Inside the Hot Box: Photographer Giles Clarke on August’s Cover Story

If you were as gobsmacked as we were the first time you saw British photojournalist Giles Clarke’s images of El Salvadorian gang prisons, you’d understand why we put one on the cover of the Hot Box Issue. The conditions are inhumane: 30 men shoved into a cage about the size of a freshman dorm room to await trial often for months at a time.

What might not jump out at you is the grinding journalistic work it takes to get access to this sort of thing. So we had VICE UK managing editor Bruno Bayley talk shop with Giles over a beer in London. They had such a good time, however, that neither of them particularly remembered their conversation, so Bruno and Giles corresponded over email this week to review. You can find Giles’s story and the rest of August’s issue of VICE online here.

VICE: Describe the days leading up to finding the cages: What did you see and shoot? Who did you meet?
Giles Clarke: I was in El Salvador with Nina Lakhani, a freelance journalist from the UK who was covering the 15-month-old “gang truce,” which was a brittle agreement between Barrio 18 and MS-13 to say the least. We began by meeting politicians, human rights groups, and “reformed” gang members who were all working to promote the truce by providing alternatives ways of life for young people.

After a few days in San Salvador itself, I went out to a gang “hotspot,” a suburb where the gangs live side-by-side and are separated by the town square. I spent an afternoon in the square taking pictures with a couple of local contacts and decided to visit the local police station to see how the truce had affected them. I asked if I could speak to someone of authority about the situation in the town. 

I went on a ride-along with the police on patrols. Over the next couple of days, I went back to the town for a few more patrols and got closer to the captain, who eventually showed me the cages. While at the police station, I noticed that plates of food were being carried through the front lobby to a corridor in the back. I assumed it was for the guards.

So how did you go from interviewing media-ready politicians and NGOs to getting to see something that clearly authorities would want to hide?
In this case, it was a combination work, patience, luck, and connections in terms of getting access. I was fortunate to have met a sympathetic police captain who gave me access. I had tried official channels and was not given permission to shoot inside prisons. The authorities obviously prefer no pictures-given the conditions the prisoners are kept in. Also these cages were at the back of a provincial police station 20 miles from San Salvador. There is gang violence all over Latin America, so I assume there are “pits” like this everywhere.

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