Reshaping meaning in Joel Jimenez’s Castle of Innocence

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“The past was somehow hidden behind those walls.”

Photographer Joel Jimenez remembers visiting the Children’s Museum in Costa Rica when he was just a kid, walking through the impressive structure’s entrance, its overbearing exterior making light of its troubled past, painted with joyful colours to usher in its new target audience. From 1907 to 1979, the building served as the San José Central Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison, eventually forced to shut down due to inhumane conditions. But in 1994, the building reopened as the Children’s Museum, quickly becoming a popular destination for both tourists and locals.

Looking back on his first visit, Jimenez remembers exploring an area of the museum dedicated to the former prisona hallway with original cells. “The walls were decayed, filled with mold and old graffiti made by the inmates,” he remembers. “It seemed haunted, with a ghostly atmosphere.” Jimenez returned to the museum years later, in 2018, this time with his niece, taking in the displays through her eyes. “The prison cells were different, filled with replicas of objects and mannequins. The walls had been painted, and the original objects were contained in concealed glass, as museum artefacts.” He reflects, “The artificiality of it amused me, especially in contrast to my initial experience of the place. I moved through the rest of the museum with a different mindset, and started to feel like the past was somehow hidden behind those walls.”

From the series Castle of Innocence © Joel Jiminez.

This visit raised many questions for Jimenez, who started thinking about the relationships between place and identity, and the powerful forces that shape our understanding of history and memory. “My project deals with these issues by confronting both institutionsprison and museumto reflect on the ways these power structures are put into place.” Jimenez turned to the National Archive to find information on the prison, but due to confidentiality protocols, the only accessible materials were from the press and political archivesrecords created for wider consumption, painting a positive light. “Working with this material, I was able to reshape meaning, digging into alternative interpretations and hidden stories,” Jimenez says. “It’s as though I am inversing the process of the museum, excavating further into what’s revealed and what isn’t, or what hides beneath the surface of appearances.”

Combining these archival materials and his own contemporary photographs, made inside the current museum, Jimenez uncovers new relational histories. “By producing images in the museum, I began thinking about its details that were relevant within the archive.” Jimenez creates a conflation of these narratives, combining isolated gestures and visual parallels between the historical constructions of the site. “The prisoners and politicians almost blend and mirror one another. It’s through their body and the way they show or hide their hands that the message of each image is conveyed.”

From the series Castle of Innocence © Joel Jiminez.

For Jimenez, the project isn’t meant to question the intention of the museum; instead, it reveals how stories and histories are encoded into our collective memory. Castle of Innocence is about uncovering what isn’t immediately apparent through archival research. Jimenez pushes us to consider how physical spaces, rather than photographs, absorb and contain their histories, even when their walls are painted over. ”We should let ourselves be affected by our environments and use that experience to pose questions about our own realities,” he reflects. “It is crucial to be active in our reading of the world around us, and to question the information that we receive, reflecting on our personal mythology and our collective identities.”

Cat Lachowskyj

Cat Lachowskyj is a freelance writer, editor and researcher based in London. Prior to pursuing a career in writing, she trained as an archivist in Toronto, developing research on colonial photography albums at the Archive of Modern Conflict. She has completed residencies and fellowships at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ryerson Image Centre and the Rijksmuseum, and her current research interests involve psychoanalytical approaches to photography and archives. Cat’s writing has appeared in many publications including Unseen Magazine, The British Journal of Photography, Foam Magazine and American Suburb X, and she has held editing roles at both Unseen Magazine and LensCulture.