My cap from Korea

June 23, 2008

It was 9 a.m. in Paraguay when I heard on the radio RIOT IN TACUMBU PRISON. It had started at 8.

Police with dogs arrive at the Tacumbu prison as prisoners held hostages inside during an uprising for better conditions in Asuncion

The visual impact that a picture can cause is fully validated when it comes from a witness, and even more so when it comes from a danger zone. This is what happened on June 20th when the prisoners of the Esperanza ward of the Tacumbu prison took as hostages warden Mario Pairet and a group of guards.

I headed straight for the prison, thinking about how to describe the horrible spectacle that the protagonists, relatives and friends, and all those involved in some way, were enduring. I thought that when I arrived at the prison entrance the situation might be under control, but to my surprise it wasn’t.

I heard screams from the prisoners saying – they abuse us, they torture us, we need clothing, we need food. I saw police, dogs, weapons and frightened faces all around.

Police officers watch over Tacumbu prision as prisoners rioted inside

When I passed through the gates I knew it was a danger zone. I also knew that my responsibility, professionalism and rationality were being tested by the uncontrolled riot in front of me.

I noticed to one side of me that several inmates were twisting their bodies to make themselves smaller to pass between broken bars and into another ward.

Prisoners bend the bars of a gate to pass from one wing to another as they riot inside Tacumbu prison

Moments later I found myself facing a locked cell door with five men, some of them hooded, pressing against it. It occurred to me that this was the ward where the hostages were being held. I stood there face to face with the leaders of the uprising and we looked each other in the eyes. They were angry, and I asked myself if my presence as a photographer helps them or hurts them. They only screamed, “Back! Leave the way clear.”

Leaders of the prisoners’ uprising inside Tacumbu prison stand at the bars while holding hostages inside

I backed up and watched as prisoners from another ward handed them cigarettes through the bars. I began to calm down in spite of the fact that I found myself in the middle of the tempest.

Leaders of the prisoners’ uprising inside Tacumbu prison stand at the bars while holding hostages inside

One inmate asked me for my cap, the cap I brought from Korea during the World Cup 2002 and that I use constantly. I reflected on whether I could give up something so dear that reminded me of that trip, and I couldn’t. But then he pleaded so persistently and he said to me, “I’m cold,” and I relinquished the cap. I asked him his name but he wouldn’t answer, maybe for his own security.

An hour later district attorneys arrived to negotiate with the prisoners, and by 1:30 they announced that the negotiations had ended successfully.

Paraguayan district attorney Celia Beckemann waits for the leaders of a prison uprising to open the gate of the Tacumbu prison for her to enter and negotiate the release of hostages

I took some photos when the hostages walked out, and I stopped to read on the watchtower the words ESPERANZA PRISON WARD.

That was where I had left my cap from Korea.

3 comments

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felicidades, ta bueno

Posted by alberto lowe muschette | Report as abusive

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Amazing images. They really do tell the stories.

When I studied Documentary Photography I was told the basics of a wonderful picture are simple: “F8 and be there”.

It was only when I REALLY started studying photography I realised just how hard putting this simple theory into practice actually is. My hat goes out to those who do it on a regular basis.

Posted by Graham Hopkinson | Report as abusive