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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.”
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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.
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“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.
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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.
Again and again similar images are repeated, with only the actors and settings changing. Grieving mothers, charred human remains, sun sets, women giving birth, children playing with toy guns, cock fights, bull fights, Havana street scenes, reflections in puddles, reflections in windows, football posts in unlikely locations, swaddled babies, portraits taken through mosquito nets, needles in junkies’ arms, derelict toilets, Palestinian boys throwing stones, contorted Chinese gymnasts, Karl Lagerfeld, models preparing for fashion shows backstage, painted faces, bodies covered in mud, monks smoking cigarettes, pigeons silhouetted against the sky, Indian Sardus, children leaping into rivers, pigs being slaughtered.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
‘Unconcerned but not Indifferent’ Foto8 (March 2008)
If two ends of the spectrum were identified this week during the debate about race and how it is (mis)treated by photographic practice we could see them as the moronic fashion world practitioners and then everybody else – “everybody else” being social documentarians, new-media image-makers, old-school bang-bang-club photographers and fine art practitioners. This second larger group is where most thoughtful folk place their energies.
Bizarrely there are a couple of guys who run the length of this spectrum. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin used to be the creative directors of Benetton’s controversial Colors Magazine AND they travel through Africa and Central America taking photographs of people in institutions.
Broomberg and Chanarin have also pissed a lot of people off. They are that good.
We all remember Steven Mayes’s departure speech from the World Press Photo, but Broomberg and Chanarin beat him to his oft-repeated remarks that photographers repeat motifs and collectively thicken the pen around photojournalism’s self-drawn caricature.
A full year prior to Mayes’ rallying call for new imagery (genuine, everyday Black culture; affluent drug use and users; and real sex), Broomberg and Chanarin were throwing punches low and hard at photojournalism’s conceit. They quoted Brecht; ‘The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about conditions in this world. On the contrary photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth.’
In turn, Broomberg and Chanarin relied on Sontag and Barthes;
‘Since its inception photojournalism has traded in images of human suffering. If one of its motivations for representing tragedy has been to change the world then it has been unsuccessful. Instead the profession has turned us into voyeurs, passively consuming these images, sharing in the moment without feeling implicated or responsible for what we are seeing. Roland Barthes summed up the analgesic effect of looking at images of horror when he wrote “someone has shuddered for us; reflected for us, judged for us; the photographer has left us nothing – except a simple right of intellectual acquiescence”.’
They provide a pat description of the “obscene feeling” jury process in which there is no text, caption or context. Judgement is dependent only on the aesthetics of the image: “We are asked to judge whether, for example, a photograph of a child suffocating to death in a mudslide is sufficiently beautiful to win a prize.” After this Broomberg and Chanarin explain the means by which the panel narrowed down the 81,000 images to five winners, suggesting with some contempt that Hetherington’s Exhausted Soldier was a predictable result.
Before I go any further, I should say that Tim Hetherington voiced a stirring rebuttal to Broomberg and Chanarin’s derision.
So what? They’re a grumpy duo with a pocket full of common critical theory? Yes … and no. They go further. To my observations they apply what they preach. I have coined the term Slow Photography for this piece because they lug about a 4×5 camera and as well as standing over the top of their medium format to hold a conversation, they’ll usually stick around for a week or three.
They’ve described the relationships they build with their subjects as very important. Lucky for them they have the leisure to hang around you are saying?! Fair point, but they use their time well.
With Ghetto, they went to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in South Africa and made portraits of male, female and transgendered inmates. They went to Ren Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital, Cuba also. In total they went to twelve rare communities, methodically photographing and asking the same questions: “Who is in power here? Where do you go to be alone, to make love, to be with friends? What are your hopes and dreams?”
I love that question, “Who’s in power here?”
Broomberg and Chanarin simultaneously reference old slower photo-processes and question the sped-up practices of 21st century photojournalism. Charlotte Cotton, Curator of Photographs at the V&A, has observed, “The sense of activity being slowed for the camera references nineteenth century photography both in terms of process and style. It also serves to detach their photographs from the conventions of photojournalism.”
And if we needed any more proof that these two geezers are on top of their game, lets look how they dealt with the two major conflicts of the beginning of the 21st century.
The Red House documented the prison and torture center run by Saddam Hussein’s Baath party in Sulaymaniyah, Iraki Kurdistan, 330 kilometres from Baghdad.
And, then when they were “privileged” enough to merit an embedded assignment with the British military in Afghanistan they thumbed their noses at any notion of photojournalism. Instead they took 70 metres of photo sensitive paper and unrolled sections to expose it to light and that became the record of each day and their time in conflict.
Each roll was given its title based on the occurrence of an event, death or absence of death during that day. Below is the work from the day of a prison escape.