By KEITH MORRISON
Spending time behind prison walls isn't a voluntary choice for most who find themselves in such uninviting confines. But for French photographer Christophe Negrel it was a calling he couldn't resist. And it resulted in a gripping photography project titled 'Prison.'
In 2012, Negrel began petitioning the French justice department for unprecedented access to a collection of high-security prisons in the south of France. His purpose: to give the world an inside look at the Penitentiary Games, a competition pitting athletes incarcerated in prison against inmates in neighboring penitentiaries.
He eventually was granted permission from the government.
Armed only with a camera and a small array of lenses, Negrel ventured behind prison walls that contained some of his nation's most notorious criminals inside them.
Negrel's objective was to document the inmates in both their preparation for and participation in the Penitentiary Games, and he sought to depict them in a different light than hardened criminals are typically perceived by society.
"My purpose was to go and meet the inmates and to explore worlds that I do not know," said Negrel in a conversation with AOL. "I wanted to break down whatever prejudices I may have had."
Gaining access to facilities in cities such as Nice, Grasse, Tarascon, and Salon La Valentine was no easy task. In order to pull it off, Negrel enlisted the help of a sports psychology student and the organizer of the Penitentiary Games, who persuaded the committee to give him the green light to go in -- albeit with several restrictions.
"At each of the institutions I only had a few hours, which limited the relationship I could build with the prisoners and I wasn't allowed to photograph their faces," said Negrel. In their preparation for the game athletes practiced an array of sports that included football, basketball, boxing, running, bocce, cycling, volleyball, and table tennis.
On the days leading up to the games Negrel described the atmosphere within the concrete and barbed wire fortresses as heavy, but by the time games opened, there was a noticeable change in the air.
"The atmosphere was very tense on the first day but soon thereafter there was this release," Negrel recalled. "People began sharing these moments and, for the most part, they were really grateful for the confidence that was given to them in that situation."
While Negrel had limited time in all of the facilities, several of the inmates' stories resonated deeply with him, and he recalled having a fondness and compassion for the encounters he had with prisoners.
"There was a young woman who had no family on the outside and preferred to stay in prison and finish her studies instead. There was a young man who touched me with his courage and determination throughout every single event. There was a 50-year-old man who was serving a life sentence for armed robbery."
At the culmination of his five-month adventure, the final body of work was made into a traveling exhibition on behalf of the Department of Justice and has made its rounds in a variety of French prisons.
In this medium both staff and prisoners alike are encouraged to view the collection. As an athlete himself and Taekwondo competitor in the 2004 Olympic Games, Negrel understands the importance sports play in life and hoped that this work would inspire inmates to participate in future games as, he believes, it serves a solid foundation for reintegration into society once they're released.
View the slideshow above to see one-of-a-kind images Negrel captured and that we're featured in his final project and click here to see more of Negrel's stunning captures.
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