Finding a Story: Jacobia Dahm

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday November 20, 2014

How do you photograph something that has no physical form? This is the question that began to preoccupy Jacobia Dahm during her year of study at the International Center of Photography.

As a portrait photographer whose clients were mainly families and children, Jacobia wanted to expand her horizons. After being accepted into the MFA program at ICP, however, she had doubts about pursuing photography as an art form. On a visit to her home in Germany, she enrolled in a one week documentary photography workshop. ”I shot in a veterinarian clinic for goats and pigs and I loved the work,” she said. “It suddenly was clear to me I wanted to be a documentary photographer. I applied to the photojournalism and documentary photography program at ICP and got in.”

I asked her how she arrived at the idea of photographing people, mostly women, who travel hundreds of miles to visit their incarcerated relatives, many of whom are non-violent offenders serving life sentences with no chance of parole.

“I have always had an interest in social justice stories, but I think the teachers I encountered in my first term at ICP were reinforcing ideas I had about the world and how to engage with it,” she said. “It's a kind of thinking about photography that merges philosophy with sociology and psychology. I had heard a few times in class that you should photograph what you think cannot be photographed. That is exactly what you should be after—you throw yourself into the middle of all that—without questioning how you will actually make photographs that tell a story.”

She found out about a private bus service that picks up prison visitors between 10pm and midnight for the all night journey to penitentiaries located in upstate New York and Pennsylvania. The first time she went, she said, they waited more than two hours, at a bank lobby near Columbus Circle. “It was freezing outside and I was very close to giving up. But I thought of my fellow photographers at ICP who I knew were thinking of me getting on that bus.

“We drove all night, barely talked, and it felt otherworldly; I was the only white person on the bus, with a big camera around my neck, thinking: we are now driving almost to the Canadian border.” This was the first of six trips she made between March and May this year.


“The next morning we stopped in front of Attica State Prison before the sun came up,” she continued. “We waited on the bus for an hour. As the sun rose slowly, I kept scratching the ice off the window to see the building, which is barely visible. There was no sound in the bus, only my camera clicking.”


“The first couple of times I made the trip, I did not take many pictures on the bus. I photographed around the town instead.” Jacobia walked the mile and a half to the village and went to the coffee shop, which was mainly populated by retirees—friends who would meet in the only local hangout. On telling them about her photography project, she immediately made new friends, who drove her around, then back to the prison in time to catch the bus home.

Gradually she began to connect with the people on the bus. “I took some pictures and brought them prints on the next trip,” she said. “One thing that helped me connect to the mostly women travelers on the bus, as many of them were mothers, was that I too was a parent and could not imagine having to bring my children on such a long and difficult journey. I think it was rare for many of these women to find any kind of compassion, and it might have helped for them to open up to me.”


I asked Jacobia what she hoped to accomplish with this work. “More than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent and around 10 million American children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives, she said. “Those are staggering numbers! And no one seems to care about the rights of the children of the incarcerated. There are many prisoners who are dangerous and a high risk to society, but for the most part US prisons are full of people who are not."


“After my project was published in the New York Times Lens.Blog," she added, "I received a lot of emails from people telling me how moved they were, and how they felt for the travelers on the bus. I also heard from people who had an incarcerated family member who were surprised that someone was compassionate about their situation; they simply weren't used to this. But change might be coming; for the first time the entire political spectrum in the US agrees that the prison system needs to change and so now might be the right time to ask what the point of incarceration should be.”

All photographs © Jacobia Dahm, a documentary storyteller and portrait photographer based in New York and Berlin.

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