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MEETING THE PRISONER CLASS IN POLAND

One might argue that, in the world, there are as many reasons for making an image as there are images. Polish photographer Kamil Śleszyński was curious about how prisoners thought about freedom and “why many prisoners couldn’t live outside [of prison] and would come back again.”

Carrying a camera along with you in these inquiries may or may not help you find answers, but in any case you’ve some images to reflect upon, to lean on, and to mold toward some sort of conclusion.

Śleszyński reached out to me and shared his project Input/Output, which consists of photographs made within a prison and in a re-entry centre that supports ex-prisoners. Both facilities are in the city of Bialystok. The images were made between September 2014 and February 2015.

Using a limited number of sheets of 4×5 film forced Śleszyński to be selective with his exposures. The majority are posed portraits. I wanted to find out what he discovered during the project.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

Click any image to see it larger.

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Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): In the intro text to Input/Output you suggest that prisoners are institutionalized and are bound by what they learn in prison. Can you explain this more?

Kamil Śleszyński (KS): The man who goes to prison needs to adjust to the rules prevailing there. On the one hand, the rules are created by the Polish prison system, on the other hand by the prisoners themselves.

For example, Grypsera is a prison subculture. Those prisoners who adhere it rules are known as Grypsera too. They have own language which is based on polish language. Grypsera was created in the past century and determined the tough rules, hierarchy and standards. Today, these rules have loosened somewhat but many of them are still alive.

The prison environment is permanently stigmatising. This is perfectly illustrated by words from the book “The Walls of Hebron” written by Andrzej Stasiuk: “To the prison you go only one time. This first. After that, there is no prison. There is no freedom too. All things are the same.”

Polish prisoners are not taught independence because it is not technically possible within their reality. Resocialization is a key issue, but most progams toward it are not enough. Therefore, freed prisoners cannot deal with freedom itself. It is easier to get back behind bars where everything is either black or white.

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PP:  Many of your subjects have tattoos. Are tattoos important in Polish prisons?

KS: Tattoos were an important element of prison subculture. Tattoos on their faces and hands allowed quickly define the criminal profession. Military ranks tattooed on their arms, define the length of the sentence. There were a lot of different types of tattoos. Only deserving criminals could have it.

Today, these rules are loosened. Tattoos do not always have the prison symbolism, sometimes are associated with religion.

PP: You shot in a prison in Bialystok. What is its reputation?

KS: The closed wards were the worst, because prisoners are spending 23 hours a day in a cell. Prisoners can be a little crazy as a result.

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PP: Why did you want to photograph inside?

KS: I grew up in the neighborhood of the prison. Often I was walking near by the prison walls and watching prisoners. They were standing in the windows bathing in the sun. I was wondering why they were behind the walls. This curiosity stayed with me.

PP:  How did you get access?

KS: The year ago I met director and journalist Dariusz Szada-Borzyszkowski. He was working with a prisoners. He cast them in performances. He put me in touch with the right people and gave valuable hints. His help greatly accelerated my work.

PP: What were the reactions of the staff?

KS: Prisoner chiefs had a positive attitude to the project. In one of the prison facilities I had a lot of creative freedom.

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PP: What were the reactions of the prisoners?

KS: Gaining the confidence of prisoners takes a long time, and this was a key issue for the project. Prisoners are understandably distrustful — they’re afraid that someone from the outside can deceive or ridicule them.

One of the prisoners told me that he don’t want to work with me because prisoners are not monkeys in a cage. I spent a lot of time to convince him that I wouldn’t misrepresent him. In the end, he was involved in the project so much that he convinced other prisoners to cooperation with me.

I was shooting with an old camera 4×5. Many of prisoners were interested in my shooting technique because they had never seen such equipment. It was a new experience for them.

PP: Did the prisoners have an opportunity to have their photograph taken at other times?

KS: Prisoners are photographed by the staff upon entry into the prison and at the time of their departure. During imprisonment is not possible to be photographed … unless they are involved in a project like mine.

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PP: Did prisoners have photographs in their cells?

KS: Sometimes prisoners have photos of their loved ones in their cells.  This helps to survive in isolation.

PP: Did you give prisoners copies of your images?

KS: Prisoners are collaborating when it is profitable. The photos were a reward for participating in the project. Many of them sent photos to their loved ones.

PP: What do people in Poland think about the prison system? And of think prisoners?

KS: People don’t know much about prisons and prisoners, and guided by stereotypes. They want to know how it is inside, but do not want to have anything to do with the prisoners. They are afraid of them.

I hope that such projects like mine, will help to change those points of view. I got scholarship from the Marshal of Podlaskie region for the preparation of a draft photo book about the prisoners. It wasn’t easy, but the scholarship suggests to me that views are slowly changing.

PP: Overall, is the Polish prison system working or not? Does it keep people safe, or rehabilitate, for example?

KS: The polish prison system puts too little emphasis on resocialization.

PP: Thanks, Kamil.

KS: Thank you, Pete.

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AN EMAIL FROM POLAND

“The women have different histories but they all have one thing in common — they all just wanted to have nice portraits,” read the email from Edyta Ganc.

Well, Edyta nailed it. Ganc’s portraits are nice. But, they’re much more than nice; they’re rather formidable. They emerge from a straightforward approach to the prison by Ganc and the simplest of aims. The variety among the portraits is impressive. I immediately emailed Ganc insistent that I share the series, titled Borderline, here, with you.

“I helped them to look attractive by inviting a professional make-up artist,” continued the email. “I also prepared clothes for them … mainly from my private wardrobe.”

Ganc has succeeded twice over; for the women prisoners, she has made beautiful portraits, and for us, she has made poignant portraits to mull over. Ganc’s moments are noticeably heavy and to capture that is a rare skill. These portraits prick my curiosity. Whatever the histories of these women are, I am eager to know.

[Scroll down for our brief Q&A]

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QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

PP: Why did you want to make portraits of the women?

Edyta Ganc (EG): I was always interested in histories of people that are somewhere else, beyond “normal” circle of society. And are considered: outsiders, freaks, strangers. I was to them as I wanted to show their humanity and normality.

PP: What is the full name of the prison?

EG: Areszt Śledczy Warszawa Grochów, which translates as ‘Warsaw Grochow Investigation Arrest.’ Grochów is a district of Warsaw.

PP: How did you gain access?

EG: I made a phone call to the press officer and talked to him about the aim of the project: to photograph the women in the ways they wanted to be presented — nicely dressed and with professional make up. I invited my friend, who is a make-up artist and she agreed to help me. When I got approval, I just had to write a statement about the project and my aims and gained access easily.

PP: How often did you visit?

EG: I started in January and finished in April 2013. My friend Kasia and I visited Areszt once, twice a week.

PP: What did the women do during the days in the prison? Are they involved in programs, work, education and/or other rehabilitation?

EG: I heard a lot of complaints that they could not leave the prison cell and do something interesting. They had some regular meetings with one cultural foundation but they weren’t really interested. The told me they would prefer career or craft courses. Something practical they could learn and gain the professional background – and use when they are free.

PP: What sort of crimes are these women in your photographs imprisoned for? Are they Polish citizens or from other countries?

EG: They are all Polish. Imprisoned mainly for robbery. Most of them were drug addicts and started to steal to have money for drugs. Some of them didnt tell me what was the reason. I wasn’t asking.

PP: You mentioned they all have individual stories. I expect they’ve had tough lives. Do you see them as perpetrators or victims or a mix of both?

EG: I see them as real women who had some problems with their life and now try to fix it. Some of them want to have better future and need to change. Whereas some don’t care and won’t change anything.

[Continue reading below]

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PP: How many prints were you able to give each woman. What did they use them for?

EG: They asked for prints to send them to their relatives. I printed 3 copies for each of them but now i think it is not enough. I am going to send more.

PP: Are photographs rare in the prison? Are there any other opportunities for the women to have their photograph taken?

EG: Not really. It is rather rare thing.

PP: What did the guards at the prison think of your project and you visiting with your camera?

EG: They were really helpful. Of course, there were some situations I felt they wanted me to finish, leave and no longer disturb things, but I pretended I didnt notice it.

PP: Are Polish women’s prisons safe, sanitary places?

EG: Rather, yes. There are two types of cells. Closed — for women inprisoned several times, and half closed — for women imprisoned for the first time. The seconed ones have toilets with showers. First ones have only toilets and basins.

PP: Can Polish prisons improve or are they doing a good job?

EG: They could improve with their provision of education, courses, therapies, but generally I can’t complain.

PP: How do Polish people generally think about prisons and prisoners?

EG: They are afraid. They dont want to socialize with these people.

PP: Anything else you’d like to say?

EG: I hope these women will take part in vernissage. It will be the occasion to go out.

– fin –

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BIOGRAPHY

Edyta Ganc based in Warsaw, Poland has a Masters Degree in Theater from the Jagiellonian University and later graduated from Camerimage Film School, Academy of Photography and Laboratory of Reportage, at the University of Warsaw. She is drawn to social justice and has led many photography workshops for children and teenagers. Ganc is co-founder of the Polish photography collective Spoldzielnia Dokumentalna.

WOMEN IN PRISON, IN PHOTOGRAPHY, ACROSS THE GLOBE

Spain: International Womens Day Body-Paint Festivity Photos Belie Barcelona Prisoners’ Daily Hardships

Israel: Tomer Ifrah Inside Neve Tirza, Israel’s Only Women’s Prison

United Kingdom: Adrian Clarke: “All the women have wanted to be identified by their own names.”

Romania: In Women’s Prison, Ioana Cârlig Asks, “What Do You Miss?”

Albania: Annaleen Louwes as Artist in Residence at Ali Demi Women’s Prison in Tirana

USA: Sye Williams at Valley State Prison for Women, Chowchilla, California

USA: ‘Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time’ by Susan Madden Lankford

Italy: Melania Comoretto and Women Prisoners

Globally: Jane Evelyn Atwood’s ‘Too Much Time’

 

This is macabre. I doubt many conservators have dealt with the technical issues of this “print” medium.

Foto8: “The tattoo collection at the Department of Forensic Medicine at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland consists of 60 objects preserved in formaldehyde […] The tattoos were collected from the prisoners of the nearby state penitentiary on Montelupich Street as well as from the deceased on whom autopsies were performed.”

The tattooed skin was preserved in order to decipher the codes within the images:

In the 1970s, the CSI Department of Militia Headquarters in Warsaw published a special document only for prosecution agencies in which they analysed 2300 tattoos, including those from the collection at Jagiellonian University. For over four years, the researchers looked at prisoners, soldiers and criminals who served sentences in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Germany and the USSR. A catalogue that precisely described the meanings behind certain tattoos was created.

It should be said, figuring out what messages are involved in prison tattoos is common across all nations, systems and eras. Although, this is the first collection I know of that separated the tattoos from corpses.

Author’s Note: If there exist any photographs of the violence described below I wouldn’t want to see them, only trust that photographs were used to bring high ranking US officials to justice for crimes against human rights.

I have been familiar with Mark Danner‘s work since reading the excellent Torture and Truth. It dealt commandingly with the Abu Ghraib scandal, putting it into the procedural context of the Bush administration and US operations during the War on Terror. Not to be distracted by the available Abu Ghraib images, Danner continued his fervent document-trawling professionalism and pursued the truth with regard to other Black Sites and detainee torture & interrogation.

Abu Zubaydah after his capture in Pakistan, 2002. Credit: ABC News

Abu Zubaydah after his capture in Pakistan, 2002. Credit: ABC News

Last month, Danner published an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times (to accompany an extended piece for the New York Review of Books) that laid out the details of an International Red Cross report of detainee testimonies. I have only read the shorter NY Times piece and strongly urge you to take 10 minutes to do so. It is a succinct presentation of facts detailing US torture procedures.

Men were tortured in America’s name.

Indeed, since the detainees were kept strictly apart and isolated, both at the black sites and at Guantánamo, the striking similarity in their stories would seem to make fabrication extremely unlikely. As its authors state in their introduction, “The I.C.R.C. wishes to underscore that the consistency of the detailed allegations provided separately by each of the 14 adds particular weight to the information provided below.”

Danner deals with the circumstances of three high ranking Al Qaeda prisoners, one of whom is Abu Zubaydah (pictured above following his 2002 capture). Judging by the Red Cross report which used separate chapters – “suffocation by water,” “prolonged stress standing,” “beatings by use of a collar,” “confinement in a box” one can assume Zubaydah looked significantly more broken after his months of early detention and beatings.

Danner concludes;

What we can say with certainty, in the wake of the Red Cross report, is that the United States tortured prisoners and that the Bush administration, including the president himself, explicitly and aggressively denied that fact.

The use of torture was a decision made by the US government. Danner’s conclusion is ominous;

The consequences of this choice, legal, political and moral, now confront us. Time and elections are not enough to make them go away.

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