A new collection of photos is providing a striking ― and horrifying ― visual recreation of the barbaric practice of gay “conversion therapy” and the impact it has on its victims.
Photographer Paola Paredes first learned of the “Clinicas de Deshomosexualizacion” in her home country of Ecuador four years ago from a friend. After completing a project called “Unveiled” that documented her own coming out process ― including filming herself with three cameras as she came out to her parents ― Paredes decided the focus of her next work would be on these gay “conversion therapy” clinics.
Paredes told HuffPost that while these “conversion” therapy centers are illegal in Ecuador, they often operate covertly out of houses or addiction clinics for alcohol or drugs in remote Ecuadorian towns.
In order to portray experiences of people who have been through these clinics, Paredes interviewed a number of survivors. She then used their stories and experiences ― as well as the acting lessons she undertook specifically for the series ― to recreate the horrors of these “conversion therapy” centers in this “Until You Change,” a collection of photos currently associated with an ongoing crowdfunding campaign aimed at bringing LGBTQ awareness and education to Ecuador.
”[This series] can actively help us take action,” Paredes told HuffPost. “We created this crowdfunding campaign hoping to take advantage of this momentum. We want to design an educational campaign that centers around teaching people about homosexually, LGBT rights, gender identity and human rights. We believe that only through building education and tolerance we can prevent the existence of this clinics. The funds will also go to psychological support for the victims.”
Check out more images from “Until You Change” throughout this article and learn more about the photographer’s relationship with the victims of these gay “conversion therapy” clinics and what she hopes the impact of this project will be by reading our interview with Paredes below..
HuffPost: What inspired the project?
Paola Paredes: I heard about these clinics around four years ago ― one of my close friends told me about them. It affected me in a completely personal way [because] at that time I was not out to my parents yet. I thought that I could be locked up in one of these clinics. I was going through my own personal journey with my sexuality and it took me a while to comes to term with it. Hearing about these clinics lingered in my mind for years. I think deep down I knew I had to create something.
In 2014 I created my first body of work “Unveiled.” I sat my parents down for a conversation and told them I was gay in front of three cameras – a completely surreal and liberating experience. I was fortunate that my parents were completely accepting and that “Unveiled” turned into my first solid body of work that was published quite extensively online, and in a few exhibitions. From “Unveiled” I had a lot of gay men and women contact me around the world to thank me for sharing such an intimate moment with the world. They also shared with me their own anguish and positive coming out stories. It was there that I realized how powerful art can be.
Those letters gave me a sense of purpose. I understood I could use art to communicate important stories. It was around the time I finished “Unveiled” that I knew my next project would have to be about the clinics. I knew I was ready personally and artistically to take on that challenge. It was thanks to “Unveiled.”
This project is a sort of an extension to “Unveiled” as in terms of subject matter, and because I use myself as the protagonist again
How did you go about researching the project?
I first started reading the articles that came out online when there was small media attention given to the clinics around 2011 and 2012. That gave me the first information that I needed. I then set out to find victims to talk to, which took a couple of months. I embarked on a six-month interview process with one of them. We had really in depth conversations.
After this was the planning process with the images, studying movies for the framing and composition of subjects. And lastly was the month process in Ecuador of scouting locations and rehearsals and planning with my actors.
After the images were made I embarked on an interview process where I met with activists and institutions that play a big role in the regulation of these clinics.
I want to clarify something that I think has been left out in other publications is that these clinics are illegal in Ecuador. The Ministry of Health is the organization that regulates these clinics. These clinics are really addiction clinics for alcohol and drugs. But since these people consider homosexuality a disease, they treat it as an addiction. The laws prohibit that these clinics treat homosexuals.
Because of the media attention in 2011-2012 the clinics have found ways to become more clandestine. They exist usually in remote towns in Ecuador ― in random houses. This has made it more difficult for the Ministry of Health to regulate these clinics.
What were a few of the most surprising or shocking things you learned while researching the project?
[I think it would be] the entire interview process with the victim I spent six months with. Her testimony is heartbreaking ― listening to things she had to witness or be put through.
My interviews with activists were also quite shocking as I found out the inner workings of institutions here and how these clinics operate as mafias.
As a queer woman, what was going through your head as you acted out these scenes?
It was hard [sighs]. In the beginning I struggled with making the images look realistic. I did early tests in the studio with friends and I tried to “act” like I was being kicked or hit. They came out looking incredibly fake. It was then that I realized I needed to work with actors and theatre directors and work drawing on true emotion. We held rehearsals with actors for weeks, and we all had real characters. Real people that I had learned of through my interviews inspired the characters.
We drew on some Stanislavski acting techniques. And the theatre director made me imagine I was really held in the clinic. The scenes you see were really acted out.
How and why did you decide to cast yourself in every photo?
For a few reasons, it followed in terms of style to “Unveiled,” where I use myself in the images. “Until You Change” was always like a second chapter to “Unveiled.”
The other reason was that photographing the inside of these places is prohibited so I had to find another way to tell the story.
And most importantly, the victims asked to remain anonymous. So it was in order to protect their identity.
How did the women you interviewed finally escape these facilities? What are their lives like now?
It varies. In many cases the victims have significant others that notice they have gone missing. The significant others usually have a suspicion that it might have been their family who has put them in a clinic. They then go to activist groups to report it and then the police. And it is the activist and police process of investigation that rescues them.
In some cases, they are let out on their own, or their parents take them out.
What’s next for you?
Hopefully not using myself in any more photographic series [laughs]. I am hopeful this campaign will be successful. If it is, then my next few months will be spent in designing and creating the campaign. I think we could do a really good job!
I am also working on other independent projects centered around photographic archive and I teach at a university.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.