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Out of darkness: Moleres on Sierra Leone's juvenile prisoners

Out of darkness: Moleres on Sierra Leone's juvenile prisoners

© Fernando Moleres/Panos Pictures

August 2013

Fernando Moleres’ ongoing work, documenting the plight of juvenile prisoners in Sierra Leone, West Africa, is a subject that is incredibly close to the award-winning photographer’s heart. CPN writer Ian Farrell discovers more…

In October last year, the 2012 Tim Hetherington Grant – presented annually to a photojournalist who has entered the World Press Photo contest – was awarded to Fernando Moleres for his project ‘Waiting For an Opportunity’. The work investigates the judicial system in Sierra Leone, in particular the plight of juvenile inmates living in adult prisons, some of who are as young as 13-years-old.

The €20,000 grant is designed to enable photographers to complete an existing project on a human rights theme, and Fernando Moleres is using the award to continue to raise awareness of the injustices in the Sierra Leone’s penal system; the conditions inside the country’s prisons and the journeys taken by boys who have been released, as they are rehabilitated back into society.

© Fernando Moleres/Panos Pictures

Fernando Moleres’ charity works with local schools in Sierra Leone, teaching children the meaning of religious tolerance. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 24mm; the exposure was 1/100sec at f/7.1, ISO 400.

“The idea for the project came about after I had seen Lizzie Sadin’s excellent work ‘Mineurs en Peines’ [Minor penalties] about juveniles in prison around the world,” says Moleres. “It made me read up on the subject and I became more and more convinced that I wanted to shoot something on it.”

After trying to get access to prisons all over Africa, from Togo to Ethiopia and Nigeria, Moleres approached NGOs like Amnesty International and Save the Children to try and make contacts he needed, but to no avail. In the end his break came from a less likely source: “Another photographer, Glenna Gordon, put me in touch with a group of academics at Oxford University in the UK who were studying the penal system in Sierra Leone,” he revealed. “They agreed it would be very beneficial to get some pictures of the conditions inside the country’s prisons, and helped me get access.”

With funding from the Spanish Revela Grant, Moleres was set to go inside Pademba Road Prison – the maximum security prison in Freetown, Sierra Leone, that is also home to a number of minors. “I had a permit to shoot pictures for a month, so I went every day during February 2010,” he recalls. “At first I was shocked and saddened to be there, and a little scared too. There are few guards on patrol, and those that are present are unarmed. But the inmates knew why I was there – that I wanted to make pictures that would tell the story of what it was like inside.”

Moleres says that his previous experiences of working in nursing helped him to form relationships easily and gain the inmates’ trust. “When I was a nurse I used to visit prisons often, with vaccines and medicines,” he remembers. “This experience enabled me to help the prisoners, and the relationships I developed then were good ones.”

One such relationship stands out as particularly special. A 23-year old Liberian man serving a life sentence became Fernando Morales’ unofficial guide and friend during his time in Pademba. “He was accused of murder, but when I came out of prison at the end of my stay I began to look for ways to help him get a fair defence. In 2012 I found a lawyer and paid him about $500. He was finally released after three years in prison.”

Crime and punishment

Morales says that the inmates he encountered in Pademba had been convicted of a number of different offences; from the petty to the severe. “Some people were guilty of small crimes, while others had come from the civil war and had been sentenced for murder. I remember one of them – they nicknamed him ‘Satan’ – he told me he had killed many people.”

“There are miscarriages of justice too,” he states. “One boy I met had been in prison for seven years after being convicted of murder. He told me he went to the river to play with a friend, who had an accident and drowned. In their grief his friend’s family accused him of murder and, without any access to a lawyer, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.”

© Fernando Moleres/Panos Pictures

Rehabilitated offenders run into the ocean for a swim, Sierra Leone. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 24mm; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/13, ISO 640.

“Another boy was incarcerated for three years because two policemen saw him smoking a joint. He was just 14-years-old and had no money to pay bribes ($7) to the police, and so finished up in Pademba."

Through his photography Fernando Moleres hopes to raise awareness of miscarriages of justice like this, as well to show how harsh the conditions are in prisons like Pademba. “The prisons are hard places to work in as a photographer,” he says. “I shot the initial work with an EOS-1D Mark II and an EOS 5D, using an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens for flexibility. On subsequent trips, after I won the Tim Hetherington Grant, I borrowed an EOS-1D X from Canon Europe for evaluation and it performed really well. I like the ability to be able to shoot pictures in dark conditions, and the EOS-1D X is just great for that. High ISO performance and the fast autofocus are both really superb.”

Taking action

Moleres plans to use his pictures not only to raise awareness of the issues in Sierra Leone, but also to raise money to help through Free Minor Africa – an NGO he has set up. He explains: “I set up the NGO because, after the initial noise about the photos had died down, nothing really happened to change the situation. Awareness is good, but it’s not a replacement for action. Now I want to see action – to raise money through donations and from royalties from image sales in exhibitions and shows.”

Free Minor Africa now operates from a small centre that Fernando Moleres has set up and provides education and training for boys that have been released from prison, aiding their rehabilitation into society. The charity also pays the bail of juveniles who have been found guilty (often just $30-50), helping them avoid prison terms in institutions like Pademba. Additionally, it sends teachers and medicines into prisons to look after those who have been incarcerated.

© Fernando Moleres/Panos Pictures

Moments of concentration, Pademba Road Prison, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 24mm; the exposure was 1/4sec at f/4.5, ISO 6400.

It’s these activities that Moleres is documenting now, with the help of his EOS-1D X and the Tim Hetherington Grant. “I need to keep going back to Sierra Leone for two reasons,” he confesses. “I want to look deeply at the life of these boys. Follow them when they are released from prison and tell the story of how they are rehabilitated back into society. But I also have to do work with Free Minor Africa, and provide help to those who want it.”

Moleres says that all of the topics he has photographed over the course of his career are subjects that are close to him, and touch him in some way. This is typified by his attitude towards the things he has seen and photographed in Sierra Leone. “I don’t really have another option,” he says. “I can’t just go in there, take these pictures and then say ‘goodbye my friends’ and leave them behind. I need to do something for them. I know it’s a drop in the ocean, because there are many other African prisons with trouble around every corner, but I want to focus on these boys. They are not a lost cause and a little bit of help can make a big difference to them and their lives. If you give them an opportunity to work they will get ahead and establish themselves. They just want a normal existence; I want to demonstrate that and show, with my photography, how the boys can change.”

Biografie: Fernando Moleres

Fernando Moleres

Fernando Moleres was born in Bilbao, Spain in 1963. He began work as a nurse in his home village, travelling in 1987 to pursue that calling in Nicaragua, during the Sandinista period. It was there that Moleres began to appreciate the value of photography and to teach himself how to do it. During the early 1990s, he combined nursing work with long periods travelling and doing photo projects, such as Children at Work, which lasted several years and took him to many countries. His photos have appeared in a number of international publications, such as Stern, Le Figaro Magazine, Le Monde 2, La Repubblica, Io Donna, The Independent and The Sunday Times Magazine.


Fernando Moleres was the sole white man among 1,300 black detainees in Pademba Road Prison, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 32mm; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/13, ISO 6400.