Bad associations can sabotage good work! – Day 2 – Jennifer Osborne

Feb.20, 2009. Talavera Bruce Prison, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A young prisoner detained for armed robbery dresses up in Carnival clothing to celebrate the festival. It is the hardest time of the year for Brazilian prisoners to be detained because it is the longest, most exciting holiday in Brazil. (Jennifer Osborne/Fabrica)

In my first post, I mentioned the importance of learning from making mistakes and I am going to embellish upon that now. About a year and a half ago, I worked on a project in Rio de Janeiro, and the whole thing felt like one big mess, not necessarily a mistake – it was just very crumbly – one bit seemed to fall after the next. But I do not regret it.

I went to Rio under the support of a grant from Fabrica, the research centre for United COLORS of Benetton. I proposed a seemingly unique project to them about a prison complex outside the centre of Rio called BANGU. This is a colony of 17 penal units, both men and women’s. BANGU is quite famous in Rio, and I thought it would make an interesting location for a story. So I began more research… Brazil is famous for having beauty pageants inside prisons, and I found a photographer online who shot one inside Talavera Bruce prison years ago. I told her I wanted to make a photo essay about something along those lines and she put me in touch with her fixer, a man named FAB. He was an immigrant to Brazil from France living right in front of Talavera Bruce who allegedly had full access to the prison.

After getting in touch with FAB, he told me the prison has massive Carnaval celebrations each year with a special Fantasy Costume contest where prisoners make clothes out of recycled materials. It all sounded amazing and after getting vague approval from the prison ministry to shoot, I booked my flight to Rio.

Upon my arrival, FAB acted sketchy and delayed meeting with me to take me inside the prison. I quickly learned he was banned from the jail for shooting pornography of female prisoners! This man, who once had so much freedom inside Talavera Bruce, lost all entry privileges before my arrival. And, the costume contest was a bust because FAB was the original organizer. Many paranoid thoughts came into my head, like me thinking he lied to me about the story just because he knew I had a grant and was trying to take me for a run for my money…. But in reality I think he was kicked out only weeks before my arrival. It just wasn’t my luck.

Feb.17, 2009. Talavera Bruce Prison, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This is the garden courtyard behind Talavera Bruce Women’s Prison. (Jennifer Osborne/Fabrica)

Without FAB, I had to forge more documents than I came with in order to get into the prison – luckily there was little communication between the head office and the prison guards. I tricked the guards into allowing me shoot there for a month, with limited access, using some fake paper work. I was angry because without FAB I couldn’t get what I really wanted. His previous access was very strong, and many people inside who were astonished that he had been banned confirmed this. I was left with shooting an esoteric portrait series of the girls inside, which I teamed up with vacant, lonely, images of Talavera Bruce’s architecture. I was very limited with shooting, and was constantly asked “don’t shoot this, don’t shoot that”. Photos were on lock-down!

Towards the end of my stay in Rio, my only saving grace was when Bangu Complex announced 75 prisoners would be released due to over crowding of Rio’s prison system! I got on my phone one night, and called a smuggled cell phone inside the prison, belonging to a few girls in the foreign cells. One informed me two friends I made inside would be released and that they were willing to let me document their first days of Freedom! This was an amazing story to me, and I went back a few days later to attend the release of these girls.

March 10, 2009. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Barbara and another prisoner from Talavera Bruce Women’s Prison exit the front gates for the first time in 3 years. Barbara was released from prison a few months early due to overcrowding in the prison. (Jennifer Osborne/Fabrica)

March 13, 2009. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Barbara likes to party in Lapa, where many of her street friends spend the weekend nights. This is three nights after her release from Prison, and she passes a cop car, giving problems to other people in the street. She walks past with resentment and disgust. (Jennifer Osborne/Fabrica)

I thought the answers to my documentary prayers were over with this info, and I waited inside the prison on the day of the mass release, until I was informed that I was now banned from the prison! I was devastated! The prison guards told me the Talavera Bruce prison director believed I was working for FAB because I was see associating with him outside the prison walls in the street one day. This was clearly ridiculous; I had no intentions of shooting porno behind those walls! I was enraged, but understood I couldn’t really push my luck in this situation and I was forced to miss a few crucial shots of my freedom series because I no longer had access to shoot the girls leaving the jail cells. This is a classic example of how associations with the wrong people can sabotage documentary work.

March 11, 2009. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Barbara opens a window to look outside her rented room the morning after being released from Talavera Bruce Women’s Prison. She cannot return to her mother’s favela due to danger issues resulting from bad relationships, so she must rent a room until she finds an apartment to rent. (Jennifer Osborne/Fabrica)

March 14, 2009. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Barbara gets lost in the crowd of Lapa, a party neighbourhood, in Rio only 3 days after being released from prison. (Jennifer Osborne/Fabrica)

In the end, the project was a bit of a mess. I was kicked out of the prison, I didn’t see my CARNAVAL prison celebrations, and I certainly did not get nearly as much access to these prisoner’s lives as I hoped. But I was able to find a few great images from the two girls I followed upon their freedom. The work was used in the end, as a part of the Museum de l’Elysee ReGeneration2 travelling exhibition and book launch, but I can’t help thinking about how much more powerful my imagery would have been if I had not been affected by the negative cloud around FAB.

March 17, 2009. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Minutes after Barbara moves her possessions into her new apartment (just a room really), her lover Michelle begs for a kiss. Sexual repression is a large problem inside prison, and once people are released, one of their main goals is to get some play. (Jennifer Osborne/Fabrica)


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