On any given day up to a third of those incarcerated at Cook County Jail suffer from some form of mental illness, making the jail the largest mental health hospital in Illinois – and one of the of mental illness, making the jail the largest mental health hospital in Illinois – and one of the largest in the country. The majority of these inmates are in jail for nonviolent offenses closely associated with their mental health.
Cook County Jail is, unfortunately, the rule not the exception when it comes to the number of incarcerated individuals with mental illnesses. In 44 states, jails or prisons house and care for more individuals with mental illness than hospitals. Decades of cuts to mental health budgets have led to limited services, leaving many to commit crimes of survival.
– Criminalization of Mental Illness (Cookcountysherriff.org)
When encountering Jonathan Vega’s work, viewers are faced with a series of oppositions: where does public space end and private begin? How does history emerge from both individual narratives and institutions? And how can a 100-year-old-method of imaging be used to capture a person of the present day? All these questions come to the fore in A Historical Process: Unchanged Representation, which combines large scale images of the Cook County Jail and Loretto hospital with a series of intimate tintype portraits.
Viewers meet Vega’s brother through these portraits—a compilation of mugshots that Vega crafts into a powerful microhistory. When presented with a sequence of systematized and yet deeply personal images, viewers gain a sense of how overarching systems of repression play out at the individual level. One need only glance at the adjacent wall to see the jail and hospital waiting.
The history of photography is tainted by its use as a tool for exploitation and criminalization. Vega is keenly aware of photography’s ability to villainize, but he chooses instead to use it as a means of reclaiming proximity—between family members, methods of production, and spaces that blur the line between public and private, even as they seek to confine and define their contents.
Vega’s work highlights notions of surveillance, the relationship between mental health and incarceration, and the role of the judicial system in identifying and treating mental illness. But it never strays from the personal narrative that addresses the toll of separation on family members. Vega draws attention to the role of photography as an instrument wielded by hegemonic structures to suppress and separate. At the same time, he uses it to honor loved ones, reclaim space, and reunite families.