– Photography as a tool for activism and change

Over the last year Spanish artist Cristina Nuñez has been working with a group of students from Oslo Fotokunstskole with self-portrait workshops with inmates in Norwegian prisons. Nuñez wants young photographers to learn to use photography as a powerful tool for social activism and social change. We have talked to Nuñez about the prison workshops and her collaboration with the students: 

Self portrait from workshop with inmates at Bredtveit prison.

Self portrait from workshop with inmates at Bredtveit prison.

You are currently developing the project «We Exist, self-portraits in prison» in collaboration with a group of students from Oslo Fotokunstskole. Could you please tell us about the project and elaborate on the title?

This is a project of artistic collaboration between myself (Spanish artist/photographer), a group of students Oslo Fotokunstskole and inmates (men and women) of three Norwegian prisons: Bredtveit (women), Ila and Ullersmo (men). The project is funded by the EEA Grants – Grants from Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein to some European countries like Spain – through the Norwegian Embassy in Spain and it is the continuation of a previous project called «Her/Story, Women Behind the Camera» produced in 2013-14.

For the project «We Exist, self-portraits in prison», I am training a group of photography students to use my method «The Self-Portrait Experience», first on themselves and then on prison inmates. The resulting images, both the students’ self-portrait projects will be shown in an online exhibition, in a physical exhibition at Oslo Fotokunstskole (the students’ works) and possibly –if we get more funding- at Rådhusplassen in Oslo (the prison inmates’ works) during September 2016.

Cristina Nuñez (center) working with prison inmate and OFKS-student during self portrait workshop.

Cristina Nuñez (center) working with prison inmate (right) and OFKS-student (behind camera) during self portrait workshop.

The title «We Exist, self-portraits in prison» is meant to express, first of all, the concept that this project intends to involve inmates of Norwegian prisons in our creative process in order to give them a voice, which we will communicate to the world outside the prison. I say «our» meaning the students’ and my creative process. Secondly, this method intends to facilitate the inmate’s –and the students- process of exploring and expressing their identity, and improving their inner image and public image. Therefore their self-portraits are a way for them to affirm their existence, to themselves and to others.

The project’s main goals are:

  1. To involve prison inmates in a creative process, which supports the development of alternative visual communication skills –as an alternative to written or oral- by teaching participants how to transform their emotions into photographic artworks. Prison inmates will use the method on themselves and discover the creative power of their emotions and pain, that their expression will allow them to produce interesting images that communicate alternative perspectives to the world, through the acquisition of a new more artistic identity and speaker for others. On release, ex-prisoners may use the method to work through their difficult emotions, in order to increase greater self-knowledge and support better social re-integration opportunity, which can lessen re-offending.
  1. To train prison interns to the in-depth perception of the images, which helps them to see themselves and others from another point of view, to train them to the multiplicity and huge potential of the human identity. Participants realize that if they look at themselves or at others closer and in-depth, they will see completely different aspects that they would have not seen at first sight.
  1. To help prison interns to improve their self-image, by discovering their vulnerabilities and strengths, and their potential. If their self-esteem is higher, their feelings of anger will lessen, enabling a more confident capacity to change their lives and to make their dreams come true, and increasing their opportunities for social re-integration.
Self portrait from workshop with inmates at Bredtveit prison.

Self portrait from workshop with inmates at Bredtveit prison.

  1. To help prison inmates improve their public image, by sharing their vulnerabilities and strengths firstly with their fellow inmates by group work, secondly with prison professionals, prison authorities and thirdly with friends and family. When prison inmates reveal their vulnerability to each other, it can foster an improved sense of mutual understanding, which leads to better interpersonal skills and relationships and feelings of connectedness. Sharing their process with prison professionals and authorities will help them to discover that they are much more than a prison inmate, and to challenge the “prison inmate label” by deconstructing stereotypes.
  1. To engage the public in a creative dialogue with an online photography exhibition curated by Carolina Lio on our website and blog, and using social media (such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, artist’s website and blog) to help to deconstruct and dispel stigma surrounding the labels and stereotypes often associated with offenders. Increased public engagement with the prison inmates’ self-portraits helps mirror back a mutual sense of humanity e.g. emotional pain, hopes, desires and dreams which supports identification rather than disassociation and alienation. The online exhibition will be permanent so that much more people will be able to see it around the world.
Self portrait from workshop at Oslo Fotokunstskole.

Self portrait from workshop at Oslo Fotokunstskole.

As part of the project you are conducting workshops at Bredtveit prison, which is a high security prison for women. Who are the women you are collaborating with inside the prison walls? What kind of work are you and the students developing at the prison?

There were five of us: –, professional artist and OFKS ex-student, Trine Guttulsrød, Marthe Bygdnes, Guro Sommer, all OFKS students, plus myself.

We worked with a group of 10 women, of which 6 Norwegians, one Danish, one Polish and two Nigerians. Their crimes are varied, from drug traffic to violent acts and murder. Most of them come from extremely poor upbringing and have led very difficult lives since childhood, including sexual, physical and psychological abuse. Seven of them accepted to take pictures and participated to the whole workshop, and the other three participated actively to the group work on the perception of the images.

After setting up our professional photo studio, and after our presentation through which we put ourselves in an equal basis with them, we invited them to take individual self-portrait sessions on the expression of emotions, relationship self-portraits and group self-portraits, to bring their family pictures and choose landscape images from our archives.

Cristina Nuñez during the workshop at Bredtveit prison.

Cristina Nuñez speaking at the workshop at Bredtveit prison.

All these photo exercises were meant to allow them to express whatever they needed to express and to discover other emotions, thoughts and issues which emerged unconsciously through the creative process. We worked both individually and in group on the in-depth perception of all the images and the dialogue between images, so that they would learn the incredibly multiplicity and plasticity of human identity and thus their hidden potential – by perceiving the myriad of things you can see in a human face through a powerful self-portrait.

Finally, we helped them to build their personal self-portrait projects, showing their actual inner life. The projects will be printed for them to keep. Most of the women accepted to be part of our exhibitions and gave their written consent.

Now, another small group of students and myself, are preparing for our workshop at Ila prison in March, with men, and in April we will hold our third workshop at Ullersmo prison, also with men.

The delivery of the workshops within Norwegian prisons will help disseminate the method within this context, so that other prisons may become interested in utilizing the method with their inmates, but also with their staff teams.

Self portrait from workshop with inmates at Bredtveit prison.

Self portrait from workshop with inmates at Bredtveit prison.

Why did you specifically want to work with female Norwegian prisoners, and what is your experience with the collaboration so far?

I’ve been working in prisons since 2009 both with men and women, and I am extremely interested to work in different prisons in different countries around the world. When the EEA Grants published their first call for submissions in 2013 I included my workshops in prison as part of the project of artistic collaboration.

The first project was dedicated to women, and that’s why I chose Bredtveit. Then in 2015 the EEA Grants reallocated more funds for the continuation of the 2013-14 projects, so I was able to continue working in prison, this time both with men and women.

Furthermore, I am a woman and one of my goals is to work for women’s rights. Women mostly choose my workshops, because we give more importance to human inner life and to our emotions and we need to work on them.

I also know that the majority of women inmates around the world are in prison because of men, either to protect them or because they have been abused by men, so I think they really need to work on their inner image, their identity and their self-esteem.

Self portrait from workshop with inmates at Bredtveit prison.

Self portrait from workshop with inmates at Bredtveit prison.

In addition to the workshops in the prison you have conducted workshops at Oslo Fotokunstskole with students. What have you been doing during this workshop? 

I have been training a group of students of the OFKS to work on my self-portrait method on themselves, so that they could then be trained to use my method with prisoners. I think it’s very important that young photographers learn to use photography as a powerful tool for social activism and social change. This training might not be enough to make students feel ready to hold the workshops on their own, but they will be inspired to continue their training in the future.

I held two workshops of four days each for a group of 9 students, all women – as you see, more women tend to choose my methodology. The students experienced several self-portrait exercises of my method, both as collaborative works with me in the school studio, and as homework produced by themselves, with their own equipment and artistic language. We worked on the in-depth perception of their works and the dialogue between images, both individually and collectively and we started their project’s build-up. They are currently producing their individual autobiographical projects.

On the last two days of the second workshop in January, I introduced how to facilitate other people’s process with this method, what does working in prison mean, how we would be working in Norwegian prisons, and they practiced guiding individual sessions with one another, both giving the instructions and working on the perception of the images produced.

Cristina Nuñez working with prison inmate during self portrait workshop.

Cristina Nuñez working with prison inmate during self portrait workshop.

Is there a plan for combining the different aspects of this project in a public presentation, and will it be possible to see the results for a Norwegian audience?

Yes of course! The project «We Exist», by its own concept MUST be communicated, not only to a Norwegian audience, but worldwide. First of all we have built a blog in which we are publishing the work in progress, step by step. The students show the evolution of their projects and write about their experience on the blog, both working on themselves with the method and working in prison. Most of them had never been to a prison, so it was an intense experience.

At the end of the project, around June this year, we will publish the online exhibition –in the same URL as the blog, which will show the students’ projects and the prison inmate’s projects.

Moreover, the students’ projects will be shown at the exhibition at Oslo Fotokunstskole in September 2016, and if we get additional funding, we might show the prisoners’ self-portraits at Rådhusplassen in Oslo in September, displayed into self-lit panels with sound system playing the inmates’ voices and telling part of their life stories.

Finally, the Communication Department of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is helping us to get good press coverage. During the last project in 2014 we got a very beautiful 6-page reportage in A-magasinet (Aftenposten), so we hope to get something similar this year!

Oslo Fotokunstskole er en fotoskole i Oslo for deg som ønsker å utforske dine kreative evner i et engasjerende og dynamisk miljø. Skolen ble etablert i 1989 og holder til i lyse og velutstyrte lokaler ved Alexander Kiellands Plass. Les mer om hvordan du kan starte dine fotostudier på oslofotokunstskole.no.

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