Few places in the world hold the level of hopelessness of an African prison, for the most part vortexes that may release a human but never the human spirit. Now imagine a prison in a failed state in Africa. Now imagine a prison in a failed state in Africa that holds children.
This is the nightmare Moleres has found. No, it is not the worst place on Earth and yes there is human suffering that far surpasses what one finds in the Pademba Road Prison in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. But his work in this place, the images of the young and the hopeless, the squalor, the confines, the emotion, the dark cells streaked with precious sunlight, are a testament to how frightfully low a society can sink. And yet, it is also a reminder that the lack of amenities, if you will, are about the only thing that separates the misery of the Pedemba Prison from any given youth detention center in the United States.
If only Moleres’ work were about confinement and nothing else. There are wrongful convictions in this nation and other parts of the developed world, and structural deficiencies that put the poor at a disadvantage, to that question there is no doubt. But it is an understatement to say there is towering injustice in Sierra Leone, in Pademba Road and in Makeni Prison the decrepit provincial “facility” Moleres also visited.
Know this is not an easy journey for the viewer to take. Witness them though, because Moleres handles this horror with skill, grace and caring in a way that makes you understand the way of grotesque jurisprudence in another world. It is a strange soul indeed that would refuse to be stirred to outrage over these photographs.
So see it for what it is.
See a menacing guard with mirrored glasses, a necklace of handcuffs dangling around his neck, an image that foreshadows what is to come in Moleres’ essay. This power figure in uniform stands on the back end of a freight car, or more accurately a cargo of human beings. Then there is the more personal; a small boy named Abdul, in court, then the shock of him literally behind bars. Such a cliché shot is hard to get in the States these days, but here it is, in all its stomach-churning glory.
But perhaps the most telling image isn’t of prison bars or even an inmate, but of a clerk, seemingly asleep on his desk, a paralyzed and rotting bureaucracy showering down around him.
Farther down Pademba Road, into its hallways and inner cells you see the prison-scape that comes about when 1,100 men and boys are crammed into a space meant for 300.
The photography of this has been done before. It has even been done here, in this sprawling cage in Freetown. But Moleres somehow has found a deeper hopelessness, something that brings to mind slaving ships, the forgoing of freedom altogether.
He has managed to burrow so deeply into this subject because he cares so about what is going on here, the naked injustice of it all.
In a September 2011 interview with the British Journal of Photography, his frustration with the NGO community rose to the surface and exploded into the atmosphere. No one, not the United Nations, not the Red Cross, not Medecins du Monde, cared enough about the situation at Pademba Road Prison to do anything about it.
“When I was in Sierra Leone,” he told the Journal, a representative from the [United Nations] 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 [was the former head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime], has access to the country’s vice president and home affairs minister. He could have done something about it, but he chose not to.”
Cantankerous? You bet he is. Then again, he’s got a right to be. Fernando Moleres is a one-man advocate for the children in this prison, so much so that he’s set his own structure in place to bail them out before they are lost, forever. He calls it, Free Minor Africa and in time he may just shame the mighty NGOs of the world into funding it.
This is not a passing fancy for Moleres. He’s been working the Pademba Road Prison project since 2007 and he’s been at photography for half his life, winning numerous top honors in international photography, including the the Luis Valtuena International Humanitarian Photography Award for his work in Sierra Leone.
He’ll take the accolades but he’ll also use his stage to call out the unwilling and scream to high heaven the injustice of Pademba Road and beyond.
The Editors managed an email exchange with Moleres recently when he was briefly at home in Barcelona (he’s on the road a lot) and took the opportunity to ask a few questions.
Question: Has the attitude of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations, international relief groups, non-profits) changed in Sierra Leone? Are they so still so insensitive?
Fernando Moleres: Not all the NGOs are the same, not all the people inside them function the same way. My experience with the NGOs is that they are slow to act, all their decisions have to be made by consensus and within a bureaucratic process. The big NGOs have inflexible structures where it is very difficult to contact the person in charge of making decisions. Plans have to be made years before they will be carried out and an enormous amount of energy is spent in the administration.
When I asked the NGOs in Sierra Leona if I could help the prisoners, young or old, no one could offer me any help, suggestion nor interest for my request for what I was telling them.
Question: What is the status of Free Minor Africa? Are you getting support, contributions, from organizations and individuals?
FM: No, the project FMA, at this moment has no support. I have been getting some money by selling my pictures, …or selling some photos or videos to some small magazines interested in this subject. All the money, 100%, goes to the project. Up to this moment only two persons have donated a total of $80. In total, FMA has $4,000 and there is a volunteer who will go to Sierra Leona. She will be paying her own way.
Question: How can people help?
FM: Go to the web page where you can find information on how to help directly or you may buy a photo to help Free Minor Africa. If someone wants to travel to Sierra Leone put them in contact with me.
Translated from the Spanish by Rosana Ayala.
This piece originally appeared in the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Photos by Fernando Moleres will appear on JJIE’s multimedia page, Bokeh, for the remainder of the year.