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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.

CONTEXT

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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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Q&A

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.

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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!

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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

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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

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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.

Saint Valentine was executed on February 14th, 270 A.D. He was a priest in Rome who covertly married couples against Emperor Claudius II’s dictate. Claudius had banned marriage because wedded men were unwilling soldiers and he needed to sustain his warrior-class.

The mythology tells us that while in prison Valentine befriended the gaoler’s blind daughter. She brought him meals and they talked at length about imperialism, machismo and state control in the Holy Roman Empire. The night before he was “beaten with sticks and had his head cut off”, Valentine reached through the bars of his cell and touched her eye lids. She could see. It was a miracle. Later that night, Valentine penned a note to his ladyfriend and signed it “From your Valentine”. This was a first.

What next? The civic authorities mopped up the blood and the church went on a propaganda campaign. At that time it was the custom in Rome, a very ancient custom, indeed, to celebrate in the month of February the Lupercalia, feasts in honour of a heathen god. On these occasions, amidst a variety of pagan ceremonies, the names of young women were placed in a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed. The pastors of the early Christian Church in Rome endeavoured to do away with the pagan element in these feasts by replacing the names of maidens with those of saints. And as the Lupercalia began about the middle of February, the pastors appear to have chosen Saint Valentine’s Day for the celebration of this new feast.

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