"Exhibiting You" - Story

Recopilando Potencias

By: Meg Escudé
Other authors: Grupo MiradaPhoto
Submitted: 04/10/2010

Over the course of four years, we, the photographers of Grupo MiradaPhoto of Córdoba, Argentina gave 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.
The number of photographs that each woman has with her in prison depends on circumstances like the family’s possibility to take photographs, to bring them to visits and the permission of the authorities to receive them. They are not allowed to mount photographs on the walls of their cells. In prison, an intern’s photographs are documents that remind and affirm who they were in the street, who they most care for, who is waiting for them on the other side of the electric fences, of their very identity. Wrinkled, torn, laminated in scotch tape, written-on and hugely cherished, the family photograph is by far the most valued of the few possessions they are allowed to keep with them. These documents are their strongest combatants against the extreme nostalgia and loneliness’ that accompanies their enclosure and is possibly the noblest and most emotive function a photograph can have.
In prison, the women are constantly humiliated and reminded of their failures by the prison guards and by the circumstances themselves. Most of the women are mothers and suffer an additional punishment of not being able to protect and care for their children. In our discussions during class time, the women spoke more about their relationship with their children than anything else. They were overwhelmed with a sense of absence and powerlessness. The absence of their children from their own lives, the absence of themselves in their children’s lives. And above all, the loss of the power of motherhood, of the ability to protect their children. From these discussions, we came up with a final project with the purpose to recover this personal potency in images.
The challenge we propose in the classes is to create images that document the reality of the inmates without the possibility to photograph their physical surroundings. We are not allowed into their cells, are not allowed to photograph any part of the prison structure or grounds outside of the educational area, and the women are not allowed to take cameras with them at the end of class. These restrictions oblige us to recreate “reality” in a small classroom, mixing external shots, old photos, costumes and digital intervention to create new images that transform abstract ideas and experiences into imagery while maintaining the profound resonance of the simplicity of a photograph.
These final projects are digital composites that consist of three elements; the background image is a realist fantasy of freedom, in which the prisoner specified where they would like to be if they were not in prison. Sometimes as vague as “I want to be where there are lots of trees and grass” and other times as specific as “I want to be in Plaza San Martin surrounded by pigeons.” The photos were taken by the members of Grupo Mirada Photo according to the requests of each prisoner.
Secondly, the portraits of each woman were taken in a studio built during class time in the prison. These images were taken cooperatively by the students, posed with the final composition in mind. Last, are photographs of their husbands and children which were 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 of the freedom to continue their lives in the outside world. The images are also small rebellions; against the loss of society’s vision of innocence, goodness and integrity, against their treatment as social failures by the institution, and against the restrictions of incarceration itself.

Each of these images would be shown with short statements written by the women themselves in Spanish and translated to English. However, they have chose to use only their first names.

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