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Behind the ominous barbed wire and high concrete walls of the Santa Martha Acatitla prison in Mexico City, sits a cheerful nursery school with colorful walls, a maze of swings and slides and a playgroup of giggling toddlers. The inmates at the female penitentiary include women serving sentences for murder, drug dealing and kidnapping. There are also about 50 children, living inside the prison with their incarcerated mothers.
I first entered Santa Martha nervous and a bit angry that the government would allow and even encourage such a habitat for children, and skeptical that the Mexican prison of my imagination would ever be considered a place for a child. Hard-faced guards in black commando garb mauled hastily through my bag before letting me in, then watched my every move as we made our way through the prison’s dank echoing hallways where tough-looking women eyed me up and down with curiosity, suspicion, or both.
Upon reaching a small nursery school created within the prison’s walls where I would be allowed to photograph that first day, I was pleasantly surprised. While Santa Martha is undeniably a correctional institution and home to a rough crowd, it became quickly obvious that someone was trying hard to create a mini-world within for the children who call this place home. Mothers lined up outside, eagerly waiting to collect kindergarteners, laughing and gossiping as if they were at any other preschool. Inside, seemingly happy tikes bounced joyfully on balls and cut animals out of colorful construction paper to be hung on the school walls. Still, iron gates and menacing guard towers loom over sand piles and jungle gyms; outside the mini oasis of a daycare, life is that of a high-security penitentiary. Inside the prison, moms serving long sentences dread the day when their children are tossed out upon turning 6, and many struggle financially to care for them while they are there.
Photography allows me to meld passions for storytelling, art and the unraveling of the human condition by encapsulating isolated moments, whirling them into a fusion of truth and art, and sending them out into the world to tell stories that would not have the same effect if told through any other medium.
Some people seem to be caught up in the idea that photography has to fall into one of two distinct categories: fine art or documentary. They claim that "artistic photography" forces one to turn reality into abstract, whereas "photojournalism" makes the abstract concrete. I feel pulled toward both realms, and seek to strike a balance between them in my work: to make images with an artist’s eye that reveal truth in the powerful stories of quiet voices across the globe.
It is in this mind that I embarked on the Santa Martha prison project. Here you have this seemingly unthinkable scenario and a story screaming to be told in way that disgusts, but also all these glimpses of beauty and gentleness popping up between harsh lines, as if maternity and human instinct know no bounds. Brute and hardened, tattoo-covered women smuggle in weapons and drugs and lash out at each other in the classroom, then melt into calm while in the presence of a child. In working on this piece, I strove to consciously capture these moments of softness, while still conveying the truths of the rough scene they were found in.
About the photographer:
Caroline Bennett is a freelance photographer and multimedia journalist based in Latin America, where she has worked on a variety of assignments and projects throughout the region for local and international media, travel publications, NGOs, the United Nations and private clients. She has received several grants and awards to undertake projects on a variety of human themes around the globe, is a 2006 Eddie Adams alum, recently won second in the 2009 BOP Enterprise Picture Story category for her Born Behind Bars story, and was recognized in the 20th annual Women in Photojournalism juried exhibition. She currently resides on a mountainside in Quito, Ecuador, where she is pursuing a long-term project on the Ecuador/Colombia border.