Sofia Valiente lives in Belle Glade, Florida. After graduating with a BFA in art from Florida International University in Miami, she used a one-year residency in Italy to complete her first photography book, Miracle Village, which won first place at the World Press Photo awards for portrait stories. Her work has been exhibited in solo shows in London, Paris, and New York City, and widely published in Time, The Guardian, El Mundo, Vice, and American Photo Magazine.
Valiente photographed in a sex-offender community close to home, near Lake Okeechobee, Florida. Miracle Village is a place for people who have ended up on the sex offender registry for crimes such as public urination rather than pedophilia. A Christian mission, Miracle Village consists of some fifty housing units in what was previously a compound for migrant agricultural workers who toiled in the surrounding sugarcane fields.
This place, then, has a long history of keeping people separate from mainstream society; the sex offenders resident there may not live anywhere within a half mile of a school, a bus stop, or any other place where children might congregate. Such residence-restriction rules echo medieval banishment and might make for a greatly diminished quality of life. What Valiente finds instead is a sense of community that speaks to human resilience in the face of adversity. The twelve individuals whose lives she followed over an eighteen-month period experience all the trials of life in the early twenty-first century, struggling to find and keep work and worried about relationships with family and friends.
Over the three months Valiente lived in Miracle Village, the residents shared their tribulations with the photographer, expressing to her their stories and their humanity. Communicating that humanity to others became her mission. She explains “My greatest intent was to see through the stigma and challenge the prejudice, to see each person as a human being.” Her portrayal of the everyday existence of the men she photographed (only one woman resides in the community) situates them in circumstances we can relate to: working out with friends, helping to store Christmas decorations in the attic, waiting for a ride to work. Nonetheless, in many of Valiente’s images we see court-mandated ankle monitors as individuals rest in bed or sit to smoke a cigarette on the back porch. In a culture obsessed with technology, it seems fitting that those satellite- or radio-enabled anklets serve as scarlet letters, marking these people out as the Other.
Valiente’s work forms part of a long tradition in photography that confronts us with intimate worlds from which we might otherwise avert our gaze, allowing us to commune with those outside of mainstream societies. Such work highlights above all our shared humanity—a goal shared by fellow Southbound photographer Eugene Richards—and Valiente’s focus on largely self-contained worlds finds parallels in the work of other Southbound contributors, including Lucas Foglia, Rob Amberg, and Shelby Adams. Valiente’s privileged access to a community at once so foreign yet also embedded in the humdrum routines that we all follow every day shines a light on otherwise forgotten lives in the region.