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The Homo Neanderthalensis Issue

Fantastical Portraiture

Over the last four years, we, the photographers of Grupo Mirada Photo of Córdoba, Argentina, have given a photo workshop in the province's highest-security women's prison.
ME
Κείμενο Meg Escudé
2.3.08

Over the last four years, we, the photographers of Grupo Mirada Photo of Córdoba, Argentina, have given a photo workshop in the province’s highest-security women’s prison. In our experience as photographers, we have never felt such intensity in the value of a photographic image as we have in working with these women.

Wrinkled, torn, laminated in Scotch tape, written-on, and hugely cherished, the family photograph is by far the most valued of the few possessions that these prisoners are allowed to have. These documents are often the only palliative against the nostalgia and loneliness that accompanies their imprisonment. We think that this is possibly the noblest function a photograph can serve.

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The challenge we propose in our classes is to create images that document the reality of the inmates’ lives even though they aren’t allowed to use cameras to make new photographs outside of the classroom where we meet. We are not allowed into their cells, nor are we given permission to photograph any part of the prison structure or grounds outside of the educational area. These restrictions oblige us to re-create “reality” in a small classroom, by mixing landscape shots, old photos, costumes, and digital intervention.

The workshop lasts four months and the ideas for each student’s final project are formed as we teach them about basic concepts and practices. Our class might be the only chance they get during their prison terms to simply share ideas and talk openly about what motivates them in making art. While discussing their daily lives, needs, and frustrations, a sense of temporary freedom is created, one that does not otherwise exist in the institution. It brings up intense emotions. Our classroom has witnessed everything from women breaking down in tears to lighthearted goofing off. They play, laugh, and make fun of their very harsh realities. Also, we never ask them what led to their imprisonment if they don’t offer to tell us first. The crimes of our students range from shoplifting to murder.

This year’s final projects were digital composites that consisted of three elements. The background image is a fantasy of freedom, in which the prisoner specified where they would like to be if they were not in prison. Sometimes it was as vague as “I want to be where there are lots of trees and grass” and other times it was as specific as “I want to be in Plaza San Martin surrounded by pigeons.” These photos were taken by the members of Grupo Mirada Photo according to the requests of each prisoner.

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The second element, the portraits of the inmates themselves, were taken in a studio built during class time in the prison. These images were taken cooperatively by other students, and posed with the final composition in mind. Last are photographs of their husbands and children, scanned from small snapshots the women have stowed away in their cells. Crudely combining these three elements, the results are images that represent the deepest desire of each prisoner to regain the power of motherhood and the freedom to continue their lives in the outside world.

MEG ESCUDÉ

“Today I want to express that I was able to make my dream reality through this photo, and although I cannot do so personally with my children, grandchildren, and husband, I would like to be able to erase my past and recover the family that I had before.” Gloria does not have any photos of her children with her in the prison, so her wish to be in the plaza San Martin together with them could not be realized. She had only this worn two-inch cutout photo of her husband.

Ana, from a rural part of Santa Fe, dreams of the wide open spaces of the countryside of her childhood.

Andrea appears embraced by her husband who, only a few weeks earlier, was killed in the street by a police officer. A photograph of her entire family together does not exist. In order to unify Andrea with her recently departed husband and her three children, she cut and pasted from three family photos, two of which were taken in visiting rooms of other prisons.

Violeta has been familiar with prison life for years. She was a political prisoner during Argentina’s last military dictatorship and has a particular inclination toward human rights issues. Here she appears near the ocean with her two daughters in sight.

Beatriz had very little time to enjoy the prosperity of her husband’s retirement from the police force before they were both sent to prison. She appears here imagining the joy of walking away from the prison, awaited by her husband and son in their new car.

Monica’s principal wish is to reunite with her family in a “great supper,” representing herself as the matriarch: protective, generous, and providing for her children.

Mariela also dreams of green, open spaces, and her principal wish upon leaving the establishment is to enjoy the company of her children in the city’s Parque Sarmiento.

In this photo, Gabriela wanted to appear as a real mother: protector of the well-being of her four children. It was her idea to reference a Catholic saint’s card as a kind of riff on people’s prejudices against prison inmates.

Ana, from a rural part of Santa Fe, dreams of the wide open spaces of the countryside of her childhood.

Andrea appears embraced by her husband who, only a few weeks earlier, was killed in the street by a police officer. A photograph of her entire family together does not exist. In order to unify Andrea with her recently departed husband and her three children, she cut and pasted from three family photos, two of which were taken in visiting rooms of other prisons.

Violeta has been familiar with prison life for years. She was a political prisoner during Argentina’s last military dictatorship and has a particular inclination toward human rights issues. Here she appears near the ocean with her two daughters in sight.

Beatriz had very little time to enjoy the prosperity of her husband’s retirement from the police force before they were both sent to prison. She appears here imagining the joy of walking away from the prison, awaited by her husband and son in their new car.

Monica’s principal wish is to reunite with her family in a “great supper,” representing herself as the matriarch: protective, generous, and providing for her children.

Mariela also dreams of green, open spaces, and her principal wish upon leaving the establishment is to enjoy the company of her children in the city’s Parque Sarmiento.

In this photo, Gabriela wanted to appear as a real mother: protector of the well-being of her four children. It was her idea to reference a Catholic saint’s card as a kind of riff on people’s prejudices against prison inmates.