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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.


98 prisoners are kept in a cell measuring 25 square meters originally designed for 16 inmates. The longest-serving prisoner in one of these cells has been there for 5 years. The prisoners are locked up for crimes as varied as non-payment of alimony to murder. The long-timers sleep in hammocks up high, the newcomers on the floor. Temperatures reach 50 degrees celsius in the summer. The prisoners are the poorest members of society, have poor legal representation, and are disenfranchised from political representation as they have no vote.

Gary Knight, Private Photo Review

Overcrowding at Polinter pre-trail detention centre, Rio de Janeiro © Gary Knight, VII Agency

Overcrowding at Polinter pre-trail detention centre, Rio de Janeiro © Gary Knight, VII Agency

Originally published in Social Issues #42 last Autumn, Gary Knight‘s astonishing photography at one of the (now closed) overcrowded Polinter Prisons in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Polinters are temporary holding facilities used to house police detainees.

There’s a bit of back story in to Knight’s work in his interview with the Financial Times.

Two things intrigue me about this. Firstly, my research tells me this prison closed down late 2006/early 2007. Why has it taken so long for Knight’s photography to get even short coverage? Secondly, I am astounded by Knight’s answer to the question of how he secured access:

I was doing a project on poverty, and a photographer at O Globo newspaper in Rio introduced me to the governor of Polinter prison – a place with conditions so bad the governor herself was appalled. She wanted something to be done but she couldn’t really let in a photographer from a local paper. She felt more comfortable with a foreigner: I guess she thought that stories published overseas might put pressure on the government from abroad.

Can you imagine a reversal of this logic? That US prison wardens would accommodate foreign photojournalists more readily?

Knight does his part in bringing visibility to the situation, but that doesn’t affect the shut out experienced by local photographers. That said, it is a great example of the power of international photojournalist activity bringing new possibilities to bear.

Detailed information on the Polinter prisons is hard to come by. We should share Knight’s relief that the Polinter he photographed is now closed. Amnesty International mentioned it in its 2006 report on Brazil:

In Rio de Janeiro, human rights groups denounced conditions in the Polinter pre-trial detention centre. In August the unit held 1,500 detainees in a space designed for 250, with an average of 90 men per 3m x 4m cell. Between January and June, three men were killed in incidents between prisoners. Officials in the detention centre were also forcing detainees to choose which criminal faction they wished to be segregated with inside Polinter. In November the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the Brazilian government to take measures to improve the situation.

Finally, let’s consider with necessary dexterity the role that Pastor Marcos Pereira da Silva plays in all of this. He visits, evangelises, “foot-stomps”, exorcises evil and sends prisoners collapsing to the floor. Knight confesses a “real disquiet about him”. Supporters point to the fact that violence in Polinter has abated since da Silva’s visits, but Knight parries that its easy to influence the most vulnerable of groups.

I cannot bring myself to embed the video of the Pastor at work, but you can follow this link and thusly imagine him bouncing around the walls of a prison, agitating its population and putting on a show they’re not likely to witness again or even understand. I guess different eyes experience different wonder.


UPDATE (06.01.2012): The Open Society Institute published ‪Justice Denied: Brazil’s Polinters, documentary video focusing on “the costs of excessive and unnecessary pretrial detention.”

The poor conditions are obvious. OSI describes the film as part of their broader work on “a Global Campaign for Pretrial Justice […] helping governments develop bail and supervision systems that can make pretrial detention an exception, and not the rule.”


Gary Knight, born in England, started working as a photographer in Southeast Asia during the 1980s as Indochina emerged from bitter wars and the region came to grips with the end of Cold War. In 1993, he moved to collapsing Yugoslavia where he returned repeatedly from the siege of Sarajevo through the fall of Kosovo. Between assignments for Newsweek, he documented crimes against humanity.

After 9/11, he worked in Afghanistan and two years later independently followed U.S. troops into Iraq. He covered wars in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Asia and other breaking news, but Knight’s central focus is on the survival of the world’s poor and fundamental human rights issues.

Knight is founding director of VII Photo Agency. He established the Angkor Photo Festival, is a board member of the Crimes of War Foundation, a trustee of the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation and Vice President of the Pierre & Alexandra Boulat Foundation.

His work, widely awarded, published in magazines, is in museums and private collections. He has initiated education programs with universities and voluntary agencies, and is the author of Evidence: War Crimes in Kosovo.

If you are going to spend time with anything though, make it dispatches, a superbly edited magazine co-founded by Kinght. It cuts to the core of the issues, the rest of us skirt from distance.

(Found via Travel Photographer)


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