Juvenile In Justice
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. In 2006 I spoke with the juvenile prosecutor in El Paso, Texas, who had generously allowed me access to photograph. I inquired 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 the system. Nationwide the statutes were a checkerboard of rules, some mandatory, others discretionary, but many seemingly inappropriately applied.
Over the past six years, Richard Ross’s exploration of the juvenile justice system has helped raise awareness of the nationally important debate that he addresses. Augmenting the ethical and judicial discourse surrounding the need for reform of the juvenile justice system, these intense pictures give us access to the real individuals, the kids who make up this community, soliciting empathy without being in any way sentimental about them. Some of their stories reveal shocking acts of violence, while others point to broken homes and abuse. Some of these kids are extremely rebellious, while some are just individuals the authorities don’t know what to do with. Yet, whatever their crimes or misfortunes, Richard Ross’s images give all his subjects both humanity and visibility. He allows them the dignity of a voice and reveals that, no matter what kind of institution they are incarcerated in, they are not an abstract set of figures and they are deserving of more than simply being locked away and forgotten. These pictures are a wake up call to the failure of our imagination. They are a sad testament to the way, as a society, we privilege punishment over the resolution of poverty and other social problems and how we hold up the dream of prosperity for all, while ignoring the disparities of opportunity that make such a dream impossible for many.
To date, Ross has visited more than 250 facilities in 31 states-including Pennsylvania, taking images in places such as group homes, police departments, youth correctional facilities, juvenile courtrooms, high schools, shelters, classrooms, interview rooms, and maximum security lock-down and non-lock-down shelters. He lectures frequently on his subject and has spoken at the Vera Institute of Justice, the 7th Annual Models for Change Conference, JDAI conferences, The Justice for Youth Summit, and many more. Ross is Distinguished Professor of Art at the University of California Santa Barbara and has exhibited his photography in museums and galleries internationally for over 35 years. His work is held in many major museum collections and his work is the subject of 5 monographic books. Prior to this exhibition, Juvenile In Justice was exhibited in Philadelphia at Crane Arts by Rachel Zimmerman, Executive Director of InLiquid, and Independent Curator Julien Robson, and was accompanied by extensive public programming. Rutgers University-Camden and InLiquid are working together to continue this artistic dialog, making local audiences aware of the critical discussion about juvenile incarceration occurring nationally and giving a voice to our at-risk communities.