Richard Ross is a busy guy. Catch him, if you can, dashing to, through or from, an airport. He’s always on the go.
But then again, if you plan on visiting 300 youth detention facilities across the nation, taking photos of more than 1,000 young people and administrators, then you don’t really have time to stand around and chat, for long anyhow.
One’s photography does not appear in more publications than you can shake a Canon 5D at -- from Harpers to Architectural Digest -- by being lazy. You don’t sit on your butt on the way to having your photos shown at galleries from The Tate Modern in London, to the High Museum in Atlanta. You don’t loaf around and end up publishing books, such as the Architecture of Authority and Waiting for the End of the World and get them introduced by the likes of John MacArthur and Sarah Vowell, by slacking.
And in between, if you are Ross, well you don’t really have down time, because there’s that class you have to teach at U.C. Santa Barbara.
It’s a good thing he approaches his work with the energy of a teenager, but it’s a better thing that he does it with the practiced eye and maturity of his 64 years. With that combination, comes not only care for his art and what’s in it, but the subjects and subject beyond the images. See it across his body of work.
His latest, and the object of his profound care for the past five years, is a project he calls Juvenile-In-Justice. This is what has taken him to those many detention centers scattered across 30 states. After 40 years of working in photography, he’s turning his attention, and his lens, he says, to the juvenile justice system.
The point of this exercise? He does not even attempt to blur his motivation. It is, quite simply, to “instigate policy reform.”
With his stunning photos it is hard to see how he will fail:
Ross’ work begins appearing this week on this page as well as our new arts page, Bokeh. Twice a week, you’ll see new images of his work on the JJIE site, where a link will take you to a larger body of his work on the Bokeh site. The images, all of youth inside detention centers, will include cutlines telling you enough about the teen for you to get a feel of their, and Ross’, humanity.
Busy in his Santa Barbara studio, Richard Ross took a few minutes last week to field a few JJIE questions, putting some juvenile justice questions sharply in focus.
JJIE: Can you explain what motivated you to spend five years working on a project that took you to juvenile detention centers across the country?
RR: I wanted to give a voice to the people that I thought had the least voice in our society. I had done a project Architecture of Authority--it was met with some success-- and doing the sequel "son of..." seemed a natural. The more I looked at the system, the more compelling and unrecognized it became. I never thought I would get this involved.
JJIE: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while working on the project? Biggest triumphs?
RR: It is always a challenge getting into any of these facilities. It takes endless approaches, pleas, emails and phone calls. It seems never ending.
JJIE: Was there a particular correctional facility or a particular inmate or a particular incident in all those years that sticks out in your memory?
RR: Missouri has so many great examples of humane institutions that seem to allow kids to be kids and not totally treat them like dirt. So it’s nice to have an example that sticks out positively. There are many that are non-descript. The endless repetition of the isolation rooms and lock down rooms is unnerving not by any particular example, but by the fact that the same "angry" architecture is repeated in so many facilities. The absolutely worst places in terms of facility and architecture would not let me in. I am surprised at how many places did allow me access.
JJIE: Your work in this project was supported by both the Guggenheim and the Annie E. Casey foundations. Is it possible for work like yours to be done these days without foundational funding? What advice would you give other photographers who are thinking about tackling a project of similar size or of overlooked subject matters?
RR: I received support from the Guggenheim for "career" work with an emphasis on Architecture of Authority. So in 2006 as that project was ending, I was allowed the latitude of working on the next logical step, an extension of the A of A project. The University of California was generous enough to support the research with a year off with pay, to assist the Guggenheim. This helped tremendously. Annie E. Casey has been great to allow me their good name for gaining access as well as two grants for flights, transportation/hotel etc—but no stipend, so I wasn't getting rich off this. Most of the project has been done on my own dime and with a compulsive need to do it. I know how to make beautiful pictures; I felt a need to make work that-- rather than being in the arena of pretentious art speak morons—operated in the realm of public policy makers. A realm where you can really impact people’s lives. I looked for a publisher and was told by several major presses, "books on social injustices don't make money." I feel this is a terribly realistic truth. Younger photographers have to find non-traditional ways to disseminate and make people aware and it is certainly not easy.
I recall the quote by Booker T Washington, "The study of art that does not result in making the strong less willing to oppress the weak means little." I think these are important words to use as a moral compass.
JJIE: Tell us about your project Juvenile-In-Justice. What do you hope people take home after seeing the body of work?
RR: I want people to look at these juveniles as people. Consider that most of them are here due to a collapsed economic, social, educational and family system. You have to look at society as a whole and use that to contextualize what these kids did to get into these institutions.
JJIE: Anything else you'd like to add? What else should the world know about Richard Ross and his photography?
RR: For the past 10 years or so people have asked if I work with film or digital... without realizing that the medium is a conscience.