Guest post by Luigi Gariglio, Lecturer in Visual Studies and Sociology of Communication at the University of Turin, and Academic Visitor at the Centre for Criminology.


In the late 1990s, when I was a student of political science at the University of Turin, I visited prisons throughout Europe to create the documentary photographic project Portraits in Prisons. With my photographic work I sought to overcome the media representation of inmates and try instead to represent each of them as an individual. By involving them in the project, I hoped also to give them a voice.

Like many social science students interested in qualitative research, I was impressed by Howard Becker’s ‘classic’ publications. Digging deeper in his work I ‘discovered’ different papers that helped me connect my photographic practice with my theoretical and empirical interests. In particular, I was influenced by Exploring Society Photographically, a photographic catalogue of an exhibition held in the United States at Northwestern University. This book included the works of social scientists and artists using photography to ‘comprehend society.’ In that catalogue I found, among others, the visual quasi-ethnographic work of Bruce Jackson’s Killing Time: Life in the Arkansas Penitentiary and Good Company: A Tramp Life by Doug Harper, which introduced a new reflexive use of images in the sociological ethnographic field. These are some of the reasons why I started to think of using photography as a tool to study prisoners' perceptions of their life inside for my thesis.

Trying for the first time to obtain access as a researcher       

Image 1. A wing in ‘blocco A,’ 1st floor, Turin Prison. Prisoners, corridor and cells (video still, 2000). © Luigi Gariglio
I had a complicated path to gain access as a visual (student) sociologist in the high security Prison of Turin. When I first asked the prison director for permission, I had already been taking pictures inside (as a photographer) for at least two months over the previous two years. (For that project I had obtained permission directly from the press office of the Italian Prison Service.) Although we knew each other well, he only (partially) agreed to my visual research plan after a long negotiation. In my new role as a student-researcher, using cameras proved to be much less welcome―and understood―than my previous one as photographer. The prison director appreciated my photographic interest; fortunately, he was a photo-amateur and that may have helped my previous access as a photographer. What he didn’t accept in my new role was, on the one side, the idea of being ‘watched over’ by a (young) researcher; and on the other, to give voice to inmates. In my first research plan, I decided to adopt two visual methods: photovoice and photo-elicitation. With photovoice, I wanted to give a camera to the inmates and let them express themselves through images and text in participatory research. With photo-elicitation, I intended to interview inmates using the images they (and I) created. Inmates, in other words, were to be invited to take pictures themselves, to show how they perceived their situation, and to write first-hand accounts about it.
Image 2. The author showing an image during visual-elicitation in a focus group session. Turin Prison, 'blocco A, ’1st floor (video still, 2000). © Luigi Gariglio
The negotiation with the prison took a further five months and three appointments at the director’s office. In the first meeting to discuss ‘another of my requests,’ a clear symbol of authority was shown. Being a student, I was left to wait―standing for more than an hour in the corridor―outside his large office. When I finally entered, I was ‘asked’ to stand on the one side of a very large table in front of both the male prison director and the male prison officers’ commander. They were sitting on the opposite side of the table and I felt like they were ‘interrogating me’ about my ideas about prisons and punishment, and even about my family. On that occasion, they explicitly told me to avoid creating problems and not to be too critical when judging them. They acknowledged that many things were going wrong inside, but said they were already trying to do their best to solve them. I remember appreciating what I uncritically considered to be an honest and reasonable bargain.

In the end, after two other slightly less formal meetings, I heard no news for about five months until, one day, I received a fax at home from the Italian Prison Service. I had been permitted to start the research, but participant observation was not allowed (although I was allowed to take pictures and to use the pictures I had already). I was also forbidden from inviting inmates to take images using the method of photovoice. I was really upset and wondered whether or not to accept these constraints. I interpreted their prohibition as censorship and I was really tempted to leave the field without getting into it. I was not new to prisons, therefore curiosity was not an incentive for me at all. In the end, however, like others before me, I accepted to work in a constrained position.

Image 3. Kitchen, underground floor, Turin Prison (video still, 2000). © Luigi Gariglio
Unfortunately, just two weeks before the date we fixed to start the research and enter the field, a ‘dangerous’ inmate  serving a life sentence for organised crime escaped from the prison, in an episode widely covered by the media. He had been there for some years and had been working as a gardener in the prison with a certain degree of freedom. Then he escaped. Having built a kind of rudimentary step and using prepared ropes, he eventually climbed onto the roof of the garden shed where the gardening tools were kept, and which was leaning on the prison’s wall. Once on the other side, it’s likely someone helped him to disappear. The wall alarm did not work and his escape was smooth. It was discovered some hours later. His freedom lasted a couple of days.

As a consequence of this episode, I was ‘locked out’ from prison and everything had to be renegotiated. The pressure of public opinion and all the journalists waiting outside the prison wall made things difficult. I still remember the wrath and anxiety I experienced when the prison officer at the gate of the prison laughed at me when I told him I had permission to start my research and I was there, ready to begin. The officer knew my face and hilariously asked me if I had read the newspapers in recent days. I did  notunderstand his comment nor why everything seemed to be so slow and complicated. Then the officer simply told me something like: all visitors must renegotiate all their access and that’s it. This renegotiation took around another seven months. When I finally entered my first time in prison as visual researcher, it was 2000 (see images: 1, 2 and 3). I was already exhausted. The lead up made it clear that formal access should not be taken for granted. Once I was inside, I learned that informal access had to be negotiated and renegotiated on a day-to-day basis with participants on the wing.

Although in criminology ‘the visual turn’ has only recently entered the academic debate, a significant literature on representations of prisons and punishment has already been published. What it is mostly missing, however, is an effective use of visual methods in ethnographic prison research. What I hope you will take away from this short testimony is threefold. First, visual methods can be a good tool to give a voice (and sometimes a face) to prisoners; whenever possible, we could start to introduce images and sounds in our ethnographies. Second, we need to avoid a naïve approach to the ‘visual turn.’ That is, we should enhance visual competence by investing some time exploring the large literatures regarding photography, film, media, and visual methods.

We need  more methodologically reflexive studies on the impact of visual methods in the field: both of the visual observer effect on participants, and of the process of  gaining access. In particular, we should try to understand the issue of gaining access for three different groups of actors using images: photographers, ethnographers, and visual ethnographers. Lastly, we should consider whether it makes any sense that representations of immigration detentions centres, forensic hospitals, and prisons are delegated to film directors, movie stars, photographers, and journalists. The obvious answer is no.

It is time to produce a  participatory academic visual ethnography that can illuminate a whole host of custodial centres. We need to show (and not only to tell) prisoners families, colleagues, stakeholders, policy makers, and the public what these institutions are like. In so doing, we can contribute a sound and multifaceted understanding of the complexities and difficulties in which both staff and inmates interact on a daily basis.

Further reading

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Gariglio L (2014). Gaining Access to Prison: Authority, Negotiations, and Flexibility in the Field. Available at: (accessed [date]).