Artist, photographer and film-maker Diego Samper’s interest in prisoner art, part of what is termed marginal or outsider art, has taken him into the creation of a unique art film, Panopticon. Marginal art is done by those on the outside of mainstream art, often under non-supportive conditions, such as jail.
A prison in Colombia was built in 1890 after a style of British institution called the panopticon prison because its interior design allowed hidden jailers to see all the cells from one position for increased surveillance. Prisoners in this particular jail, now shut down, were allowed to paint or collage on the walls of their cells — a free expression of their personal space.
Samper, who had been interested in such art, was offered the chance to tour the empty prison a few years ago and he took numerous photos of the decorated walls and doors. The visit was moving — though he reported having to shower right after because the desolation and atmosphere of the space made him feel unclean. He then selected 80 images and put them together in a film, titled Panopticon, creating a kind of visual dreamy sequence that occasionally turns into a nightmare.
He points out that he saw no hard-core pornography on the walls — though occasionally nude women were depicted. Instead, there were images of Jesus, birds, guns, Bart Simpson and other cartoon characters. One poignant image shows a convict making tracks away, leaving his ball and chain behind. All are surprisingly colourful.
“I took a roll of black and white film with me thinking it would be grey,” he recalls, “but it wasn’t.”
Samper, who was born in Colombia and now lives on the Coast, was fascinated by the issues of surveillance and how the human spirit defies this oppression.
“Some of the prisoners were very young, some were political prisoners,” he said. “I never got an opportunity to talk to them, but I felt that I had a relationship through their depictions on the walls.”
Putting the images together employed his visual ability and video mixing by Jamie Griffiths, but the film was not complete until there was a sound track.
“Sound generates an emotional state,” Samper said, and to get the right sound he realized that the music could not come with any other cultural baggage, that is, it had to be unique. He turned to Sechelt’s Steve Wright, an artist in audio design. The resulting soundscape conveys something cold, repetitive and dissonant, appropriate to the visuals.
The Sound Studio in Sechelt hosted the Sunshine Coast premiere of the film in May. It had opened the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival in 2010, and has won an honourable mention at the Bogota Film Festival. It is currently being considered for inclusion at other festivals, including the 2012 United Nations Film Festival.
Samper has other projects on the go: a creative digital photography workshop in Vancouver, his work in the Amazon with Marlene Samper on a project involving the conservation of the rainforest’s biological and cultural diversity, and participation in the local arts community, such as the recent Roberts Creek Art Festival.
More about his projects can be seen at: www.diegosamper.com.