“Prisons are the stuff of fantasy, but there’s nothing spectacular about the reality I experienced there,” writes French photographer Grégoire Korganow in the artist notes for his current show Prisons: 2011–2014 at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) from Feb 4th-May 4th, 2015.
“What really turns the ordinary into a nightmare and creates the hell of incarceration,” he continues, “are the multiple and repeated acts of degrading treatment — demeaning rules, solitude, promiscuity, insalubrity, idleness, absence of prospect, discomfort.”
According to Korganow, a suicide attempt is made every three days in French prisons.
The Photographer Who Became Prison Inspector
MEP is presenting 100 of Korganow’s photographs for the first time. He began making photographs in French prisons in 2010 during the filming for the documentary film by Stéphane Mercurio, In the Shadow of the Republic which describes the work of Jean Marie Delarue, The Comptroller General of Places of Deprivation of Liberty (CGPL).
When filming wrapped up, Delarue asked Korganow if he’d join his team and make a document and inventory of contemporary French prisons. It was an unprecedented, unorthodox and remarkable opportunity. Between January 2011 to January 2014, Korganow photographed twenty prisons — remaining in each for between five and ten days.
“I penetrated to the heart of incarceration in France,” says Korganow. “I could photograph everything, inside the cells, the exercise yard, visiting rooms, showers, a solitary confinement … day or night. No place was forbidden.”
Delarue and Korganow had an agreement. Any and all of Korganow’s images could be used to illustrate CGPL reports. Then, at the end of Delarue’s term in May 2014, Korganow was free to publish the work wherever he chose.
“This is a first in France,” says Korganow. “Never before has a photographer moved so freely in prisons.”
Tentative First Footsteps Inside
Korganow admits to apprehension in the beginning.
“I wondered how those detained would welcome me. I too had a caricature of the prison and was afraid of not being able to return in connection with them.” Korganow wrote for Vice. “My relationship with detainees were frank. I spent a lot of time listening to them because the prison is a place that suffers from a lack of listening. I did not judge or ask them what they had done. I was benevolent, sometimes even when some inmates were unsympathetic to me. Fights between detainees are common. They start with a pair of coveted sneakers, a debt of cigarettes or a dirty look. I noticed that they were often brief, silent and extremely brutal.”
“It’s this closeness of confinement I’m trying to capture in colour, up close and personal, with no effects,” explains Korganow to MEP. As best he can Korganow avoids focusing on faces and individuality. He doesn’t want viewers to get stuck on speculations of who and what the prisoners are and did. Instead he tries to unleash an emotive narrative that describes the oppression of the place.
“I use little touches, soak up the geography of the prison, the light, sounds, smells and stories of the inmates. I capture the inexpressible, time standing still, life shrinking, fading,” he says. I offer the possibility to feel [the prison].”
Baumettes Jail in Marseille was the worst Korganow encountered — deplorable dirt, odor, noise or “Hell!” as he describes it. The photos were later published in the French outlet under the title ‘Prison of Shame’.
Within a Tradition of French Prison Photography
Korganow has made the most of his phenomenal access producing an unrivaled and varied of body of work about the French prisons. Nothing as engaging has emerged since Mohamed Bourouissa’s Temps Mort, Mathieu Pernot, Les Hurleurs, and (going way back) Jean Gaumy’s Les Incarcérés.
TimeOut Paris feels Korganow’s study deserves a place alongside the great social documentary of the medium — beside Lewis Hine’s factories, Charles Nègre’s asylums and Jacob Riis’s slums.
“It’s a hard-hitting show, but without drama or ‘miserabilism’,” writes TimeOut.
It’s a bleak picture for sure. Pay attention to any individual aspect of the work and you are rewarded. The color of his images is dirty. In an effective way. You understand? To me it feels tainted. True colors fall away and dissipate under the weight of the hardware, walls and grills they coat.
Everything is tinged, chipped damaged. Colour plays second fiddle to line. Form and line themselves describe constant claustrophobia.
Subtly, at first, and then over time building to a cacophony, is Korganow’s use of windows, apertures and grates. His near anonymous subjects peer out and through portholes. In many cases, this use of inside/outside metaphor and a yearning for the great beyond comes across as trite in other photographic series of prisons …but not in Korganow’s Prisons.
Korganow succeeds in his aim to describe the foreign, oft-fantasied world of prisons. He presents a milieu defined by its fabric and that fabric assumes it’s own operative force. Korganow recalls meeting a 36-year-old prisoner. He’d been locked away aged 19, on an original sentence of 3-years.
“He had accumulated an incredible amount of penalties for offenses committed within the prison — abuse, violence, arson, etc,“ Korganow wrote for Vice. “He who refuses to submit to the authority of the prison administration will probably never be released. He is buried alive.”
When the not so young man spoke to Korganow, his release date was 2040.
The book Prisons — 67065, by Grégoire Korganow, is published by Neus Les Belles Lettres.
The “67065” in the title refers to the number of prisoners in the French system at the time of publication.
Grégoire Korganow graduated in Applied Arts from the Ecole Estienne, Paris. Following his studies, in 1991, he documented change in the former Soviet bloc. His photographs of the 1993 riots in Goutte d’Or, Paris, propelled him into the press limelight.
Korganow makes images “as an invitation to look at the flaws, paradoxes, contemporary disorders. He is interested in off-screen, with the remote. The body, stigma, and social transformations are central in his work.” He has photographed housing crises (1994), undocumented persons (1995), the Mapuche Indians of Chile (2003), Iraqi victims of war (2010) and alcoholics (2011) .
Korganow’s practice spans photo, film band broadcast media, as well as criticism of those same forms. IN 2001, he was co-founder of Air Photo magazine. He was a creative director of the Being 20, the Alternative photobook collection. He’s worked with directors Stéphane Mercurio and Christophe Otzenberger. Also, attracted by the off-screen, he’s photographed the 2002 French presidential election, production stills for movie production, and fashion shows
In 2008, his series Wings and Next about the lives of families of detainees, showed at Rencontres d’Arles. Between 2011 and 2014, as Controller of Places of Deprivation of Liberty, he made a long form survey of confinement in France titled Prisons.
Korganow’s work has been published in L’Express, Télérama, Marie Claire, Geo, National Geographic, and The New York Times. He was a member of the Métis Agency (1998–2002) and is now a member of Rapho (2002-).
Originally published on Prison Photography on April 29th, 2015.