The idea of getting close to one of the world’s most violent gangs would make most of us run and hide. Not for photographer Adam Hinton, who visited the Penal de Ciudad Barrios prison in El Salvador to document members of the notorious gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). Hinton’s work is printed in book “MS-13”, published by Paul Belford Ltd. 

How was your experience interacting with members of the MS-13 gang? 

I was in the prison for around three to four hours. I photographed the men where I found them, in the bakery, the corridors, making teddy bears. They were all very open and relaxed about it; I guess it broke the monotony of the day. I felt very comfortable there as I was just treated as any other person there – I didn’t feel at all vulnerable as the inmate would know that I wouldn’t be in there without the permission of the gang’s leadership! 

How did you manage to get into the prison in the first place?

My fixer Alex told me before the trip that access to the prison was not guaranteed. We would have to wait until the day before to get confirmation to go in. I wanted to meet up with the leadership of the gang to hear about their take on the truce [which existed between the country’s two  main gangs (MS-13 and Barrio 18) in 2012-14 – Ed.]. Penal de Ciudad Barrios is very overcrowded and I was granted free access to wander around and talk to any of the prisoners. When I saw someone interesting I asked if I could take their portrait. No one refused. 

What is your message behind this series?

I want these images to show that behind the tattoos and the media stereotype there is a human being. These guys don’t look threatening to me, which I find interesting. They look resigned to their future there. The easiest thing to say is that they are all just mindless killers who should be locked up forever or hung. That’s a way of avoiding the real and difficult question of what drives so many of the poor young men into the gangs.

To see more of Adam's work, visit http://www.adamhinton.net.