According to Richard Ross: darkness breeds disease. As we wrap up our discussion on his upcoming exhibition at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Juvenile In Justice, he says “The more light and transparency you put on things the more you may expose what’s wrong. The more you are forced to change.” In the hour that we spoke we discussed everything from the flaws of the legal system, the root-cause of crime, to the many lives Ross has touched; all of whom are incarcerated youths and young women in our country.
Richard Ross, an American photographer based in California, has spent most of his career documenting and studying the relationship between space and social relationships. But for the past eight years, has dedicated much of his career and life to his most recent body of work: Juvenile in Justice, a documentation of the U.S. juvenile justice system. Having taken over a thousand photos, and visiting over three hundred juvenile detention centers, and interviewing hundreds of kids, Ross never ceases to remember any of those he talks to. He has even kept in touch with many of the kids he’s spoken to, including Terrance Jamar Graham, of Graham vs. Florida who, thanks to the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling life sentence without parole as unconstitutional, had a sentence of life reduced to twenty-five years; and Joseph Ligon, an inmate at Graterford, who at the age of seventy-nine is the oldest juvenile still incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. He was fifteen when arrested in 1953 and has lived behind bars since.
Our conversation is a cross-country phone call between Philadelphia and Santa Barbara. He begins to tell me about how Juvenile In Justice began when he went to the El Paso Juvenile Detention Center, originally to photograph the architecture of the prison, when he noticed children, as young as ten-years-old, as inmates. With permission from a juvenile prosecutor, “I started talking to some of the kids. And once I started, I realized I was the conduit for their voices and began to realize I had a different responsibility,” he tells me while walking his dog on The University of California campus, where he teaches.
As for most photojournalists, the role of the photographer is to remain objective. But for Ross, he steps outside of journalism, and becomes therapeutic towards his subjects. The only objective party is his lens. “I always knock on the door of the cell. I ask for permission to come in. I take off my shoes. And then I sit on the floor and have them sit above me. By that, it gives them power over me which is very obvious. It’s oblivious to them but for me, i go from the older-white-guy barking orders to them to the subordinate to them. It is a way they can open up in a manner that I wouldn’t be successful of by using any other strategy.”
Any ice-breakers? I ask him. He brings them chocolate chip cookies—resembling homemade and fresh. He tells me most of the kid’s visitors are primarily the women in their lives: mothers, grandmothers, aunts. Rarely, almost never, a man. “Every one of these kids—they’ve never had a cookie that didn’t come out of a box or a plastic wrapper—ever.”
As the discussion of mothers and maternal figures progress, we begin our conversation on the role of women, the objectification of women, and how, ultimately, none of the two work in favor of the incarceration of young women in America. With media portrayals in the entertainment industry—shows like Orange is the New Black being the biggest example of incarcerated girls—it certainly has pointed arrows towards reform. Yet the pace for reform remains stagnant as the highly-acclaimed media portrayals continue to be artificially lacquered with narratives touting bad-girls-gone-good and adolescent crimes-of-passion; keeping viewers believing: prison is a-okay (just keep singing, Regina Spektor). Issues of sexual abuse are rarely mentioned. Ross tells me, ”All the girls that I’ve met have been molested or raped. That’s not hyperbole—that’s fact. All have been abused. Some of them emotionally, physically abused as well…When they tell you their stories a lot of them are very self abusive: they’re suicidal, they’re cutters… you’re sitting there with a twelve or thirteen-year-old and she’s telling you all the ways she wants to kill herself or get out of there—both the cell and life. As a man, I can’t touch her. As an incarcerated person, I can’t touch her. As a juvenile, I can’t touch her…but the only thing you want to do is hold her and hug her and tell her it’s going to be okay—when it isn’t.”
The topic of rape couldn’t hold me back from asking what Ross’s thoughts were on Brock Turner’s case. When discussing the root-cause of crime and the evident divide in sentencing two different races committing identical offenses, Ross explains that it’s more than just an issue of race. It’s something we as humans need to dig deeper to figure out. “You have to go back to entire societal problems of why are black kids sentenced longer and why there is such poverty and deprivation in neighborhoods of color…Each issue ravels into another one and there is no simplistic answer, no matter how horrific the crime is.” At the end of the day, he tells me, we are kids no matter how old we are. Almost jokingly, he tells me, “Kids are adolescents no matter what age they are, until they’re about twenty-five or older. I don’t know how old you are but my philosophy is you’re still an adolescent as long as your second parent is alive and that can lead into your fifties!”
Is there any hope for reform? I ask. He tells me, “It’s important to make sure the changes in the legal system are implemented administratively and the gains that are made aren’t lost due to lack of attention on behalf of the media and the public.”
It certainly comes as no surprise that when he began this journey, Richard Ross has been forever changed. He tells me he enjoys waking up, and enjoys a drink at the end of the day, but telling their stories does not get easier with time. Equally distressed after each interview as he was the last, and retelling incarcerated teens’ stories through the conduit of a lens, leaves him wanting to shout from a rooftop just how screwed up it all is. But none of the above, the magnitude of responsibility, or the glacial speed of change in the legal system, stops him. To tie things up in our discussion, I ask him, is it the responsibility of the artist to bring light to all that is wrong in our system? Richard corrects me immediately. He tells me, “Its the responsibility of us all.”