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I wouldn’t describe Melania Comoretto‘s portfolio Women in Prison as portraiture; it’s bigger, it’s emotional landscape.

Comoretto’s work tinged with sadness, possibly even resignation. Their circumstance may have dulled outward looking expectancy.

This work stands out, for me personally, as one of the finest photographic documents of women prisoners, globally. Women in Prison is charming and disarming. These are women whose words would likely shock us and yet they seem to know the weight of their own stories and captive futures. The reticence of Comoretto’s subjects, paired with the arresting gaze (when given), is a triumph.



Where is this prison?

I photographed in two Italian prisons in Rebibbia and Trapani.

Why did you do a project there?

I wanted to investigate and understand how women could express their femininity and take care of their body in a situation of extreme marginalization.

The starting idea was to reflect the mental and psychological labyrinths and internal prisons that prevent human beings from living their lives freely. I asked myself, “What could be the extreme expression of this idea?” The answer; Prison.

What were the women’s lives like? Was their prison experience positive or negative?

The way the women live in prison depend on the prison in itself and how it is organised. It also depends on the personality and psychological attitude of the woman.

Most of them fall into depression; others react in a very active way. The body is the mirror of that. The more a women fall into depression the more she forget to take care of her body, that was the reason why I decided to focus on bodies and femininity.

Where are the women now?

Most of the women are still in Rebibbia and Trapani prisons. I shot this series of photos only in the last 10 months.


Were the women good portrait subjects? Did they want to be photographed?

They were very willing to speak and to be portrayed! They liked to spent time with me. They rarely have the chance to speak with someone who wants to listen deeply their stories.

Did they see your photograph prints?

I sent them each contact sheets.

In Italy what is society’s attitude toward prisoners and, specifically, female prisoners?

Unfortunately, in every city and country of the world, the social attitude towards prisoners is not very open-minded. They [societies] focus on the fact that prisoners are guilty and rarely on the fact that (in the majority of cases) that they had no chance because their lives started in very tragic conditions. Without any help it is very difficult for prisoners to change their destiny.

What was your experience on the project?

I understand how in some situations life does not leave you many chances to change.

Can the camera be a tool for rehabilitation?

I deeply believe it is. I don’t know if photography could be a tool of rehabilitation for the women. For me it was and is … so maybe [the camera] could be for them and for many other people. It prevents me from destroying myself and I believe it could have the same advantage for many other people!









Ettore Scalambra © 2009 Luca Ferrari

Ettore Scalambra © 2009 Luca Ferrari

Luca Ferrari is a young documentary photographer who graduated recently from The University of Wales, Newport. In 2001, he gained a scholarship in Rome and chose to document the lives of inmates in his native Italy at Rebibbia Prison.

© 2009 Luca Ferrari

© 2009 Luca Ferrari

I have chosen seven of his most striking works. Ferrari’s portraits are accompanied by words spoken by the prisoners. I have only included a single testimony here and I encourage you all to take the time to visit his site to understand the subjects more. Ferrari offers the caveat, “I apologise if some of the text is long for internet reading, but they are an essential part of my work.” No apology needed. The necessity for the text is obvious; I would argue crucial.

I have included the words of one inmate discussing the experience of another at the end of this post. The words are hard to read. I jostled with the decision to include them or not. In the end, I decided if anything should come from an analysis of Ferrari’s work it should be to convey the real gravity of his subjects’ lives.

I also firmly believe that in the work of any documentary photographer, if the sitters and subjects stories stay in the audience’s mind longer than the photographer’s name then the photographer has succeeded.

Pierluigi Concutelli © 2009 Luca Ferrari

Pierluigi Concutelli © 2009 Luca Ferrari

The Mass © 2009 Luca Ferrari

The Mass © 2009 Luca Ferrari

Giovanni Iacone © 2009 Luca Ferrari

Giovanni Iacone © 2009 Luca Ferrari


Alessia and Lucia

Ferrari interviewed inmate Alessia on September 10th 2003. She spoke of Lucia’s traumatic experiences and suffered injustice.

Alessia © 2009 Luca Ferrari

Alessia © 2009 Luca Ferrari

She is 42 years old. She comes from Ethiopia. She lives on the street – in the park at Piazza Indipendenza. She says she will go [be released] on the 22nd. She has a father and mother. They live her in Rome. Her parents have tried to help her but she cannot see a male person because five Italian guys have raped her. She was in the boarding school of Villa Pamphili and during the weekend she would go home. While she was at the bus stop waiting for the bus to go home, a car arrived and kidnapped her. They probably took her to a secluded place. It happened in the cell as well.

In fact, when they lock us up, she opens the water tap and fill sup the buckets, then she empties them on the floor. She then takes the toilet paper and puts it on the television screen. She does this to have the cell unlocked.

She has not been sane since she was raped. They did not only rape her they gave her a good thrashing. One of the guys made her pregnant and nobody knows the whereabouts of the kid. The social services gave him to another family.

Her parents took her to the hospital. She escaped and has never gone back. They attempted many times to help her, but nothing. She has been in a psychiatric hospital, where they bombarded her with electroshock. After this she was worse.

Lucia © 2009 Luca Ferrari

Lucia © 2009 Luca Ferrari


Brief Q & A

When did you photograph the Rebibbia series and how many times did you visit?
I did the series during August 2001 and the summer of 2003. I can’t count the times, but almost every day for a month in 2001 and daily for one month in 2003.

Describe Rebibbia prison.
Rebibbia is a prison in Rome which holds 352 women and 1927 men. Within the womens’ ward there is also a special section for mothers with children under 5 years old.

What first got you interested in the subject of prisons?
I won a scholarship in Rome in 2001 to produce a exhibition on the theme of “Memory”. From that I showed my pictures to a publisher who was interested in making a book on Rebibbia. In 2003 I continued the work.

Why Rebibbia prison?
At that time I was living in Rome. Moreover, Rebibbia is one of the biggest and most important prisons in Italy.

What arrangements did you need to make to gain access to the prison (phone calls, letters, recommendations)?
I needed a letter of commission from the scholarship/publisher and also the permission of the prison authority.

Describe your interactions with the prison inmates/subjects and also the prison staff.
The permission I had was very restricted. I could not going everywhere, so I decided to add text to my pictures. The texts are not official interviews but chats I recorded in my notebooks. Sometimes the inmates gave me letters from their relatives or text written by themselves.

I tried to be as informal as possible with the texts. The prison institution is already very formal; As Erving Goffman described in Asylums it is a total institution. The status of a prisoner “is backed by the solid buildings of the world, while our sense of personal identity often resides in the cracks.”

I just tried to be a crack.


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