For just one day in 2011 Peter van Agtmael was granted extraordinary access to Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois as part of a profile on Sheriff Tom Dart, who had become somewhat of a populist hero after halting home evictions during the 2008 financial crash. When a landlord defaults on a loan, the bank becomes the new landlord and typically moves to sell the property as soon as it can, resulting in the eviction of any tenant living at the property, quickly and with little warning. Dart stopped this, refusing to action Judges’ writs instructing evictions.
A champion of the marginalised, Sheriff Tom Dart – 2009’s TIME Person of the Year – is depicted going about his ordinary family life by van Agtmael in his 2011 photo-study. We see him dropping his kids off at school and keeping up with some admin in his humble-looking office; van Agtmael also witnesses evictions in action and photographs some of the abandoned and empty homes that are left behind. It was on van Agtmael’s trip to the local prison that the inequality of the situation, which disproportionality affected the poorer African-American communities, became visible. “Nearly everyone I saw imprisoned was African American. I read a report from the Sheriff’s office that stated that two thirds of the prisoners are African-American. That is proportionally far more than the one third African American population of Chicago.”
As van Agtmael says himself, one day is just a snapshot – “It’s very hard for me to make an informed commentary based on a day spent in the jail system”– but what he did experience of the over 11,000-capacity prison put faces to those in the system. “After several informal chats in a cafeteria, we headed through a hallway. A young man pressed his face against the bars of his cell and pleaded with Dart to talk to him. The sheriff went up to the bars and listened thoughtfully as he claimed his innocence. The prisoner seemed near the breaking point of sadness and desperation.”
"...more and more I question how my role as a white male photographer influenced by certain types of photography and with a different class history distorts my gaze"
As a photographer who has dedicated his career to documenting issues of race, class and other societal structures, van Agtmael is acutely aware of the slant his own privilege gives his work: “The incarceration system in the U.S. is a shadowy world that is very difficult to penetrate but has immense political and historical resonance. I’ve jumped at every opportunity I’ve had to document the system given how rarely access is granted. I believe in telling the stories of the marginalized, though more and more I question how my role as a white male photographer influenced by certain types of photography and with a different class history distorts my gaze.”