Freelance photographer Walter Mitchell keeps an ear to his scanner for fire and police calls. Between the static, he occasionally tunes in to talk-radio shows full of rhetoric about social ills. When a conservative guest inevitably demands to know where all the black role models are, “it’s almost like a taunt,” he says. “Then it gets real quiet.”

But Mitchell has found quite a few such models with his lens. After shooting a burning apartment building at 45th and Calumet one night in 1996, Mitchell received an invitation from firefighter Kirk Flowers to come back to his company’s firehouse at 4005 S. Dearborn. Nestled amid the high-rises of the Robert Taylor Homes, Engine Company 16 stands out among the city’s 101 firehouses for its almost all-black crew. Once known as a “punishment house” where white firemen were banished, the company now attracts many African-American transfers because of its esprit de corps.

“I went over the next day, but never shot anything for three weeks,” says Mitchell. “At first they were very, very leery of me. One guy said, ‘You’re supposedly the picture man–why don’t you have a camera?'”

As he got to know the men, Mitchell discovered that their bond was based on more than just notions of brotherhood. When its members aren’t putting out fires–the station responded to 2,889 calls in 1996–Company 16 functions as a kind of collective surrogate father for high-risk youths from the Taylor homes. Kids stop by the station during the summer to fill their bike tires; some of those bicycles are gifts from firemen who have restored and given them away in exchange for good report cards. The station is also an oasis. “If you’re getting chased or beat up, and you can get into the firehouse, you’re safe,” says Mitchell.

Mitchell, who’s 41, began the project as a student in the graduate photography program at Columbia College, where he enrolled in 1995 after a ten-year stint as the Chicago Defender’s one-man photo department. Soon after his arrival, his teacher, Sun-Times photographer John White, surveyed his portfolio full of firefighters silhouetted by flames and declared, “This stuff is too sensational. Who are these people?” To steer Mitchell away from his newsy, single-shot style, another Columbia professor introduced him to the deeply engaged, long-term projects of documentary photographer Eugene Richards. Inspired by Richards’s approach, Mitchell began his intimate study of Company 16.

Mitchell detects a spiritual dimension to the company, which sent a contingent to the Million Man March. “You can go over there at night and one fireman will have a Koran opened up, another with a Bible, and one of the paramedics is a Jehovah’s Witness, though they’re not the preachy kind.” Mitchell, who theorizes that “not that many firemen can be atheists,” suggests that some may even be angels. “Engine Company 16 would make any fireman–black or white–proud to be a fireman.”

“Engine #16: Safe Haven” is on view at P.E.A.C.E. Gallery, 1823 S. Halsted, through April 30. There’s a reception tonight from 6 to 9 with Mitchell and members of Engine Company 16. The gallery is open Saturdays from 2 to 4 and by appointment. Call 773-343-3185. –Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Walter Mitchell photo by Nathan Mandell; various photos by Walter Mitchell.