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Dutch photographer Jan Banning is fascinated by what communism looks like today. In 2013, he set out to document the obscured activities of small Communist Party chapters in Italy, India, Nepal, Portugal and Russia.

“I’m interested in countries in which communism isn’t a dominating ideology and places I could assume that members do it out of conviction and not because they think it’s good for their career,” says Banning of the series, Red Utopia. “Many of the local party members I met, who are still plodding along, certainly have a place in my heart now — either because of their own sad fate or because of how they devote themselves to social justice, often unpaid, and in many practical ways offer help to ordinary people.”

I wrote about the work for Timeline. Read and see more: Photos: A look at communists and their humble party offices around the globe




For over 25 years, prisoners at Volterra Prison in Italy have been performing elaborate, ruffled, high heeled performances of classic theater. The Compagnia della Fortezza, under the directorship of Armando Punzo is now stuff of legend in Italy. Shakespeare, Brecht, Virgil as well as the work of national playwrights have been acted out inside the walls but in front of attending publics. The company has had some coverage outside of Italy, but not nearly enough according to filmmaker Inaya Graciana Yusuf.

She and her crew observed, documented and lived this past season at Volterra Prison. It was a transformative experience. “We became part of something intensively rewarding and beautiful. We forged new friendships, bonded and engaged in each other’s stories,” says Yusuf.

Now back on home soil, Yusuf wants to share the atmosphere of positive change, unexpected growth and group achievement through a documentary film named The One & The Many which follows the fortunes, preparations and final performance of a prisoner theater troupe as they deliver a Jean Genet work.

“The film will explore how deeply impactful theatre and arts programs can be forprisoners,” says Yusuf.

Yusuf looks forward to returning to Compagnia della Fortezza but her ability to do so depends on our help. Today, Yusuf and her production crew launched a Kickstarter to raise monies for the second round of filming (they spent the month of July in Volterra) and post-production, media management, editing, graphics, so on and so forth. I wish them luck. Prison theatre intrigues me. Without exception, prison theater productions deliver a different type of image — of course, that has a lot to do with the costume and the make up, but I think that the act of the act allows prisoners to explore new parts of personality. A good photograph can capture that even though masks and thick mascara.

I wanted to delve deeper and find out exactly what prison theater is and how it does what it does. Scroll down for a Q&A with Yusuf.



Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Both yourself and the prisoners express great repeats for the director Armando. Can you describe briefly why his methods are so admirable and what aspects of his approach other prison theatre coordinators could learn from?

Inaya Graciana Yusuf (IGF): Armando is a progressive and stimulating individual. His mind is always going and in turn, his process is always evolving. He pushes boundaries and brings out something in you that you would otherwise never realize on your own. He essentially sees each individual as the person they are and not as a prisoner. Through encouragement he is able to bring out their best even humors them into embracing their flaws. Armando creates a balance.

I have learned about camaraderie and friendship through this tight-knit community. Everyone treats each other as equals, helping each other move forward with Armando’s guidance. I was able to understand that individual performances make up for the group’s performance collectively.

Armando always practices an open door policy. He welcomes opinions, criticism and direction because at an essential level, he is always inspired. Being able to supervise and influence, but equally empathetic and open minded are important abilities of leadership. So many other people facilitate programs and end up distancing themselves from developing human connection.



PP: What is particular about drama and theater that makes it good for rehabilitation?

IGF: Theatre is a reflection of society. It is an inevitable reciprocity. It enables the mood of a certain [prison] community and mirrors different facets of life.

What significantly appealing about theatre is that it allows us to critically process civil life and the drama of the everyday. I think this goes back into the idea of dramaturgy and the role it plays in our personal and professional development. I have always been a fan of Erving Goffman, and I apply his theories into analyzing this idea of the multiple-self facilitated by the aspect of performance. Essentially we are all performers and what theatre can bring into rehabilitation programs is helping people understand how to utilize and integrate it with certain situations. Theatre provides us with wisdom, be it cultural, political or satirical of any kind. I think its perfect because you get to work on your social and presentation skills based on the role that eventually falls on your lap.

What theatre can do more than any other form is shift attitudes, articulate discontent and reflect the environment you are surrounded by.



PP: What sort of productions and scripts really resonate with prison population best? What characters do prisoners enjoy playing the most? And why?

IGF: Armando always reminds everyone “It is not you who choose theatre, it is theatre that chooses you.” It is in a way, true. You can choose as many texts as you possibly want but eventually, there is only a few that will resonate and stick to you. The prisoner-actors actually mentioned this to me on numerous occasions. They enjoy the texts to which they are exposed to because they provide them with challenges to overcome. It is always about how does it relate to them personally and how can they express it. A few prisoners really connected with Mercuzio Non Deve Morrire and Hamlice a couple of years ago.

The texts they perform are all experimental, written and directed by Armando himself. He adapts them from existing classical and/or modern plays. I think this gives room for interpretation and personalization for all participating actors, which makes it more enticing and powerful upon completion. The method is that of psychodrama — it heavily relies on creativity, participation and spontaneity. The final performance is more or less personal and experiential for each audience that attends.



PP: Have you seen the documentary 12 Angry Lebanese?

IGF: I have.

PP: It’s about a production of 12 Angry Men in a Lebanese prison. Overall, the show is a great success and actually brings about legislative change, but throughout the preparations, there’s stern words, positive reinforcement, mutual growth but also a main actor who drops out last minute — it was no smooth ride. How were the workshops, education and rehearsals for Santo Genet?

IGF: The rehearsals and education for Santo Genet were ongoing and they were trial and error.

More than anything, it is about knowing what is doable in a limited time. I have spoken to both Armando and the participants about this. Everything that is on the “idea book” will be tried and tested, what matters is, accepting that it has been tried and done. Everything is discussed openly in front of everyone. New ideas and interpretations will come up and old ones will die down. It is a cycle and more importantly it is a creative journey. I think what is crucial to understand that experimental theatre is based on spontaneity and improvisation.

Santo Genet is a great example of collaboration and teamwork. Armando, along with his collaborators, work extremely hard in putting together his vision. The prisoner-actors rehearse every day, either with each other or on their own, with or without supervision.

It is interesting that you say, “It was no smooth ride.” When is anything in such programs ever a smooth ride? Armando always works through the different challenges he faces daily, and it gives rise to some incredible outcomes. What Santo Genet rehearsals taught me is to always be ready for the unexpected. It may hit you from any direction, but it doesn’t mean that there is no solution.


PP: There are several prison theater projects like the one you feature. Can you name some in the U.S. that you admire and/or have heard positive things about?

IGF: Yes, locally, I admire the work of Rehabilitation for The Arts, they are facilitators for art based programs inside Sing Sing prison here in New York. They do great work. I would recommend people with teaching experience to seek them out and work with them.

Other programs that have been inspiring to me is Prison Performing Arts in Missouri run by Agnes Wilcox, The Prison Arts Coalition run by Buzz Alexander in Michigan, and of course Shakespeare Behind Bars. Each of them has something unique to bring to the table, especially in terms of approach and programming.

PP: A silly question, perhaps not, but my readers would be interested. How do the prisoners feel about wearing eyeliner?

IGF: This is a very funny question and I am glad you asked.

The majority of the men enjoy dressing up, performing and using makeup. They are playful and many take pleasure in seeing transformation. I remember one prisoner asking me if I could do his makeup because he saw me with eyeliner. I explained that makeup was not my forte! These men are adept and capable of any adventure.

PP: Thanks Inaya

IGF: Thank you, Pete.





Over a period of three months, Italian photographer Gaetano Pezzella (Flickr) went inside of Rome’s infamous Rebibbia Prison and made portraits unlike portraiture those we are accustomed to seeing. With bright colors, strong graphic considerations, stark light, diverse posture and proximity it ends up a mixed bag. Some images look lije magazine head shots, others fashion shoots. Some are soft of the moment and momentous, but others are less precious. All-in-all its intriguing.

Recently, Pezzella put out a 144-page book of the work which includes 150 color images accompanied by ten stories by five writers, Pezzella penned two of the stories. The series and the book are titled Hotel Rebibbia. I wanted to know more about Pezzella’s approach so we had a conversation. Before we get into the Q&A though, a little background on Rebibbia Prison.


Rebibbia prison is actually four facilities (3 mens, 1 womens) and it is one of Italy’s biggest prison complexes. Rebibbia has been in the news recently as a site of colourful protest, designer-clock and haute couture manufacture. Compared to other prisons, Rebibbia has a fair number of programs for prisoner education, rehabilitation and jobs training. It also boasts a thriving drama program lead by theater director Fabio Cavalli which spurred the part drama/part documentary hit movie Caesar Must Die (2012). As far as photography goes, Luca Ferrari has shot in the mens prisons and Melania Comoretto has shot in the women’s prison.

Scroll down for the Q&A.





Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about Hotel Rebibbia.

Gaetano Pezzella (GP): Initially, I wanted to dedicate myself exclusively to the places, objects and symbols of the everyday life in a cell. I absolutely did not want to photograph people, especially their hands and arms through the bars and cliches like that. But from the beginning, being emotionally and physically involved with the prisoners, the work took different paths.

PP: Who are the prisoners in ‘Hotel Rebibbia’?

GP: The detainees are mainly common prisoners, who are serving sentences for crimes administrative and criminal. From possession and dealing of drugs, robbery and murder, conspiracy offenses, mafia and terrorism, up to crimes of a sexual nature, pedophilia, rape.

PP: Who is the audience for the work?

GP: The target audience is primarily institutional. From the judiciary to the Ministry of Justice. But it is also relevant to the world of voluntary associations, and I hope, political groups also. At the moment, there is a political current that is very sensitive to prison issues. Of course, we hope that the book is read by civil society to it may bring prisons issue to the a wider audience.

PP: What are you trying to say with the work?

GP: It was my intention to be delicate and light, and allow images to leave the humanity of those detained in place. [To show] their joy, their desire to live, their need to play, whatever their existential condition. To show them as human beings and not prisoners.

PP: Why is that necessary?

GP: Literature and photography on prisons are full of crude and violent images, which too often lead the observer to judge. People conclude that barbarous institutions are acceptable. Some people believes the prison to be today a kind of holiday and wish for tougher penalties. Hence the ironic title “Hotel Rebibbia.”

PP: How did you get access to into Rebibbia?

GP: The bureaucratic process was quite simple. I presented the project to the prison director who accepted it and then the prison’s secretariat forwarded my application to the Ministry of Justice for approval. Unfortunately, a few months ago, a new law passed which which greatly limits the possibility to make reportage inside Italy’s prisons.


PP: What is the reputation of Rebibbia among people in Italy, and people in Rome?

GP: There’s a large part of the population, in Italy as in Rome, that would like prisons and penalties tougher. Rebibbia prison is, along with a few others in Italy, relatively modern in the sense that prisoners participate in treatment programs. There are theater, music, handicrafts and workplace specialization programs.

The crisis of the Italian prison system is its overcrowding. The prison population is over 65,000, but it is only designed to hold 35,000. From this statistic, we can appreciate the state of abandonment and deterioration of prisons in Italy. Being one of the largest prisons in Italy, Rebibbia suffers all problems associated with overcrowding.

When the problem is pointed out to Italians, the prison problem is often met with annoyance and suspicion — as something to be kept as far as possible. Marginalize it, denying the reality of the problem. The prison is seen as a foreign body to society. Even those who work in these facilities, educators, doctors, psychologists, employees, are viewed with skepticism and detachment, if not perceived, as second-class workers.

Added to this, there is also a large part of political activity which focuses on the security of the citizens. This electoral program has instilling uncertainty and fear in peoples’ minds, and that has translated as a tightening of the penalties which have filled the places of detention.





PP: What did the prisoners think of you photographing inside?

I started photographing inside the sex offender ward which is isolated from other prisoners. They have little chance to make treatment programs [in other areas of the prison] so they were very excited to have the opportunity for any type of exchange with the outside world.

The sex offender ward was also my testing ground. Overcoming the difficulties of making a professional but friendly relationship there helped me, later, do my job inside other parts of the prison.

My plan to make pictures of the interior of the cells, soon proved impossible due to the positive involvement of prisoners. Every time I entered in cells or common areas, it became a kind of collective game. I did not have to work hard to be able to make photos. To the contrary.

PP: Did you give the prisoners prints?

GP: Yes, of course. The same prisoners asked me to make pictures to give to their loved ones. It was part of our collective game.

PP: What did the staff think of your work?

GP: I have to say that the entire staff, including the prison guards, were discrete and collaborative making it easier for me to do my work.

PP: You’ve worked in other prisons. Do you like working in prisons?

GP: After working in Rebibbia, I made reportage in Sardinia’s penal colony ‘Mamone.’ I am currently working, along with another photographer, on a project in the women’s prison in Rome.

Work in prisons has always been something special. The first time I entered a prison with a camera, I realized that I had much to learn. Initially, I believed that human relations could be, in some way, influenced by environment. Here I was, a free man, dealing with persons deprived of liberty. This could create, so I thought, a detachment. But I was wrong. We were equal. I do not care about knowing what sins they’ve committed; I’m not a judge, and I was not there for that. I just want to show to those outside that inside the prison there are people who live their lives despite it all.


PP: Some of the portraits look like fashion shoots. Did you direct the subjects in their poses?

GP: I started with taking souvenir photos for prisoners to give to their loved ones Then, I asked them to take pictures for me. So I directed them, a little, but never forced the situation. They were free to present themselves in a very natural way. I only chose the location, where it was possible, and the best light. Only in rare cases I used a flash.

PP: How does this prison work fit in with the other photography you make?

GP: I do not think there is differentiation. Of course, life in prison is very hard, especially on a psychological level, and therefore, the approach to this reality is different to photographing portraits of musicians. In prison, you are pressed for time and you have a responsibility to show a difficult reality. Prison photography requires greater discretion so as not to offend those who are forced to live in a place with no freedom.

PP: Do Italian tax-payers get there money’s worth from prisons? Do Italy’s prisons punish or rehabilitate?

GP: It is written in our constitution that the prison should not be a place of punishment but of rehabilitation. Unfortunately, it is not always true. Sure, compared to many years ago, things have improved.

Today, prisoners have access to a range of measures that lighten the weight of detention — such as improved access (depending on the conduct and length of sentence), discounts and alternative measures, day release, and the ability to conduct conversations with family members in picnic areas instead of in anonymous and gray visiting rooms.

Furthermore, social, educational and recreational activities are available. Unfortunately, due to overcrowding it is difficult to ensure to all have access to such activities. Still, in the consciousness of many, a prison is thought of merely as a place of social revenge.

PP: Thanks, Gaetano.

GP: Thank you, Pete.



Last year, in the article Photographing the Prostitutes of Italy’s Backroads: Google Street View vs. Boots on the Ground, I compared the work of artists Mishka Henner and Paolo Patrizi both of whom were making images of prostitution on the back roads of Spain and Italy.

I argued that the photographs by Patrizi, due to their physical and emotional proximity had more relevance. Patrizi actually went to the roadside locations whereas Henner, making use of Google Street View, had not.

Around the same time, Joerg Colberg posted some thoughts about Henner’s No Man’s Land.

Shortly thereafter, Mishka Henner emailed me and mounted an impassioned defense of his work. Henner felt he had been “thrown to the cyber-lions.” Not wanting to see anyone with his or her nose bent, I offered Henner a platform on Prison Photography for right of reply.


PB: What was your issue with the commentary on No Man’s Land?

MH: There’s a section of the photo community judging No Man’s Land according to a pretty narrow set of criteria. So narrow they’re avoiding one of the elephants in the room, which is what role is left for the street photographer in the age of Google Street View? Comparing No Man’s Land to other projects on sex workers could be interesting but the way it’s done here is resulting in a pretty narrow discussion about whether it’s valid, ethical or just sensationalistic. I don’t see how that helps move documentary forwards. All the projects you mention, including mine, assert themselves as documents of a social reality. But in your discussion, this is secondary to how they make you feel and Colberg even argues Patrizi’s approach makes you care. My motivation isn’t to make you feel or to care – it’s to make you think.

MH: No Man’s Land uses existing cameras, online interest groups, and one of the subjects interwoven in the history of photography. And I think the ability to combine these elements says something about the cultural and technological age we live in. In some photographic circles, that’s the way it’s being discussed and I’m surprised Colberg and yourself have dismissed it in favour of more reactionary arguments that seem to hark back to what I see as a conservative and nostalgic view of the medium.

PB: Well, if preference for boots on the ground and a suspicion of a GSV project is reactionary, then okay. Why did you use GSV for No Man’s Land? Are you opposed to documentary work?

MH: This is documentary work, how can it not be? And what’s this suspicion of GSV? Would you have been suspicious of Eugene Atget walking the streets with his camera? I’m sure many were at the time but that suspicion seems ridiculous now. And your response is reactionary because it validates and dismisses work according to quite spurious and nebulous criteria. What does it matter if I released the shutter or not? A social reality has been captured by a remote device taking billions of pictures no one else ever looked at or collected in this way before. You’re only seeing this record because I’ve put it together. The project is about the scale of a social issue, not about trying to convince a viewer that they should have pity for individual subjects. Yet in these circles, the latter uncritically dwarfs the former as though it’s the only valid approach.

MH: Paolo Patrizi’s A Disquieting Intimacy is evidently an accomplished visual body of work, as is Txema SalvansThe Waiting Game but to argue they offer a deeper insight into the plight of sex workers is, I think, generous to say the least.

MH: The assumption underlying much of the critiques of No Man’s Land (in particular Alan Chin’s) is that there’s no research and it’s a lazy, sensationalistic account of something fabricated. But what if I told you it was researched and took months to produce; what basis would there be then for dismissing it? Doesn’t research inform 90% of every documentary photographer’s work (it did mine, maybe I wasn’t doing it right)?

What’s left unsaid in these critiques is that No Man’s Land doesn’t fit a rather narrow and conservative view of what one community believes photography should be. The fact we’re drowning in images and that new visions of photography are coming to light are a scary prospect to that community, hence the reactionary and defensive responses. But there’s more to these responses than simply validating boots on the ground. You’re prioritising a particular way of seeing and rejecting another that happens to be absolutely contemporary.

PB: I think we can agree Patrizi is accomplished. I was deliberately lyrical in my description of his work and I meant it when I was personally moved by Patrizi’s work. That is a personal response.

MH: That’s fine, but what does Patrizi tell us that is missing from No Man’s Land? Is the isolation and loneliness of a feral roadside existence and the domestication of liminal spaces really that much more evident in one body of work than the other? Surprisingly – given your sympathy for Patrizi’s’ approach – even the women’s anonymity is matched in each project. No captions, no locations, no names, and no personal stories. Just a well-researched introductory text that refers in general terms to the women’s experiences. I think you’re viewing the work through rose-tinted spectacles.

PB: I can’t argue with your point about anonymity. There may be an element of gravitating toward [Patrizi’s] familiar methods. This might be because reading the images resultant of those methods is safe for the audience; they find it more easily accessible, possibly even instructive in how they should react?

MH: Working in documentary for many years, I can’t deny I aimed for these lofty aspirations. But I now consider the burden of sympathy expected from a narrow language of documentary to be a distracting filter in the expression of much more complex realities. Pity has a long and well-established aesthetic and I just don’t buy it anymore. In themselves the facts are terrible and I don’t need a sublime image to be convinced of that. In the context of representing street prostitution, striving for the sublime seems a far more perverse goal to me than using Street View and much more difficult to defend.

MH: Alan Chin’s comments surprised me because I wouldn’t expect such a knee-jerk reaction from an apparently concerned photographer. But his work is a type of documentary that I’m reacting against; a kind of parachute voyeurism soaked in a language of pity that reduces complex international and domestic scenarios into pornographic scenes of destruction and drama. It’s the very oxygen the dumb hegemonic narrative of terror thrives on and I reject it. Why you would pick his critique of my work is beyond me – we’re ships passing in the night.

PB: I quoted Chin because he and I were already been in discussion with others about the many photo-GSV projects. He represented a particularly strong opposition to all the GSV projects including No Man’s Land.

MH:No Man’s Land is disturbing, I agree. And it troubles and inspires me in equal measure that I can even make a body of work like it today. But it isn’t just about these women, it’s also about the visual technologies at our disposal and how by combining them with certain data sets (in this case, geographic locations logged and shared by men all around the world), an alternative form of documentary can emerge that makes use of all this new material to represent a current situation. It appeals to me because it doesn’t evoke what I think of as the tired devices of pity and the sublime to get its point across.

PB: It’s not that I don’t like No Man’s Land, but I prefer Patrizi’s A Disquieting Intimacy; it is close(r) and it is technically very competent work. There’s plenty of art/documentary photography that doesn’t impress me as much as Patrizi’s does. A clumsy photographer could’ve dealt with the topics of migration and the sex industry poorly. I don’t think Patrizi did.

MH: I don’t know what you mean by clumsy. If by clumsy you mean a photographer who shows us what they see as opposed to what they think others want to see then bring it on, I’d love to see more of that. No Man’s Land might seem cold and distant, it might even appear to be easy (it isn’t), but it’s rooted in an absolutely present condition. What you consider to be its weakness – its inability to get close to the photographic subject, its struggle to evoke pity – is what I consider to be its strength.

PB: The detachment is the problem for all concerned. People may be using your work as a scapegoat. This would be an accusation that I could, partly, aim at myself. Does your work reference the frustration of isolation and deadened imagination in a networked world?

MH: At first, I reacted strongly to your description of my work as anemic but now I think it’s a pretty good description of the work. And it’s an accurate word for describing what I think of as the technological experience today, our dependence on it and its consequences.

PB: Consequences?

MH: I know, like most working photographers, that for all the fantasies of a life spent outdoors, much of a photographer’s workload happens online. And if you’re a freelancer, the industry demands that you’re glued to the web. It’s not the way I’d like it to be; it just happens to be the world I’m living in. And anyone reading this online on your blog is likely to share that reality. So it seems natural and honest that as an artist, I have to explore that reality rather than deny its existence.

PB: For audiences to grasp that you’re dealing – with equal gravity – two very different concerns of photography (the subject and then also contemporary technologies) opens up a space for confusion. Not your problem necessarily, but possibly the root of the backlash among the audience.

MH: Well, it’s surprising to me that few critics have actually discussed the work in relation to the context in which it was produced, i.e. as a photo-book. If even the critics are judging photo-books and photographs by their appearance on their computer screens, then I rest my case.

PB: What difference does the book format make to your expected reactions to the body of work?

MH: For one thing the book takes the work away from the online realm and demands a different reading. That in itself transforms it and turns it into a permanent record. Otherwise I’d just leave the work on-screen. I recently produced a second volume and intend to release a third and then a fourth, continuing for as long as the material exists.

PB: On some levels, people’s reactions to your work seem strange. If people are so affronted, they should want to change society and not your images?

MH: Too often, I find that beautifully crafted images of tragedy and trauma have become the safe comfort zones to which our consciences retreat. It’s something people have come to expect and it doesn’t sit easily with me. When I think of No Man’s Land, I keep returning to Oscar Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray:

No artist has ethical sympathies.
An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.
All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

No Man’s Land will be on showfrom May 3rd until 27th – at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Avenue, Portland, OR 97209. Tuesday – Sunday, 12-5 pm.

© Paolo Patrizi, from the series Migration

This week, I wrote two pieces for Wired on Google Street View. The first was a gallery of the various projects spawned by GSV, and the second was a piece about authorship and the repetition of nine scenes in two of the most well known GSV projects (Jon Rafman’s Nine Eyes and Michael Wolf’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and FY.)

Anecdotally, the photo-thinkers out there are converging on Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture as the most robust work. A close contender though is the relatively new No Man’s Land by Mishka Henner.

© Mishka Henner

No Man’s Land (more images here) is a disturbingly large selection of GSV screen-grabs of (presumably) prostitutes awaiting customers on the back roads of Italy. Henner says:

I came across communities using Street View to trade information on where to find sex workers. I thought that was the subject to work with. Much of my work is really about photography and this subject tapped into so many aspects of it; The fact the women’s faces are blurred by the software, that they look at the car with the same curiosity that we have when looking at them, and finally, that the liminal spaces they occupy are in the countryside or on the edge of our cities – it all has such great symbolism for our time. And that’s aside from the fact these women have occupied a central place in the history of documentary photography.

But for traditionalists, No Man’s Land is a long way from the spirit of documentary photography. Of Henner’s work and of all GSV series generally, the ever-outspoken Alan Chin says:

“Google Street Views is a navigational tool, an educational resource, and sure, it can reveal a lot about a place and a scene at a given moment in time. But if you, the artist, are really so interested, then go there and take some pictures yourself. This is about as interesting as cutting out adverts from magazines that have some connection and then presenting your edit as a work of art. Post-modern post-structuralist post-whatever denizens of of the art world and academia love this shit. Which is well and good for the university-press industry. But it has little to do with actual reporting and actual documentary work in the field.”

Well, just last week, I came across Paolo Patrizi documentary photographer that actually took himself to those byways.

For Migration, Patrizi has keenly researched where these women have come from and where, if anywhere, they may be going. From the project statement:

“The phenomenon of foreign women, who line the roadsides of Italy, has become a notorious fact of Italian life. These women work in sub-human conditions; they are sent out without any hope of regularizing their legal status and can be easily transferred into criminal networks. […] For nearly twenty years the women of Benin City, a town in the state of Edo in the south-central part of Nigeria, have been going to Italy to work in the sex trade and every year successful ones have been recruiting younger girls to follow them. […] Most migrant women, including those who end up in the sex industry, have made a clear decision to leave home and take their chances overseas. […] Working abroad is therefore often seen as the best strategy for escaping poverty. The success of many Italos, as these women are called, is evident in Edo. For many girls prostitution in Italy has become an entirely acceptable trade and the legend of their success makes the fight against sex traffickers all the more difficult.”

Patrizi is interviewed on the Dead Porcupine blog and talks about the unchanging situation, the pain experienced by the women, their reactions to him, and the destruction of woodland by authorities in attempts to literally expose the illicit encounters. It’s a must read.

The images in Migrations are inescapably bleak; therein lies their power.

© Paolo Patrizi

© Paolo Patrizi

© Paolo Patrizi

© Paolo Patrizi

Patrizi’s Migration induces a visceral shock; images of the littered make-shift sex-camps turn the stomach. When human fluids are dumped, it is not usual that humans continue to function in and around them. These workstead pits of dirt, tarps and abuse are shrines to the shortcomings of globalisation and the social safety net.

By contrast, Henner’s work allows us to keep a safe distance. He even saves us the trouble of finding these scenes on our own computer screens; we’re detached one step beyond. We are cheap consumers.

Patrizi’s photography with its clear evidence of his boots on the ground don’t allow us to share Henner and Google’s amoral and disinterested eye.

On Henner’s virtual tour, we cruise, at 50mph. We don’t stop, we don’t get out the car and we don’t get too close. We might as well be in another country … which of course we are. Patrizi’s work walks us by hand to the edge of the soiled mattresses and piles of discarded condoms.

Patrizi’s images counter the washed out colours, the flattening effect of wide-angle lenses, and the perpendicular viewpoint of GSV. Instead, they involve texture, depth, legitimate colour, details and different focal points along different sight-lines. In other words, Patrizi’s Migration engages the senses and the basics of human experience. Patrizi’s photographs return us to the shocking fact that that these women are human and not just bit-parts in the difficult social narratives of contemporary society. Works full of threat, fear, flesh and blood.

By comparison, Henner’s screen-grabs are anaemic.

Via del Ponte Pisano, Rome, Italy. © Mishka Henner

© Mishka Henner

Carretera de Gand­a, Oliva, Spain. © Mishka Henner

© Mishka Henner

Between May 2007 and February 2008, Valentina Quintano documented O.P.G. Filippo Saporito (OPG), asylum for the criminally insane in Aversa, Italy. The series it titled ‘White Life Sentence‘ a term used by inmate-patients for indeterminate confinement.

O.P.G. Filippo Saporito (Google translation) serves the functions of both prison and mental health institution and as such has severe problems due to the often conflicting needs of two types of management. As recently as March 2011, sexual abuse crimes by staff have been reported in the Italian courts.

In the following interview with Valentina, she details her motives, the complex and unjust legal entrapment of many inmate-patients, their reactions to journalists and the ambient visual culture of OPG.


Why take on this subject?

A criminal mental asylum is an hybrid of two total institutions, it’s both a jail and a criminal asylum. It is a paradox to think that people in need of being cured are “helped” by being jailed. I wanted to bring light to the living conditions of the people whose recovery is made impossible in such institutions; they are just marginalized and hidden, as if the problem will disappear by pretending is not there. I aim to show something that most people don’t know about. In the 1980s, mental asylums in Italy closed but, oddly enough, criminal mental asylums continued to operate.

Who are the people in your photographs??

Most of the people jailed in such institutions are not considered dangerous anymore but there are no structures to host them and help them to be introduced back into society, so they are just left there. In many cases until they leave in a black bag. The legal situation is very complex.

Explain how it is complex.

Basically when prisoners enter OPG Filippo Saporito are assigned to a conviction time of 2, 5 or 10 years; a sentence considered a “security measure”. Those years are not exactly [defined as] a “conviction” and they can be added on top of a normal jail sentence too. Those sentences vary depending on the gravity of the crimes they committed. Once their scheduled sentence is over, they are judged by a psychiatrist and a judge to check if they are a social danger or not. If they are still considered dangerous their sentence gets a prorogue (usually six months) after which they will be judged again and so on.

The tricky bit is that in order to be released (and this procedure changes slightly from insitution to institution, but I will refer to what is the current practice at OPG Filippo Saporito) they need to find a structure, that can be a special house, or centre or families, which guarantee the surveillance on them for a one year freedom trial period, after which, if everything goes smooth, they will be definitely released.

What happens is that the number of inmates that would need this trial period outnumbers the number of places available in the above mentioned structures and very often the families can’t take under their charge the prisoners. Often, even if the person is not considered a danger anymore, if there’s no structure that can host them for the trial freedom period, their sentence are prolonged. The consequence is that 65% of the actual inmates are not considered dangerous anymore but are still held in OPG Filippo Saporito.

How many institutions such as this exist in Italy?

There are currently five criminal mental asylums In Italy. There’s a special section [for the mentally insane criminals] in another institution.

When I was working at OPG Filippo Saporito, it housed about 300 inmates. Of those, 65% were not considered a social danger anymore but they couldn’t be released for the lack of [social] structures in the community to take care of them.

What is the public attitude toward criminal mental asylums in Italy?

The Italian public knows very little about criminal mental asylums; most think that they have been closed together with the other mental asylums. They come on the news every now and than when the suicidal rate rises too high, a member of parliament goes and pay a visit inside, and denounces their inhuman conditions of life. It hits the papers for few days and then back to normal.

The prisoners have been amazing with me. They felt that for the amount of time I was spending there (I worked there for almost one year) I was not the normal journalist that comes, plays the voyeur for a few days and than disappears. At the end of the project almost everybody knew me and I knew most of their stories. Many times they have told me that with me they had the chance of talking about themselves, with someone really listening and not just handling them like paper files. [Listening] is a thing that the doctors should do, but the number of prisoners outnumbers the number of medical personal too much for it to be possible.

I gave them prints. The reactions I got were very different, some where happy, some others didn’t recognize themselves, not being used to see their image anymore, which was a very painful thing to witness.

Some prisoners do not recognise their faces?

They are mentally ill and the suicidal rate is very high so no sharp, flammable or explosive objects are allowed, nor things like shoestrings and so on. Generally, they are not allowed mirrors. The only image that some prisoners have of themselves is through old pictures; the perception of their own face and body is distorted.

“They lose track of what they used to be, because they have no guarantee that they will ever be allowed to become that person again.”

What’s more, in normal jails there is a photography service (I don’t know how it works exactly but I know that if you want to have a picture taken to send to your family you can somehow do it) but no-one considered that people in OPG Filippo Saporito might have the need for a photograph taken once in a while. For some people, the last time they saw their own face was years before.

The room interiors look very stark. Did any of the prisoners have other pictures or posters to use, hang and decorate spaces? Or, what is the visual culture of OPG Filippo Saporito?

Visual culture? Good luck with that! The average amount of space that each person has is so small that you don’t really have much wall to stick things on. In the most overcrowded sections, nothing was on the walls at all.

The sections which host people with more severe metal conditions are “decorated” with scribbles, and writing on the walls – which I consider screams more than decorations.

People that have bigger spaces usually have pictures from magazines (less porny that what I expected, to be honest) so landscapes, girls, some people a football team or a car, a postcard maybe, a couple of Christian crosses. The number of personal objects that inmates have is very small, which tells a lot about how this space works with the complete depersonalization of people.

The prisoners loose identity. They are trapped in a small space that, despite the amount of time they spend in it, they cannot identify it as belonging to them and so make no effort to decorate. They lose track of what they used to be, because they have no guarantee that they will ever be allowed to become that person again; they become faceless and with no identity and no ties with the outside world. Plus, most of them are severely sedated and/or depressed which doesn’t really stimulate any effort to make the place more welcoming.

Did the prisoners see your prints?

Quite a few asked me to have their picture taken in order to have something to send to their families and to see what they looked like. It was a tricky one for me, as I could not turn my reportage in working for them, so I had to be very careful to handle it and make no promises I couldn’t keep.

Prints were either sent to family or saved among their belongings. Someone chucked their portrait in the bin!

It’s very sad to see how is the inmates’ perception of possessions. They are not used to owning anything so the idea of possession almost disappears for them. Some people had a look at the picture and that was it, end of the use of the picture. They are deprived of the most basic elements that make a person an individual subjective human being.

Was it easy to share your prints?

It is not exactly that you bring a print with you and that’s it. Everything is extremely bureaucratic so I had to give pictures to the police attendants, who had to request the approval of the director and then they were given to another attendant that would have been in charge of delivery. Also, some staff considered giving people their pictures as inappropriate . More than once prisoners told me they never received the prints I had brought for them.

You said the prisoners appreciated and understood you presence. Do you know what they hoped your photography could do/might do?

For many reasons, most of them consider their condition of detention to be unfair. The biggest one is that their release is not time-based (not in a linear way, anyway, as I explained above) and that’s why they call their condition a life-sentence, even if not defined as such.

This condition of not knowing when they are going to be released (if ever) is source of great distress and, in my opinion, makes the recovery of a person impossible. What’s more, even if the law states that different crimes and different mental conditions are treated in different ways, the reality is that people with very serious conditions live close to people which are in better health, all under the same set of rules and in the same spaces. There are sections in which the surveillance is a little bit lower, for example when i was there they just had stated a section in which there were no police attendants but just nurses and medical personnel, but the difference between section to section vary very little.

Sometimes, for disciplinary reasons, people are moved to higher security sections and excluded from recreational activities, as a form of punishment, but this is of course off the records.

The jail is overcrowded, the number of inmates being almost twice as the one the jail was designed for. Food is very poor, and hygiene is too. [Available] medical and psychiatric assistance is ridiculous, and the police personnel are not specifically trained to cope with mental illness, which leads to a massive number of abuses and a complete lack of empathy towards the inmates.

The activities, which are considered to be treatment but in reality constitute just a form of entertainment, are restricted to a very small number of people (because there has to be one police attendant for every four inmates) and they are always the same inmates, the easier ones to cope with.

The prisoners are aware that the way in which they live is unknown to most of the population and only hits the news when a parliamentary inspection takes place. They hoped my presence was a way to get their voice out, and they hoped  the approach I had compared to the other journalists (reporting from the “zoo” they live in without effecting change) would be different. So they were hoped at least I would be less biased that the average journalist.

I made clear to them all that I was no “big cat” and I could only do my best to bring their voice out, but also aware that having the reportage sold and diffused would have not been so easy, because the reality is that is sellable only when something in the news brings those places to attention again.

And then of course there is the personal element; there’s a girl hanging around, who knows your name and smiles at you, and she considers you a human being and not a case study or a patient, which for some people is something that they hadn’t had in long time.

Plus, a photographer is something that is “happening” that breaks the routine a little bit. I have to say, some of them were very hostile to journalists, and I can easily see why, for the way they handle the topic. It took time to gain their trust.

And something else too, one inmate saw me as a tie to the outside world; I was not a nurse, not a doctor, not a police officer, I was just a person talking to them for no other reason than talking to them, because I have spent days at times just talking about food or pets or places or my normal day or whatever. They thought I was out of my mind because I decided to go there on purpose instead of taking pictures of trees and beautiful landscapes!

Filippo Saporito strikes me as an eclectic complex. There is a training centre for clinical and psychiatric training?

If I am not wrong, yes, there is a training school that works together with the OPG but I don’t know much about it.

There is also a museum at the site, correct?

There is a very small museum in the [old] jail which hosts instruments that were previously used to deal with mental illness. But inmates are still there [in the asylum], still in the same medieval conditions. I wish the asylum was something in the past […] you can say it too is a museum, but a living horror museum.


Quintano is based in London, UK. She holds an MA (distinction) in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography from London College of Communication (December 2010) and received a Diploma in Photojournalism from The Danish School of Media and Journalism, Århus, Denmark (December 2009). Between July and November 2010, Quintano was Assignment Editor, Getty Images, London Office and is currently a Staff Photographer at the Italian monthly magazine, Progetto Campania. Quintano’s photography has appeared in the following books; Terre in Disordine, Minimum Fax (2009) and Enciclopedia della Canzone Napoletana, by Pietro Gargano, Magmata Edizioni (2006). Quintano’s work has appeared in many exhibitions, including Donne rEsistenti, Napoli, Italy (May 2008) and Rifiuto, at the Associazione La.Na., Napoli (July 2007)

I just came across Francesco Rocco‘s Prisons portfolio and it was a punch to the gut.

Cocco portrays the self-afflicted and architectural violence wrought in Italian penitentiaries with visceral power that – even within the genre of prison photography – is rare.

The work was made against the ongoing outcry of suicides in Italian prisons, “Italian prisons are increasingly overcrowded. In eight years, 449 suicides have been counted in Italian jails, out of a total of 1243 deaths behind bars. Is this a way to resolve a social issue? Unfortunately, a neon light isn’t enough to take away a man from darkness and hand back to him his dignity.”

In 2002, Cocco embarked on a long study of men’s and women’s prison conditions in Italy, creating work shown at the Modena, 55th Festa Provinciale de l’Unità, September 2006; and later at Rome, Sala Santa Rita, March 2007.

A video of the exhibition installation with comments from the Modena curators (Italian language) can be watched here or by clicking the image below.

Prisons was published as a book format by Logos, with texts by Adriano Sofri and Renata Ferri.

A well-designed fold out accompaniment to the exhibition (pictured below) was also produced. More here.


Previously on Prison Photography, as regards Italian prisons, I have featured Melania Comoretto‘s portraits of women, Danilo Murru‘s large format architectural studies of Sicilian prisons and Luca Ferrari‘s B&W portraits from Rebbibia prison, Rome.


Francesco Cocco was born in Recanati, Italy in 1960. He began working as a photographer in 1989. Keenly interested in social marginalization and the world of children, he immediately started visiting ‘difficult’ countries, especially in Asia. In Bangladesh, he photographed the living conditions of street kids and documented child labor practices. In Vietnam, just after the borders reopened, he created a photo essay for the exhibition Vietnam Oggi (Modena, Italy, 1993). In Cambodia, working with Emergency, he tackled the dramatic story of landmine victims. In the same country, with the support of the NGO New Humanity, he collected images of child prostitution. In Brazil, he photographed blind people at the Benjamin Constant Institute in Rio de Janeiro and the exploitation of child labor on the island of Marajoa, in the Amazon basin.

These pictures are presumably in Italy? Is this one prison or did you visit several?

This was seven different prisons in Sardinia and Sicily. Being from Sardinia it was a lot easier to get permission to photograph. I also knew someone in Sicily. But saying “easier” doesn’t mean it was easy. It took a year and a half to get my permission. Two of the seven prisons are juvenile facilities.

Why did you arrive at this subject?

Two things. Firstly, I was doing my BA in photography at the London College of Printing and I started photographing [London] prison walls in my second year. I have never done anything with those images; I never even scanned them. But they made me curious and for my final project I wanted to go inside. So, I sent letters to prisons here in London, but it was very hard to get permission. Being Italian, I resorted to try in Italy.

Secondly, the main thing that inspired me was Envoi a poem by Octavio Paz:

Imprisoned by four walls
(To the north, the crystal of non-knowledge
a landscape to be invented
to the south, reflective memory
to the east, the mirror
to the west, stone and the song of silence)
I wrote messages, but received no reply

It is absolutely beautiful, so simple.

What does Envoi translate as?

Envoi? It is a bit of a mystery. I was reading a book by Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, and on the very first page there is Paz’s poem. Now, Octavio Paz was Mexican, Henri Lefebvre is French, but I have never found this poem in Spanish of French. So, only the English version, yet the title is in French. Envoi means to “send out” and in French it is also used in a way that means not to just send out a letter, but to send out emotion … communicating emotion to other people.

This project was based around this poem. It is a poem that describes the four directions – north, south, east, west and these are the four walls. They describe the life of a prisoner.

But your photographs are of Sicilian and Sardinian prisons and yet your explanation seems to describe something more universal – something based in emotion, not in geography.

Precisely. I did not say where these prisons were on my website. It doesn’t matter where they are. It is about the idea of a reinvented life within four walls. Obviously, it doesn’t apply to every prisoner. If you only have a six-month sentence your cell is less important, but if you have a life sentence then I feel that experience is applicable to this poem.

Right, and within your images of cell interiors we can see details. Are you interested in individual objects? Do you want them to act as substitute for the inhabitant? For this is a common ploy – I am thinking of work by Jeff Barnett-Winsby and Jürgen Chill.

Yes and no. Let me jump to one of your other questions. You asked if it was my decision not to photograph inmates. Yes, it was deliberate, and beyond the fact it would be difficult to get permission. Again, based on this poem, I didn’t feel I needed to show these people.

I didn’t want to show a face. I thought it was enough to see their belongings and witness their presence that way.

What was the reaction of the inmates and staff at the prisons?

The staff didn’t understand why I wanted to photograph at the prison. They make jokes and suggest I should go to the beach to photograph, as it was “more beautiful down there.” That’s fine, they have a job and support their family and they’re happy that way.

The inmates were very enthusiastic. I mean, it’s a different day. A day different to all the other ones; to have a photographer come into your cell.

I was continually escorted except for at two open-prisons where I was free to go anywhere I wanted. Whenever I saw a cell I wanted to photograph, I had to ask permission from the inmate, not the guard. That made me understand that it was his house. I had to ask him, just as I’d ask you if I knocked on your door. Sometimes we’d have coffee. Some of the guys gave me recipes about how to make certain types of pastas. It was a very strong experience.

Do you know if any of the guys have seen your work – did you provide prints or may they have been released and looked it up online?

I grew up in an area of Cagliari that wasn’t the best so I knew some of the guys inside. Some of them were surprised to see me there; I was not so surprised to see them there.

As far as I know they are still in. There was another guy who was famous in the area for being involved in the mafia. He was on a life sentence. I expect not many have seen the work. Really though, I have no idea if they have looked at the pictures or not.

Is photography an adequate tool for communicating stories about prisons?

Yes it is, but you need to be very careful. You could make things a lot more dramatic. For example, I could have chosen a 24mm lens, got very close-up, shown rotten teeth of inmates … I could make it dramatic.

But, my position was a central position. Really, I know nothing [about prisons]. I didn’t, I can’t, stand on any side. I try to be neutral.

Tell me about your use of light.

I used long exposures. I wanted the light to flow from the windows. The light behaves as a one-way system; in the same way Octavio Paz’s poem spoke of writing messages but receiving no reply. In prison, communications are always interrupted; they become one-way communications.

At times “your” prisons seems quite spiritual? Was religion ever an undertone for your work? These could by cells that monks live in.

I’ve never thought of the spiritual aspect of the images. However in terms of environment, the ascetic life of a monk and the imprisonment of an inmate are not too different – only one is a choice, and the other not. Two of the prisons in Envoi used to be convents.

Pursuing that notion of religious visual cues – this isn’t a typical prison as we expect (in the US at least). Instead of barbed-wire, these prisons have rounded arches, some have vaulted ceilings. Some of the detail evokes ecclesiastical spaces.

The entrance with the rounded arch is the entrance to female section of the prison. This is in Sicily, which doesn’t have enough female prisoners to warrant a designated female facility. There were perhaps forty of fifty female inmates in this section.

I was actually quite intimidated by this gate – it was very heavy and very loud. It really gave the sense of being incarcerated.

How did you work while in a state of intimidation?

The first day I got in I took no photographs. I didn’t know where to start; immediately I felt like I’d got in too deep. Over time I got excited, I got focused. In Italy we have a saying that all things – good and bad – are felt in the stomach first. It’s the centre point of the body; everything important is felt there. I took these images after feeling emotion from the stomach.

How many times did you go to these prisons?

I went to Italy twice – both times for a month. I visited some prisons only once, others eight or ten times. I visited the prison in Cagliari, my hometown the most.

Did you do any research before the project? Did you look at other photography done in prisons?

Lucinda Devlin’s Omega Suites was a huge inspiration. Her work is beautiful.

Another project I like is Ghetto by Broomberg and Chanarin, although they completed it since Envoi (which was done in 2003). Broomberg and Chanarin photographed in South Africa and in Central and South America, not just in prisons but other institutions.

Yes, I have looked at their work before. My conclusion was that they now have the luxury of reputation, time and money to take a very slow approach to their photography. That is how I explain their remarkable results.

I think they deserve all the recognition they get. Their work is astounding. I was in a show last year, which also had their work. Their prints are amazing.

Tell us about your exhibition of Envoi?

It was a bit problematic. Firstly, I think they [The Ministry of Justice] gave me permission to photograph in order to get rid of me.

After the project, I wanted help to organise an exhibition. The exhibition I had in Sardinia was great but it was also a compromise.

The Ministry of Justice didn’t provide me money but they involved the town hall and private galleries and it became good publicity for them.

I used them and they used me for their own interests. They never understood my concept. They kept advertising the show as a one about Sardinian and Sicilian prisons and I kept telling them it was about a broader concept.

In the exhibition I used labels beneath the images to identify each prison.

[At the opening] I didn’t want to give a speech but they forced me. The Ministry of Justice didn’t really know what to say either but they had to say something; it is politics.

What are your politics on prisons now?

This was the first and only experience I have of prisons. I made my own personal interpretation of prison, but I don’t really know what happens inside. I want to take the position that this exists and is part of our society. Now in America, as you’ve said, there are the most prisons in the western world, and that is something relevant, but the way I looked at it from the start was that I was not going to make a judgement. I was curious about this place. It is a place we’d not want to experience but [about which] we’re all curious. My father was a cop and he worked in the anti-narcotics division for many years. He’d go to interview people inside jail. As a teenager, I always wanted to join him.

Do you aim to inspire curiosity?

The show was quite successful. Somehow people were reading what I was reading. I could see the majority of people reacting as I expected which doesn’t happen with my other projects! [Laughs] Generally, I was happy with the comments.

I did hear many people at the exhibition say, “It [prison] is not as bad as I expected.”

How did you respond to those readings? Did you challenge your audience?

No. I mean they didn’t see what I saw and they didn’t hear the doors slamming. Every step you take, there’d be another door closing at your back, one after another. It took a long time to get through the prisons.

Do you consider your images a literal description of the space. Is that enough?

No, no, certainly not and it is not enough. “This is the concept of prison and it is in these 20 pictures?” No, no, no, no. [laughs]. It is one piece of truth in an infinite world.

What are you working on now?

I am working on observations of tidal movements, the change in landscape. It is a study of seaside societies and the way they relate to coastline. I have visited Norfolk a lot – it’s amazing. In Italy you have the sea, the beach – it is always there, you don’t have these movements.

In Norfolk and other places, I take two pictures; one at low tide, then I wait six hours and take one at high tide.

Soon, I’ll be taking up a residency in Holland – the BADGAST residency – and I’ll look at Dutch sea society. Then, maybe Canada. Nova Scotia has the largest tidal movements in the world – as large as 52 feet!

Thank you Danilo.

Thanks Pete.

To see more of Envoi and Danilo’s other portfolios visit







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