Photo Exhibition on Prison Staff at Work during the Pandemic in Merksplas – Flanders

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A photographer, a prison director and a language teacher meet in the Palace of Justice in Antwerp on a Friday afternoon during the COVID19 pandemic. The trigger is the photographic exhibition on show at the entrance hall which was supposed to last until the end of February but has been extended until the end of March 2021 because of its success.

The story goes like this. Eddy Meijs studies for 5 years at the Art Academy Photography IKO in Hoogstraten and then does a 2-year specialisation. When he is asked to prepare his final work, he gets to meet Serge Rooman, the prison director of Merksplas (in the northeast of Flanders) who turns to be a teacher of philosophy – for those unfamiliar to prisons, this is an unusual background. I, the teacher, have been working in this prison for 10 years but never got to know the director. I am here as the new EPEA Representative of the Western Europe Region.

Those two men get on well from the very beginning. Eddy wants to portray the daily life of prison staff. Enough work has been done around prisoners and prison infrastructure and architecture. Little has been done on those who come in and out daily and must deal with such a demanding job. Serge wants to show his staff how valuable they are and wishes to create a good atmosphere at work. Prison staff usually have a negative reputation: people believe that they tend to be lazy, they cost a lot of money to the state and they complain about everything, but the general public outside walls has no idea what they cope with and the circumstances in which they work.

None of us has ever felt so lonely and locked up as during the COVID19 pandemic. None of us has ever experienced how it feels to be locked down, deprived of our liberty, as much as now. Well, Eddy manages to capture how people work, day in day out, dealing with this feeling.

Those two men go beyond the walls and show this completely unknown reality in wonderful black-and-white pictures to everyone who enters the Palace of Justice building in Antwerp, the second largest city in Belgium. Through his pictures, Eddy gets the audience closer to this, let us face it, sober and Spartan place through the warm view of his camera. This work is an ode to all prison staff confronting unprecedented working and health conditions.

I ask Eddy how he managed to persuade all these people to cooperate in this project. Try to imagine yourself followed up by someone with a camera for a couple of hours, how you would feel… Well, the answer is as obvious as it is remarkable: a year’s work to get their confidence, to become someone they trust and to get used to his lens.

He was so successful that the staff even started writing texts about their feelings about Corona. Prison staff writing texts, poems, about their inner feelings. And these texts impregnate those black-and-white photos with even more meaning. Something beautiful is created from something as mundane as a prison which was built in 1820, before Belgium itself existed as a country, and which has become Unesco World Heritage site.

Do not miss the chance to visit the exposition if you still have some time in Antwerp. And if some reader has some exhibition space to host it after its run in Antwerp has finished, please contact one of the two men because it is worth it. Both the exhibition and the experience of having a talk with them.

There is a photo album available for those who can’t reach Antwerp. The economic profit will be delivered to Cellmade, the Belgian welfare organisation which provides work to more than 4000 inmates a year. If you are interested, you can write an email to dld.kempen.cellmadeadmin@just.fgov.be.

Ana Ferrando Benedicto
Western Representative EPEA


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