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[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.

A29

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Why?

There have been two prevailing attitudes toward the proposed conference/symposium dealing with issues of race and diversity in photography:

a) That it is absolutely necessary & b) It is a terrifying prospect.

The first point speaks for itself, and the second point becomes clear when one considers the kerfuffles, misunderstanding and (dare I say it) vitriol that has accompanied much online discussion.

I have been in contact with some, but by no means all, people who could contribute to an extended dialogue. These include Amy Stein, Ben Chesterton, Colin Pantall, Daniel Cuthbert, Daryl Lang, Jean-Sebastien Boncy, Joerg Colberg, John Edwin Mason, Mark Page, Matt Lutton, Michael Shaw, M. Scott Brauer, Nathalie Belayche, Qiana Mestrich and Stan Banos. They have been very generous in response.

Originally, I suggested mixing things up by means of an in-person meet. This was intended to directly address the inadequacies of online discussion. However, when Qiana Mestrich of Dodge & Burn alerted us to SPE‘s conference in March, 2010: “Facing Diversity: Leveling the Playing Field in the Photographic Arts” it was clear that we may just end up replicating (on a smaller scale) SPE’s efforts.

The early feeling was that to piggyback on the back of an existing photography festival could leverage most involvement and impact. Boncy has had good feedback from Houston Fotofest and Lang believes that PDN would want to collaborate and lend a hand for an event at New York Photo Festival. These are very, very encouraging early signs.

In terms of organisation, these prospects are a far cry from the normal activities bloggers. Bearing in mind that this idea was conceived to challenge the tried and tired modes of photography blog discourse, it is difficult to conceive of good reasons to forsake our collective blogging strengths (wide-reaching audiences, maximum engagement, a breadth of coverage and investigation and first rate methods).

We haven’t abandoned a desire for a face-to-face meet and indeed we’ll continue to lobby established photography festivals and industry expos for the inclusion of extended discussions about race and diversity.

But, we are aware of our strengths. Simply put; a focused and concerted online effort will impact and forward dialogue more than a bunch of bloggers gathering in a single room could.

Early plans

This will be an Online Symposium. I would like see a concerted effort among photobloggers: I offer an open invitation to all those who wish to get involved.

The online symposium will look something like this:

– Occurring mid/late spring 2010
– A one week long, coordinated series of photo-features, interviews, op-eds, inquiries and articles.
– All written works will aim to compliment and build upon one another, not repeat or needlessly criticise.
– All written works will be subject to peer-review (a grand term for “read by another blogger”) prior to publication.
– It will incorporate the widest mix of experiences in the industry as possible. Discussion may vary from academic speculations on representations to the everyday experience of the working photographer.

Aims

– To communicate the wide experiences, attitudes, facts and myths in photography as they relate to race and diversity.
– To achieve respect and understanding among photographers, contributors and readers.
– To test the reach and strength of blog-networks as they relate to photography.
– To be progressive instead of reactive in our tone and objectives.
– To leave a legacy and record of this community action that will be of use and reference for continued learning.

What Should You D0?

– Please think seriously about your experience and knowledge and if you’d like to share that as part of this community project.
– Spread the word. If you don’t wish to get involved, perhaps you know someone who would have a valuable contribution?
– Share your ideas, initially through comments below, or directly with me [prisonphotography at gmail point com] and later on a devoted website.

Thanks! Please don’t hesitate to be in touch/throw ideas about. The projects’ outcomes depend on the quality and commitment of your input.

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