Behind the Scenes Interview About the Recent Photo Essay on Conversion Clinics in Ecuador

Paola Paredes is an Ecuadorian photographer known for her focus on LGBTIQ topics. Her previous work includes Unveiled, a photo series documenting her coming out to her parents in a three-hour conversation. Paredes’ most recent photography project Until You Change, a photo series portraying the conditions in conversion clinics, has drawn international attention. The project is based on interviews with three women who spent time in the clinics—pseudo-medical facilities meant to “cure” LGBTIQ people of their homosexuality.

The photo series recreates what it is like inside these facilities, where cameras are not allowed. While technically outlawed under Ecuadorian law, hundreds of conversion clinics continue to operate as drug and alcohol addiction clinics. They subject residents to severe mistreatment, including force feeding, physical punishments, and corrective rape.

Paredes continues to focus her activism on the issue of conversion clinics. She, along with her organization Sinergia Lab and LGBT rights group Causana, has started fundraising for an educational campaign to raise awareness in Ecuador about the abuses at these clinics and about homosexuality in general. We spoke to Paredes about the process behind the photos, the overlap of art and activism, and her plans for the educational campaign.

(Interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

Rachel Alatalo (RA): Ecuador is one of the few countries in the world that has explicitly outlawed conversion clinics, yet your project has made it clear the practice continues in the country under the guise of alcohol and drug addiction clinics. Have you seen any movement from the government toward better enforcing the law in the wake of your campaign?

Paola Paredes (Paredes): Yes, I would say that I have seen a bit of movement after my project, definitely. I have been very fortunate to have this project covered by the media quite extensively and become viral. I’ve had the Ministry of Health, which is the regulating entity in charge of closing down and regulating these drug and alcohol clinics if they violate rules, for example housing homosexuals, contact me. The contacted me and they wanted me to brush them up on my investigation and we had a meeting together with Causana, which is the activist group that I mentioned in my video. They kind of reestablished collaborating relationships to kind of start—because the issue has died down in the past three or four years. So they want to reactivate it.

So I definitely have seen because of the campaign that things are starting to move and the activist organization has also told me that they’ve been getting a lot of emails. I’m very, very happy that the project has been able to start the debate again. Now, there’s still tremendous work to be done, and it doesn’t even scratch the surface but yes, something has started to move.

From photo essay - see full series

Rachel Alatalo (RA): Have you followed up with the sources you interviewed during your research for Until You Change? How have they been affected by the campaign?

Paola Paredes (Paredes): I interviewed three girls. I kept a very close relationship with one of them through interview process I had with her for six months. With the other two girls it was just one evening that we spent a couple hours together and for them it was a very transactional process—they basically conceded for an interview. Usually these victims that come out of the clinics don’t really want to talk about it anymore and they want to move on, so with these two girls it was very “I’ll tell you what I know and then I want to move on.” With these two girls I really didn’t continue our relationship, because it did seem like they really didn’t want to continue to have a relationship.

With the girl that I had a much more thorough interview, she did see the project and was very affected by it. She was definitely the person I was most nervous showing it to. When she saw the images she thought I did a very good job conveying the sentiment of their experience inside the clinics, which made me very happy to hear. So she was very much happy with the images.

Now, I can’t really say about the campaign, because I’ve written to her recently—and she’s not a person who’s on social media that much lately—so I haven’t really heard from her, but as far as I knew she was very content with the project. Also, she’s very adamant in keeping her anonymity, so she would never relate herself to the project. Or I think that a part of her doesn’t want keep reading these stories, because she did convey to me during the project she just wanted to move on and she didn’t want to talk about it or see anything. So that’s why we don’t really talk about it anymore, because I don’t want to keep reminding her of the experience of her trauma.

RA: Are you still in touch with the actors you worked with while shooting? How has the process of shooting—that is, acting out difficult scenes as authentically as possible—affected you and the actors and friends you worked with?

Paredes: Yes, I’m definitely still in touch with the actors because they’re actually very good friends of mine. Two of them I’ve been friends with for ten years, so they’re very very involved in my life. I would say definitely it was very hard. We all had to do preparations for these characters, especially me because I prepared for around two months. With them we just had a two or three week process, while I had a much much longer, thorough—I definitely went into preparing for this character into digging up some emotional—as you call it in acting, emotional access and emotional memory. And some Stanislavsky methods which is drama acting, and using things that have happened to you in your past and recalling those memories, projecting them on scene or on camera. And with my theatre director we also did a lot of exercises to draw on these very dark characters. So personally I can say for me it was extremely hard.

If you see the making-of video, which is on my website, there’s scenes where I’m really struggling because they were extremely violent scenes to recreate. So with the actors we really got into those characters. I know my actor José—he did the male therapist—for him it was also very hard. He had to get into this character who is sort of kind of sadistic kind of role, and he’s also a very, very dedicated actor. We would have violent scenes where it would end up being so intense and so real because it was basically us acting out these violent scenes and me just having an assistant photographer that I would direct being “shoot this,” “can you shoot this scene.” I remember one particular scene, after we finished the four of us were almost crying and we had to kind of hug because filming those scenes was extremely, extremely hard.

So I would say yes, as far as an acting exercise it was hard for me and it was hard for my actors and I would say that it took me a few months—even I’m still processing a lot of the things I had to open up. And sometimes I think, if it was hard for me, I can’t imagine what it would have been like for people that actually had to live these situations.

New Until You Change Video from Paola Paredes on Vimeo

RA: We noticed the campaign includes theatrical therapy and a documentary film component. What do you see as the overlap between art and activism? Are the two always connected for you?

Paredes: It turns out yes. I’ve been finding things out about myself with my projects, and now I think I’ve found art and activism do go hand-in-hand. I think art has a power of communication if used correctly and if used strategically to reach people. I think that for me they definitely go together. It’s also been very hard for me because it’s a big responsibility to join both of them. And I hope that the work I continue to do will be both of them linked. I think that art at times— for artists— or this is just my perception can be a bit selfish, and I think that at times like we’re living now I think it is our responsibility to use our creativity and talent to do important projects.

I have this idea for theatrical therapy. It’s called theatre of the oppressed and it’s this very interesting theatre technique where you go out and use theatre as a form of therapy to the people that you are presenting it to. So you put them in these social situations and you ask them how they would react, and they switch roles with the actors and they are made to put themselves in certain positions. So it’s kind of forcing the public to interact with theatre and interact in these situations. I have this idea that in part of the campaign I would use this type of theatrical therapy to advocate for this issue and talk about homosexuality. And maybe we would do a short film about the clinics or stuff like that. So we have a lot of ideas.

From photo essay - see full series

RA: How did you first hear of Sinergia Lab and Causana? What has it been like incorporating other groups into this larger campaign, especially in comparison to your personal photography projects?

Paredes: Sinergia is actually the initiative I have with my best friend. She’s the girl I mentioned in the last question who’s also a very very talented artist. With her husband and two other friends we have from collaborating we funded it together. We’ve always been allies in our creative work and always there for each other and we work together really well. It’s a thing she started and I joined her when I moved back to Ecuador.

And Causana is an LGBT organization that advocates for gay rights and has been in the fight for closing down these conversion clinics for about six years now. They’ve been really, really there. They’re the organization that has probably been the most involved and has the most information, so I teamed up with them as soon as I got to Ecuador. I told them about my project, I told them about my interests, and since then we’ve been collaborating. It’s been interesting for me to incorporate other groups because I usually work alone, but it’s also been very fulfilling to have other organizations involved in my work and wanting to work together.

RA: We would love to hear more about your educational campaign. What is the best-case scenario of the campaign?

Paredes: Honestly, it would be to raise enough money. $50,000 is actually a very humble budget for what we would need. The best case scenario is that we would be able to raise more than that. Unfortunately, it has not gone as I had hoped, so maybe with your help I can raise a bit more. Basically, the scenario is where we could raise a bit more and then we could start doing it. I would team up with more people—I’ve already had some people who are interested in working me me: lawyers and documentary filmmakers, and we would get people on board. And I think that if we would raise the money we would sit down like I explained in my video and develop a campaign strategy which would take us four or five months, and then we would just start implementing it and see if we could get other sponsors and other people interested in our campaign.

Basically it’s a funding problem, as it always is. We can’t really do anything if we don’t have any funds, but if we do we have the best disposition. I work with another amazing, very creative, talented friend who also a very gifted artist and communications specialist and it would be just an honor to work together for this campaign.

RA: How can other human rights groups assist with the situation in Ecuador or in other countries with conversion clinics?

Paredes: I think it’s basically just finding out how to get involved. It is basically just getting in contact with me and establishing a dialogue. Maybe here it’s different than it would be in other countries—I think we can learn from each other’s experience. I think I can also help campaigns with communication strategies and artistic strategies if they want to implement it in their own countries.

I think anything starts with a dialogue and the willingness to help each other. If I know this, then maybe I can help you with this.

Where the law fails to protect its citizens, awareness—and the understanding and compassion it breeds—is necessary to create change. Paredes’ campaign would work to end the taboo around homosexuality and encourage society to view LGBTIQ people as humans deserving of rights. As Paredes mentions, the campaign cannot succeed without proper funding. To learn more about the educational campaign and how you can support it, click here.