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I’ve known about Vance Jacobs work in a Medellin Prison for as long as it has been in published form, but this recent post by StoryBench reminded me of the excellent and brief video reflection Jacobs gives about his time teaching prisoners to use cameras to document their own lives. Originally, Jacobs was going to be the only person photographing, but at the eleventh hour the sponsoring NGO for thre project changed the concept and he was asked to educate a dozen men in prison.

“You could tell it had been a long time since the prisoners in my class had received this much attention. But I also had high expectations and those expectations led to it being a very important experience. They started taking a tremendous amount of pride in their work and they started to understand that criticism could be a really important part of their work and theta they could grow from it,” says Jacobs.

This type of introspection and self-documentation is vital, in my opinion.

At the final exhibit inside the prison of 35 images, 5 went missing. “To have a photo stolen was a badge of honor,” says Jacobs. “It meant someone thought they were worth stealing.”


Vance Jacobs, a San Francisco-based photojournalist and filmmaker whose work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic Books and Esquire magazine. He talks about his creative process and behind the scenes details of his different shoots at his ‘Behind the Lens’ YouTube channel. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

See features on Jacobs’ work at GOOD, WonderfulMachine, Photographer on Photography and PDN Online.

Photojournalist Vance Jacobs talks about teaching a workshop in a maximum security prison in Medellin, Colombia.


In November 2009, I described Jacobs’ prison workshop as an exercise in self-documentation overturning stereotypes and the ‘exotic fetish’.

Carandiru, Sao Paulo, SP, Brazil – 2003 © Pedro Lobo

Four South American penitentiaries feature in Pedro Lobo‘s series Espacos Aprisionados/ Imprisoned Spaces; Itaguy, Bon Pastor and Bela Vista prisons in Medellin, Columbia and the infamous Brazilian prison Carandiru in Sao Paulo.

Pedro Lobo has posted an edit of prison images on his website (27 images). A larger selection can be found at Lobo’s Photoshelter gallery (86 images). Selected works are also posted to Lightstalkers (13 of 30).

I think his images from Carandiru – which he shot shortly after its 2002 closure and demolition – are the most cohesive as a group, and it is a selection of those I include here.

Carandiru, Sao Paulo, SP, Brazil – 2003 © Pedro Lobo

Lobo adopts a common approach to prison interiors as he does to the vernacular architecture of slums and to adapted religious spaces. Lobo is interested in the strain between the inhabitants control over the space, and the control of the space over its inhabitant. Read in the details, it is – strangely – a very compelling tension.

Lobo: Brazilian inmates call their cells “barracos” (barracks, tents, shacks) the same word used for their houses in the “favelas”, where most of them come from. As in my previous work, I tried to show their efforts to make their living quarters as dignified as their meager resources allowed for.

In this prison, inmates were allowed intimate visits twice a month and made all efforts to clean and decorate their cells prior to these encounters. The art work on walls and doors are reflections of order and chaos – creativity in adversity – and revealing of their desire for freedom, material residues of the only allowed forms of self-expression. It is sad to know that all vanished when the buildings were demolished.

These images reflect the responsibility with which I use my work. They are not about crime, or criminals, poverty, or misery, but about human beings who found, or placed, themselves in extremely adverse situations and decided not to give up the struggle for a dignified existence. (Source)

Carandiru, Sao Paulo, SP, Brazil – 2003 © Pedro Lobo

In some cases the interiors are bare and contemplative; images 2 and 3 could be the cells of religious devotees. In other cases (image 1) the intrigue is in the particulars. Look closer. What’s behind the curtain?

Especially because Carandiru no longer stands (it has, like so many former prisons, become a museum) Lobo’s pictures should be treasured. Don’t be surprised if these images reemerge, possibly in the form of a book, and probably tied into his wider body of work.


Pedro Lobo (Rio de Janeiro, 1954) is a Brazilian photographer currently living in Portugal.

He has exhibited his work in Brazil, Denmark, Germany, Colombia and in the United States. He has photographed slums, favelas and prisons. His images of  known as Carandiru (later demolished) in Sao Paulo were shown in the exhibition “Imprisoned spaces/Espaços aprisionados” at Blue Sky Gallery, in Portland, Oregon, in 2005.

His first one-man show in Portugal was Favelas: Architecture of Survival at Museu Municipal Prof. Joaquim Vermelho in Estremoz.

He has taken part in other exhibitions such as REtalhar2007 in Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil in Rio de Janeiro and “Via BR 040 – Serra Cerrado”, with Miguel Rio Branco, Elder Rocha, etc in Plataforma Contemporânea of the Museu Imperial of Petropolis, in 2004 and 2005.

Pedro Lobo, a Fulbright Scholar, studied photography at the school of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts with Elaine O’Neil and Bill Burke and at New York’s International Center of Photography (ICP). From 1978 to 1985 he worked for the Brazilian Landmark Commission (Fundação Pró-Memória) as a photographer and researcher. In 2008, he was awarded the first prize at Tops Festival in China.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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