CNN Photos

Imprisoned youth project focuses on person, not crime

In 2011, Italian photojournalist Paolo Marchetti ventured inside four Nicaraguan prisons with the help of the nongovernmental organization Terre des Hommes (meaning land of people or, literally, land of men) to document the living conditions of juvenile prisoners.

Terre des Hommes works with the Nicaraguan government to prevent urban violence and to create “restorative juvenile justice.” They do this by encouraging sanctions other than imprisonment in an effort to lower the number of incarcerated juveniles. These sanctions include “training and psychosocial care,” allowing the offender to take an active role in their social reintegration. In addition, Marchetti says the NGO will also go into the prisons to provide education and other rehabilitation programs.

Marchetti was drawn to the issue.

“I live for social issues with a political background.” The prisons offered an opportunity to tell that kind of story – one about violence, but also a story about people.

He says he tried to take pictures that would not remind the viewer of a fictional television show.

"My desire was to photograph not necessarily the sadness, not necessarily the rage, not necessarily the desperation," he adds.

In order to capture a certain level of naturalness and intimacy, Marchetti says he purposefully did not ask the prisoners about their crimes until the end of his time with them.

“For me it was an important choice. I was sure the right method, to forget the prison, to forget the context, forget the drama.” He says this method allowed him to get natural photos within a few hours and not “force it.”

“They feel absolutely nice and like normal guys,” he says. “If I knew the stories about each one of them, maybe my photography would be different, maybe my view would be different. ... You have to arrive with the right attitude, with a journalistic attitude, but at the same time you have to encourage forgetting some of the particulars. I’m taking pictures of the person, not the killers, not the rapists.”

When he did ask them, he says it was a shock. “Very hard stories, someone has killed their parents, someone has raped a girl. Only very hard stories, very dramatic stories.”

He says he hopes his images will help those imprisoned. “The core of this story is the violence. Violence is a prominent element in the Central American societies. I’d like to transmit the personal side of the prisoners, about the persons in society who are monsters. And I’d like to give back a personal cut about them. That prison could be a new start, not necessarily the end, and not necessarily a punishment.”

Marchetti hopes to continue this project so he can tell more of the prisoners’ stories in hopes that it can bring change. “The prisons are so closed, impenetrable – it’s so hard to change the situation.”

- Cody McCloy, CNN