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I had a quick chat with Sébastien van Malleghem about why he is crowdfunding a photobook following his three years photographing prisons in Belgium.

It’s over at Vantage: Making Photos Inside To Bring The Stories Out

In short, this:

“The book is, for me, the closure of the story. Photographs must end on paper. That’s how the medium exists — in print. On paper, with full context, you can touch the pictures, understand the whole story. Things fade away on the Internet. Clicked, Like, then something else. Good photos in a book stick to your head. The largest part of my photo story will be exclusive to the book.”










Sébastien van Malleghem has been awarded the 2015 Lucas Dolega Award for Prisons his four years (2011-2014) of reportage from within the Belgian prison system.

I’m a big fan of the work having previously interviewed Sébastien while the work was ongoing and applauded the time he spent three-days locked up in Belgium’s newest most high tech prison. That experience helped van Malleghem understand that there are some very thin but very significant thread that connect the cameras and lenses of security, with the cameras and lenses of photographers and journalists, with the cameras of news and entertainment.

In his formal statement to the Lucas Dolega Award, van Malleghem says:

These images reveal the toll taken by a societal model [the prison] which brings out tension and aggressiveness, and amplifies failure, excess and insanity, faith and passion, poverty.

These images expose how difficult it is to handle that which steps out of line. This, in a time when that line is more and more defined by the touched-up colors of standardization, of the web and of reality TV.

Always further from life, from our life, [prisoners] locked up in the idyllic, yet confined, space of our TV and computer screens.



In an interview with Molly Benn, Sébastien (mashed through Google translate) says a couple of valid things. They answer key questions young photographers have, firstly about access, and secondly about behaviour in the prison.

No one will tell you up front “You should contact so-and-so.” I went to see the mayor of Nivelles. I forwarded to the director of the prison in Nivelles, who referred me to a government worker. Those exchanges took  8-months. Every time I was asked to re-explain my project. Eventually, I received written permission by email but, still, each warden could still refuse me if he wished.


In prison, everything is constantly monitored. My first challenge was to get out from under the constant control. Upon entry into prison, you are immediately assigned an agent, supposedly for your safety but mostly to monitor what you’re doing.

But the prison officer ranks are often understaffed. I quickly noticed that they preferred to work their usual job than  be my baby-sitter. So. I asked questions, showed interest in their profession, and I gained their confidence. After this, they let me work quite freely. 

Basically, photographing in prison is a precarious exercise. I recall the words of one photographer who reflected on this best when he told me he never presumed he’d be let back in the next day or next week. He made images as if that day in the prison was his last.

Van Malleghem’s prison work follows on from years documenting Belgian police.



Lucas von Zabiensky Mebrouk Dolega grew up between Germany – his mother’s homeland, Morocco – his father’s – and France. Never one to respect authority for authority’s sake, he needled the inconcstencies and the inbetween spaces of persons’ experience and identity. On January 17th 2011, in Tunis, Lucas died on the streets amid a riot. He was covering the “Jasmin Revolution” in Tunisia.

The Lucas Dolega Award honours Dolega’s spirit and contribution. The award recognises freelance photographers who take risks in the pursuit of infomration and informing the world. Previous recipients are Emilio Morenatti (2012), Alessio Romenzi (2013) and Majid Saeedi (2014).


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Usually when we hear of a photographer in jail we fear the worst. A foreign correspondent imprisoned; a street photographer detained in violation of civil liberties; a protest photographer swept up in riot police mass arrests.

Belgian photographer Sebastien Van Malleghem went to prison of his own free will. In fact, he was invited. Early this year, the authorities were preparing to open Beveren Prison, a new facility in the north of the country designed for 312 prisoners. Prior to the opening, the authority invited members of the press and criminal justice professionals to experience life inside. Joining Sebastien Van Malleghem in the temporary prison population were reporters, a TV crew, lawyers, a judge and even some prison guards. Collectively, they were guinea pigs to ensure the smooth running of the new state-of-the-art systems … which were not always smooth.

“We underestimated the influence of technology on the daily scheme of the prison,” said Beveren Prison spokesperson Els Van Herck. “Yesterday, it started already with the discharging of a visitor, a prison cell that wouldn’t open, and a lock that we had to drill out, as well as intercom systems that didn’t work thoroughly.”

Van Malleghem was locked up for three days. We talked. He recounted his “weird feelings.”


Prison Photography (PP): You were on assignment?

Sebastien Van Malleghem (SVM): Yes, for De Standaard, a Flemish newspaper. I made 45 photographs and they published 10.

PP: You’ve photographed in prisons before.

SVM: Yes, in the prisons of Marneffe, Ghent, Nivelles, Namur, Ittre, Forest, Berkendaele, the now-demolished Verviers, and Paifve a prison for mentally-ill prisoners.

PP: How did Beveren compare?

SVM: There are many fences. Many doors. You can’t have clear vision, you can’t see any landscape. Vision is limited to, maybe, 15 meters. It is not going to be especially better for the minds of the prisoners. So I’m ambivalent about it.


PP: In the past, you have shot in black and white (as opposed to your colleague Laure Geerts who photographed in colour) Why black and white here, too?

SVM: I took the option to do something really cold, clear and disturbing. To get at people’s emotion. In the beginning [my fellow prisoners] were smiling and I watched them to see how they would be after five hours being in a cell of 8-meters square. Obviously they were looking a bit stressed and tired.

My point of view was a tiny bit different from the others guest-prisoners because I had press authorization, so the door of my cell was a open a bit more to let me shoot some pictures.


PP: What was your goal?

SVM: I was thinking about the prison riot. And why. The punishment of prison is to deny freedom. The punishment is not to give no freedom to your mind or to let you live inside these cold buildings without anything. Why not let prisoners have something more comfortable? They’re already outside of society.

You’re already inside of a prison with a full range of walls and a huge perimeter boundary with razor wired and electric fences. So, why not put inside something more human? That’s exactly what I’m fighting for.

PP: Better conditions?

SVM: There is no emotion. You go into a closed square, and then another one, and then another one. Squares and squares and squares. I’m not sure that prisoners will see more psychologists or people like that to help them [at Beveren].

PP: It’s a tightly controlled, sterile, modern prison. Small, clean boxes.

SVM: Why must we — in the 21st century — have jails like those in the middle ages. So small. When you need to eat and get your plate you just don’t have space to move your arm, space to turn around. You cannot open the window. There is a security system. You turn a button to get fresh air from outside but you can’t open the window. Suddenly, you just feel like you don’t even have space to fall forward.

While I was sleeping, the guards would come by every two hours. There is no agenda; they just come and check, open the little hatch in the door. You have no privacy.



PP: How many people from the media went inside the prison?

SVM: I was with a writer, there was another photographer/writer team, two teams from a TV channel. Maybe, ten media persons.

It was training for the guards, to see what was wrong inside the prison. A journalist wrote that there were real problems.

PP: What is Prison Cloud?

SVM: There is a flat screen in each cell. In this new prison they wanted to try new “modern” things. Prison Cloud is a basically a kind of internet designed for prisoners. Keyboard, flatscreen, and the mouse. Prisoners can order a tiny bit more food or cigarettes and pay. Stuff is a bit more expensive but it’s easier for the prisoners to order through the computer. Also they have very restricted access to internet — only a few pages that they can go to such as the employment office, government websites. They can also order and pay for movies to watch.

When men enter inside the prison, they are fingerprinted and given a USB key where all their personal information is recorded. They need to put the USB key in the computer to gain access. The prison checks everything they’re doing on there.

PP: It sounds oppressive, but we’d expect that, no?

SVM: I deeply believe that a cell of 8-meters square makes you nervous and/or lazy. When you’re locked up, your thoughts turn quickly: “What’s my option in here?” You can struggle to stay in shape doing some exercise, reading books and keep your mind busy with some crazy plans that only your brain can imagine or just lose it all and spend your time laying on your bed.

From your cell, you can hear what’s happening in the wing, but you can’t see it and so you start to play stories in your head. The sounds of the voices and the steps of the guards are like an echo in your head. Always a background noise that could be compared to the type of headache that you catch when you’re tired.

PP: Your overall thoughts from the experience?

SVM: In this prison, it is as if the point of punishment is not only to separate a prisoner from freedom, but to box the prisoner in the smallest and the most claustrophobic space possible.

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An agent is looking on his colleague during the visit of the food storage in Forest, Brussels, Belgium on Oct. 10, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem

Sébastien van Malleghem and Laure Geerts, two members of the photo collective Caravane, have been photographing in Belgium’s prisons for a little under two years. They went to seven prisons including Marneffe, an open prison; Nivelles; Paifve, a prison for the mentally ill; and the now-demolished Verviers Prison. The series is called Destination Carcerale.

This is the first of a two-parter – see Belgian Prison in Polychrome, Laure’s photographs and Q&A also Prison Photography.

I know very little about Belgian prisons so I asked them both some questions.

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Your B&W documentary approach to photography is different to Laure’s way of shooting.

Sébastien van Malleghem (SvM): Yes. I chose this approach to photography several years ago. I’m concerned by the world that surrounds us. I like to go deeper into stories and take time to do them.

PP: Why did you and Laure decide to collaborate on this project on Belgian prisons?

SvM: We’re part of a collective. Initially, we talked a lot about doing something together in photography. Laure as always been interested by strong universe (sic)*, and I wanted to continue to work on stories about criminal justice after my long documentary work, Police. (Interview about Police in French.)

It’s a challenge to do reportage together but we wanted to share a vision, and ask ourselves questions about the ways we can create photo documentary. Many documentaries are done alone. After months, it’s interesting to see the difference between our works, especially as we were at the same place all the time – Laure’s colors pictures  are different to mine. So, we are questioning objectivity in photojournalism, also.

Three patients smoking at the entrance of their  ‘block’ in Paifve, Liège on Feb. 16, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem.

A guard is speaking behind a safety glass in Verviers, Belgium on May 6, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem

PP: What did the staff expect of your photography and your presence?

SvM: At first, they didn’t seem very interested in the fact we’d received the authorization of the Head Director of the Belgian Prisons, so every director at every single prison would begrudgingly say, “Okay, if you got the authorization, it’s fine.” Then, after few weeks some prison administrations became very interested in our pictures. Some directors began showing us everything inside inside their prisons as if to say, “Look how can we work in these conditions.” So we got some great access and different points of view.

PP: What did the prisoners expect of your photography and your presence?

SvM: Honestly, I don’t think that they expected anything from us. Some of them didn’t want to be seen. Some of them are playing the game of honesty [for the camera]. They expected that the prison conditions may improve. They were interested by our work because we were/are speaking about their present universe. We are showing the reality inside the prison which is not so good. In fact worse than ever in Belgium.

PP: This is a long-term and committed project. What do you hope to achieve with its completion?

SvM: We’re giving a real and true alarm signal to the authorities and to the government; they are looking on our work and they will certainly watch it in the press. 
That’s will create another debate.

And maybe, with a deep and concrete story, and by showing this work to the public and show why there are so many problems in our prisons, maybe they will get access to a more telling information than that in the daily news-feed?

A woman is sunbathing inside the prison for women of Berkendaele on July 25, 2012. © Sébastien van Malleghem.

Women are dancing in their cells inside the prison for women in Berkendaele on July 25, 2012  © Sébastien van Malleghem.

Cuddle in the courtyard of the prison for women in Berkendaele on July 25, 2012. © Sébastien van Malleghem.

View from the window of the prison in Verviers, Belgium on May 6, 2011. Verviers is one of the oldest prisons in Belgium and is currently being destroyed due to the collapsing of the walls © Sébastien van Malleghem

PP: You depict a prison being demolished. Are there more or less prisons being built/occupied in Belgium currently?

SvM: The government is destroying old prisons like Verviers and building new prisons in the north and the south of the country. The prison was not maintained during years because of budget problems. There is certainly not enough space. Inside the prisons, every inmate is a victim of our society, which is another sign of the actual crisis in our country.

PP: Anything else you’d like to add?

SvM: We should think about the ways we punish criminals in the 21st century and to help victims of crime more too. Currently, we are running with an old system of exile which doesn’t benefit anyone. The authorities remove the prisoners away from the society but put them in the middle of nothing which, seems to me, is another way to torture the spirit. They lock the gates but they are not trying to understand crime, or allieve it.

PP: Thank you Sébastien

SvM: Thanks!

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van Malleghem’s forthcoming book Police by Yellow Now Editions (Belgium) is released in Belgium in November and will be available internationally from December onwards.

A patient inside his cell, in Paifve, Liège, Belgium on Feb.16, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem

Four prisoners are seen inside a cell debating reentry into society after prison. Marneffe, Belgium on Feb. 27, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem.

Two patients are eating their meal in the kitchen of the prison of Paifve, Liège, Belgium on March 3, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem

Writings made with a lighter on the ceiling are seen in a cell of Forest prison, Brussels, Belgium on Oct. 10, 2011 © Sébastien van Malleghem.

A patient pushed down the courtyard by his roommates in Paifve, Liège, Belgium on Jul. 12, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem.

The prisoners of Marneffe have the opportunity to play music in a band. The repetitions takes place inside a chapel inside the prison of Marneffe, Belgium on Dec. 8, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem

A prisoner during his daily work: preparing pieces of metal€™ in Marneffe, Belgium on Feb. 27 2012 © Sébastien van Malleghem.

Toilet for the prisoners inside the prison of Forest, Brussels, Belgium on Oct.7, 2011. © Sébastien van Malleghem.

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Sébastien van Malleghem is a freelance photographer (b. 1986, Belgium) who studied photography at the Ecole Superieure Des Arts De L’Image Le 75 in Brussels from 2006 to 2009. He is working on a major project about Belgian police and in line with his interest in criminal justice began documenting the Belgian prisons in January 2011.

Sébastien is a member of CARAVANE photographic collective and is personal assistant to Tomas Van Houtryve/VII. In October 2010, he was selected for the Eddie Adams Workshop, Barnstorm XXIII, and in August 2012, was an artist in residence at Halsnoy Kloster, Norway. Sébastien was awarded
the Jeune Artiste Plasticien for his work Police.

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* In editing this interview I was not sure what a fair translation of, “Laure as always been interested by strong universe.” I thought it might mean, “Laure has always been driven by strong determination”? or Sebastian was saying, “Laure has always been interested in societies’ shows of strength”? or possibly, “Laure has always been interested in oppressive places”? or maybe “Laure has always been interested in environment dominated by strong characters”? Then I realised the mistranslation is quite beautiful in itself and worth reflection. We should all be “interested in strong universe”!


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