Menu

Behind-the-Scenes at a Hungarian Juvenile Detention Center

© Adam Urban

© Tamas Urban

It took time for the Hungarian photographer Adam Urban to earn the trust of the inmates at Aszód Juvenile Detention Center. Understandably, the young men were wary of “outsiders.” In fact, it took weeks for Urban to bring out his camera out for the first time.

Forty years before Adam Urban set foot in the Aszód Juvenile Detention Center, another photographer had embarked on a similar project. In 1975, Tamas Urban, Adam’s father, had completed a series of images at the same location. While the project was well-received by Tamas’s teachers, it was banned during its first exhibition, which took place at the center.

Those early photographs document a reality most journalists avoided at the time, and their implications ran against the overarching themes the government hoped to impart to the public. “At that time, the socialist regime was still strong,” the younger Urban explains. “The key messages were that despite the tough circumstances, our country was developing and performing well, thanks to the efforts of the party and the dedication of the working class. Evidence, such as these pictures, would have undermined the credibility of the system.” A party representative in attendance at the exhibition prohibited it from traveling behind the facility.

And the photographs remained in the basement of the Aszód center for decades, tucked beneath a broken piano leg. We’ve included one of Tamas’s images at the top of this story, and the collection can be seen here. Inspired by Tamas’s courage and years of family stories, Adam eventually reached out to the new director, who not only helped locate the old photographs but also allowed Adam to take new pictures of his own. Much had changed, he says, but the young people and the struggles they faced remained the same.

Being detained at the Aszód facility is, of course, a punishment for the crimes these minors have committed, but it also offers opportunities for them to make changes and start on a different path. The inmates follow strict routines, and depending on their situations, they might go to school or learn a trade. If they have attempted escape in the past, some might be moved to a more secure location during the day.

With an eye towards introducing inmates back into society, the facility has a commitment to what Urban calls a “moral and ethical education.” While they are here, young people celebrate holidays and are welcome to attend chapel and study religion. There’s also a dog, adopted as a stray by the community. Many of the inmates have grown fond of the animal, and they cherish time spent with him.

Like his father before him, Urban was able to establish a rapport with some of the inmates. “I approached the youngsters with extra care,” he tells me. “I knew if I want to make intimate pictures, I couldn’t just push my camera into their faces.” He learned the rules that governed the place, and slowly, he took out his camera. He forged bonds with individuals, though he can’t predict what will happen to that connection when they are released. He would be glad to keep in touch, though he doesn’t know if it will be possible.

In Urban’s view, a photojournalist must remain impartial. “It is not our role to get to conclusions, identify patterns, or draw arcs,” he insists. “Historians, political and social scientists can do that through our works.” Through two generations now, his family has documented truths that existed during specific points in our shared history. What happens to the photographs now remains out of his hands, but he still carries the memories from his time at the Aszód center. More than once, he was invited to join the team as a tutor at the facility. “I still treasure it,” he tells me.

© Adam Urban

© Adam Urban

© Adam Urban

© Adam Urban

© Adam Urban

© Adam Urban

© Adam Urban

© Adam Urban

© Adam Urban

© Adam Urban

© Adam Urban

© Adam Urban

© Adam Urban

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get some visual inspiration into your day!