Over the last seven years, Richard Ross has photographed and interviewed more than 1,000 incarcerated juveniles in close to 300 facilities in 31 states, including group homes, police departments, youth correctional facilities, juvenile courtrooms, high schools, shelters, Montessori classrooms and child protective services interview rooms.
"The people who deal with social justice have great data, but they don't always have the images," says Ross, a University of California, Santa Barbara professor who first spoke about his project at Herron in 2012. "The images frame the conversation. They show that lives are actually at stake. I wanted to give the images to policymakers."
Ross would spend at least an hour with each subject talking about their stories, followed by a photo where the individual's face was obscured.
"For the most part, they were bored and were excited to have someone listen to them," he says. "To have an older white male sit on the floor [in a cell] and just listen to them, instead of barking orders, was unique."
While at the South Bend Juvenile Correction Facility in 2011, Ross met with a 16-year-old inmate identified as "J." He was in the facility for a six-month sentence following a conviction of credit card theft, but had been placed in segregation after intimidating the staff. According to the staff, he was able to leave for one or two hours a day, but J. told Ross that he was only allowed to leave the cell to use the bathroom.
Ross also interviewed "CJ," a 16-year-old who had been housed at the King County Youth Services Center in Seattle 14 times as of her interview in 2013. She was incarcerated, she says, due to "truancy, not staying at home and being rude. I don't do anything serious. I just smoke weed."
"The reason kids are placed in these facilities is to deter, punish, and rehabilitate," Ross says. "None of these deter, and, in fact, many kids see going to these places as badge of honor or as a right of passage. There might be a little bit of rehabilitation in terms of programs, but these resources should be used for schools and neighborhoods to prevent them from being incarcerated. These facilities are very good at punishing. They put kids in a 7 by 10 foot or 8 by 10 foot room, a horrific, cinder-block cell. More people are beginning to understand the costs and that these facilities are ineffective and unsafe. We could do a lot better."
Ross adds that every once in a while someone he had already interviewed would cross paths with him on a later trip or at a different facility. The photographer's subjects remembered him as "that guy with the camera," and would approach him.
Paula Katz, director and curator of the Herron Galleries, says that Ross and his work are "inspiring."
"This project not only includes beautiful pictures, but also addresses a social concern," she says. "Sometimes art students don't see beyond making something that is aesthetic, but I hope this will help them realize that they also have an ability to use art to invoke change in the world."
Ross continues to travel the country, but is currently more focused on cases that involve various states' child protective services programs.
"Maybe for one percent of those in juvenile detention, your heart says maybe this kid deserves to be here," he says. "But when dealing with kids in child protective services, they're such victims of violence and abuse that it does make you cry. My hands shake when I take notes and do interviews. Some are incredibly young and some of them are newborns. They're certainly not guilty of anything except being born in the wrong place."