In Moldova, photographer Jadwiga Brontē helps incarcerated mothers make joyful family albums

17 September 2020
Images and interviews: Jadwiga Brontē

“Look at my smile! I’m with my mum and we are doing just fine,” writes Angela, a Moldovan mother of six, in her youngest daughter’s baby album. The pages are full of intimate photos, cheeky and heartwarming handwritten notes, drawings, and colourful stickers, collected together for Aniutka to look back on later in life. Under a photo of Angela nursing is another message: “Here, Aniutka got tired of modelling and decided she was hungry.” Life in prison is tough, and keeping a record of the good times makes all the difference for those raising their children behind bars. But incarcerated mothers are rarely afforded the opportunity to savour these precious early memories with a camera.

In Angela’s prison, there are special units specifically designed for mothers and their children. These are shared: each room accommodates two mothers and two children. The inmates are given a little freedom to make their immediate surroundings feel like home — small touches like plants, wallpaper, and hand-made decorations. But, save for one or two group photos in the communal areas, there are no picture frames on the walls. Not having a camera to document your child’s formative years may seem like a small loss compared to the basic rights taken away from prisoners. But Jadwiga Brontē, who documents incarcerated mothers, says that collecting a photo album of positive memories can actually lower the risk of re-offending.

Intimate and empowering, her research project The Good Memories, started in 2019, follows the lives of 12 mothers across two women’s prisons in Moldova. The photographer spent an average of six hours a day at the prison. She reveals, “there were times that I didn’t take photos at all, I would just talk to the women and play with the kids. For some mothers,” she adds, “I was the only person who ever visited.”

“Everywhere in the world, the media focuses only on the negative image of motherhood in prison,” says the photographer, who hails from Poland. But instead of asking what will become of babies who grow up in prison, Brontē invites mothers to share how they want their children to remember their formative years. None of her participants had ever had a photo taken by a professional. It was also the first time they had seen themselves portrayed in the role of a mother. The project was conceived to celebrate the womens’ achievements as mothers and, in creating family photos, bolster the child’s self-worth later in life.

“Photographs can build one’s self-esteem and, in the case of my participants, help them see themselves as mothers, not criminals.” In the long term, she says that a positive self-view “keeps them out of trouble when they leave prison”. It was important for Brontē to take portraits, without it being obvious that they were taken in a prison, and for her participants to be involved in every step of the project: from deciding when to be photographed to organising the images in a photo album. Her decision to shoot using an instant camera was less to do with the style of photography: she wanted to make sure the mothers could hold onto the family photos. At the end of this process, they were given a form to fill out their feedback to the project, as well as answer questions about their family history, and their best qualities.

“I like that I have a strong character and can achieve anything I want,” writes Angela — a reminder of both how far she has come, and how all women deserve to be treated with respect.

Below, learn more about each participant, in their own words.

Angela and Aniutka

At school, I liked to dance, sing, and play the piano. I had high grades and never even considered skipping school or running away from home. I got a good education, including three years of professional training to be a pastry chef.

I am in a civil marriage with my husband; we’ve been together for 8 years now. I am an active woman, a mother of 6 children. I am understanding, good-natured. I like that I have a strong character and can achieve anything I want.

Ratha and Nicolae

I grew up in a big family, there were five of us until the day my sister died. After that day my family was never the same — we became strangers. I liked to go to school, but there were some lessons I didn’t like. I preferred to play football with boys from our class. The best memory I have from my childhood is my boyfriend, Vasile, who was right by my side everywhere when I was a teenager.

I got married in November 2019. I have a golden husband who is doing all he can to help us get out of here. I am not in touch with the father of my children, who is abroad and checks in on my babies. I have two boys — two diamonds — and I am so proud that God gave me such precious treasure. They are everything for me. I am a proud mother; proud that I was able to bring two angels into this world. I have a dream: to get out of here, go home, find a job, and be able to raise my kids. I also want a house with a big garden that I can take care of.

Liudmila and Lulian

I lived with my parents until I was 19, when my mother divorced my father. I had many good friends as a child and teenager. They were by my side whenever I had problems, but also during the good moments. My happiest memory is my 11th birthday. It was an unforgettable, beautiful birthday.

I never had boyfriends as a teenager, but at 20, I fell in love with Lulian’s father. I worked with my mother at a tailoring factory. When it closed, I moved to Chișinău to work at a glass factory. I enjoyed working, and I am proud of that. I don’t want to come back to this place ever again — and I hope the others won’t either.

Alina and Nicolae

I am an only child and my parents gave me everything they had, including the best education they could afford. I have a person I love, he loves me back, and he loves my boy. This child is everything to him and he loves him like his own. I like to write prose. I am a loyal person, honest, fun, melancholic, who can become moody sometimes. I like to be respected, and I also respect others. My boy completely changed my life; I am happy.

Anna and Sonia

My parents gave me good education: I can talk to any person and on any subject. The best memories are those where I’m together with my parents. Unfortunately, both my parents have passed away, and I’m not in contact with my brothers. I worked in construction and liked my profession a lot. I like romantic TV shows and movies. I like to cook delicious food. I like to talk to people that understand me and respect me. I am very glad that I’m not like other people: I have a gentle personality and I wish only the best for others.

Elena and Vaniusha

My mother died when I was three years old. My brother and my older sister were taken by their father to Kazakhstan, and for a few years, my little sister and I were raised by an uncle. Eventually, he gave my sister to another family and I was sent to an orphanage. I’ve since managed to meet with my brother and older sister who moved abroad, but I know nothing of my youngest sister so far. My happiest childhood memory is from my ninth birthday, when my teacher surprised me with cake and gifts. I loved her very much. She was like a mother to me.

I was very happy to go to school because I could see my friends. When I leave this place, my goal is to find a job, to educate my boy, and offer him a good future without making the same mistakes as I did. I loved everything about this project. It was extraordinary.

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