As we look at the photographs that animate this work, it is hard to escape a feeling of discomfort. This malaise comes less from the images themselves, who simply record reality as it revealed itself to them, and is especially due to the fact that we are looking at them from inside our own freedom. It is as if a projective phenomenon took place, with us finding our own faces concealed behind these hoods.
These pictures startle us because out of their strangeness comes a calm that, however, draws us to violent interrogations and emotional judgements. Much of this reaction is related to the certainty that before us is a person with a life story, feelings and harsh attitudes, none of which we can describe or identify because we lack the face’s contours, the eyes that, it is said, are an open window for the emotions.
To compare the face and its expressions to a map where every wrinkle, mark and tic are like a guide that helps us discover the ways, joys and mishaps each and everyone of us has had in life is as old as the history of mankind. Already the Bible tells us that it was Cain’s facial expression that revealed to God his fratricidal intents, leading Him to ask: why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And it is certain that after the crime had been done, God set a mark upon him. Given this, all that the theorists of man’s improvement had to do was to scientifically configure and regulate the use of this empirical and ages-old observation of humanity.
After getting here, it is useful to say that the use of the hood as an instrument for redirecting the will of convicts towards good, happened at the same time as penitentiaries, criminal prevention, humane punishment and criminological theories that said criminal inclinations could be observed in physiognomy and body language. Delinquents were, thus, like a variety of the human species.
Starting from this almost Darwinistic premise, Lombroso tried to define anthropological or anthropometrical typologies for delinquents. Even though signs of criminal leanings were many and could be present all over the body and the mind, a special emphasis was given to what Lombroso called cranio-facial asymmetries. These stigmata of evil varied according to the kind of crime. In a brief overview, we find recurrent references to the disproportion between the size of the skull and the volume of its contents, to low foreheads, protruding superciliary arches and cheekbones, not forgetting jug ears. The figure that comes from such a set of features would put us in mind, with no great flights of fancy, of some man-primate hybrid.
To all this, a new factor was added. By historical irony, we are now in the same field that brought us here: photography. Its use meant considerable progress in identifying subjects. What was until then a random, imprecise task, could finally take the form of a picture. Its fallibility depended only in the photographed subject’s capacity for dissimulation. Since external control over others’ facial expression was doubtful at best, attention turned to the art of photographing, treating and presenting images.
It was through the ingenuity of Alphonse Bertillon that photographic evidence allowed judiciary identification to move towards some measure of scientific value. His method, now completely overtaken by new systems of identification, based itself on the disciplining of photographic evidence. Managing the focal distance, he took front and profile shots of his subjects, reduced the portrait to a seventh of the obtained picture, measured meticulously the diameters and lengths of body parts, codified in brief and precise formulas the different features of the face and its essential elements, like nose, ears, the colour and setting of the irises, particular signs and scars, thus making it possible to make a faithful oral description of the photographed people. Finally, anticipating the use of these materials, he defined archival criteria that would allow a quick identification.
As we face this scenario and all these concordant arguments, it would almost seem strange that, in a system where man, crushed under the weight of his bad conduct, is submitted to a rehabilitating operation, the face through which all this could be monitored would be left in the background. And what better role could be found for it than concealing it? Especially when that concealment evokes a kind of shadow play where only the characters undergoing a metamorphosis are prevented from looking at the evolution of their faces. Meanwhile, the agents of change keep the manipulation of the intervention instruments and their effects to themselves.
Since people enter prison life with a culture taken from the outside world, that is to say, with a kind of life and pursuits that are seen as unfit and threatening to what the social whole, public morals and law consider adequate, and since most prison sentences were no longer lifelong, which meant prisoners had to be sooner or later released and sent back to society, it became clear that confinement time had to be used to put them on the right track.
To reach that aim, of course, was not easy. The harshness implicit in the deprivation of freedom was obviously insufficient. Reclusion had to be turned into a kind of living death, after which a new man could be born. In Michel Foucault’s words, prisons could not simply fulfil courtroom decisions according to their own internal regulations. They had to find in their inmates something that allowed them to turn the penal measure into a penitentiary operation, through which the penalty would become an instrument for changing prisoners, turning them into socially useful individuals.
Physical punishments having proved themselves unfit, prison authorities started working on the human will, which can be changed by erasing the past, by changing the identity of every individual. Techniques for blurring one’s self-image or mortifying personality are many, and have the same aims. Isolation from society, imposed by prison walls, and isolation between prisoners, imposed by the cells, is the next step. Then, there are the admission ceremonies, the exchange of personal belongings for a prison uniform, the regulation and concentration in space of all activities, a long list of interdictions and, above all, the constant surveillance. Awareness that every moment of one’s life, from sleep to sexual intimacy, in itself already limited to a single sex, to meals or bathroom privacy is, or may be, the object of invasion leads to degradation and to changing one’s conception of oneself. Once this point has been reached, it is time to create a new man.
Confronted with an imposed time, space and regime of life over which they had no control, prisoners had very little else left than the reflection of their own face. Given the limitations of their circumstance, a mirror could be simply the face of a fellow prisoner. In order to complete the process, this gleam of light had to be concealed, and the hood was perfect for that. The efficiency of the concealment depended on two elements: the humiliation of being forced to hide one’s own face while walking with others, and the descent into total anonymity through one’s inability to define the faces of those surrounding him. It was certainly less a matter of preventing prisoners from sharing suffering and personal change than of not allowing them to transmit to each other, through glances and facial expressions, resistance, rebelliousness and resistance to change.
When, in the light of human rights, prisoners were allowed to take off their hoods, that did not necessarily mean that the inflexibility hiding in the heart of the criminals and in the machine that retained them would soften. Institutional rigidity and social ills are rarely gentle. The ambiguity generated when the hand that punishes is also the hand that feeds frequently turns the smallest kind gesture into a ridiculous, if not inhuman, parody.
Changes took place more on a substantial than on a material level. The penitentiary operation gained consistence, rhythm, and routine, innovating its methods so that the feelings inscribed on the convicts’ faces were now part of the change process.
What once was concealed was now shown as a mark of shame. Just like success, beauty, youth and happiness are visible in the proud, magnetising, smiling look of cinema stars, opprobrium resides in the bent silhouette of the criminal that walks briskly, under heavy guard and the photographic flashes and TV cameras, concealing his face with a newspaper or a coat, frustrating thus the public opinion’s curiosity and attraction for deviating behaviours. This kind of dramatisation captivates the public, confirming their suppositions, feeding their ambivalent feelings and finally consolidating their predisposition for supporting social control and repression policies.
J.J. Semedo Moreira
(translation: José Gabriel Flores)