There are dozens of private centres in Ecuador that offer “treatment” to “cure” LGBT people. Because this is illegal, these centres are often masked as rehab facilities for people addicted to drugs or alcohol. Former patients at these centres have reported all different kinds of abuse, ranging from rape and sexual assault to torture. After conducting extensive interviews with three women who were institutionalised in these centres, photographer Paola Paredes reconstructed the harrowing scenes they described for a series of photos documenting the horrors that go on behind closed doors.

Paola Paredes, 31, is an Ecuadorian photographer. She first heard about these treatment centres from a friend back in 2013.

That year, there was a lot of press about a young woman who was sent to one of these centres against her will. After about 20 days, she was finally able to leave thanks to a campaign led by LGBT activists. After her release, she spoke out about the abuse she had experienced. Eventually, her testimony helped to bring about the closure of the centre.

In these centres, staff sometimes punish “patients” for “bad behavior” by forcing them to swallow a terrible-tasting liquid. Photo reconstruction by Paola Paredes.

Patients are forced to pray and read the bible in order to “save their souls”. Photo reconstruction by Paola Paredes.

"Girls are sometimes forced to sit in bathtubs filled with ice water”

Paola Paredes explains the story behind her series "Until You Change".

I was shocked the first time that someone told me about these centres. I was actually frightened that I might be sent to one of these centres myself. At the time, I hadn’t come out to my family.

I actually got the idea for a photography project early on. I started researching these centres. I read testimonies from former patients and I contacted LGBT rights organisations. But it was incredibly difficult at first to find anyone who was willing to be interviewed.

Finally, a friend gave me the contact details for a girl who had stayed in one of these centres for four months. We started speaking on the phone in December 2015 and we continued to talk for about six months. I think that these conversations were a sort of catharsis for the girl, who was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Finally, I managed to find two other victims, who were willing to speak to me, anonymously. One had stayed in a centre for six months and, another, for an entire year.

Their testimonies were quite similar and corresponded with what I had already read. They had been physically abused in different ways. They were beaten, also forced to sit in a bathtub filled with ice water.

The young women imprisoned at these centres were sometimes beaten with cables or kicked if they did something as small as refuse to eat. Photo reconstruction by Paola Paredes.

Several young women said that they had been raped by men who worked at these centres as part of their “treatment”. Photo reconstruction by Paola Paredes.

Some girls were unable to sleep at night, especially when they heard the screams of other patients being tortured (there have been reports that patients are electrocuted and/or submerged in icy water). Photo reconstruction by Paola Paredes.

The young women in these centres also endure emotional abuse, leaving many of them traumatised long after their release.

In these centres, women are taught to put on make-up and dress “like real women”. Photo reconstruction by Paola Paredes.

Most often, the families of these patients bring them to these centres against their will. Sometimes, the families are aware of the kind of things that go on behind these walls but I don’t think that’s always the case.

A young woman imprisoned in one of these centres drank a bottle of shampoo so that she’d be taken to hospital. Photo reconstruction by Paola Paredes.

"I took photos in places that looked like the centres”

I faced two major obstacles in putting together this project. First of all, I couldn’t take any pictures in the centres themselves. Secondly, the survivors I interviewed didn’t want their photos taken.

Instead, between July and September 2016, I took a series of photos in Quito in a number of places that looked like the centres — an abandoned prison, for example. I chose to appear alongside the actors. All of the images relate to the experiences that the victims had in the centres.

In these centres, the “patients” are forced to take medicine every day, but are not told what the pills actually are. Some of these medicines cause insomnia and memory loss. Photo reconstruction by Paola Paredes.

"Some families spend $500 a month to ‘cure’ someone"

We don’t know how many of these centres there are. What we do know is that they are often located in small, isolated villages, which makes it difficult for “patients” to run away.

The people who run these centres make a profit from it. Families spend up to $500 a month [445 euros] to keep someone in one of these centres.

These “treatments” are illegal. In 2011, the Minister of Health closed 30 of these centres. However, some of them have reopened in the years since. Others stayed open thanks to corruption. For example, police officers tip off the centres about imminent searches, which give the staff time to hide any LGBT patients. So there is a lot that remains to be done.

People imprisoned in these centres are often forced to clean and do other domestic tasks. Photo reconstruction by Paola Paredes.

The All Out created a website where you can report groups or centres that supposedly ‘cure’ LGBT people anywhere in the world. We know that these centres exist in Brazil, China and Russia, to name a few.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in Ecuador in 1997.

>> Check out the entire photo series, "Until You Change", on Paredes’ website.

Article written with
Chloé Lauvergnier

Chloé Lauvergnier , Journaliste francophone