"It's not like in the movies, it's a lot harder"

Looking at the website of photographer Igor Čoko, his slogan immediately catches the eye: "Hard boiled stories "So hard-boiled stories can be read there. Because Igor, who lives in Serbia's capital Belgrade, sees himself as a documentary photographer and anthropologist. With the help of his camera, he explores life on the street, approaches people and social groups that are often stigmatized and condemned by society.

Also his photo project Behind The Barsin German about Behind bars, deals with people who, while on the one hand convicted by a court for their crimes, but on the other hand, are often condemned by society: prison inmates. For more than three years, Igor accompanied the prisoners of cell block 5-1 in Belgrade District Prison and portrayed their lives. The result is a photo series that tells visual stories of closeness, scars, hardness and weakness. In a written interview, Igor told us about the project and his experiences while working in prison.

ze.tt: How did the project come about? Living behind bars?

Igor Čoko: I worked on the project for almost three years. It was a cooperation with the prison of Belgrade. There is a regular art offer, which was launched in 2014 by the Therapy Service of the Belgrade District Prison. The aim of the project is to fill the detainees' leisure time with creative challenges such as theater, painting, sports or music. It is an attempt to break the void in which the prisoners live while serving their sentence.

What is it about Living behind bars?

There are so many questions and so many taboos about prisoners and life in a prison. What happens behind bars, behind the locked, heavy iron doors of a prison cell? Is it the same there as we know it from many films? Or not? When you examine the lives of the prisoners, you are meeting and feeling that very power of the other plane. Where the bit of sky over the backyard is the only freedom the prisoners see. For a long time.

I made my story in Locked Cell Block 5-1, where the prisoners are detained for 22 hours.

Igor Čoko

Belgrade District Prison is the largest of its kind in the Balkans and is located a few miles out of Belgrade. There is a prison and detention department there. More than 300 people are serving their sentences in the prison area for very different crimes. I made my story in Locked Cell Block 5-1, where the prisoners are detained for 22 hours. Two hours you can spend in the fresh air. The story shows life in prison without censored details or unrecognized identities. The real life behind bars as it is.

What should the viewers of the photos understand?

First of all, in 99% of cases, people are in prison for one reason. There are no innocents. But not all detainees are criminals. My goal was to show them as people with empathy and feelings to eliminate the prejudices that society creates around them. Let's look at the other side of their personality, their living conditions, how hard, raw and tough they are … You know, life is unpredictable, every human being can end up in jail for whatever reason. And a jail is definitely not a place to spend time.

Yet there are some of them who live their lives the way they want to live here rather than in open society. But in the end, they all deserve another chance to be treated like people, not just detainees. Believe me, if you break some boundaries and create creative, intellectual skills that were previously hidden because there was no one who understood them, the feedback is fantastic. There is a recognition, appreciative words and respect for them that you can not find out there, in real life.

How did you work with the prisoners? How did the photos come about?

It was necessary to create the story as a long-term project, because this is a lengthy process. Officially, you legally need your written permission to photograph them. That's the technical aspect. But taking pictures is not just keeping and pushing. You have to respect your time, your needs, your circumstances; you have to feel your energy, you have to live your life, you have to be with them. The photos are ultimately just a click at the end of this interaction, a kind of acceptance into the society of the detainees.

What did you learn from the project?

It was a fantastic experience. It was great to see how they looked at each other in the photos, because they were the first to see the photos after the end of the project. It is good to treat them reasonably, because we are not here to judge them for their crimes committed. It is necessary to give them a chance to eliminate the prejudices. I am glad that people all over the world get an insight into their lives, that they have heard their stories far from prejudice. So no, it's not like in the movies. It is much harder.

Further works by Igor Čoko can be found on his website and on Instagram.