How to Get Prisoners Talking About Life Before Prison

With his new project, photographer Guido Gazzilli asked inmates to open up emotionally and tell their story through pictures.

by Niccolò Carradori
12 June 2017, 9:35am

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy

Italian photographer Guido Gazzilli usually documents subcultures and underground music scenes, but for his latest project, he went to prison. In two prisons in Civitavecchia, a sea port town about 50 miles from Rome, he presented inmates with a selection of photos and asked them to choose a few images that best represented their own story. He then asked them to talk about their choices in detail, recorded those interviews and made portraits of the inmates.

That turned into Memorie dal Carcere (Memories from Prison), which was first exhibited in both prisons as a photo gallery, before he made a documentary of the interviews. The video shows the inmates' personal stories, as well as them talking about the emotional effects of spending 22 hours a day locked in a cell.

I caught up with Guido to discuss his motivation for the project, and what he hoped it would achieve with the inmates.

The video for Memorie dal Carcere

VICE: Hey Guido, how did the project come about?
Guido Gazzilli: A friend of mine works as a psychologist and social worker at one of the prisons, and together, we came up with the idea of doing a photo project in prison. Originally, we had just planned to set up an exhibition to make those prisons look a bit less bare and cold. But when the project evolved, it became more a form of therapy for inmates. We put together a gallery of pictures, and they could each choose a few that illustrated their own personal stories best.

How did you put together that gallery?
I contacted about 40 photographers – friends and acquaintances – who all very kindly donated some of their work. In the end, I selected between 400 and 500 photos – all of them images that I thought could make a person whose freedom had been taken away, think about something other than their daily struggles. Many photos were of landscapes, because I wanted to see if that sparked any emotions with prisoners, given their confinement. I wanted to tap into their emotions as much as possible. People in prisons are used to communicating in a way that makes it hard for them to show their emotions. Through this project, they could express whatever they liked – first, by choosing particular photos to represent their story, and then by talking about those choices on paper and on camera.

How did you prepare them for the project?
Most of them had never taken an interest in photography before. After making their selection, they could take the images back to their cell and then write down why they had chosen those particular images. We had a writing workshop, which was challenging, because some of the inmates found it difficult to put down what they wanted to say in words.

Before I asked them to do their solo video interviews, they had to read out their work in front of everyone else. To stand up in front of everyone and, in a way, open up emotionally, was new for many of them. But the prison psychologists thought it was a very useful tool in their therapy, so the project became part of that.

All photos by Guido Gazzilli

Did they know they would be doing that when they signed up for your project?
When they signed on for the writing workshop, most prisoners thought they would be describing different styles of photography. They didn't realise that they would be talking about themselves.

Not all the inmates' stories are featured in your video. How did you choose the ones that did?
Almost everyone did a video interview, but they generally tended to talk about universal themes – love, family and freedom. In the film, I decided to feature the the ones who, throughout the process, had worked up the courage to participate in a more personal way.

Guido presented the inmates with a gallery of photos to choose from

What struck you most about their daily life?
Some people had been in there for so long that they developed these mechanisms that only make sense in jail, but not on the outside. Being in prison is like living in a cocoon. This one small thing that I noticed at the start, was that the inmates were all wearing these brand new shoes, and I thought, "oh, their families on the outside must all be sending them new clothes." Which isn't the case – people in prisons just don't consume clothes like people on the outside do. They live in an isolated place and never go out on the street where those shoes could get dirty. For me, that was one of those small, random things that hammered home how distant their lives were from mine.

What's next?
In the second prison I worked in, I got to develop a project in the women's ward as well, and I'm now tying the two together. We'll soon start working in Rebibbia prison [in Rome], which will be very different, because the people there are more used to being involved in projects like this. And I'm looking for an editor to help publish a book containing all the stories I wasn't able to put in the video. I think this is a project that could carry on for a long time.

Elia Buonora, Tommaso Cassinis, Lorenzo Sorbini and Elettra Costa also worked on Memorie del Carcere.

Making a selection
Inmates were asked to explain their choices to each other before being interviewed on camera