A man is holding a mirror, as another man poses with his fists clenched. Another is looking at a watch taped to the wall. Another tenses his chest while revealing self-inflicted scars. Another holds an A4-print from an ultrasound against his chest. Another watches a cloud of smoke that drifts beside his cigarette.
When we take photographs, we are essentially trying to capture something special we don’t want to forget. When prisoners have their photo taken they highlight the opposite, the moments from our lives we take for granted.
“Aside from photography by security stuff for a dossier. These photos are their memory of the days they’ve lost in a cage,” explains photographer Igor Coko, “Sometimes it’s more than just a photo document, it’s a personal archive for themselves.”
Igor is a Croatian-born photographer whose studies in Ethnology and Anthropology give his portraits a backbone of human sensibility and community that feels extinct in the outside world. His photo essay, “Living Behind Bars,” is shot entirely inside Belgrade District prison, the largest prison facility of its kind in the Balkans. It’s the first time a photographer has been given uncensored access to prisoners in Serbia.
But the process wasn’t simple, Igor explained to me via email, “You can’t just drop in with camera and start shooting. There are long and slow procedures in getting official permissions from prison authorities, then from inmates themselves.”
I’ve been visiting prisons since I turned 18 and have always found the media's crude depiction of prisoners an offensive stereotype; one that perpetuates the idea that a prisoner will always be a convict, rather than someone in a state of rehabilitation. I would watch inmates in the visiting rooms debate politics, show their children how to paint and shed tears after hearing about the terminal illness of a loved one. They were the same people in a different place.
Igor’s project shared the same sympathies, aimed “to show prisoners as human beings, to eliminate prejudices and break taboos about them.” Igor states, “We can all end up in jail or prison in a moment for some reason. Life is so unpredictable. Not all the prisoners are criminals.”
To earn the trust of the prison population, especially those in a maximum security institution, the inmates would test Igor’s commitment to their story. “I spent a lot of time among them before I was allowed to start taking photos,” says Igor. “You have to live part of their life, respect their needs as people, build some kind of empathy because it's their house and the rules are theirs.”
Before he published the series, Igor spent three years working in a creative rehabilitation program with Belgrade prison’s treatment services. The art program’s goal was to support social, intellectual and creative activities among prisoners. He adds with pride, “It is very important to transform their life in a positive way, so they can spend time in prison with a sense of purpose.”
The majority of his photos are from the infamous cell block 5-1, where some of Serbia’s most volatile prisoners are locked-up for 22 hours a day. “Block 5-1 is highly secured section which includes 10 cells and about 120 inmates living there,” explains Igor. “Rehabilitation through art, was an important attempt for them to step into a better, or half-opened Prison unit. Because all they have outside the prison is a short stretch of sky.”
When I asked Igor what the most beautiful thing he saw in Block 5-1 was, he told me about a performance of Dostoevsky’s novel, Notes From The Underground, that was so popular authorities toured the show across multiple institutions. “Six inmates were included into this play, performed seventeen times for the prisoners in Belgrade and other correctional centres and prisons throughout Serbia.”
The performance did so well that prison authorities allowed the inmates to perform the finale for the public, “For the first time in the history of Belgrade District prison, prisoners from the cell block 5-1 were taken out from that secured area to perform in the Belgrade Youth centre in front of 500 people. They performed a theatre play, to show off their capabilities, as something more than our ideas of a prisoner,” said Igor enthusiastically, “All of a sudden, the public saw them as important and gave them respect, regardless of their criminal history.”
Igor’s photographs are enduring because the expression of his characters, and the composition of the setting, illustrate their personal tragedies in a relatable way. They have headphones in, they exercise, they read the newspaper and watch movies. Igor claims that, although his photographs are, “a moment of eye-to-eye confession,” it was his ability to keep their spoken confessions private, that earned him the trust of the inmates, “If someone wants to tell me his story, I will listen to him without a doubt, but it will stay in between the cell walls.”
When I pressed him for a story that meant the most to him, he recounted without detail, “one of them said, being a prisoner, is a skill you have to learn through this ‘college of life.’ How to survive. How to stay undamaged. How to find your own place among other types of prisoners, of every kind of society.”