'RELENTLESS' A photo from Ross's project.
Richard Ross spends a lot of time trying to get into prison.
The photographer — who will speak at the RISD Museum on Monday, January 27, as part of the school’s 2014 MLK series — has been turned away from privately run detention centers in Florida. He has obtained court orders allowing his entry into Los Angeles facilities. He was once granted access to visit a Birmingham, Alabama juvenile detention center — by both a white Republican judge and a black Democratic judge, Ross points out — only to be told by the prison’s director, “Let me make one thing clear, son. This is my detention center and you’re not coming in here.”
And, yet, despite these roadblocks and denials, Ross still fights his way to the far side of the barbed wire, conducting more than 1000 interviews in more than 200 facilities nationwide for his sweeping (and devastating) “Juvenile in Justice” photography series. “I’m relentless,” he says.
His work is, too. Though locations change, the repeating patterns in “Juvenile” — cinder block walls, fluorescent lights, thick metal doors, blanched environments offset by bright jumpsuits — seep into your bones. One photo shows a skinny 12-year-old standing bedside in a windowless cell at a private detention center in Mississippi. “I’m doing my ‘seg time,’ ” says another teen — 16 years old and visible through a slot in his cell door — in the caption to a photo taken at an Indiana facility. “I spend all day and all night in here. No mattress, no sheets, and I get all my meals through this slot.”
Ross’s project is unapologetically political. At juvenile-in-justice.com, visitors are linked via a “Take Action” tab to petitions requesting a ban on solitary confinement for youth and the removal of young folks from adult prisons. “I’m trying to change the social and political landscape. I have no smaller aspiration than that,” he told the Phoenix in a recent phone conversation. “I just want these kids treated with a little more dignity and respect and given a little more opportunity.”
People have legitimate reason to be scared of about 10 percent of the inmates at these juvenile facilities, Ross says. The rest — the runaways, the burglars, the ones caught using drugs or hurting themselves — “are kids that have just pissed off an adult.”
Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOURSELF AS “ANTI-AUTHORITY?” I’m definitely a child of the ’60s and question authority. I don’t know if I’m necessarily anti-authority. If authority is some sort of structure and organization to the world, it has its place.
One of the strategies I do, is when I talk to these kids, I sit on the floor of the cell and I give them the authority, visually, mentally, in a physical [sense]. So, I tweak the authority to open them up. And if the authority didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be able to do that.
I HAD A PROFOUND URGE TO GO OUTDOORS AFTER LOOKING AT YOUR PHOTOS. Oh, me too. The deprivation of light. The cold. The noise. It’s all there. These are shit conditions.