Photographing Trips to Visit Family Members in Prison

Jacobia Dahm captures the intimate moments of families inside and outside America's incarceration system.

VICE is exploring America's prison system in the week leading up to our special report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, September 27, at 9 PM EST, to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.

German photographer Jacobia Dahm spent four months capturing the quiet moments of families on buses to prisons to see their loved ones. The International Center for Photography graduate in documentary photography investigated this migration for her final student project. She photographed the rides, stops, and visitor centers to construct In Transit: The Prison Buses, a collection of portraits.

Dahm tells The Creators Project, “I have always had an interest in social justice issues, and the American criminal justice system and its relentless desire to demonize and lock away offenders in particular raised questions for me.” She oftentimes traveled overnight to capture the intimate moments between mothers and children traveling to see their incarcerated family members.

“I was told that the buses stop off right in the heart of New York City, and that many kids were traveling on the buses to far-flung prisons. I wasn't going to be able to show the effects of a harsh justice system for prisoners, but with the buses I could get closer to the experience and I could show what the effects were for the families," Dahm says. "And once I had that image in my head, of a child that rides the bus all night to the farthest points of New York State, just to see to keep a connection with a parent, I wanted to find out more. I wanted to find that image of a child on the bus.”

An estimated 2.7 million American children have a parent in prison. Jacobia Dahm/Redux

Her portraits capture the moments of anticipation, both the external landscapes of upstate New York from the road but also the thoughtful, sometimes mournful look of a grandmother, a mother, or a child scanning the parameters in the distance. Perhaps the most powerful moment is when Dahm does find her image of the child on the bus. In a portrait of the toddler Jeremiah, asleep on the bus, we get the sense of time passing with a sense of urgency. Jeremiah is on his way to see his mother at Albion Correctional Facility, the largest women's prison in the state of New York. He lives in the Bronx with his grandmother, and this trip is a 10-hour trip. 

It is in this portrait that our gendered stereotypes about prison families get deflated. Since this photograph was taken, Jeremiah's mother has since returned home. Dahm’s photos are an entrypoint into starting an empathetic dialogue around the conditions of incarceration. She says, “I was trying to tell a story of inside and outside at the same time, and of the toll the heavy US sentencing system takes on families.”

The Creators Project asked Dahm a handful of questions about the role of the photographer in capturing social issues and how she captured the families hushed moments for a larger audience.

The Creators Project: How did you build the trust of the families involved?

 Jacobia Dahm: One thing that helped me connect to the women on the bus, many of them mothers, was that I am also a parent and was able to empathize with the difficulty of taking children in such a long journey. I was appalled the children and their parent had to go through this, appalled that the system did not take care of keeping parents close to their children. It was maybe rare for many of these women to find any kind of understanding on the outside, and it might have helped for them to open up to me.”

What did you learn about the complexity of family units visiting prison?

I learned that those visits take a whole lot of energy — financially, emotionally, and logistically — from the families. You need to reserve seats early and maybe organize childcare, if once in while you feel like seeing your partner alone or if you have more kids than the facility allows in a single visit. You need to make sure you'll be able to pay for these trips, which is a big stressor on low-income families which most of the bus riders are. A bus ride with two kids is $135 return, but that does not include food and transportation to the bus. You will have to keep your kids entertained for a long ride, and you have to make sure they get homework done. And then you might worry about not being treated well by the guards at the prisons, which is bad enough by yourself, but many times worse if you have your children witnessing this, and you're in no position to demand respect because it could cost you your visit. And despite all this you're trying to have a lovely time, family time, in fact.

What did you learn about the complexity of family units visiting prison?

Your crime has no bearing on the fact that you are still one of the most important people if not the most important person in a child's life. In ways, it is costly not to support these family bonds, for the generation in prison and for their offspring. Children should have easy access to their parents, and vice versa, and it is something that other prison systems around the world manage to take into account and work with.”

Did this experience change you at all as a photographer?

In a way I only became a photographer with this project, when I learned over time how to articulate my project and how to ask people for what I needed from them and how to move in such a small and closed space in a way that would neither inhibit my work nor make anyone around me feel uncomfortable. And discomfort is an important factor for me because I tend to worry about 'taking' things with my camera from people, but I also worry about worrying too much. After a few bus rides I knew what images I was after, so I was actively anticipating moments and moods to occur, which is a telltale sign that you're becoming the architect of your story.

What can we learn about the prison industrial system from your works?

The biggest piece I would want people to take away is the toll that incarceration has on families. I want these images to help people to think about what the secondary effects of incarceration are, whom they affect, and how they could be altered and softened. And next maybe even approach some of the bigger questions: Who gets incarcerated, why in such high numbers, and what are the links between poverty, race, and incarceration here in the US. There are currently over 2 million people incarcerated in the US, and 10 million children in the US have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives, a staggering number.”

To see more of photography by Jacobia Dahm click here. You can follow her on Instagram here


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