Photo Portfolio of The Day: The “Mentally Ill” in Illinois (1971)

Jack Dykinga’s Pulitzer Prize Portfolio

Experiences of Tragedy

When artists explore the darkest or most unsettling aspects of life, they are in a position to give voice to our universal hopes for recovery from the large and small tragedies that confront each of us.  However, artists can exploit our hopes for redemption as an excuse to create works that indulge in the enjoyment of escapist pleasures, or to justify such works.  In this way, feelings of or about real tragedy and suffering become simply incidental to that which is created from them.

Such works are not intended by their creators to spiritually edify, but merely to document self-referential emotionalism: “I feel, therefore I’m real.” There is little genuine interest in a perspective that includes the experiences of another, perhaps expressed as: “Because He is, I am.”  Jack Dykinga’s photographic portfolio, based upon the particular manner in which he experienced being faced with the overwhelming images of utterly discarded human beings, the mentally-ill who were warehoused in the back wards of state mental hospitals, represented a step toward an understanding of co-constructed meaning, a sense of which is embedded in “Because He is, I am.”

For that reason, from the publication of Dykinga’s photographs emerged an unintended small crusade for dignity and supportive attentiveness.

Jack Dykinga’s 1971 Pulitzer Prize Portfolio in Feature Photography

Jack Dykinga was the first Chicago Sun-Times photographer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize.  He was honored for a series of photographs that was taken in April and July 1970 at state schools for the mentally retarded in the Illinois downstate towns of Dixon and Lincoln.

Dykinga spent three days at the schools.  “It was a real shock to my senses, like nothing I had ever seen before,” he later said.  “For the first hour and a half, I didn’t take any pictures at all.  I just watched and was overcome by horror.”

Dykinga said that he was rushed.  “We went from cottage to cottage, and I think some of the patients there reacted the way small children react.  They were curious, you know, and they would reach out and touch the camera.”

After the photographs were published, there was a large public outcry of outrage and dismay.  In response, Illinois state government officials canceled plans that they had previously put into place to reduce funding supporting the State Department of Mental Health.

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