Photographer Richard Ross and Capturing the Experience of Juvenile Confinement

Posted March 8, 2013, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Richard ross

Richard Ross is a pho­tog­ra­ph­er and pro­fes­sor of art based in San­ta Bar­bara, Cal­i­for­nia. He has received grants from the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts, Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, Ful­bright and the Cen­ter for Cul­tur­al Inno­va­tion. Ross was award­ed the Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship in 2007 to com­plete Archi­tec­ture of Author­i­ty, a col­lec­tion of images of the archi­tec­tur­al spaces that exert pow­er over indi­vid­u­als con­fined with­in them. This led to his most recent work Juve­nile In Jus­tice, which doc­u­ments the incar­cer­a­tion of Amer­i­can youth.

Juve­nile In Jus­tice includes more than 1,000 haunt­ing pho­tographs of young peo­ple incar­cer­at­ed in 300 juve­nile facil­i­ties in 31 states. Each pho­to­graph offers a sam­ple of the inter­view that Ross con­duct­ed with each youth he pho­tographed. For the full col­lec­tion of images, vis­it Juve­nile In Jus­tice. In his blog, Ross posts pho­tos, quotes from youth and infor­ma­tion on facil­i­ties and incar­cer­a­tion week­ly. Juve­nile In Jus­tice also trav­els the coun­try as an exhi­bi­tion, and has been pub­lished as a book.

Ross pro­vides an unusu­al and unique source for images of the Amer­i­can juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem. He offers a license to use the pho­tographs, free of charge, to all insti­tu­tions and non­prof­its con­cerned with youth jus­tice sys­tem reform. To inquire about the use of pho­tographs, con­tact [email protected]​juvenile-​in-​justice.​com or 805.893.7205.

Casey had the plea­sure to speak with Ross about his experiences.

What first inter­est­ed you in juve­nile offend­ers and where they are housed?

I was pho­tograph­ing at Ango­la prison and talk­ing with peo­ple in the world of jus­tice and cor­rec­tions and I began to real­ize that what had hap­pened to peo­ple in the juve­nile sys­tem, in terms of recidi­vism, was impor­tant. In 2006 I spoke with a juve­nile pros­e­cu­tor in El Paso, Texas, who allowed me to pho­to­graph. When I asked if he ever thought a sys­tem would be so suc­cess­ful at ref­or­ma­tion that there would be no need for his posi­tion in the future, his response was daunt­ing: I will be here as long as the state of Texas keeps mak­ing 10-year-olds.” Lat­er I found 10-year-olds were not the youngest in these sys­tems. At the out­set of this project I want­ed to give a voice to those with the least amount of author­i­ty in any U.S. con­fine­ment system.

Do you con­sid­er your­self an expert in the juve­nile jus­tice field?

After six years of work­ing on this, vis­it­ing over 250 insti­tu­tions in 31 states and inter­view­ing more than 1,000 kids, I have learned quite a bit. I think I am an expert in the field, not in terms of gen­er­at­ing sta­tis­tics but in terms of crit­i­cal visu­al research. Learn­ing to speak with these kids, learn­ing to neu­tral­ize the author­i­ty of my age, height and race by sit­ting on the floor and allow­ing the chil­dren to have con­trol over the con­ver­sa­tion — that is a form of exper­tise. I also feel that being inside so many of these places has offered me a per­spec­tive, evi­dent in the images, which few oth­er peo­ple have.

What was your first impres­sion as you began this journey?

My first impres­sion was, If these were my kids, I wouldn’t want them to be here.”

What pho­to­graph had the most effect on you?

When I am pho­tograph­ing, I am doc­u­ment­ing the con­di­tions that exist with an unbi­ased lens. I work with a small cam­era, notepad and respect for the insti­tu­tion, the juve­nile and the issues involved. I pho­to­graph and talk to chil­dren who are inter­est­ed in talk­ing to me and it’s real­ly the kids and not the pho­tographs that have the most effect on me. Talk­ing to a 5th grad­er who has just arrived and is con­fused, scared and in an emp­ty cell wait­ing to be released to his moth­er… but not until she gets off work at sev­en, that has an effect on you, as a par­ent, as a con­cerned cit­i­zen, as a person.

Was it dif­fi­cult, for pri­va­cy pur­pos­es, to avoid pho­tograph­ing the child’s face?

Cap­tur­ing the pres­ence of a human being– their demeanor, size, gen­der, race – with­out reveal­ing his or her iden­ti­fy was daunting.

What made you pick par­tic­u­lar images?

Whit­tling down the images that would appear in the book, and mak­ing a small­er selec­tion still for the exhi­bi­tion, was very dif­fi­cult. At that point, we felt like we knew these chil­dren, we had been read­ing their nar­ra­tives for years. At the same time, we knew which images resound­ed the most with view­ers based on image requests. We tried to make a selec­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the sys­tem at large, of the pop­u­la­tion of kids actu­al­ly in cus­tody and of the con­di­tions evident.

Do you think that your work will have some effect on pub­lic pol­i­cy for juve­nile offenders?

Well, the work was used as sup­port­ing evi­dence in front of a U.S. Sen­ate sub­com­mit­tee con­sid­er­ing fed­er­al leg­is­la­tion about hous­ing com­mit­ted juve­niles with pre-adju­di­cat­ed juve­niles. I think that’s one of my biggest accom­plish­ments and some­thing we would like to see more of. Fur­ther, every day we share the images with insti­tu­tions and non­prof­its that work for pub­lic pol­i­cy reform of the juve­nile system.

If you were able to speak direct­ly to those in charge of mak­ing pub­lic pol­i­cy changes for adju­di­cat­ed youth, what would you say?

If I were able to speak direct­ly to the pow­ers that be… I would advise them to go to some of these places. I once spoke with a judge who had sat on the bench for 30-odd years and had NEV­ER been to the insti­tu­tion they sent kids to every day. And many of these insti­tu­tions are based on angry archi­tec­ture” — built around a fear of super-vio­lent kids in the 90s, and many are doing very lit­tle to actu­al­ly reha­bil­i­tate the kids in their charge. Go, and see the enlight­ened areas, see the sit­u­a­tions in dire need of cor­rec­tion. Use my images to describe the prob­lem to your leg­isla­tive body to make a case for bet­ter prac­tices. So I would say go, and then I would say What if this was your kid? What if your kid screwed up? How would you want them to be treat­ed?” Because at some point, we need to look at it like these are all our kids, and they deserve better.

Why do you give your pho­tos away for free?

I real­ize that this is a sig­nif­i­cant turn away from sole­ly mak­ing beau­ti­ful images and deal­ing with pho­tographs as a com­mod­i­ty. I ran into a quote by Book­er T. Wash­ing­ton that made a dif­fer­ence: The study of art that does not result in the mak­ing of the strong less will­ing to oppress the weak means lit­tle.” Not that all work has to have social sig­nif­i­cance, but I came to real­ize that there was a beau­ty in doing work of this nature. It may seem a cliché but in the end I felt I received more than I gave. Sit­ting on the floor of a cell lis­ten­ing to a kid try to explain why his moth­er hasn’t vis­it­ed him in the four years he has been in prison is an odd gift to be given.

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