02 March 2016

Life Inside a Secluded Community of Sex Offenders

02 March 2016 - Written by Gemma Padley

On a corner of Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida, a small rectangular compound is home to 100 convicted sex offenders. Intrigued by the people and the place, Sofia Valiente spent 18 months capturing the realities of everyday life in this isolated, confined society.

© Sofia Valiente, from the series, Miracle Village

From the outside, the houses in Miracle Village look like any others in the U.S. But this remote community in southern Florida is no ordinary American village. Comprising 52 duplexes on a site where migrants who worked in the nearby sugarcane fields used to live, the village is now home to 100 convicted sex offenders. Founded four years ago by a Christian ministry, the community was set up to provide living quarters for the men (and one woman) who were required, by law, to live a minimum of 2,500 feet from any place where children might be.

For a year and a half Sofia Valiente photographed the residents of this community as they went about their daily lives. Her images - mainly environmental portraits and landscapes - offer a glimpse into the personalities of the people she met there, and what it is like living with the tag of ‘sex offender’.

© Sofia Valiente, from the series, Miracle Village

“I was photographing in the small town of Pahokee where Miracle Village is located,” explains Valiente. “My friend, who is the editor of the local newspaper, told me about the village. Overcome with curiosity, I decided to drive there one day. After meeting a couple of the residents and speaking with them, I realised their perspectives were important.”

Valiente explains that while it’s easy to cast these people out because of their label, they too are humans with feelings - hopes, fears, and regrets. Her aim through Miracle Village, which was awarded first prize in the portraits (stories) category in the 2015 World Press Photo contest, was to not only give an insight into the community, but in doing so to shed new light on our understanding of what a sex offender is. “There's the notion that men with this title are mentally ill and go around lurking, [looking] for opportunities,” she says. “But quite often the crime was committed inside the home, which brings questions back to the family. I was compelled to tell the story from these people’s perspectives in order to understand the roles that were played.”

© Sofia Valiente, from the series, Miracle Village

Achieving a balance between the different voices (her own, of her subjects, and of society) was a challenge at times, says Valiente, but one that she worked hard to overcome. “I needed to be aware what my subjects wanted to say but also be conscious of what society thinks of them. And in the cases where there was a victim, how [he or she] would feel about it. Lastly came my voice. It was about finding a balance between all of these things.”

Although a taboo subject, it’s one that should be spoken about, says Valiente, who recently produced a book of the work with Fabrica in Treviso, Italy. It’s not good enough to ostracise these people. “The laws that keep them far away do not address the problem, and in the end do not find a solution. I think it's important to understand the context of what led up to their crimes and to see them as human beings, instead of just casting them away.”


Sofia Valiente is a fine art photographer represented by Daniel Blau Gallery in London and Munich. She received a World Press Photo award for Miracle Village (1st Prize, Portraits, Stories) in 2015.

Gemma Padley is a freelance writer and editor on photography, based in the UK.


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Written by

Gemma Padley

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