and they have careers.

What you can see outside the window, what you can read in people’s eyes is the strength and the courage to believe in a fresh start.

What you can see outside the window is ‘the remaining’: it’s today’s Argentina.

If you are interested by this topic you should look also at the photographs of Paula Luttringer and Joao Pina.

Sin Olvido is an archive of photographs and descriptions of 3,400 victims of the Dirty War.


On March 31st 1977, Paula Luttringer, a 21 year-old pregnant botany student was kidnapped by police of the Argentine military junta and detained in an extrajudicial prison. During her five month detention, she gave birth to her eldest daughter.

Released abruptly during what she thought was transfer to a regular prison, she was forced to leave the country immediately to avoid another “disappearance.” She went first to Uruguay, finally settling in France. (Source)

During the Dirty War (1976-1983) hundreds of secret detention centres were established across Argentina for the purposes of interrogation and torture.

In 1995, Paula returned to Argentina and took up photography as a means to explore the memories, mental scars and the crimes against her and other women. El Lamento de los Muros (The Wailing of the Walls) is the result.

Three years ago, I met Paula. She had just enjoyed acclaim at the 2006 Houston Fotofest, and was searching for further funding to travel the exhibition and expand on the educational lessons attached to the project.

The Wailing of the Walls is about the violence brought against women and the continuing means by which those women cope and live in the aftermath. Paula was adamant; she only wanted funding from women. 100 donors to fund the gathered testimony of 100 survivors. This was a project by a woman, for women supported by women. The funding initiative was named 100×100.


I have twice heard people urge Paula happiness in that she survived. Paula is unequivocal; having survived does not make her happy, living in a world in which people didn’t have to be survivors would make her happy. The violence once it is done, cannot be undone.

For more on Paula’s motivations for the project read this interview, this articleand listen to this audio interview.


Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin, of Houston Fotofest must be singled for special praise in bringing Paula’s work to a larger audience and consciousness.

The statements that accompany each of these images have been co-opted from Fotofest’s feature and from the George Eastman House page on Paula’s work.


“Walls that served to stifle the desperate screams, the cries of those tortured and raped, and the indescribable, agonized moans of those who, although they were freed, remain aware of their open wounds—who feel that they will never get out of that hole.”

Juan Travnik, Buenos Aires in the FOTOFEST2006 catalogue.

“It is very hard to describe the terror of the minutes, hours, days, months, spent there. At first when you’ve been kidnapped you have no idea about the place around you. Some of us imagined it to be round, others like a football stadium with the guards walking above us. We didn’t know which direction our bodies were facing, where our head was, where our feet were pointing. I remember clinging to the mat with all my strength so as not to fall even though I knew I was on the floor.”
Liliana Calizo was abducted on September 1st, 1976 in Cordoba. She was then taken to the Secret Detention Center “La Perla”

– – – –

“I went down about twenty or thirty steps and I heard big iron doors being shut. I imagined that the place was underground, that it was big, because you could hear people’s voices echoing and the airplanes taxiing overhead or nearby. The noise drove you mad. One of the men said to me: so you’re a psychologist? Well bitch, like all the psychologists, here you’re really going to find out what’s good. And he began to punch me in the stomach.”
Marta Candeloro was abducted on June 7, 1977 in Neuquen. She was then taken to the Secret Detention Centre “La Cueva.”

– – – –

“And this marks you, it’s a wonderful feeling that stays with you the rest of your life. You’re left with this dual task: you have to be constantly working out what comes from the trauma and what from normal life. I have this dual task in life. I have to decide which feelings are the result of the trauma and what there is beneath of less intensity, more diluted, which is that what comes from normal life. So I talk to someone who has never been in a clandestine prison and then I play the role of a normal person and I realise what that involves, I step into normality. These things that happen to all of us who were victims of repression …”
Liliana Gardella was abducted on November 25, 1977 in Mar del Plata. She was then taken to the Secret Detention Center “ESMA”

– – – –

Ants used to come in and out, and I would watch these ants because they were coming in and then going out into the world. They were walking across the earth, the outside world, and then coming back in again, and watching them I didn’t feel so alone.
Ledda Barreiro,” La Cueva” Illegal Detention Centre

– – – –


“Something strange used to happen at night, the screams of torture were different than those during the day. Even if the screams of torture are always the same they sound different at night. And it’s also different when they come to get you at night. The noises and the screams are not with me always, but when I do remember them, it makes me very sad. I am paralyzed by those screams, I’m back in that time and place. As somebody once said — and I’ve given this some thought and I think it’s right — although life goes on, although some of us were freed, you never get out of the pit.”

Isabel Cerruti was abducted on July 12, 1978 in Buenos Aires. She was then taken to the Secret Detention Center “El Olimpo.”

– – – –



It is worth noting an earlier project too.

The images below are from Luttringer’s earlier series El Matadero (The Slaughterhouse) for which she won the best Portfolio Prize at PhotoEspana (1999). The manhandling of carcasses through rooms designed for dismemberment is a shocking precursor to The Wailing of the Walls. Luttringer’s work echoes themes of mortality and the manipulation (herding, processing) of flesh.

Many people are gripped by the psychological charge of Roger Ballen‘s work, but the photography of Outland, Shadow Chamber and Boarding House obscures reality and fuses it with imagination. Luttringer’s work, on the other hand, is an attempt to mobilise our understanding of the historical moment. Photography is a tool for Paula, but the real import of this exercise is the oral testimonies recorded and written and the associated benefits that may have arisen for the women having shared their memories.

For me at least, the visceral images of El Matadero, are a solemn counterpoint to Luttringer’s work on kidnap and detention from Argentina’s Dirty War.




In 1999, Luttringer was chosen by the National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires as one of the twenty photographers of the ‘New Generation’. In 1999, she won the best Portfolio Prize at PhotoEspana, for her project “El Matadero”. In 2000, she was awarded an artist`s grant by the National Arts Fund of Argentina for her project “El Lamento de los Muros”. In 2001, she was made a Guggenheim Fellow for her project “El Lamento de los Muros”. Luttringer’s photography is part of the permanent collections of both The National Museum of Fine Arts (MNBA) and the Museum of Modern Art (MAMBA) in Buenos Aires; the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (MFAH); the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY; Portland Art Museum in Oregon; La Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris; and the Portuguese Photography Centre in Portugal. She currently lives and works in Buenos Aires and Paris.

ESMA, Buenos Aires, Argentina © Pete Brook

You may have noticed that I switched out the banner image for Prison Photography. I didn’t want to say goodbye without mentioning again the photograph’s origin.

The original banner was a non-descriptive crop, abstracting the top of a stairwell.

Exterior stairwell, ESMA, Buenos Aires, Argentina. © Pete Brook


The exterior stairwell led to the basement of the Naval School of Mechanics in Buenos Aires (Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada). In Argentina it is commonly known by its abbreviation ESMA.

ESMA, particularly its basement, was the main site of illegal detention and torture during the Dirty War (1976 to 1983). The Dirty War was a state-sponsored program of violence against Argentine citizenry carried out primarily by Jorge Rafael Videla‘s military government. There were hundreds more sites like it across the country. There were scores of illegal detention sites in Buenos Aires alone.

ESMA is now a museum and memorial.


The horrors of the Dirty War are still fresh in the collective memory and, as such, problems exist with its interpretation in contemporary Argentine society. The surveillance and by-night kidnappings affected every Argentine’s life. 30,000 persons were ‘disappeared’; they are known as the Desaparecidos.

Photomontage of Desaparecidos, Memory Museum, Cordoba, Argentina © Pete Brook


I am aware of a handful of photographers who have made central to their work the prisons and politics of the Dirty War.

I should like to write and post about these photographers in the coming months.


For more info on the Desaparecidos; more on the establishment of the museum/memorial; more on the continuing peace & justice efforts; and more on the national archives.

Sin Olvido is a MUST VISIT. It is a very poignant archive of photographs and descriptions of 3,400 victims from the Dirty War.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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