The Image of a Witness: Richard Ross Discusses his Juvenile-in-Justice Project at Southwestern
Under the auspices of the Treusch Public Service Lecture, which brings national speakers in the public interest field to campus to share their experiences and insights, acclaimed documentary photographer Richard Ross delivered a powerful message on social justice - or, rather, the lack thereof - in the institutionalization of juveniles in America. Ross presented material and commentary from his compelling Juvenile-in-Justice project that spent five years in its own kind of solitary confinement before Ross went public with this collection of image-as-social-advocacy. The stirring compilation of photographs and interviews conducted with more than 1,000 juveniles at over 200 facilities throughout the United States aims to provide an inside view of the detention and correction facilities and expose the need to change the current practices relating to the treatment of juveniles.
In a country where roughly 70,000 young people are locked up on any given day, the task of bringing their stories to light and inciting action or at least meaningful discussion can be a daunting one. But native New Yorker Ross has managed to turn his quick wit, sharp tongue and keen eye into potent tools for generating work that creatively promotes social justice. At the heart of his project is the concept that a photograph is a "witness." A single, still image can become iconographic in its ability to serve as testimony, and for Ross, the images that make up Juvenile-in-Justice testify that each kid has a story.
When given the opportunity to share their stories, Ross describes how the youths "open up like flowers - all they want to do is talk to me." Though his subjects may remain handcuffed during an hours-long interview, Ross positions himself on the floor, to encourage better lines of communication. As a storyteller with a camera, the photographer is doing something that gives him "absolute bliss." As an advocate with a mission, he claims "This is something I can't walk away from." Through his example, he encourages his audience to do the same. "This is an overwhelming issue. Find your piece of the puzzle. I'm giving you the images..."