Freetown. Checkers is a popular game in p
rison, with inmates sometimes gambling, often ending up in arguments and fights. Image © Fernando Moleres / Panos / laif.
For the past two years, Spanish photographer Fernando Moleres has been helping juvenile detainees in some of the most violent prisons of Sierra Leone. He speaks to BJP about the authorities’ inactions and how he’s trying to make a difference.
Author: Olivier Laurent
“Thousands of children in Africa have been abandoned and are living in prison, with adults, in conditions so extreme that their survival is at stake. Overcrowding, violence, sexual harassment, promiscuity, malnutrition, poor hygiene, infectious diseases, and lack of medical care are all common,” says Spanish photographer Fernando Moleres about his project Juveniles behind Bars in Africa. “Most African countries have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) which has strict regulations on the detention of juveniles.”
BJP: What pushed you to cover this particular issue?
Fernando Moleres: My project started at Visa Pour l’Image a few years ago when I saw Lizzie Sadin’s Juvenile Suffering exhibition at the Couvent des Minimes [Sadin's work was on show in 2007]. Part of her exhibition was made up of photos from Africa, and this particular part surprised and touched me. That’s when I decided to work on this theme.
BJP: But why Africa over other continents and countries?
Fernando Moleres: First, it was because you have more chances of dying in these prisons than anywhere else – you can die of diseases, malnutrition. Also, injustice is more flagrant than anywhere else. There are barely any lawyers, some detainees have spent years in prison without even going in front of a court. There is a deep injustice – deeper than in any other country such as Russia, India, Israel or the United States.
BJP: How do you make the transition between the idea and the actual images? How do you get access, in essence?
Fernando Moleres: The entire process lasted two years in total. It all started with a Spanish bursary that allowed me to launch the project in the first place. I had one year to complete this work and I spent six months investigating the subject, trying to find the prisons that would allow me to work within their walls. I chose Sierra Leone.
BJP: When you describe, in the text accompanying your images, that you were the sole white man among 1300 black detainees, what impact has this had on your work? How did you come to be accepted within the prison?
Fernando Moleres: When I first arrived in that prison, there was a marked distance between myself and the detainees – except from a few men that wanted to see their stories told, who wanted to expose the conditions they lived in. I particularly remember one man, named Joseph, who spoke a little bit of English and became my guide. He had been accused of murder and had been in that prison for several years, so he knew the place quite well, who to speak to. These people helped me enter that world.
BJP: You also denounce the fact that NGOs aren’t helping these detainees. Is that really the case? Why not?
Fernando Moleres: I think the main reason is that NGOs prefer to work on projects that relate to young people and women – on health issues. It’s a lot more difficult for them to pay attention to people caught in the prison system. It’s difficult to find support from the public for a widespread campaign. For many people, when they see someone in prison, they think that person deserves to be there – because they did something bad, we think about violence, drugs, etc. It’s easier to get public support to help starving kids or pregnant women. But, people don’t realise the extent of the injustice present in these prisons. They are forgotten by everyone. When I was asking for help to NGOs – the Red Cross, Médecins du Monde, etc. – no one, absolutely no one wanted to help me. Of course, I was there on my own initiative; so I didn’t have a project they could study, send to Europe for the green light, which would then be rescinded… There’s so much bureaucracy that in these cases it would just not be possible.
Pademba Central Prison, Freetown. Bathing in rainwater. The wet season is the best time as inmates can wash. Water is a real problem in prisons in Sierra Leone: there is no running water and sometimes no drinking water, unless prisoners pay for it (1000 leones or 25 US cents a bucket). Image © Fernando Moleres / Panos / laif.
BJP: I understand that, beyond taking photos in these prisons, you are helping these young people. Why are you doing that?
Fernando Moleres: What’s going on there really is dramatic. I had to help them. How? I can bring some medicine inside the prisons [Moleres would take pictures of the detainees' conditions to show to pharmacists and doctors outside the prison and get the right treatments]. It’s very simple for me – I put them in my bag and get them in easily. What I do as well, is create a link between the detainees and their families. I can find them and call them. What you need to know is that a lot of families are not aware that their kids are in prison. Now, I’d like to help them differently. I’d like to do more than getting them out of the prisons. I’d like to prevent them seeing the walls of a jail in the first place. I can do that by being there during their first trial and by paying for their bail.
BJP: How do you manage this work, in addition to your full-time job as a photographer?
Fernando Moleres: I’m actually not the one that is actually going to court to help these kids. I pay a salary a person I’ve worked with in the past. This person is tasked with going to court, find guarantors for these kids and pay their bail. I’m also looking to develop other aspects – for example, where should we house orphans. This person receives $300 a month, which I pay from my own funds. Right now, I have enough money for three to four months, but I’d like to go beyond that, and that’s why I’ve started this campaign to raise funds.
BJP: What exactly are you trying to do?
Fernando Moleres: Right now, I’m just appealing for people to give money. I’m also trying to build a network of lawyers and other people that can help us locally.
BJP: Would you like to expand your activities beyond Sierra Leone – maybe across other countries in Africa?
Fernando Moleres: No. Simply because, right now, I’m the only one paying for all of this. I’m spending my own money. This exhibition, which is travelling around Spain at the moment, has received an award from the NGO Medecins du Monde. During the award ceremony, I asked them if they could help me finance this project. Their answer was no.
BJP: How do local authorities, including prison guards, react to your work?
Fernando Moleres: In Sierra Leone, the authorities are trying to change the perception that poor people don’t have access to the same justice system as richer ones. This sense of injustice has, in the past, led to a war. The government thought that the easiest way to prevent a war was to improve conditions within prisons or to change the perception of justice. The University of Oxford has launched a study to find out what should be changed to help these detainees. They found out that Sierra Leone was plagued with corruption – for example, a prison guard only earns $30 a month, which is barely enough to buy three lunches in a bar. So, of course, these men try to find other revenues. As a result, while there is a will to beat corruption, in reality it’s a lot harder to achieve.
BJP: What about the media? Have they helped in getting your message out?
Fernando Moleres: My goal was to get this work published in newspapers and magazines, and, indeed, I’ve been successful in getting the story out there. It’s been published 12 times in Europe already – three times in France, twice in the UK and in Spain, etc. I think this project is easy to publish, because it’s focussed on one country – Sierra Leone. What I’d like now, is to get another circle of people to react to this work. I’d like to see people exercise pressure on Sierra Leone to change these conditions. I think it would be easy for an organisation to force Sierra Leone to do something. The United Nations, for example, would be the perfect organisation to do so. Talking about the United Nations, when I was in Sierra Leone, a representative from the organisation came to the prison to visit the detainees. I went with him. He talked with a few dealers, the guards, etc. But when other detainees came to see him to denounce the injustice of the entire system, his answer was: “I’m not here to solve your personal problems.” This man, whose name is Antonio Maria Costa [his official title is Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Director-General of the United Nations Office in Vienna], has access to the country’s vice president and home affairs minister. He could have done something about it, but he chose not to