In the past eleven years, I have worked as a photographer in a number of prisons and I have taught a number of workshops, but I have never combined the two – teaching a workshop in a prison… until recently.
In a unique collaboration between Young in Prison, a NGO which provides juveniles with creative projects designed to enhance the future prospects of youth in prison worldwide, and Nikon, that provided a number of COOLPIX cameras, I was provided with the chance to teach photography to juveniles in Mzuzu Prison, Malawi.
Impressions of Mzuzu
Mzuzu Prison is situated in the city of Mzuzu, in the north of Malawi. The prison was built in the early 60s by the British. It was originally built to house 50 inmates. Today, the prison houses 450 prisoners of which 60 are juveniles.
Although the prison is one of the most overcrowded I’d ever seen, the atmosphere was not aggressive, at least not toward me. This was surprising considering the fact that no one could actually lie down to sleep – they slept sitting between each other’s legs. I guess exercising a level of tolerance towards each other is necessary when living in such crowded conditions. All the same, and needless to say, there was a level of tension in the air and fights were not uncommon.
My week in Mzuzu
The prison authorities had allowed me to work in the prison for more than a week. I was permitted to shoot stills myself, but for me the most important prospect was to teach the basics of photography to the kids.
During that week, I would come into the prison every day around 9am. The juveniles would then be called in from the courtyard, all of them wearing white prison uniforms. I recall one had scribbled ‘Dad no more trouble’ on his shirt.
We would all sit in a classroom, which had been set up by the prison director for me and my ‘students’. There were nine boys in total and although they’d been selected based on their (basic) knowledge of English, we still needed a translator to communicate.
The boys seemed nice. They’d given me a warm welcome, I guess partly because this was to be a week that would be different than any other week they’d spent in prison.
On the first day, I remember feeling slightly uncomfortable when each student introduced himself to me. Each shared a little about what they had been sentenced for and, as I understood it, many of them had been condemned to unbelievably long sentences for what some people would consider minor crimes. It did not take long for the tension to subside, especially once they received their cameras.
Naturally, they were all very curious. Every one received a Nikon COOLPIX. For ten of them, it was the very first time they’d touched a camera. I began by teaching them the basics of composition, light and being ‘invisible’. I didn’t go into aperture, shutter speed and other technicalities – as that wasn’t what this workshop was to be about.
When it came to taking photographs, the results were to be expected. The youngsters posed for each other, made funny faces and showed off their muscles and acting cool.
As time progressed however, I saw a change in the way they took photos and their choice of subject. More than once, I saw them experiment with the settings and although I told them not to shoot video, to save space on the cards, they obviously did and I must admit, some amazing stuff came out. I was also amazed how quickly they understood the camera and what it could do.
In the following blog post, I’ll share some of the images captured by two Malawian boys along with their personal stories.