Five miles from the closest town and 40 miles from the nearest city, Miracle Village is deeply isolated. A small community in southern Florida, once housing migrant workers who worked in the surrounding sugar cane fields, it is now home to over 100 convicted sex offenders. Twenty-four year old Sofia Valiente lived among them for a year, documenting the lives of the residents of these off-white duplexes, and collecting the results in her new book named for the village.
Because Florida law requires sex offenders to live a minimum of 1,000 feet from any school, bus stop or place where children could be, many struggle to find housing. A Christian ministry founded Miracle Village, with the aim of helping the offenders reintegrate. Readers of Valiente's book learn about twelve of the residents, each person's story told through a series of photos and quotations about life in the village. The subtle documentary-style photographs are a combination of portraits of the people, their houses, personal objects from the past, and scenes from daily life. Valiente's chosen subjects, all men except for one woman, are mixed in age as well as ethnic and educational backgrounds, though each is now reckoning with the difficult fact of living with the label of a "sex offender" for the rest of their lives.
Opening with a story by Joseph Steinberg, the softcover book looks and reads like a diary. "I find more joy in life than most of the people do without restrictions," says Ben, one of the residents. One image captures him outside next to the large sugar cane fields, enjoying and marvelling at his surroundings. Another photo captures Gene in bed holding tight to his dog. "My dog is more friend than any human," he says. "As a sex offender I can not trust anyone."
We don't learn about the differences of the severity of the people's crimes from the start, which highlights the blanket legislative category of a "sex offender". Only in the back of the book is a sealed pocket archive of handwritten letters telling the crime and story of each individual, to be matched to them by house number. The reader can make the conscious choice to tear open the archive and learn what happened, or to leave it in the dark. The crimes vary from serious offenses to consensual teenage relationships that had an age gap. “My crime was being in a relationship with my 16 year old girlfriend that I care a lot about," says one of the residents. “I was 18 turning 19 at the time. Parents were involved and I was charged with 2nd degree sexual battery (injury not likely)." Another writes only one line: “I had sex with my younger brother." Miracle Village portrays the community in sensitive and insightful images. They tell stories of estrangement, solitude, fear, loss, the desire for intimacy, but also the gratitude to have found a home.
In a personal project statement Valiente concludes: "Inside Miracle Village's intimate community, the stigma [of being a sex offender] vanishes and the residents are free to be themselves and live as the complex, beautiful human individuals they are and not as a mere label."
Miracle Village was published and is available through Fabrica, the communication research center of the Benetton Group in Treviso, Italy. It was produced under Fabrica's Editorial Area, which investigates social and cultural changes through long-term journalistic projects.