Award-winning photo series explores loneliness in Italian prisons

Winner of Istanbul Photo Award, photojournalist Valerio Bispuri spent 4 years in Italy's prisons spending time with inmates

The loneliness inside Italian prisons moved photojournalist Valerio Bispuri to create Prigionieri, the set of photos that earned him first place in the Story News category of this year’s prestigious Istanbul Photo Awards.

The contest was organized by Anadolu Agency with the sponsorship of Turkish Airlines, with the winners selected by a distinguished international jury.

In interview with Anadolu Agency, Bispuri said that he worked on the photo series after living in South America for more than a decade capturing the life in local jails.

“I visited 74 prisons in all the countries of South America,” including 10 years in Argentina, said the photographer.

“After this project of the prisons of South America, I went to Italy to present my book Encerrados [Locked Up] in the prisons of Italy,” he said, adding that while there he visited Piggioreale Prison in Naples, southern Italy.

“When the detainees looked at the images of the photos of the jails in South America, they said like, 'Why don't you come to visit the condition in which we live, what we do?'” he added.

Hard prison life

He did not think life in his country’s jails would be so hard, he recalled.

“I thought it was worth it, if this prison was so hard, so difficult, to see other prisons in Italy and I asked for permission to enter four large prisons in Italy,” he said.

Over the span of four years, he visited Ucciardone prison in Palermo, Sicily, Rome’s Regina Coeli prison, and San Vittore prison in Milan, northern Italy.

These visits then spurred him to take a longer tour, visiting small prisons, large prisons, women’s prisons, and new prisons, in order to explore what “a locked person thinks, what deprivation of liberty means, and what it means to be alone, without freedom.”

To get closer to the inmates, Bispuri used to eat with them, without taking any photos.

“I would put myself in the cell eating with them the same food that they ate, which was sometimes very ugly, but it did not matter,” he said, adding that these shared meals helped build trust.

“What came out of this work is how the prisoners are really lonely,” he explained.

“It’s very difficult because they are never alone because there are always people, but they are always alone, and these differences are what impacted me a lot and I started to take pictures of this.”

Finding the unknown

The longtime photographer stressed two important things in his work, starting with looking for a special depth in his photos.

“It is much more difficult to enter into a photographic depth that is not only aesthetics, which is not only light, not only form, but to tell something that is not known,” he said.

To get to this point, he said it is very important to enter intimately into people's emotions.

“All my work is like this, that’s why the work I do always lasts for years. Prigionieri lasted four years, it always lasts years because to go deep, to find the meaning of the images, it is very important to know, to enter, to know.”

The second important thing, he said, is to enter the space between emotion and reality and strike a balance between the two.

 ‘New type of language’

On his winning an Istanbul Photo Awards prize, Bispury said he was glad to help shine the spotlight on a little-known reality like life in prisons.

“I am very happy for this award that they gave me because in these moments, where photography is more attentive to aesthetics and is always looking for a new type of language, sometimes this type of language takes out strength to human depth,” he explained.

The Istanbul Photo Awards 2020 presented a dozen awards in four categories: Single News, Story News, Single Sports and Story Sports.

The winning works addressed major topics from 2019 such as global protests, conflicts, environmental disasters, sports activities, and human stories in various countries, from Palestine to Indonesia.

Details on applying for the 2021 contest will be announced soon.

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