Few place names can conjure such a visceral image as the Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana.
French explorers discovered the island and its siblings Saint-Joseph and Île Royale in the 1797 and set about turning them into one of the most notorious prisons on the planet. For over a century, they contained the country’s most infamous criminals and political prisoners – including Captain Alfred Dreyfus and opponents of Napoleon III’s coup d’etat – who were incarcerated in tiny cells in the sweltering heat of the tropical jungle.
The islands are surrounded by shark-infested waters, which offered little chance of escape for the 70,000 men who came to reside there over a century.
Shockingly, the penal colony only completely shut down in 1953, but traces of the prison are being erased as the brick buildings and their iron bars are slowly reclaimed by nature. Photographer Romain Veillon turned his lens on Saint-Joseph and the Devil’s Island for his latest series, titled Papillon.
‘The Devil’s Island penal colony was notorious in French culture,’ says Veillon, who specialises in documenting abandoned spaces. ‘I read the book Papillon by Henry Charrière [one of the island’s few escapees] when I was a teenager and it remained engraved in my memory.’
Papillon seeks to capture the contradiction of the island’s idyllic setting alongside the scars of its dark colonial past.
‘The islands are so beautiful, you are really in a paradisiac postcard landscape,’ says the photographer. ‘The prison is in the middle of the island, on a top of a hill, and when you arrive inside, you realise how much pain and suffering occurred there. The atmosphere is quite unreal – it feels haunted by dark memories.’
Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement in cramped 1.8m x 2m cells that had no furniture, except for a wooden bench which served as a bed and was removed during the day, forcing them to pace all day long.
Constant surveillance was the rule: guards could see down into the cell blocks from their position on the building’s grated roof, and prisoners were prevented from talking, reading, smoking and even sitting in the tiny spaces, which were rife with disease.
‘Add in the heat and the stifling humidity of the jungle, you understand why one out three inmates died there from diseases inherent in the area,’ says Veillon.
Today, the prison has become an unlikely tourist attraction and a stark reminder of France’s colonial legacy. But it’s also being overrun by trees and bushes, springing up between the cracks in the structure’s walls.
‘We should make more effort to preserve and highlight it for the next generations,’ says Veillon. ‘As with all dark parts of our countries’ histories, I think we have to talk about it and explain what happened if we want to stop the same mistakes happening again. If we simply let it be eroded by ivy, rain or hurricanes, we will miss the opportunity to do that.’
Romain Veillon captures a ghost hotel in Bali
Behind bars: inside America’s abandoned prisons
Explore an Escher-like playground in the Mexican jungle