Siberia is synonymous with gulags and harsh winters. Both are present in Carl De Keyzer’s new book Zona, a study of life within the prison camps of this region, along with more surprising details. In August 2000, De Keyzer was invited to the capital Krasnoyarsk to host a workshop accompanying a Magnum exhibition. While looking for a subject for his group to photograph he was introduced to Camp 27.

In this model, all-male prison the inmates, dressed in regulation black uniform with their heads shorn, perform their daily tasks amongst the bizarre theme park of statues and decorations adorning the prison buildings. This most unusual setting inspired De Keyzer to return on two further occasions to photograph inside the region’s other prison camps. The resulting body of work, taken within the constraints of the restricted access he was granted, contains contradictory images such as the positive view of reformed conditions that the prison authorities wish to project, juxtaposed with De Keyzer’s observations of the remaining hardships of camp life. Photographs full of bright colours, blue skies and scenes of everyday recreation and community are contrasted with traditional images of grey and isolated gulag life – still found in some of the remoter camps.

In an essay in the book, De Keyzer recollects how his hosts controlled what he could and couldn’t see. At times, he and his Russian colleagues were left waiting for days outside a camp before entering to discover newly painted walls and prisoners in crisp uniforms. However, as De Keyzer became more familiar with the prison officials’ routine he learnt to snatch unsanctioned snapshots. His photograph of prisoners breaking rocks in a ditch is such an image. They stand together shirtless in the sunshine, their bare, tanned torsos adorned with amateur tattoos. In the background the high wire of the perimeter fence and a watchtower with its single occupant overlook their labours – a reminder of their supervised confinement. Such manual work is a constant in the lives of Siberia’s prison population and is recorded in all its forms by De Keyzer. In city-based factory camps men labour in huge sheds producing wooden furniture, cutting planks or mending machinery. In the village camps the industry is agricultural; male and female prisoners chopping wood, constructing buildings or nursing farm animals.

A more unusual activity is depicted in Zona’s cover image. In the depths of winter, amidst an opalescent landscape, a cold, blue light illuminates a huge horse carved from snow. Behind it, partially obscured by billowing steam clouds, dark figures busy themselves on other sculptures. In the foreground, a rotund man is silhouetted, warming his gloveless hands over a fire. Similar to the huge wooden windmill, murals and metal figures found in Camp 27, as well as the sky-blue painted walls and decoration of many of the prison interiors, these sculptures represent official attempts to enliven institutional life and divert from its mundane routine.

Recreation, of one kind or another, features heavily: men and women sit and doze in their respective television lounges, take saunas, perform plays, read, or let rip on the dance floor. Many of these scenes are obviously staged for the camera, like the surreal tennis match without balls: two track-suited men stand facing each other across the court, rackets in hand as if poised to play.

De Keyzer’s photographs go some way to convey the crowded conditions in single-sex communities: inmates sleeping side by side in huge barrack dormitories, jostling together in canteens at mealtimes or hanging out smoking in large groups in the yards. Despite the physical proximities of life inside, emotional loneliness must be hard to avoid. Visiting times are restricted to only a few hours each month; De Keyzer records expressions of expectation and anxiety on prisoners’ faces as they wait or interact with their family or friends. Frequently prisoners turn to each other for support – single-sex relationships are another subject he was asked not to photograph. A lot of inmates get married as wedlock ensures increased visiting time and three extra hours are allowed for the ceremony and a special marriage hotel is provided. De Keyzer’s pictures of the newlyweds are poignant, stolen moments, a glimpse of private time within a communal system.

The significance of the images in Zona is often as much to do with what is not recorded as with what is: prison guards, perimeter fencing and watchtowers are not permitted, likewise single-sex relationships – yet these are the realities of prison life and De Keyzer sneaks them in whenever possible. Much can also be read in the demeanour of the prisoners: their wary expressions represent years of discipline. Zona does not pretend to give us the reality of life inside a Serbian prison camp; rather it records what was made available to an outsider. De Keyzer highlights the the prison authorities’ stage-management and at times breaks through to give us stolen insights.

Sophie Wright