Photographer Richard Ross and Capturing the Experience of Juvenile Confinement

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

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] 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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