Photographs of women prisoners typically depict them in their cells, behind bars, their femininity stripped away. In contrast to this, French photographer Bettina Rheims has made a series of studio-like portraits of women in four jails across France, images that seek to restore and capture the feminine aspect of their identity.
Titled Détenues [Detained], the series comprises 68 frontal portraits shot against white walls in Autumn 2014, and is currently on show in the chapel of Château de Vincennes – a former royal castle near Paris, that housed ‘women of ill repute’ in the 18th and 19th centuries. The exhibition is accompanied by a book, published by Gallimard.
“The idea of these normal, banal portraits was to say that these women are like you and me,” says the 65-year-old, who is best-known for her erotically-charged images of models and celebrities such as Karen Elson and Madonna. “They’re ordinary women who had dramas in their lives, derailed and ended up on the wrong side [of the law].
“Nobody had done what I wanted to do [with portraiture]. In documentaries on prisons, the faces are either blurred or the eyes are masked.”
It was Robert Badinter, France’s former minister of justice and instrumental in abolishing the death penalty in 1981, who encouraged Rheims to make the series. A friend of her lawyer husband, Badinter believed the public should gain a better understanding of female inmates, who constitute around 3.5 per cent of France’s prison population. He felt that Rheims could make a worthwhile contribution.
“For several years he said to me, ‘Bettina, you should take an interest in women in prison – nobody is interested in them, they’re abandoned’.”
Rheims, who has photographed women throughout her career – including actresses, models, androgynes, transsexuals and Femen activists – eventually took up the challenge. A letter she outlined her project in a letter to the ministry of justice, the prison administration contacted 10 establishments on her behalf.
“One prison director said the women got what they deserved with their sentences, but the other four responded positively,” says Rheims, from her studio in Le Marais.
“I went to meet them [at an all-female prison in Rennes and three men’s prisons with a women’s division], then went back to meet the women and showed them my work,” explains Rheims, whose photography was mostly unknown to the inmates.
“What I felt was huge wariness,” she says. “They asked, ‘You’ve photographed so many famous people and models, what are you doing here?’” One of their questions was about how she would select them. “They asked if I was going to do a casting,” recalls Rheims.
“One said, ‘I’m old, you won’t take me’. Another said, ‘I’m fat and not pretty’. I said I’d photograph all the women who signed my contract authorising me to do a book and an exhibition. So all the women I photographed, from all generations and social backgrounds, are included.”
Having discovered that women prisoners often lose their self-esteem behind bars, Rheims’ assistant offered to do their hair and make-up, and Rheims brought along clothing from high-street stores such as Zara and H&M that they could choose to wear.
“I contacted people I know in fashion asking if they could lend me two suitcases of clothes, but everyone refused, saying the project was too political,” says Rheims. “So I turned up with things I’d bought in case they wanted to put on a different blouse or jumper. But a lot of them are wearing their own clothes.”
In each prison, Rheims was given two small adjacent rooms: one for preparation, the other for an improvised studio. It was a significant change from the large, professional set-ups that she uses for commercial work. “At first I thought, ‘How am I going to manage?’” she says.
“But then I realised the studio’s smallness was an advantage because it instilled a proximity; hearing my voice reassured the women and gave them confidence,” she says. “For someone who’s never been photographed before, it’s an intimidating experience.”
Some women tried to imitate the poses of models, others froze in front of the camera. As Rheims says, “I’ve been photographing women for 40 years, and whenever I meet somebody in a photoshoot, I immediately have a feeling about what this person could give me.
“Some wanted to take extremely feminine poses, like the ones they’d seen in magazines, which was often awkward and clumsy. There were other women who didn’t want to move; it was such an effort to come and pose in front of the camera that they didn’t have the strength to give any more.”
While some women engage with the camera, others avoid the lens. Yet what unites many of the photographs is the sad, broken look in their eyes, and a sense of forlornness.
“I wanted [their condition] to be seen in their eyes,” says Rheims. “We can feel that there’s something wrong, something along the lines of hope is no longer there. Some women are absent, their eyes are elsewhere.”
During her one-hour shoot with each woman, Rheims was acutely struck by their solitude and need for conversation. “They’re women who are never spoken to, and this was their moment to deliver themselves,” she says. “They all told me about things they’d done that they’d never told anyone before.
“They were hidden in front of a camera and there was no danger in talking to me because they knew I was going to leave. Sometimes I had my image after 10 minutes, but I couldn’t deny them this time.”
Back in her hotel, Rheims recorded her memories of each day on her phone. “I needed to say things because it’s hard to spend time in prison and hear what I heard, being a sponge for the pain of these women,” she says. “All those recordings stayed on my phone for nearly two years.”
Preparing the book, Rheims listened to the recordings again and included fragments of the stories that she had heard. But she concealed the women’s identities, rendering the passages anonymous.
Rheims’ aim is to stimulate debate about sentencing, and the conditions that women prisoners face in France – most do not have access to a refectory or a gym and spend 23 hours a day in their cells. “It’s the work of artists to put the finger where it hurts; I strongly hope that things will change in the years to come for women in prison,” she says.
Certainly her exhibition in the chapel of Château de Vincennes, where the large- scale portraits on steel supports are in stark juxtaposition to the stained-glass windows, is generating interest. The opening in February was attended by the French president’s wife, Brigitte Macron, and Marlène Schiappa, minister for equality between men and women. The exhibition will travel to Château de Cadillac, which once incarcerated women prisoners and ‘disreputable’ girls, in south-west France, this June.
“There’s always a political bent to my personal work, and I’ve always mixed that with commissions and advertising for luxury and cosmetic brands, magazines and the cinema,” says Rheims.
“I hope to undertake some commissions again because it recharges my batteries. I don’t have an idea [for a project like women prisoners] every five minutes, so I like it if someone offers something like a fragrance campaign.”
Rheims sent each woman she photographed for Détenues her portrait, but only four or five women responded to her gesture. “Half were very pleased, and one or two
asked why I didn’t choose a photo where they were smiling more,” she says.
Yet it was the chance to have a photograph, either for themselves, their children, their parents or partner, that motivated many of the women to pose. “I said to them, ‘I can open a small window and send you an image of yourself that might help you love yourself again a bit more’,” Rheims explains.
“A lot of them were encouraged by this idea of having an image that restored their dignity, where they became women again.”
The Détenues exhibition is at Château de Vincennes until 30 April, and at Château de Cadillac from 01 June to 04 November. Détenues is published by Gallimard, priced €39. chateau-de-vincennes.fr chateau-cadillac.fr gallimard.fr
This article was first published in the April issue of BJP, available via www.thebjpshop.com