Diego Samper – Panopticon

In 2003, Diego Samper was given the opportunity to tour a recently closed 120 year old Columbian prison in the town of Ibague, which was based on the idea of the British Panopticon prison; as its design allowed for increased surveillance and enabled hidden jailers to see every cell from a single position. The building itself housed political prisoners in the late nineteenth century.

The prisoners who were incarcerated within this jail were allowed to freely express themselves on the walls of their cells; the idea being that they could create their own ‘space.’

Within the confines of the Ibague jail, prisoners seeking subjective freedom and solace, protested and expressed their opposition by richly decorating every surface. They deluged the prison with flowers, stars, saints, birds, fishes, mermaids and peacocks. The captive population asserted the significance of decoration for the soul in opposition to the machine aesthetic stripped down by the philosophy of modernism.[1]

On his visit, Samper may have anticipated hard core pornography, but apart from the representation of a few nude females, the art was predominantly religious, or based on the idea of freedom. He was surprised by the vividness of colour used – he even claimed to have only taken a black and white film, on the assumption that the works would all be muted greys. [2]

Samper photographed many of the works he encountered, realising that they were evidence of the abundant freedom that our own imagination can bestow upon us. In a place of isolation and incarceration, many of the prisoners sought out solace and salvation through religion, or indeed simply the momentary experience of freedom through their own creativity.

Fascinated by the idea of increased surveillance and how it is in human nature to express or seek freedom even in the most hopeless states of oppression, Samper used 80 of the images to create a film entitled Panopticon, which is described as “a kind of visual dreamy sequence that occasionally turns into a nightmare.” [3]

The film journeys through a rich visual underworld of prisoner art and psychology and through it, reveals aspects of contemporary Columbian social and political realities. [4]

The idea of the Panopticon design itself has perhaps come to be a representation of the modern, technological world we now live in. With CCTV cameras around every corner, the average person can expect to be captured between 70 and 300 times per day in the UK. There is the feeling of a general global loss of freedom. Samper’s film is an evidential example of the freedom and escape that our own imagination and creativity can give us; particularly in today’s world where the margins of freedom, privacy and escape are becoming increasingly narrow.


[1] from Notes Concerning the Panopticon, by Geoffrey Smedley, available online at: http://www.diegosamper.com/panopticonEn.html

[2] http://www.coastreporter.net/article/20120615/SECHELT0501/306159998/-1/sechelt/prison-art-in-samper-film

[3] http://www.coastreporter.net/article/20120615/SECHELT0501/306159998/-1/sechelt/prison-art-in-samper-film

[4] http://www.diegosamper.com/panopticonEn.html



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