Paola Paredes: “These Staged Images Allow Us To See What Was Never Meant To Be Seen”





Paola Paredes: “These Staged Images Allow Us To See What Was Never Meant To Be Seen”

Ecuadorian photographer documents illegal anti-LGBT, conversion clinics through her “visual activism” project Until You Change

Photos by Paola Paredes
Nov 17, 2020

It was seven years ago that I first learned about the private “clinics” that claim to cure homosexuality in Ecuador. My first thought was that it could have been me being held there. I decided that, as a gay woman, I needed to change. 

Two years later, I came out to my family and was accepted by them. As a photographer, I wanted to document this moment. 

It took me a while to be able to speak. I looked down at the table and took a deep breath. As I exhaled, I finally said the words: “I’m gay.”

Accompanied by my sisters, I documented the event in the experimental photography project “Unveiled” (2014). At 28, the possibility of rejection by my conservative Catholic, Ecuadorian parents, was one of many potential risks. My parents needed to be comfortable being photographed. I wanted to document natural reactions. I came out to my family at a dinner table, with three cameras, each shooting every five seconds.

In my country, many young women and men are not so fortunate.

I discovered that around 200 clandestine centers still operate in the gaps between progressive laws and conservative religious beliefs. In Ecuador 80% of the population is Catholic and the church in general has very conservative views on homosexuality. Until 1997, same-sex relationships and romantic activity in Ecuador were illegal and punishable with four to eight years in prison. In 2011, several centers offering to “cure” homosexuality were reported and investigated, with dozens of additional cases coming to light. Many parents and families still believe that homosexuality is an addiction, a sexual disorder that they believe can be “cured” by some harsh discipline.

The first few private rehabilitation centers emerged in the country in the 1970s, several decades before any regulatory body existed to oversee them. The method of treatment in these clinics is an “Until You Change” mentality. For many years, the brutality of these practices has gone unpunished. Some of the most extreme practices include the use of restraints, tranquilizers, beatings, withholding of food, and other forms of humiliating treatment. Most patients are kidnapped and drugged against their will by their own family.

Many of these centers have strong religious beliefs tied to evangelical Christian groups, with Bible study being an enforced daily routine. Many activists believe that in some instances these centers are financed by religious institutions overseas and that they also have ties to the “ex-gay” movement.

Unfortunately, the majority of these centers remain open because they are disguised as treatment facilities for alcoholics and drug addicts. While some individual centers do fall into those categories, there is an alarming and growing number of LGBT people being admitted to these centers every day. The laws prohibit these clinics to treat homosexuals. Still, these centers remain open due to the lack of vigilance by the Ecuadorean government, which does not strictly enforce existing regulations, as well as the fact that in Ecuador a corrupt system of bribery exists. The truth is that these clinics are mainly run by ex-substance abusers themselves and in some cases, doctors lend their names to give the clinics credibility. One of the reasons behind the alarming growth of these centers is monetary gain, with the average cost of treatment being $500-$800 per month for each patient.

In 2011, this issue made headlines in a number of international newspapers after a petition forced the Ecuadorean government to take action. Together with the help of other activist groups, they managed to close around 30 clinics. But in the recent years, many of them have found a way to open back up. Years after, the issue has completely cooled down, not because these clinics have ceased to exist, but rather because of the short memory span of Ecuadorean society and the ongoing corrupt policies that keep these clinics open.

For me, the chance to act came in late 2015. I spent six months interviewing a woman who had been sent to one of these religious “clinics” by her parents and locked up for a number of months. With time, I gathered more first-person accounts. Women told me of sham “diagnoses” and “treatments,” carried out in the name of the Bible.

Photographic Reconstruction

The secrecy of these centers made it impossible to approach this issue using traditional documenting practices as I would do in my work as a photographer. Instead I set out to reconstruct a series of images, based on the survivor testimonies I collected. The victims asked to remain anonymous. I decided to act as the protagonist of the photos myself because I had spent months invested in these stories, while also having personal experience with the difficulties of being gay in a country as conservative as Ecuador. I carefully researched locations, other actors and props, and even trained and rehearsed theatre methods closely working with a theatre director to help me further explore the experiences of women in these abusive institutions.

The survivor testimonies I gathered were heartbreaking, with multiple accounts of the different methods used for both psychological and physical abuse. The perversion of pills and prayer books; the regime of forced femininity through make-up, short skirts and high heels; torture by rope or rubber gloves; the possibility of “corrective” rape: I felt a huge responsibility to show the very real horrors these survivors have been through.
These staged images allow us to see what was never meant to be seen. They are a form of visual activism, a way to denounce the existence of these centers and for so many people to learn about them for the first time.

The human rights of these young women and men are disregarded by Ecuador’s government. These centers are camouflaged, hidden in remote areas and small towns in Ecuador, and the Ecuadorean state does not currently have the capacity to regulate these clandestine places. In some cases, these horrendous tortures occur inside of churches that are hard to be tracked down by the government. In the worst instances, the government is even somewhat complicit.



Until You Change

[Ed: Content warning – some readers may find some of the following images to be distressing.]

The routines of the patients that enter these centers are usually very strict. They wake up early in the morning at 5am.
They line up and wait for their turn in the bathroom and only have about seven minutes of alone time to shower.
After that they begin their daily duties as they are responsible for the maintenance and cleaning of the entire clinic. They are distributed around the center’s facilities to clean the kitchen, bathrooms and other areas of the clinic. What then follows during the day is intense Bible study as well as learning the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, with meals in between. It is the Bible studying that takes up most of their day, as well as prayer and one-on-one counseling. At the end of these exhausting days, many of the patients report suffering from insomnia. The staff believe they are doing God’s work, saving young people from the devil
Prayer and bible study take up mornings, afternoons and evenings. The young women are instructed to pray sitting down on chairs, standing up or kneeling. The staff move around to check that they are praying with their eyes closed. If they are not or if they fail to learn bible passages correctly, it is written down in the anomaly book.
There are a lot of forms of punishment inside these centers both psychological and physical. Most of these punishments are carried out if a patient is considered to have “misbehaved.” One woman reported that when she did not sweep the bathroom floor correctly of all the hairs, a male orderly violently forced her hand down the toilet.
Other patients report being beaten with cable cords as well if they were considered to have misbehaved.

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Paola Paredes is a photographer born and based in Quito, Ecuador. Blending traditional documentary photography with staged imagery, her work focuses on issues facing the LGBT community and exploring contemporary attitudes towards homosexuality in Ecuador.

As part of our program on LGBT* and Faith, we are inviting Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum of different sexual orientations and gender identities and of different faith communities to address the questions of what is needed for religious communities and leaders to be instrumental in promoting the wellbeing, equality and inclusion of LGBT people in faith communities and society and how do LGBT people, today and throughout history, enrich and change the religious communities of which they are a part? 

The articles and comments represent opinions of the authors and commenters, and do not necessarily represent the views of their organization or institutions, nor of Salzburg Global Seminar. We thank our blog contributors for their generosity in sharing their personal stories.

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities.

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