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10, 11, 12, 13 & 14. © Steve Davis.
TRY YOUTH AS YOUTH
Currently on show at David Weinberg Photography in Chicago is Try Youth As Youth (Feb 13th — May 9th), an exhibition of photographs and video that bear witness to children locked in American prisons. As the title would suggest, the exhibition has a stated political position — that no person under the aged of 18 should be tried as an adult in a U.S. court of law.
In the summer of 2014, selling works ceased to be David Weinberg Photography’s primary function. The gallery formally changed its mission and committed to shedding light on social justice.
Try Youth As Youth, curated by Meg Noe, was conceived of and put together in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Here’s art in a gallery not only reflecting society back at itself, but trying to shift its debate.
The issue is urgent. In the catalogue essay Using Science and Art to Reclaim Childhood in the Justice System, Diane Geraghty Professor of Law at Loyola University, Chicago notes:
Every state continues to permit youth under the age of 18 to be transferred to adult court for trial and sentencing. As a result, approximately 200,000 children annually are legally stripped of their childhood and assumed to be fully functional adults in the criminal justice system.
This has not always been the case in the U.S. It is only changes to law in the past few decades that have resulted in children facing abnormally long custodial sentences, Life Without Parole sentences and even (in some states) the death penalty. In the face of such dark forces, what else is art doing if it is not speaking truth to power and challenging systems that undermine democracy and our social contract?
Noe invited me to write some words for the Try Youth As Youth catalogue. Given Weinberg’s enlightened modus operandi, I was eager to contribute. Here, republished in full is that essay. It’s populated with installation shots, photographs by Steve Davis, Steve Liss and Richard Ross, and video-stills by Tirtza Even.
Scroll down for essay.
Image: Steve Liss. A young boy held and handcuffed in a juvenile detention facility, Laredo, Texas.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Image: Steve Liss. Paperwork for one boy awaiting a court appearance. How many of our young “criminals” are really children in distress? Three-quarters of children detained in the United States are being held for nonviolent offenses. And for many young people today, family relationships that once nurtured a smooth process of socialization are frequently tenuous and sometimes non-existent.
Try Youth As Youth Catalogue Essay
WHAT AM I DOING HERE?
Isolated in a cell, a child might wonder, “What am I doing here?” It is an immediate, obvious and crucial question and, yet, satisfactory answers are hard to come by. The causes of America’s perverse addiction to incarceration are complex. Let’s just say, for now, that the inequities, poverty, fears and class divisions that give rise to America’s thirst for imprisonment have existed in society longer than any child has. And, let’s just say, for now, that the complex web of factors contributing to a child’s imprisonment are larger than most children could be expected to understand on a first go around.
As understandable as it might be children in crisis to ask “What am I doing here?” it should not be expected. Instead, it is we, as adults, who should be expected to face the question. We should rephrase it and ask it of ourselves, and of society. What are WE doing here? What are we doing as voters in a society that locks up an estimated 65,000 children on any given night? In the face of decades of gross criminal justice policy and practice, what are we doing here, within these gallery walls, looking at pictures?
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility, Albany, Oregon, by Richard Ross. “I’m from Portland. I’ve only been here 17 days. I’m in isolation. I’ve been in ICU for four days. I get out in one more day. During the day you’re not allowed to lay down. If they see you laying down, they take away your mattress. I’m in isolation ‘cause I got in a fight. I hit the staff while they were trying to break it up. They think I’m intimidating. I can’t go out into the day room; I have to stay in the cell. They release me for a shower. I’ve been here three times. I have a daughter, so I’m stressed. She’s six months old. At 12 I was caught stealing at Wal-Mart with my brother and sister. My sister ran away from home with a white dude. She was smoking weed, alcohol. When my sister left I was sort of alone…then my mother left with a new boyfriend, so my aunt had custody. She’s 34. My aunt smoked weed, snorts powder, does pills, lots of prescription stuff. I got sexual with a five-year-older boy, so I started running away. So I was basically grown when I was about 14. But I wasn’t doing meth. Then I stopped going to school and dropped out after 8th grade. Then I was in a parenting program for young mothers…then I left that, so they said I was endangering my baby. The people in the program were scared of me. I don’t know what to think. I was selling meth, crack, and powder when I was 15. I was Measure 11. I was with some other girls — they blamed the crime on me, and I took the charges because I was the youngest. They beat up this girl and stole from her, but I didn’t do it. But they charged me with assault and robbery too. This was my first heavy charge.” — K.Y., age 19.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
I have spent a good portion of the past six-and-a-half years trying to figure out just what it is that images of prisons and prisoners actually do. Who is their audience and what are their effects? If I thought answers were always to be couched in the language of social justice I was soon put right by Steve Davis during an interview in the autumn of 2008.
“People respond to these portraits for their own reasons,” said Davis. “A lot of the reasons have nothing to do with prisons or justice. Some people like pictures of handsome young boys — they like to see beautiful people, or vulnerable people, whatever. That started to blow my mind after a while.”
My interview with Davis was the first ever for the ongoing Prison Photography project. It blew my mind too, but in many ways it also prepared me for the contested visual territory within which sites of incarceration exist and into which I had embarked. Davis’ honesty prepared me to face uncomfortable truths and perversions of truth. It readied me for the skeevy power imbalances I’d observe time and time again in our criminal justice system.
The children in Try Youth As Youth may be, for the most part, invisible to society but they are not far away. “I was just acknowledging that this juvenile prison is 20 miles from my home,” says Davis of his earliest motivations. If you reside in an urban area, it is likely you live as near to a juvenile prison, too. Or closer.
Image by Steve Davis. From the series ‘Captured Youth’
Image by Steve Davis. From the series ‘Captured Youth’
Prisoners, and surely child prisoners, make up one of society’s most vulnerable groups. Isn’t it strange then that rarely are they presented as such? Often depictions of prisoners serve to condemn them, but not here, in Try Youth As Youth.
As we celebrate the committed works of Steve Davis, Tirtza Even, Steve Liss and Richard Ross, we should bear in mind that other types of prison imagery are less sympathetic and that other viewers’ motives are not wed to the politics of social justice. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but it’s a different thousand for everyone. We must be willing to fight and press the issue and advocate for child prisoners. Our mainstream media dominated by cliche, our news-cycles dominated by mugshots and the politics of fear, and our gallery-systems with a mandate to make profits will not always serve us. They may even do damage.
Image: Steve Davis. A girl incarcerated in Remann Hall, near Tacoma, Washington State.
Given that the works of Davis, Even, Liss and Ross circulate in a free-world that most of their subjects do not, it is all our responsibility to handle, contextualize and talk about these photographs and films in a way that serves the child subjects most. It is our responsibility to talk about economic inequality and about the have and have-nots.
“No child asks to be born into a neighborhood where you can get a gun as easily as a popsicle at the convenience store or giving up drugs means losing every one of your friends,” said Steve Liss “They were there [in jail] because there was no love, there was no nourishing, there was anger in startling doses, and there was poverty. Tremendous poverty.”
Image: Steve Liss. Alone and lonely, ten-year-old Christian, accused of ‘family violence’ as a result of a fight with an abusive older brother, sits in his cell.Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.
Davis, Even, Liss and Ross understand the burden is upon us as a society to explain our widespread use of sophisticated and brutal prisons more than it is for any individual child to explain him or herself. The image of an incarcerated child is an image not of their failings, but of ours. We must do better — by providing quality pre and post-natal care for mothers and babies, nutritious food, livable wages for parents, and support and safety in the home and on the streets. Most often, it is a series of failures in the provision of these most basic needs that leads a child to prison.
“Poverty would be solved in two generations. It would require an enormous change in our priorities. Look at how we elevate the role of a stockbroker and denigrate the role of a school teacher or a parent, those who are responsible for raising the next generation of Americans,” says Liss.
(Top to Bottom) Installation shot; video still; and drawings from Tirtza Even & Ivan Martinez’s Natural Life, 2014.
Tirtza Even & Ivan Martinez. Natural Life, 2014. Cast concrete (segment of installation). A cast of five sets of the standard issue bedding (a pillow, a bedroll) given to prisoners upon their arrival to the facility, are arranged on raw-steel pedestals in the area leading to the video projection. The sets, scaled down to kid size and made of a stack of crumbling and thin sheets of material resembling deposits of rock, are cast in concrete. Individually marked with the date of birth and the date of arrest of each of the five prisoners featured in the documentary, they thus delineate the brief time the inmates spent in the free world.
Each of the artists in Try Youth As Youth have seen incredible deprivations inside facilities that do not — cannot — serve the needs of all the children they house. Ross speaks of a child who has never had a bedtime. A social worker once told Davis of one child in the system who had never seen or held a printed photograph.
Documenting these sites is not easy and brings with it huge responsibility. Tirtza Even has grappled with the weight of her work “and how much is expected from them is a little heavy.” In some cases, these artists are the outside voice for children. Liss acknowledges that expectations more often than not outweigh the actual effects their work can have.
“People ask how do you get close to kids in a facility like that. That isn’t the problem. The problem is how do you set up enough artificial barriers so you don’t get too close. So you’re not just one more adult walking out on them in the final analysis,” he says. “I, at least, convinced myself into thinking it was therapeutic for the kids. At least someone was listening to them.”
So far, the efforts of Davis, Even, Liss and Ross have been recognized by those in power. Liss’ work has been used to lobby for psych care and an adolescent treatment unit in Laredo, Texas. Ross’ work was used in a Senate subcommittee meeting that legislated at the federal level against detained pre-adjudicated juveniles with youth convicted of committed hard crimes.
“That’s a great thing for me to know that my work is being used for advocacy rather than the masturbatory art world that I grew up in,” says Ross.
Sedgwick County Juvenile Detention Facility, Wichita, Kansas, by Richard Ross. “Nobody comes to visit me here. Nobody. I have been here for eight months. My mom is being charged with aggravated prostitution. She had me have sex for money and give her the money. The money was for drugs and men. I was always trying to prove something to her…prove that I was worth something. Mom left me when I was four weeks old — abandoned me. There are no charges against me. I’m here because I am a material witness and I ran away a lot. There is a case against my pimp. He was my care worker when I was in a group home. They are scared I am going to run away and they need me for court. I love my mom more than anybody in the world. I was raised to believe you don’t walk away from a person so I try to fix her. When I was 12 my mom was charged with child endangerment. I’ve been in and out of foster homes. They put me in there when they went to my house and found no running water, no electricity. I ran away so much that they moved me from temporary to permanent JJA custody. I’m refusing all my visits because I am tired of being lied to.” — B.B., age 17.
Richard Ross’ works in the Try Youth As Youth exhibition at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
The walls of David Weinberg are not the end point of these works’ journey. An exhibition is not a triumph it is a call to action. The work begins now.
Programming during the exhibition — phone-ins to prison, discussions with ACLU lawyers and experts in the field, conversations with formerly incarcerated youth — will all direct us the right way. The gallery space works best when it sutures artists’ creative processes into a larger process that we can shape as socially informed citizens. Our process of building healthy society.
“Kids need us,” says Liss. “They need our time, they need our involvement, and they need our investment. If you own an automotive shop, open it up to kids and the community. It does take a community.”
There are a host of wonderful arts communities doing work, here in Chicago, around criminal justice reform and social equity — Project NIA, 96 Acres, AREA, Prison + Neighborhood Art Project, Lucky Pierre and Temporary Services to name a few.
The arts can trail-blaze the conversation we need to be having. Photography and film are the ammunition with which we arm our reform arguments. First we see, then we do. If art is not speaking truth to power, then really, what are we doing here?
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
David Weinberg Photography is at 300 W. Superior Street, Suite 203, Chicago, IL 60654. Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm. Telephone: 312 529 5090.
Try Youth As Youth is on show until May 9th, 2015.
Text © Pete Brook / David Weinberg Photography.
Images: Courtesy of artists / David Weinberg Photography.
Carlos Javier Ortiz has been documenting the effects of gun violence on young people in Chicago for over seven years on a project called Too Young To Die. He is currently crowdfunding support to bookend, literally, the work.
We All We Got will be a photography book that brings seven years of Ortiz’ images together with interviews from parents and students from across Chicago and texts by Alex Kotlowitz (producer of the The Interrupters), Luke Anderson (teacher, North Lawndale College Prep) and Miles Harvey (assistant professor, DePaul University) among others.
Ortiz isn’t a flashy guy; he just gets the job done. He’s not only photographed for an extended period in the community but he’s also got involved directly with local organisations. It’s something he’s done for a long time. He’s thinking about solutions to gun violence among youth, which is one of the toughest issues in America.
We All We Got has already had deserved coverage on NPR; New York Times Lens; CBS Evening News; Chicago Ideas Week; Museum of Contemporary Photography; Leica Blog; Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting; CNN blog; and CBC radio
Request: “I would like to see the downtown Chicago or the lake of Chicago it will bring me happiness to see a real nice picture of the downtown. Please! A good place to eat! Nice cars! I been locked up for 17 long years!”
Last week, I asked Where Are All The Photographs Of Solitary Confinement? In terms of evidential imagery, the question still stands. A very different but equally interesting angle to take in the inquiry into images from within solitary is to consider the imagined and idealised images that persist within the minds of prisoners.
FROM LOCKED DOWN MINDS TO TANGIBLE PRINTS
Tamms Year Ten (TY10), a Chicago-based activist group campaigning to close down the controversial Tamms Supemax in Illinois, is not only finding out what the precious images are in the minds of men in solitary, they are going out into the world and making those images a reality – making files, prints to be mailed to each man, and prints for awareness-raising exhibitions.
TY10 asked scores of men in solitary, “If you could have one picture, what would it be?” The requests can be anything in worlds real or imagined. Once made, the images are opportunities for prisoners to see what they want to, what they used to, or perhaps what they may never see again.
Tamms prisoners never leave their cells except to shower or exercise alone in a concrete pen. Meals are pushed through a slot in the cell door. There are no jobs, communal activities or contact visits. Suicide attempts, self-mutilation, psychosis and serious mental disorders are common at Tamms, and are an expected consequence of long-term isolation.
The U.N. Committee Against Torture considers such conditions to be cruel, inhuman and degrading, and when the isolation is indefinite – as at Tamms – to be form of torture. Last year, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez called for a global ban on solitary confinement in excess of 15 days.
This year, Governor Pat Quinn announced his plans to shut down the prison but closure has been halted because of lawsuits by the prison guards’ union, AFSCME.
FRAMEWORK FOR CONSIDERING THESE IMAGES
Below are a selection of the requests and resulting images. They are a hodge-podge collection of styles and approaches and clearly many of the images do not meet the standards of fine art aesthetics. But, those standards are not by which these images should be judged.
The images originate from the minds of men who exist in environments of severe sensory deprivation. Each image is conjured from the absence of imagery.
Process trumps product in the TY10 Photo Requests From Solitary project. These images connect and educate people across supermax divides – the most opaque divides of prison regulation. The Photos From Solitary Project - one of the many TY10 efforts to engage the public on the issue of cruel and unusual detention – was conceived of to capture the eyes and ears of people and draw them in to protest and resistance.
The processes in making these images buttress, and spread, committed social justice activism; that is their worth.
Active in the project are artists and photographers Greg Ruffing, Oli Rodriguez, Jeanine Oleson, Rachel Herman, Claire Pentecost, Colleen Plumb, Tracy Sefcik, Harry Bos, Chris Murphy, Billy Dee, Lindsay Blair Brown, Karen Rodriguez, Sue Coe, Danny Orendorff, Lloyd Degrane and others.
Requests remain open and you can get involved too. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Request: “If you please, send me photographs of laser-printed image on white paper or the 10 most-dangerous land animals in the world. If you do not find it onerous and unreasonable, send me pictures of the land animals too, with a description of each animal.”
Photo montage by Mark Cooley; research and text by Stephen F. Eisenman.
Request: “I want a photo of the whole block of 63rd and Marshfield, on the south-side in the Englewood community – the 6300 block of south Marshfield is where I’m from. I would like it taken in the day time, between two and four o’clock p.m. It’s a green and white duplex-like house – the only green and while house on the block – that my Auntie “Gibby” lives in. I want the picture taken from the sidewalk (that leads to the T-shape alley going towards Ashland and 63rd) in front of the alley, facing slightly towards 64th Marshfield. But, make sure majority of the west-side of the block gets pictured.”
Request: “I would like my own picture done with an alternate background from the IDOC picture. I have no pictures of myself to give my friends and family. This would mean a great deal to me. If this is not able to be done. Then I’ll leave the picture for you to decide. If you can place my picture on another background. Nothing too much please. Something simple like a blue sky with clouds or a sunset in the distance would be fine.”
Request: “I would like to see a picture of a beach with the clearest water, and palm trees and birds with colorful plume, and maybe with the sun setting low on the horizon. The only instruction I have would be for you to create this photo with imagination and serenity.”
Request: “It’ll be great to get a picture of the chicago skyline at night, with all the big buildings (Willis Tower, etc) and lakefront. really I would just like pictures of the city, the x-mas tree down town, mag-mile, Mill park the places people come to chicago to see. Hey, you’re the photographer, just do what you do!”
Request: “Jennifer Lopez music videos with her ex Ben Affleck on the boat with her butt showing. I will like to see her butt.”
Request: “I would love a photograph of a woman setting by a lake fishing, with an empty chair next to her, with a cooler of beer. And in the empty chair have a sign with FreeBird on it! And have a Harley Davidson motorcycle in the background! I’d prefer the photographer take the photo from a boat out in the lake! Also, I’d prefer a woman that’s over 40!”
Request: “At 66 yrs. of age I try to use a little humor. I want a picture of a trash-can with the lid half off, with two eyes peeking out of the half-open lid. The trash can is rolling down the hill toward an incinerator with the caption: ‘I seem to be picking up speed I must be headed towards a bright future.’ I was in Florence, CO. So if you could get a picture of me in the Feds and in the state Max joints you could caption both: ‘From Max to Max and no end in sight’.”
Request: “A lovesick clown, holding a old fashioned feathered pen, as if writing a letter. From the waist up, in black and white. As close up as possible with as much detail as possible, and with the face about four inches big.”
Request: “I would like this picture drawn my ID as is. Don’t add a thing. Just the face will do. Thank you for this blessing. I don’t have any pictures of myself; they all were confiscated, years back, when I was at Pontiac. So I would like to know if you could get a picture of me off the internet or the ID photo that I believe you have. Don’t worry I still don’t smile or laugh it’s been years since I smiled, but thanks to your offer I will be smiling if I get the picture your offering. I believe you could get my mug shot off the internet. The picture is to be sent to my mother in Puerto Rico.”
Request: “Cast of the Kidd Kraddick in the Morning Show: Kelly Rasberry; Big Al Mack; Jenna; Psycho Shannon; Kidd Kraddick; JS.” [This is the cast of the radio show he listens to every day. He has been in isolation for 12 years.]
Request: “A picture of the stone archway in the back of the yard’s neighborhood located at 40th and Exchange St; between Halsted and Racine Streets on the South Side. It’s the last remaining thing from the Union Stockyards. I used to climb up on this structure as a kid; a few angle’s of it taken from different directions. I am not limited to any photo amounts.”
Request: “I would like a photograph of Madison and Ashland looking West towards the United Center, and if you could, I would like a full frontal view of the Michael Jordan statue in front of the United Center. THANK YOU!”
Request: “A photo of my deceased mother standing in front of a mansion, or big castle with a bunch of money on the ground and a black Hummer parked in front of it. I truly appreciate this a lot. I have been trying to get a picture of this, for a long time now. Please send the picture back when you are finished. We can’t receive Polaroids, just regular pictures that is 15 pictures, but 10 per envelope. I’m sending you two poems I wrote. I would truly appreciate it a lot from you helping me out, especially as I don’t have nobody out there. Now I know somebody out there in the world cares about us in here.”
Request: “I would like to receive a photograph of a “8×10″ Puerto Rican Flag. Thank you in advance! This could be taken in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago.”
Request: “I would like a picture of downtown Waukegan, IL located in Lake County, IL. The best place to photograph would be Genesse St.”
Request: “Photographs of Tamms Year Ten – that is, if they are not prohibited. :< I’d just like to be able to put the faces to the names we’ve seen over the years so the humanity of each can shine forth – a name on paper at the end of the day is still just a name on paper!”
Request: “The Bald Knob Cross in the Southern area of Illinois with someone of the Christian faith going there praying for me with the Grand Cross in the picture praying that I am released from Tamms and that I make parole. I’ve been locked up 36 long years, and time in Tamms is hindering my chances of making parole. I am asking for intercession prayers for my release from Tamms by this personal Bald Knob Cross and the chain will cause my family and others to go there too. Be sure to include the Bald Knob Cross in the picture and to pray for my release from Tamms and to make parole. My family and church will also finish linking the chain of this event. Persistently offering prayers combined with solemn earnest efforts and devoted work to change things. God + Tamms Year Ten + dynamic team!”
TY10 note: We coordinated with the management at Bald Knob Cross, gathered his family members and others, drove six hours to Bald Knob Cross and held a beautiful litany with prayer, song and verse and every family member speaking. The next day we took family members to visit Tamms. Willie was transferred from Tamms the day before the prayer vigil! This summer – after 37 years in prison – he got parole. Willie was put on a Greyhound bus and was back in Chicago the next day. We had a Welcome Home party for him and he talked about this photograph.
Request: “A photograph within a photo of me + the lake front. A photograph within a photo of me + Navy Pier. A photograph within a photo of me + wild lions. A photograph within a photo of me + wild wolves. A photograph within a photo of me + Chinese Dragon. For next Christmas mailing of cards. Please place me in the right, upper corner of the photo within a photo and make copies of them 5 each. Thank you very much and many blessings. Get my photo off the Tamms, prison profile website.”
Request: “A photo of the Christmas tree downtown.”
Request: “I don’t know if this like an artist drawing a picture if so I got into the whole superhero thing and I had this idea where two major comic Marvel/DC. It’s a mural with Thor, Captain America, Wolverine, Venom, Iron Man, Hulk teamed up with Superman, Green Arrow, Flash, and Batman against Two Face, Joker, Magneto, Dr Doom, Saber Tooth, Kingpin, and Green Goblin. A battle of good-vs-evil theme.”
Request: “I would like to receive an image laser-printed on regular white paper photograph a myself off the internet without my criminal convictions or other information attached to the photo. I would like the three photographs I am sending to you copied onto digital paper that can be used in a computer enhancement. If someone can do this for me, I will appreciate it very much and thank you. If you can not do it send my photos back, please. “
TY10 Note: We completed this one and the IDOC censored it and returned it to us.
Request: “I would like a photographer to capture the image of a little boy and girl, sitting side by side, on a piano bench, the two of them playing together, with a single bright red rose on the piano keys. If possible, make sure the kids are anywhere from 3-7 years old, dressed in sunday best. It shall be a romantic photo, which I hope to give to my wife. 8×10 copy of the completed photo.”
TAMMS YEAR TEN & PHOTO REQUESTS FROM SOLITARY
The exhibition Photo Requests From Solitary is on show until the 21st December, at the Tamms Year Ten Campaign Office, Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 33 S. State St., 7th Floor, Chicago IL 60603.
The Tamms Year Ten Photos Requests From Solitary is supported by an Open Society Documentary Photography Audience Engagement Grant. In partnership with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the project is to expand to supermaxes in California and Virginia.
Tamms Year Ten is a grassroots coalition formed in 2008 to persuade Illinois legislators and the governor to reform or close Tamms supermax prison. Follow them on Facebook.
A Corrections Officer forcibly restrains an unruly prisoner who was screaming and claiming abuse by the officer, Cook County Jail, Chicago, Illinois. April, 2011.
In April 2011, Peter van Agtmael was assigned by Newsweek to photograph Tom Dart, the Sheriff of Cook County, Chicago, Illinois. The coverage involved one day’s access to Cook County Jail and day of access to the ride-alongs with the PD. With a daily average of 11,000 inmates, Cook County Jail is the largest facility of detention in the U.S.
During his time in the jail, van Agtmael witnessed an altercation and heard allegations of abuse.
“The possibility of one more day of access to the jail was floated, but then didn’t come through.”
It is uncertain as to whether van Agtmael’s photographs of the contact between prisoner and deputy affected the decision to cancel the next day’s proposed visit. Van Agtmael isn’t even sure if it was Newsweek or the Sheriff’s department’s decision to cancel.
Newsweek consequently killed the story.
“I don’t know why the story was killed,” says van Agtmael. “No reason was given. Tony Dokoupil, the reporter, briefly referenced the trip in a May 29, 2011 article, Mad As Hell.”
Van Agtmael explains the background to the story, “Dart had became notorious in 2008 for halting evictions tied to foreclosure. He became something of a populist hero, and a deal made with the courts gave homeowners and tenants more leeway to contest their evictions.”
Van Agtmael recounts, “Sheriff Dart was giving Tony Dokoupil and I a tour of the jail system, and I heard screams and dull thuds coming from down a corridor. I ran towards the sounds and began photographing a cop pushing the young man against a wall. I began photographing the scene. The young man was screaming that the officer had been beating him, and the officer was yelling at me to stop photographing as he pushed the man further down the hallway. I followed and continued to photograph.”
[Continues below …]
A Corrections Officer forcibly restrains an unruly prisoner who was screaming and claiming abuse by the officer.
“The officer kept yelling at me to stop, and seemed to be trying to simultaneously restrain me as well as the man, but I kept out of arm’s length and explained that I was a guest of Sheriff Dart and had been promised open access to the jail. A moment later, Dart appeared and upon his arrival the situation calmed considerably. He asked the man to explain what had happened to him, wrote a few things down, and then the police officer pushed the young man into an elevator.
[Continues below …]
“A few minutes later we came across the bald man who asked me to take his picture and whispered to me that the cops had punched him repeatedly in the face, resulting in the bruising in the portrait. I had no way of independently verifying the statement,” says van Agtmael.
[Continues below …]
A Corrections Officer leads a prisoner – who had tried to escape – to a holding cell. The man was cut and bruised and claimed he had been beaten by officers after he tried to escape.
“Honestly, it’s very hard for me to make an informed commentary based on a day spent in the jail system. I saw a lot of desperation, and heard stories of alleged abuse, but the context and time limitations would compromise any superficial interpretation. I’ll let the pictures represent my experiences,” van Agtmael concludes.
Inmate of Cook County Jail who is cut and bruised. He claimed he had been beaten by officers after he tried to escape.
This ambiguous series of photographs goes right to the heart of the efforts I make on Prison Photography to decipher prisons and jails, which for the most part are invisible worlds. Immediately, their meaning and interpretations are up for discussion; they are contested.
Maybe, Newsweek wanted a fuller picture of the Cook County Jail system? Maybe, the relevance of the planned story passed? For me, the fact the story was killed is a sad turn of events.
Getting involved in meta-analysis of journalism can be dangerous but in van Agtmael’s photographs are the kernels of a larger story. It’s not that the stories of these two inmates and these two correctional officers were not told, it is that no story at all was told.
But, let’s not be churlish; this blog post is not an exposé. Van Agtmael’s images are not an illumination of a definable event because the details cannot be verified. They are, however, a depressing suggestion of the fraught and intense-contact situations that play out in prisons and jails across the U.S. every day.
I am not amplifying the inmates’ allegations; to do so would be baseless. I also don’t want to appear to be generally criticising correctional officers. I will however criticise politicians and a voting public that allows mammoth-sized prisons and jails to operate. The experience of prisoners and staff would be less frantic in smaller institutions, and in institutions designed to treat (as well as categorise) and not necessarily detain as their main task.
By publishing these photos my aim is to – again – call readers to think not only about the images they see but those they don’t see. Ultimately, I take van Agtmael’s tack, which is, to let the photographs speak for themselves.
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Here’s some other selects from van Agtmael’s visit to Cook County Jail:
Anthony Smith, a prisoner in the Cook County Jail, Chicago, IL, complains to Sheriff Tom Dart about his treatment and sentence.
Sandwiches for prisoners in the Cook County jail system.
An employee of the Cook County jail system.
A deputy at the Cook County Jail.
PETER VAN AGTMAEL
Peter van Agtmael (b. 1981) graduated from Yale University in 2003 with a degree in History. Following graduation, he spent a year in China on the Charles P. Howland fellowship photographing the effects of the Three Gorges Dam. Since the beginning of 2006, he has documented the consequences of America’s Wars, at home and abroad. A monograph of the work, ‘2nd Tour Hope I Don’t Die’ was published in 2009. In 2008, he helped organize the exhibition and book Battlespace, a retrospective of unseen work from 22 photographers covering Iraq and Afghanistan. Peter is represented by Magnum Photos.
Peter van Agtmael has been awarded the ICP Infinity Award for Young Photographer (2011); PDN Photo Annual (2011); PDN 30 (2010); PDN Photo Annual (2010); American Photography Annual (2010); FOAM Talent (2009); Santa Fe Project Competition – Honorable Mention; Pulitzer Center Grant (2008); World Press Photo Joop Masterclass (2008).
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All images: Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.
The Oracle gathering? An International Mob of Mystery? Well, not exactly but given that Oracle is the main meeting of the world’s most influential people in the museum/fine art photography scene it is amazing the gathering flies under the radar year on year.
I’ve done some internet sleuthing to tell you some of what you need to know about the Bilderberg of the photography world.
Okay, it might not be so cloak and dagger as I have set it up, but The Annual International Conference for Photography Curators dubbed ‘Oracle’ has no web presence and no connection to the circles outside of the attendees. This (presumably intended) detachment is – simply put – a shame. Granted, these are people predominantly involved in museum curating, but still wouldn’t it be great to know what they are talking about when they meet each November?! Museums still feed into the photography ecosystem, and often define it.
Oracle began in 1982 as an informal gathering. In 2003, Deidre Stein Greben wrote, “Attendance at Oracle […] has grown from ten to more than 100 over the last 20 years.”
With such an organically unhurried growth, why should curators care to share their dialogues? Hell, the week might be the closest thing many of them get to a holiday. Add to that the fact that there’s no external promotion or grand narratives to push, it makes sense that no-one would take on the extra workload of interfacing with the public and all that entails.
I also think of photography curators as a similar breed to university professors; the culture of research, writing and custodianship of department agendas does not dovetail with blogging the discoveries and knowledge from their daily work. (David Campbell summarises well how the reluctance of universities to adopt social networking is to their detriment.) It’s a shame. How good would a Sandra Phillips blog be?!
The 2010 Oracle is ongoing right now in Israel (Jerusalem, I think).
This is where my sleuthing gets patchy but other host institutions/cities have included; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1992); George Eastman House, Rochester (1993); Washington (1999); Finnish Museum of Photogaphy, Helsinki (2000); Goa, India (2003); Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago (2004); Artimino, Florence (2005); Prague, Czech Republic (2006); Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZ (2007) and Paris, France (2009).
My guess is attendance is invitation only or some approximation thereof. Just because I gleaned a smattering of names, I’ll share them. Attendees have included Britt Salvesen, Director of photography and prints at LACMA; Doug Nickel, Professor of Photographic History at Brown University; Sunil Gupta, Artist, photographer, curator and educator; Allison Nordstrom, Curator of photography at George Eastman House; David E. Haberstich, Associate Curator of Photographs at the Smithsonian; Celina Lunsford, Director of the Fotografie Forum Frankfurt; Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, Director of the Sheldon Art Galleries in St. Louis; Dr Sara Frances Stevenson, Chief Curator of the Scottish National Photography Collection, National Galleries of Scotland (retired); Mary Panzer, freelance writer & curator of photography & American culture; Ms. Agne Narusyte, Curator, Vilnius Art Museum Photographic Collection, Vilnius, Lithuania; Shelly Rice, Professor of Arts at NYU Tisch School of Arts; Enrica Viganò, curator and fine art photography critic; Duan Yuting, founder of the Lianzhou International Photo Festival; Mark Haworth-Booth, Head of Photographs, Victoria & Albert Museum; Anne Wilkes Tucker, photography curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Sandra S. Phillips, Senior Curator of Photography at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Quite the list. And I can think of many other photography curators who presumably would attend (Rod Slemmons, Anthony Bannon, Brian Wallis, Charlotte Cotton, Malcolm Daniel?) Who knows?
It’s not a totally closed shop though. Despite the 2006 shuttering of the Oracle listserv, some plucky “Independents” have set up a NING type forum, Oracle Independents. It is sporadically updated with links to articles and events about historically significant photography. Currently there are 40 members, some names recognisable. But this doesn’t get us to the meat of those dialogues currently ongoing in Jerusalem.
Last thing to say, is that the museum world is separate from the worlds of gallery, photojournalist, fine art, auction house, social documentary, magazine, fashion and art-school photographies. Even if we did have a line in on the world’s leading curators’ discussions, the information may have no bearing on our aims, art or careers. Heck, we might not even be interested. But it’d be nice wouldn’t it?
Not wanting to be pessimistic, but unable to help myself, consider this quote from Marvin Heiferman, freelance author, editor and curator and “champion of the blue-collar nature of the silent majority of photographs.” Bear in mind he’s talking about very early Oracle, but nonetheless, the quote highlights potential disconnects between different orbits of the photography world.
“When I started looking at this new [Postmodern] work, I loved its nonchalance, intelligence and cheekiness, the fact that it was interested in both seeing and seeing through images. The photo world, though, wasn’t as amused, and didn’t have a clue what the small group of us was getting so jazzed up about. Toward the end of my stint at Castelli in the early 1980s—and then when I went off on my own to work with photographers and artists and produce exhibitions—I attended some of the early annual meetings of Oracle. This was a conference of photography curators from around the world who gathered together supposedly to talk about the future of the field, and was funded by Sam Yanes at the Polaroid Corporation. Polaroid supported a lot of progressive photographic projects in the 1970s and ’80s. It was, to say the least, disappointing to me that most of the attendees were more excited to fuss over 19th- and 20th-century work and issues of preservation and storage. But there were a handful of us—including Andy Grundberg, who was writing for the New York Times, and Jeff Hoone from Syracuse—who did our best to raise interest in the new work we were so excited by. No one seemed to care.” (Source)
Scott Fortino‘s book Institutional: Photographs of Jails, Schools, and other Chicago Buildings (2005) is important because it hit the shelves two years prior to Richard Ross’ Architecture of Authority (2007).*
People tend to think of Richard Ross’ Architecture of Authority as being the authoritative (pun unintended) photographic statement on use of identical spatial psychologies across the breadth of contemporary institutions. Perhaps Fortino can, and should, disrupt that position.
Patently, the publishing date of a book doesn’t close the argument, but I think it is apt to call these two photographers contemporaries in every sense of the word.
There are differences between Fortino and Ross’ work. Fortino’s work looks exclusively at Chicago institutions, whereas Ross – powered by a Guggenheim grant – took his survey international.
Fortino has an unusual bio, working as a photographer and police patrolman. Ross, on the other hand, is a professor in photography for the University of California, Santa Barbara. Interestingly, Ross, the son of a policeman is open about his father’s influence on his work.
I’d really like to see Fortino sat down giving a commentary on his work, just as Ross has here. Better still, I’d love to see Fortino and Ross at the same table!
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Scott Fortino is a photographer who also works as a patrolman with the Chicago Police Department. His photographs are in the permanent collections of the LaSalle Bank of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, and numerous private collections.
* The synopsis provided for Institutional: Photographs of Jails, Schools, and other Chicago Buildings by UC Press, for me, misses the mark completely. Fortino’s work isn’t about the “subtle warmth and depth” of these spaces but of the disciplinary form written in the materials, demarcation and use of these spaces.
Lloyd DeGrane‘s work is long-term and it is honest. DeGrane would like to see more transparency surrounding American correctional facilities, “I think people, taxpayers should see what they’re getting for their money”. I came across DeGrane in James R Hugunin’s 1996 curated exhibit Discipline and Photograph.
DeGrane carried out his Prison series between 1990 and 2001, when he photographed within the state maximum security Stateville Correctional Center, Illinois and Cook County Jail in Chicago. The three photos featured here each depict scenes at Stateville.
DeGrane took the time to discuss the role of photography in sites of incarceration, a photographer’s best approach, the names and labels given to him by inmates and images of the spaces between cells.
Did you await each photo opportunity? While working, were you alone or accompanied on the corridor or wing?
“I was usually escorted by a counselor – an unassuming, non-threatening person. Sometimes I’d go into a unit and walk around by myself, being careful not to get out of the view of a correctional officer. Stateville is a maximum security facility so some of the inmates were violent offenders. I talked to the inmates directly, sometimes going into their cells. For the most part the officials let me browse freely and talk to any inmates I wanted. Things, to a point, were pretty transparent. When I came into a unit someone would usually yell out my arrival”.
What is happening in the Isolation Unit photograph?
“This is the isolation unit – I called it ‘the jail within the prison’. Inmates who committed an offense in the prison were taken out of the general population and held there 23 hours a day with one hour for outside exercise. That [the display of legs and arms] was the first reaction to me being on the wing”.
“The inmates, for reasons unknown to me, thought I was a state official of some kind. But, after I got to talking with a few people independently I was able to photograph several inmates with no problems, with the exception of one inmate who would try to throw excrement at the guards”.
Explain the situation here, with the trash and food on the floor.
“That was taken in 1993. Inmates were ending a five day lock-down and totally disgusted by the lunch served (cold baloney sandwiches every day). So, they threw the servings out of their cells onto the floor. The floor of the wing is commonly known as ‘the flag’.”
“Guards eventually had to clean it up. I noticed when I came back the next week that the roach problem was severe. I had to tuck my pant legs into my socks so the roaches wouldn’t crawl up my legs”.
The interaction between the guard and inmate in the protective custody unit is fascinating – it melds contortion, humanity, routine and unlikely types for the prison environment.
“The inmate was in the protective custody unit. That’s a pregnant guard that’s looking at him. He didn’t have a mirror so the only way he could see what was happening outside his cell was to stick his head out of the food tray slot.”
Did the subjects of your images, specifically inmates, see the photographs after they were produced/exhibited?
“I always made a small photo for the inmates. Sometimes they got them and sometimes the warden or captain (for reasons I do not know) didn’t get around to giving them the photo. But, I was able to get a little deeper into the lives of the inmates that received photos.”
How do you work?
“The images are made slowly and carefully. No surprises. Observation and discussion with the inmates and then photos. That was my modus operandi. It’s like going into someone’s home, they know you’re there! So, it’s best to be respectfully curious. Some inmates wanted nothing to do with me (I think they had committed other crimes on the outside and didn’t want to be recognized). Other inmates didn’t mind at all. I talked with people all the time. I think taxpayers should see what they’re getting for their money. Transparency is key. But, many prison officials believe the opposite and in their facility, they rule!
Final thoughts on the prison system?
Prisons – and not correctional facilities (as the State of Illinois has named their institutions) – the concrete human warehouses behind razor wire are just that! Buildings that confine people. It’s an existential experience in a world that is both separate from America but a big part of the American economy. One sees homemade signs along Interstate 55 that read, ‘Don’t shut our prison down’, ‘Save the prison, Save our jobs’ outside Pontiac, Illinois, home to another maximum security facility that may close because of state budget cuts.
Don’t get me wrong though, some people belong in prison. I met many men who raped innocent women, killed children, beat other men to death for a few dollars and some who murdered their cellmates. I was glad that I didn’t meet them in a dark alley in Chicago. But, one thought that always went through my mind was, most of these people will get out some day. Will they change for the better or just be better criminals?
You kept an index of how the prisoners referred to you. It’s length, variety and contradictions reflect well the complexity of social experience within correctional facilities. Can you remind us of the index?
This is my index of how inmates referred to me. Picture Man, White man, The Man White Mother Fuckin’ Press Man, Black Gang Lover, Spic Gang Lover, White Prisoner Lover, Straight Dude Looking for Something – Policeman, The Photo Man, The European, The Springfield Connection, A Fair Man, An O.K. Photographer, An Artist, Homes, Homey, Fuckin’ Photographer, Homo, Fuckin’ Camera Man, The Camera Man, Inmate Lover, The Police, Friend and Cute Mother Fucker (The label given to me by Richard Speck).