Richard Ross Brings Photographs, Message to NYC’s Vera Institute of Justice

Richard Ross speaking at the Vera Institute of Justice.
Richard Ross speaking at the Vera Institute of Justice.

NEW YORK - Photographer Richard Ross can’t pin down the moment he found his calling.

It could have been on the concrete floor of the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Miss., where he sat photographing a 12-year-old inmate in a yellow prison jumpsuit as he gazed at graffiti of spaceships and aliens scribbled on the wall of his tiny, decrepit cell.

Maybe it was the young inmates trying to sleep on the floor of the intake room of a Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles. Or the facility for young female offenders in California where the administrator told him all 88 residents were victims of sexual abuse.

It could have been his visit with Ronald Franklin, who ran away from home at 13 after his mother tried to kill him, got involved in an armed carjacking and ended up in a Miami juvenile detention center where he waited four years without a trial.

Somewhere in Ross’ travels chronicling the conditions of boys and girls in prison it happened.

new york logo 01“I can’t remember an ‘ah-ha’ moment, but at some point you find something that means more to you than a lot of other things you’ve done in the past and you know you can’t go back,” Ross said in an interview this week as he visited New York to mark the opening of an exhibit of his photographs at the Ronald Feldman Galleryin SoHo and to give a talk on his work at the Vera Institute of Justice in lower Manhattan.

Over five years, Ross, a longtime art professor at UC Santa Barbara, photographed and interviewed more than 1,000 juveniles incarcerated across the country as part of his “Juvenile In Justice” project. Each story has it own grim details, and for Ross it adds up to a stinging indictment of this country’s juvenile justice system.

Each night some 70,000 juveniles, a disproportionate number of them minorities, are incarcerated in America, where the rate of juvenile incarceration far outstrips that of other developed nations. To Ross and other advocates, the far majority of these kids, often the victims of abuse and violence, were in the wrong place at the wrong time and have no business in facilities that resemble the jails for hardened criminals.

Ross, 65, hopes his photos, which he calls a “visual data bank,” will get policymakers to reform the juvenile justice system away from punishment, isolation and detention and toward the type of rehabilitation and education he thinks could help these youths get their lives on track.

Ross called the work physically and emotionally “punishing,” but said he has no plans to stop.

“It’s a threshold you’ve passed and you’re not going to retreat from it,” he said. “I can’t just close the book and say I’m done, there’s too many lives at stake.”

An acclaimed artist who made his reputation shooting for major publications and the Getty Museum, Ross said he understands the power of images to shape public opinion and drive policy. He said the iconic 1972 photo of a 9-year-old Vietnamese girls running down the street naked and screaming after a napalm attack changed his life, and that’s where he’s the set bar for his photos of incarcerated youth.

Ross, who grew up in Brooklyn the son of a New York City cop, visited more than 200 juvenile detention facilities in 31 states for the project that became Juvenile In Justice. He published a book of his photographs, with an essay by Ira Glass and excerpts of interviews he did with the subjects. An exhibit of his work opened in Paris last June and landed in New York this month after stops around the country.

Although some artists avoid connecting their work to overt political statements, leaving any hard and fast conclusions to the audience, Ross takes a different tact.

“I’m trying to have a viewer look at that and basically realize this is not a place for kids,” Ross said. “Teenagers are by definition dysfunctional. They make mistakes. Then they’re put in rooms that are 8x10 concrete? How is that going to change them or help society?”

About 100 people turned up Wednesday night to hear Ross speak at the Vera Institute, which has its office on the 12th floor of the Woolworth Building. Fit at 65, with an angular face and gray hair going white at the edges, there’s still a little bit of Flatbush in Ross’ voice, despite more than three decades in California.

Ross’ father was a cop in the 70th precinct for several years, but was forced to leave the force because of a gambling and bribery scandal involving Harry Gross, a major bookmaker based in Brooklyn. Ross, whose father took him to museums around the city and often dropped him at the Brooklyn Museum on Saturday mornings, recalls those days as a time when “Brooklyn was truly hip” and said growing up as the son of a police officer influenced his work.

“We’re still doing things to please our parents,” Ross said. “That never changes.”

Ross said that of the 70,000 or so juveniles in custody across the country on any given night, only about 12 percent are there for violent offenses. He said that some kids are “sociopaths who you should be scared of,” but that the number of children caught up in bad circumstances, or who don’t belong in a prison, far outweighs the truly hard cases.

“Mostly they’re just people you’re pissed off at,” Ross said during his Vera talk. “You have to look at these kids as being victims, for the most part.”

Despite the draining toll of constantly interacting with incarcerated young people, Ross plans to push ahead with his project, saying he feels a bit like Al Pacino’s character Michael Corleone in Godfather III, referencing his notorious line from that movie: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

He’ll shoot in California next week, and has plans to visit juvenile facilities in Kansas and New Mexico in coming months.

Many of Ross’ images, projected on a screen in the front of nearly a packed conference room as he described his work, elicited gasps from the crowd Wednesday night. The strongest reaction came from the startling juxtaposition of two jail cells, both concrete and unadorned. One picture was taken at a youth facility in El Paso, Texas, and another at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The rooms were strikingly similar, with a key difference: there was a window in the room at the jail in Cuba.

This story was produced by JJIE’s New York City Bureau.

Photo by Richard Ross. 

Foundation Strives to Create Legacy for Juvenile Justice Reform

Models for Change 2012 Annual Conference

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The nonprofit MacArthur Foundation has spent more than $100 million since 2004 on developing blueprints for reform within the juvenile justice systems of 16 states. Earlier this week, its reform initiative, Models for Change, brought together nearly 400 judges, advocates, probation officers and other juvenile justice professionals for two days of workshops in Washington, D.C.

It was the seventh such yearly gathering for Models for Change partners, and it came at a time when the foundation is beginning to wind down funding for new research into juvenile justice reforms and enter a new phase focused on defining, sustaining and disseminating to the rest of the country the reform models its state partners and networks have already developed.

As the foundation moves toward solidifying the legacy of its blueprint initiative, its conference this year emphasized the power of storytelling and collaboration as a way to convey the impact of justice reforms to other states and to the public.

The storytelling theme ran through several events over the two-day event. Public relations professionals held a plenary session to discuss how juvenile justice organizations could craft an effective public message.

University of California at Santa Barbara professor Richard Ross exhibited a collection

Keynote speaker Cheryl Corley of NPR.

of photographs that illustrated the stark conditions within juvenile facilities around the country. Journalists from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and CBS This Morning held a hands-on workshop to explain how justice professionals could engage the media without compromising the privacy of minors. And NPR reporter Cheryl Corley gave a keynote address explaining how she came to report a radio series on juvenile offenders in Chicago last year.

More than a dozen people sat down to record short videos of their experiences within the juvenile justice system at a video booth. The videos are up on the JJIE website.

Another conference theme emerged around fostering collaboration: training attendees to recognize the multiple ways individuals, agencies and local governments can work together to improve the treatment of children in the justice system. Workshops addressed ways to involve families of juvenile offenders more closely with their child’s treatment; encourage state agencies to seek common goals with watchdog organizations; get court and child welfare agencies to share data more effectively; and build relationships between public defender offices and local law schools.

Plenary speakers encouraged cash-strapped public entities to partner with private organizations and foundations as a way to grow their resources and further their reach in replicating and sustaining reform models throughout the country.

Collaborative efforts by private foundations like MacArthur are motivating the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to develop its own partnerships with private philanthropic entities, said Marlene Beckman, the counsel to the assistant attorney general at the Office of Justice Programs in the U.S. Department of Justice, at a conference panel.

Federal officials recently met with a group of philanthropic organizations to solicit guidance on how to work with the private sector, Beckman said. The Obama administration was very interested in such partnerships, she said.

Julia Stasch, VP, MacArthur Foundation and Marlene Beckman, Counsel to Assistant Attorney General, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

Among the feedback the federal juvenile justice office received from philanthropic groups at that meeting was that federal agencies needed to collaborate more closely with each other – between the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Education, Health and Human Services, for example – and present a united leadership front when seeking partners from the private sector, Beckman said.

The group also advised the federal office of juvenile justice that it needed to communicate more effectively with private partners so that everyone understands their priorities and goals, and shares a vision for desired outcomes, Beckman said.

“Up until now, we have been more the follower than the leader,” Beckman said of the federal office’s role in developing public-private partnerships in pursuit of justice reforms.

Editor's note: The MacArthur Foundation supports the work of JJIE.

Photos courtesy of Models for Change. 

Solitary for Youth: The Fight in Illinois

Isolation cell at the Fairbanks Youth Facility Fairbanks AK. Photo by Richard Ross

CHICAGO -- Even as national organizations rallied this week to end solitary confinement for incarcerated juveniles across the country, the local branch of American Civil Liberties Union is working with prison officials and the federal court to focus on the issue here.

The goal: settle a lawsuit on behalf of 2,217 incarcerated youth with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Corrections over the system’s inadequate services and often-hostile environment.

A preliminary agreement calls for curbing the growing practice of solitary confinement in youth centers, which activists say constitutes “torture,” given its potential for causing long-lasting psychological harm.

The proposed settlement, which is due for a fairness hearing in federal court in Chicago on December 6, would be the latest victory in a larger movement to end the punitive isolation of youth in custody. In June, Congress held its first hearing on the issue of solitary confinement within U.S. prisons, where roughly 80,000 inmates are in “restricted housing“ at any given time nationwide, according to a 2005 census of adult inmates by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Long a focus of the adult prison reform movement, advocates say the practice is even more damaging to emotionally developing juvenile offenders.

Solitary confinement should be reserved for violent offenses, such as fighting or attacking a guard, according to federal law. But investigations of Illinois’ juvenile facilities conducted by the Juvenile Justice Project at the John Howard Association found that youth were frequently isolated for non-violent offenses. Juvenile offenders have been separated for transgressions as minor as eating a guard’s food.

Prison staff often separate youth on the charge of “intimidation,” which John Howard Association of Illinois noted lacked any formal definition. According to the prison reform organization, youth in custody are subject to “a lottery of sorts,” in which their punishment often relies on the guard’s disposition.

ACLU settlement doesn’t call for outright abolishment of solitary confinement, but rather clarification of what constitutes an offense punishable by isolation. ACLU-Illinois Senior Counsel Adam Schwartz, for example, said there might arise rare instances where a juvenile is violent or physically out of control and in need of a short “time-out.”

Joshua Delaney of the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, said some prisons also place youth in solitary confinement when they first arrive as a hopeful deterrent for future misbehavior.

“At one facility, approximately 20 percent of youth were housed in isolation on any given day, and denied essential programming, services and recreation,” Delaney said during a recent online gathering of juvenile justice officials and advocates, hosted by the National Center for Youth in Custody.

“Part of the problem stemmed from the bizarre facility practice of routinely isolating incoming residents for a number of days,” he said, “reportedly for the purpose of determining whether each new youth would pose a threat to the facility.”

Activists also discovered that non-offending youth are sometimes placed in solitary confinement as a means to protect them from potential abuse or harassment at the hands of other inmates.

A 2011 visit to Illinois Youth Center St. Charles found that because of its inadequate infirmary, injured or sick youth were being housed in solitary confinement. After a Juvenile Justice Project report on the problem, the center now sends their sick youth to a nearby youth facility with adequate health care.

Other recent efforts may help curb the practice of “protective” isolation. It is common for facilities to house gay and transgender youth separately in order to prevent physical or verbal victimization by other juvenile inmates. But according to a recent study on LGBTQ youth in custody by the policy think tank Center for American Progress, the practice further marginalizes the potential victim.

“This isolation perpetuates the stigmatization of gay and transgender youth, casts them as sexually deviant, and signals that they might be of threat to other youth,” according to the report. Rules for complying with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, issued in late August, have outlawed this practice.

A 2006 Washington University report found that solitary confinement can lead to trauma, psychosis and aggression among youth. Half of all suicides that take place within juvenile detention centers happen within solitary confinement. Roughly 65 percent of young people who committed suicide had a history of separation.  ACLU and Human Rights Watch released a joint report documenting the frequent use of solitary confinement of juveniles Wednesday.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez called for a ban on solitary confinement of young people and inmates with mental illness in 2011. “Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause…  it can amount to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment…  for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles,” he said in a statement before the U.N. General Assembly.

Advocates hope a combination of international human rights pressure and local legislation will force American detention centers to rethink isolation of young offenders.

“There’s movement both on the congressional level and on the state level,” said Baher Azmy, legal director for Center for Constitutional Rights.

The center has led several lawsuits against solitary confinement, most recently in Pelican Bay, Calif. Azmy said focusing on youth may motivate legislators to stand up and address the issue of isolation.

“The important thing is to use litigation in combination with organization, media and legislative advocacy” said Azmy.

Photo by Richard Ross. 

Story from The Chicago Bureau

“Dear Juvenile Injustice” – Richard Ross on the State of America’s Youth Detention Facilities and Juvenile Justice Policies

A day before holding a lecture at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, Richard Ross visited his friend, Ronald F., in Miami.

“It was his birthday,” Ross said. “He’s 18 this past week, and they switched him over to an adult facility.”

Ross said that prior to his incarceration, he was a special education student in the sixth grade. He said that for 30 years, his mother was a crack addict.

“Before he got brought in on these charges, four and a half years ago, she tried to kill him, quite literally stab him to death,” Ross stated.

Ross said that the young man wound up falling through the cracks of the child welfare system, and began running with “the wrong crowd.” At 13, Ross said he was accused of some “heinous” crimes, which ultimately resulted in his incarceration at a juvenile detention facility for 51 months.

As of his 18th birthday, Ross said, “Ronald hasn’t gone to trial yet.”

The stories of individuals like Ronald have given Ross what he terms “the calling.”

“He’s a kid, who’s African-American, in Florida,” he said. “He has the least voice in a family with the least resources, from neighborhoods and communities with the least power.”

Through Ross’s camera, he said that he “speaks on behalf of these people” and “gives them lives.”

Ross, a New York native, has had his photographs published in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, among other print juggernauts. Prior to beginning his “Juvenile-in-Justice” project -- an endeavor that took Ross five years to complete -- he photographed a wealth of atypical architectural subjects, including underground bomb shelters in Montana and even his children’s high school, for a project he called “Architecture of Authority.”

Earlier this year, Ross’s “Juvenile-in-Justice” project was named as one of the year’s five best investigative reports on prisons by ProPublica. Ross’s photographs, which were featured in Harper’s Magazine, also garnered him the 2012 Best News and Documentary Photography Award by the American Society of Magazine Editors (AMSE) and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Ross said that his project required both a social media and public arena aspect, which is why he created a blog and website for the “Juvenile-in-Justice” photographs. And unlike many photographers, he said he has no qualms about giving away his work to nonprofits, free of charge.

“The goal is to give the visual tools to advocates to change the current project and talk around at universities and frame the issue for the next generation,” he said.

Ross said he will be attending a hearing in Washington later in the week, where the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Watch will present a briefing regarding the hazards of solitary confinement on juvenile detainees. The organizations will be using his photographs as part of the testimony, Ross stated. His photographs have also been displayed during U.S. Senate hearings, and even used as “evidence” in several Supreme Court of the United States cases.

Ross recalls the 1990s, the era of “angry architecture,” as he describes it. He brings up the media images of “super predator kids” and youth boot camps and juvenile detention facilities modeled after adult prisons. He spoke about one detention center in Illinois, where young people were whisked away to holding cells in the dead of night.

“This is worse than a Stephen King novel,” Ross said. “Imagine if you’re 12, 13, 14, what it means to be brought to places like this?”

Ross notes that many neurologists believe that the prefrontal cortex of the human brain doesn’t fully develop until one’s mid-20s. The teenage brain isn’t developed, he said, which explains why kids do so many “stupid things.” Newfound biological information of the like has led to many states revamping their juvenile justice policies, but Ross singles out several state legislatures -- namely, Florida -- for pursing a “biblical sense of justice” as opposed to restorative juvenile justice approaches and techniques.

“A still image is a witness,” Ross said. He displayed images of constraint devices and solitary confinement cells.

“You can’t do this to kids,” he said. “You’ve created a situation that escalates violence instead of defusing the environment they live in.”

In Miami, Ross said he encountered children being held in isolation cells where the room temperature was 59 degrees Fahrenheit, with no blankets present. Ross said one detainee self-reported that he had been held in the isolation unit for almost an entire week, when Florida state law prohibits solitary confinement of juveniles for anything longer than 24 hours.

Ross brings up the problem of mixed populations in juvenile detention centers, specifically the housing of female status offenders with convicted male detainees. He said that most detention centers in the nation are ill-equipped to deal with gay and transgender detainees, and states that many detention center residents are still pre-adjudicated, sometimes held for years without having trial dates arranged.

Last month, Ross said he received an email from a mother whose son -- a 16-year-old, with no prior record, he stated -- had recently been charged with aggravated assault on a police officer.

“The kid was emotionally disturbed,” Ross said. “The kid was so pissed off, he peed in a wastepaper basket. The judge said ‘you’re not disrespecting my court, 50 years!’ and they walked him out the door.”

Ross said the incident made him wonder how the judge could sleep at night. He said he now gets letters from distraught mothers, many who address him as “Dear Juvenile Injustice” in e-mails. The power and responsibility he’s been imbued with via the “Juvenile-in-Justice” project, he said, is oftentimes “frightening.”

Ross discussed his disbelief in zero tolerance policies, citing such initiatives as “totally screwed.” He believes policing in schools should be limited -- in Texas, he said, armed guards often patrol the hallways of junior high schools.

“America’s heavy reliance on juvenile incarceration is unique,” Ross said.

Ross spoke about the juvenile wing of Orleans Parish Prison in Louisiana, which he said earned money for every young person held in the facility. “It’s a profit-making system to house African-Americans, a profit-making system using blacks as chattel,” Ross said. “It’s basically slavery.”

He showed two pictures, one of a cell in an El Paso, Texas juvenile detention center and the other a cell at Guantanamo Bay. “What’s the difference between Guantanamo and prison for kids in El Paso?” Ross asked. “In Guantanamo, they give the person a window.”

He briefly spoke about how uniforms “dehumanized” detainees, and praised Missouri centers for allowing teenage detainees “the dignity of wearing their own clothes.”

Ross described how many juvenile detention facilities conduct frequent pat-down searches on residents, sometimes as many as seven or eight times a day. He talked about how many residents are deprived of socialization opportunities, and brings up the fact that most juveniles held in detention have experienced severe child abuse.

“This is a damaged population that you put into these institutions without realizing they’re victims as much as they are perpetrators,” he concluded. “We have to determine who we’re afraid of and who simply pisses us off, and adjust our response.”

Photos by Richard Ross. 

Award Winning “Juvenile-in-Justice” Photographer to Speak on Art and the Incarceration of Young People

Tuesday, Juvenile-in-Justice: Photographs by Richard Ross will premiere at Kennesaw State University (KSU), with a public lecture by the 2012 recipient of the National Magazine Award for News and Documentary Photography scheduled at 5 p.m. in the Prillaman Hall auditorium.

For five years, Ross visited more than 350 detention centers, treatment facilities, juvenile courtrooms and maximum-security lock-down shelters, documenting the daily lives of America’s incarcerated young people. Ross’s work, organized by the Nevada Museum of Art and sponsored by the Wilhelm Hoppe Family Trust, was recently featured in Harper’s Magazine, in addition to making appearances on and Picture Dept., a site operated by the photo editors at Newsweek and The Daily Beast.

Earlier this year, ProPublica listed “Juvenile-in-Justice” as one of the year’s five best investigative reports on prisons. And the American Society of Magazine Editors (AMSE) and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism praised Ross’ photo essay, calling it the best news and documentary photography of 2012.

The opening reception at KSU’s Sturgis Library Art Gallery will be held at 6 p.m. The exhibit will be featured from Oct. 9 until Nov. 1, with the gallery accessible Monday through Wednesdays from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. The exhibit will also be open to visitors on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m., and on Saturdays from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m.

Photo by Richard Ross. 

Richard Ross: Juvenile-in-Justice Photo Exhibit Reviewed

Juvenile-in-Justice, an exhibition of 50 large-scale color prints by award-winning photographer Richard Ross, will open at the Sturgis Library Art Gallery at Kennesaw State University, in Kennesaw, Ga., on Oct. 9, 2012. Ross’s photographs, based on five years of work interviewing and photographing young people involved in the juvenile justice system, document the realities of life in juvenile justice facilities across the country.

The young people featured in these photographs have different levels of involvement in the criminal justice

system—some have been tried and convicted, while others are being held in detention while waiting for the gears of the system to turn. A variety of settings are also featured, from segregation cells to recreation areas.

And yet, the overriding impression in these photographs is the depressing sameness of the facilities. Their dominant colors range from grey to beige, with concrete blocks a primary structural element. When bright colors appear in these photos, they often seem out of place, as if a kindergarten classroom had been converted overnight into a juvenile detention facility.

You seldom get a complete, unobscured view of a subject’s face in these photographs. Instead, they are seen from the back, at long distance or in extreme close-up, or their faces are partially cropped out of the frame, blurred by motion or hidden behind their hands or hair. This approach serves the obvious purpose of protecting the privacy of the individuals pictured, but it also serves a larger purpose. When you can’t see exactly who each subject is, they become young everymen and everywomen—not a particular kid locked up in a cell, but a young person not that dissimilar from your kids, your nieces and nephews, or the neighbor kids. It’s easy to forget about juveniles who become involved with the justice system, as long as you’re sure it has nothing to do with you and yours. Ross’ photos don’t allow you to erect that kind of barrier between his subjects and yourself.

The captions give you more of the details about the kids involved, and they’re often more shocking than the photos. The young man in prison stripes (outlawed as dehumanizing in some states over 100 years ago)? He’s 14 years old, “low functional” and spends most of his time sitting in his cell. That kid standing with his back to you, at the far end of his cell? He’s 10 years old, stabbed a classmate in school, and is waiting for his mother to get off work so she can come and get him. The girl covering her face with her long blonde hair? She’s 15 and is in for “partying and truancy”; she also uses meth.

Ross highlights the hard geometrical features of the detention facilities, finding a strange, abstract beauty in their square lines and patterns. The uniformity of the windowless cells pictured in a group of eight identically-framed photographs, shot between 2008 and 2010 in five facilities in four different states, serves to highlight the small differences—the shape of the ceiling fixtures, whether the bed is free-standing or built into the wall—but this contemplation of form and line comes to a halt when you realize that a series of young human beings will call those cells home, possibly for an extended period of time.

Ross’ work has similarities with many documentarians, from the turn-of-the century social reformer Jacob Riis to the contemporary human rights photographer Fernando Moleres. But I see a particularly strong kinship between Ross’ work and that of Shelby Lee Adams, a contemporary photographer famous for his portraits of Appalachian families. While there are many superficial differences—Adams always shows the face of his subjects, places them in rich environments, and works primarily in black and white—on a deeper
level there’s a strong correspondence. Like Adams, Ross’ photographs are always carefully arranged, with full awareness of the context in which his subjects live and with particular effort to finding visual details that tell you who they are. Equally important, Ross, like Adams, honors the individuality and dignity of his subjects, and brings the experience of their lives to a public who might otherwise be aware of their existence.

We’re constantly bombarded by visual information, so much so that it’s really difficult for any visual artist to grab your attention and make you think. Richard Ross is one photographer who can do just that—the photographs of Juvenile-in-Justice will linger in your mind long after you have left the exhibit, and I doubt you will ever think of kids in trouble the same way again.

The exhibition Juvenile-in-Justice is co-hosted by Kennesaw State University, the Center for Sustainable Journalism, and the Society of Professional Journalists, and will be on display in the Sturgis Library Art Gallery from Oct. 9 to Nov. 1, 2012. Ross will give a public lecture on Oct. 9, 2012, at 5 p.m. in the Prillaman Hall Auditorium, followed by an opening reception in the Sturgis Library Art Gallery. Learn more here and tell your friends.

Photos by Richard Ross. 

Photographer of Juvenile Detention Centers Featured on PBS NewsHour

Watch Photographer Captures Young Faces of Juvenile Detention on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Richard Ross

The PBS Newshour aired an interview Thursday with noted photographer and regular Bokeh contributor Richard Ross. For the last five years, Ross has been visiting youth detention centers across the United States, more than 300 so far, and documenting what he sees.

In addition to his photographic work, part of a project he calls Juvenile-in-Justice, Ross has interviewed more than 1,000 detained youth. Recently, Ross also visited juvenile detention centers in Canada.

Speaking with JJIE in October about his motivation Ross said, “I wanted to give a voice to the people that I thought had the least voice in our society.”

He continued, “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.”

Ross’ photographs can be seen as part of an ongoing series on JJIE’s arts page, Bokeh.

Celebrating the Power of the Still: Juvenile-In-Justice Series Premieres on JJIE

Richard RossRichard 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.

Celebrating the Power of the Still: Photography and its Place in Our Lives

Not too many years ago, the still photo was the domain of the professional and the dedicated hobbyist. Today, when school children routinely have iPhones at the ready, we’ve reached the point where the world is our collective subject, caught from a billion different angles.

And what a glorious addition to our gallery of life’s great riches it is, this daily chronicle of human life, the capture of otherwise forgotten moments, the tally of the small order of life's minutiae as well as the dramatic breaths in time that bring about outcries of emotion, the sparking of movements, the fall of governments.

With so many photos taken by so many photographers, though, the prevailing opinion may be that the art form has been eroded, that the cascade of mostly mediocre images pummels the viewer into disinterest. The riveting scene from a few years ago now ranges from mildly interesting to old hat.

But the truth is, stunningly wonderful photography exists at the top of the populace’s current body of work. These are the images produced by those who know the science of the trade and practice it with a passion, every day. You see their work in the giant metro papers, but also in galleries. The composition, if you will, is there. A nice picture, that on closer inspection tells a story that demands your attention and stirs your emotions.

Today, JJIE introduces Bokeh, what you might call our fine arts site. Here is a place where some very strong still images will reside, along with photo essays and written essays on the art of photography.

Some of this work will include those at top of the field. On Monday, we begin publishing photographer Richard Ross’ work. The Santa Barbara-based Ross spent five years photographing and interviewing some 1,000 inmates in youth detention centers all across the country. His project, Juvenile-In-Justice, was supported in part by the Guggenheim Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Other work on Bokeh (the name roughly means, ‘the aesthetic quality of the blur in that part of the unfocused image’) includes our own. Today, a photo essay, “Saturday in the Park,” by JJIE photographer Clay Duda runs on the site. This is our attempt to capture the voices and thoughts of kids on common, but important, questions of the day. (Click here or see the introduction to the essay below.)

And finally, through our partnerships with groups such as VOX Teen Communications, you’ll see the work of young photographers, the way they see the world and the issues dominant in their lives.

Youth as its subject and the quality of the work are the common threads in the photography of the professionals, the up-and-coming photojournalists and the dedicated beginners congregating on Bokeh.

What you see on Bokeh is meant to be craft, strong and compelling, a home for the best work on the issues of juvenile justice.

We hope you enjoy it.