For ten years, Italian photographer Valerio Bispuri traveled throughout South America, documenting life inside seventy-four of the roughest and most deplorable prisons. Filth, disease, and death was all around him. Wanting to convey the emptiness of color and hope felt within the walls, Bispuri shot his emotive collection in black and white.
“One day, some detainees prepared a siring of infected blood to inject me,” he says. Yet, despite threats to his health and life from inmates and conditions during his travels, when I asked if he had any regrets about the project, he readily replied, “No regrets. I would do absolutely everything as I’ve done!” (WARNING: Graphic images after the jump.)
His travels took him to places like Pavilion 5 of Mendoza prison in Argentina, a place so deplorable and dangerous that even the guards wouldn’t both with entering. He only gained access after signing paperwork releasing the authorities from any liability in the event of his demise.
“Some prisoners,” Bispuri recounts, “had prepared a syringe of infected blood for me. Another time, a smiling guy came to me and, in front of the guards, put his arm around my neck, pulled out a knife and asked me in a sarcastic way if I was enjoying myself by taking pictures there.”
“Women prisons are as violent as male prisons, sometimes even more so. Women are not allowed to have intimate visits from their partners as men are. I think this is a reason for the aggression in women’s prisons,” he explains. But, the violence is often a mask for broken humanity. “I did notice that their attitude towards me was more physical: they touched me, they whispered in my ear or they asked me to go to the toilet with them. … In Ecuador, a 24-year-old girl called me into the prison library and suddenly kissed me behind the bookshelves. It was a quick kiss, but very intense. Then she thanked me.”
One of the most heartbreaking scenes I noticed in his work was the presence of young children within the prisons. Mothers are often allowed to raise their inside the prison’s walls until they reach four years of age. So, for many children whose mothers are inmates, they find themselves living in Hell during some of the most formative years of their lives.
When I asked what part of the project had the greatest impact on him, he replied, “How some people can live day by day without freedom, to look at their eyes and to discover their soul behind bars.”
Bispuri has since published a book with a collection of his work from those ten years entitled, Encerrados: 10 years, 75 prisons. But this is not his only moving series. Be sure to visit his website to see his entire portfolio.
[Encerrados | Images, courtesy Valerio Bispuri]