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Dispatches From Latin America: Three Stories from Photographer Lianne Milton

By David Schonauer   Friday December 7, 2018


Brazilian prisons in crisis.

The aftermath of a deadly orphanage fire in Guatemala.

The culture of child sex abuse in the Amazon.

These are three of the stories that Brazil-based documentary photographer Lianne Milton has covered in recent months.  Milton, a member of Panos Pictures, is a Pulitzer Center grant recipient and a past winner of both the PDN Photo Annual award and the Latin American Fotografia competition. Her images have appeared in Le Monde, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications, and she has worked for a number of major NGOs, including ActionAid, Open Society Foundations, Smile Train, UNICEF and UN Women.  

Her work, she notes as her website, often focuses on “the impact of socio-economic issues on race, class, and citizenship - from global migration to the lasting effects of poverty and violence — as well as exploring the relationship between the environmental landscape and the human experience.” In 2016, we featured her project on the Sertão, the region in Brazil’s northeast that is home to 20 million people and has the largest concentration of rural poverty in Latin America.

Today we spotlight three of her more recent stories — projects that have taken her from Alcaçuz, a maximum-security prison in Brazil’s northeast, to Guatemala City and the heart of the Amazon.


1. The Prison Next Door

Brazil’s notorious prison system has the fourth-largest prisoner population in the world. “While riots and massacres have become commonplace in its penitentiaries, calls for reforms have been met with broken promises. Inmates have been left to live in squalid conditions, and it’s the women in their lives who are left to take care of their families, both inside prison walls and out,” noted São Paulo, Brazil-based journalist Jill Langlois in a project for the Pulitzer Center featuring Milton’s images.

Milton’s coverage focused on the women who live next to Alcaçuz, a notorious maximum-security prison in Brazil’s northeast, caring for jailed spouses and experiencing "second-hand horrors" when a deadly riot breaks out.

“Some women uproot their lives to live in the neighboring community, while those who live farther spend days at their friends’ homes, all to make sure they don’t miss visits,” writes journalist Langlois. “They stand outside the gates in the grass for hours before being let in, drinking coffee sold by enterprising neighbors and holding hands in prayer circles as they wait. Their bond has become strong over the years.”


2. Recalling the Guatemala Orphanage Fire

In the early hours of March 8, at least 40 girls were killed in a fire at the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción orphanage, which housed nearly 800 children in the municipality of San Jose Pinula, Guatemala. Boys and girls were locked inside separate rooms as punishment for organizing a protest and trying to escape cramped conditions and abuse by staff. A mattress in the room where girls were locked was somehow set on fire. Survivors say they pleaded to be released from the burning room, but were ignored, notes US New & World Report, which featured Milton’s images of the aftermath of the tragedy. Milton prepared the report for the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Milton photographed activists performinga Mayan ceremony at the Plaza de la Constitución in remembrance of the fire, as well as relatives of victims. "In my work it is normal to see so many dead people in one day," said Romero Sanun, a cemetery work Milton photographed. "I'm accustomed to it.”


3. Battling Sex Abuse in the Amazon

Sexual abuse is the second-most-common offense against children in Brazil, after neglect, according to the country’s Ministry of Health. The government has made some strides in recent years to curb it. Reports of sexual abuse rose 83 percent from 2011 to 2017. But authorities say the toughest battle is against deeply ingrained cultural norms that have masked and excused abuse for generations, noted journalist Marina Lopes recently at The Washington Post. Along with Lopes’s report, Milton’s images show how the fight to change the culture surrounding sexual abuse “has sometimes put the government at odds with locals in a region that has a complicated relationship with girls and their sexuality.”

Milton’s story about sexual abuse in the Amazon was also supported by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.
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At top: From Lianne Milton's project on sex abuse in the Amazon

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Dispatches from Latin America