“Until You Change” is a shocking series of images produced by Ecuadorian photographer Paola Paredes. The collection was unveiled in 2016. Its aim was to highlight a hidden, illegal underworld of homophobic abuse in her native country.
The project is a follow-up to Paredes’ first project focusing on homosexuality, “Unveiled.” This 2014 work was published after Paredes came out as gay to her parents. She used cameras automatically shooting every five seconds throughout their difficult three-hour conversation to capture the raw emotion, understanding and eventual acceptance of her “coming out” experience.
However, it was as Paredes confronted her own sexuality in preparation for “Unveiled” that a friend informed her of a group of underground clinics. These institutions were, apparently, operating in the belief that homosexuality was a kind of disorder that had to be “treated.” Paredes’ friend also spoke of abuse and torture taking place at these so-called clinics.
Paredes revealed that the revelation was even more shocking to her because of the personal journey that she was on at the time with her own sexuality. “The thought that I could be locked up in one of these clinics myself lingered in my mind for years and I think, deep down, I knew I had to create something about it,” the 31-year-old told Huck magazine in May 2017.
From that moment of inspiration, Paredes began investigating these clinics and found that up to 200 of them exist in her home country of Ecuador. What came as another shock was the fact that these institutions weren’t just limited to Ecuador – where homosexuality was still officially against the law as recently as 1998 – but also the fact that they could also be found in the United States, Europe and throughout South America.
She found that these clinics were often operating as rehabilitation centers for those struggling with substance-abuse issues. However they were also offering to “treat” homosexuals, prostitutes and young pregnant girls brought in by their parents – all for the price of between $500 and $800 a month.
Paredes began contacting people who had previously been “patients” of these clinics in order to learn more about their practices and what people were being put through. What she uncovered was a trail of mental and physical abuse that would only end once the patients were considered “cured.” This inspired the title for the series, “Until You Change.”
According to the people Paredes spoke to, practices included starvation, physical abuse, and – in some shocking cases – “corrective rape.” These so-called “treatments” would only be considered effective and stopped once the “patient” renounced their homosexuality.
The testimonials were shocking, but weren’t enough on their own. To accurately portray their stories, Paredes needed to put herself into these people’s shoes to really understand what went on behind closed doors. She had to be admitted to the clinic to experience it for herself.
She persuaded her parents to admit her to the Ecuadorean clinic that her friend had told her about. With a microphone concealed in her bra, she met with the same intimidating woman that she had heard of from so many past patients. “Honestly, I was terrified: sweating profusely and shaking a bit the whole time,” she said of that moment.
Paredes reported that the first thing that struck her was how the women in treatment looked. She had heard stories of past patients being made to wear heavy make-up in order to be “real women.” And when she arrived at the clinic she was greeted by a procession of scarlet lipstick, blue eyeshadow and bright pink blush smeared across cheeks.
Poise was also seen as important. Women in the clinics were made to wear short skirts and high heels. Then, they were ordered to march back and forth until they perfected what was believed to be the “correct” way for a woman to walk. This exercise was both physically and emotionally draining.
Other pillars of “treatment” centered around cleanliness and Catholicism. Patients were made to scrub every inch of the facility. Their bare arms were forced down into unclean toilets if their work wasn’t considered thorough enough.
Even a speck of dust left behind would lead to a beating or being kicked against a wall until left bleeding and bruised, claimed Paredes. Loud religious music would be blasted out to cover the sound of the torture. Meanwhile, women would be forced to hold heavy bibles aloft for hours at a time as punishment.
Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of this harrowing ordeal was the use of sexual violence. There were stories of some patients – male and female – being raped by staff. Apparently, it was seen it as a form of exposure therapy, or a way of “normalizing” heterosexual sex. But naturally, what it left was a trail of broken people, forever traumatized.
To recreate the scenes she saw and the stories she had heard from others, Paredes knew that she couldn’t ask past patients to take part in the photography project. It would no doubt cause them too much trauma after everything they had been through.
Instead, she put herself in the horrific position they would have been in before. Furthermore, she enlisted actors and friends to act as models and bring the plight of these clinics’ victims to the attention of the public. Paredes and her small crew worked closely to do these stories justice. They were determined to not shy away from the harrowing truth.
Shooting the project was emotionally and physically draining, according to Paredes. Tears were shed as sets were wrapped. Crew members hugged and supported each other to cope with the burden of bringing such horrific scenes to life. Paredes’ vision for “Until You Change” evolved as she worked on the project. She explained that at the beginning, her main aim was to get the clinics closed down. But after seeing one in person and learning more about them, she realized that this was a somewhat naive aim.
As the project progressed, she learned that these organizations are riddled with corruption. Additionally, some seem to be supported by unseen mafia-type networks, so are not going to be easy to defeat. So for now, Paredes’ main hope for “Until You Change” is that it at least lifts the lid on what goes on in these clinics. “The only thing we can do is educate people; teach acceptance and tolerance. And the only thing I can do with my images is create awareness,” she told Huck magazine.
Now that the stark series is published for all to see, it has to. And from awareness, we can hope for positive change. The “Until You Change” project can be viewed on Paredes’ website, where you can also donate to support the campaign to close down these clinics.