Inmates focus on themselves

Special prison course in photography hopes to facilitate rehabilitation.

Three months after being injured in an accident last year, P., a native of Latin America, was sent to Maasiyahu prison. One of the first photographs he took after he signed up for a photography course at the prison's education center is a portrait of himself standing beside a tall cactus, holding a small skull in his hands. The striking image looks like a contemporary rendition of a memento mori, the Renaissance genre of painting in which artists reminded their viewers how insignificant the vanities of human life were in the face of death. "When the accident happened," he said, sitting in the education center's shaded yard and leafing through the album of photographs and journal entries he created during the three-month course, "I saw a tunnel of light, like the light in the background of this photograph. When I got to prison I was still on crutches, and I was a total mess." "My leg was shot," he continued, turning to another photograph of his injured leg. "But things heal over time; that's the nature of life." "At the education center, we try to give prisoners rehabilitative tools to start over again, and to have new kinds of experiences," said Nicole Englander, a public relations officer for the Prisons Service. Like other enrichment courses at the education center, the photography course, taught by artists and art students, is the fruit of a collaboration between the Prisons Service and a variety of academic institutions and art schools throughout Israel. Although it is a criminal prison, Maasiyahu is considered to be a rehabilitative penal institution for inmates who have been sentenced for short periods of time or who have already completed most of their sentence in another prison. Some of them work outside the prison, and they all wear civilian clothes. "We want them to also meet civilians, people who belong to a normative society the prisoners here hardly know and who can serve as role models," Englander said. "We want them to learn how to have a dialogue with people they wouldn't meet under other circumstances. We work hard to give them the sense that they are part of something bigger, a whole world they don't know. The more they feel they belong to it, the greater their chances of rehabilitating are." In another photograph carefully pasted into his album, P. portrayed himself sitting on his bed, his outstretched leg marred by a deep scar. "This is the corner of my secrets, tears, sadness, bitterness and joy," he wrote in Spanish beside the photo. "Precisely because they are so limited in terms of what they can photograph, they turned their cameras to the most intimate corners of their lives - their cells, their beds, their pillows," said Gaston Ickowicz, the Tel Aviv-based photographer who taught the course. "They have this incredible sense of place, because they are constantly examining their surroundings." Ickowicz teaches at The Musrara School of Photography in Jerusalem, which took upon itself to organize and provide an instructor for the prison course on a volunteer basis. One day last month, Ickowicz took the entire class to Musrara, where they developed their photographs in the school's laboratory. "That was definitely the highlight of the course," said S. "Only someone on the inside is able to appreciate what if felt like. It was dynamite." I never thought I would get to this place," said S., an Arab musician from Jerusalem. "But a 30-minute fight changed all of that. The course, he said, had taught him "a new language, which I am starting to speak." M., a 20-something immigrant from Argentina, shared his experience of the course with the rest of the group. "This course made me feel like I actually existed," he said. "When I look at myself in my photographs, all of a sudden, I have this awareness of myself which makes me feel connected to the ground. All of a sudden, I realize what impression I make on other people. I say to myself - I exist, I'm here, this is the person I never saw."