Richard Ross grew up in a family where discussing politics was fair game at the dinner table. Being an activist was just as unavoidable as eating your vegetables — both were considered necessary nourishment for a kid entering a seemingly hostile world.

As an architectural photographer for the Getty Conservation Institute, Ross accidentally slipped into the underworld of producing beautiful photographs about places and people we don’t have words for. But, it was not as if he was assigned to go photograph a culturally historic juvenile detention center. Thinking about the nature of architecture and how it locates people in a specific location, Ross was led to photograph a juvenile detention center. Considering how a building can influence our visibility and role in society — how walls can inform a life, how a home defines our identity, how there is an entire class of people we label as homeless — architecture can both shelter us and shadow us.

Compelled by the dark corners of culture and the limits of control, Ross could not just look the other way….

Richard Ross at the Try Youth As Youth exhibit. David Weinberg Photography, 2015.

What was the moment that led you to decide to focus on photographing the juvenile justice system?

I was in El Paso, Texas, and I asked the juvenile prosecutor, “Do you ever think you will be so successful that you will never have to take kids into these institutions anymore?”. He responded, “As long as they keep on making ten year olds in Texas, I’ll be in a job.

To me that was pretty appalling. After I did a little research and found out that 22 States and Washington D.C. not only take kids as young as seven, but that they can charge them as adults, by statute. So, I was off to the races with that.

As a photographer and activist, how do you approach documenting such a charged and disturbing social and political environment?

I try to not go crazy with it. I try to say, “I’m making a document so that people can understand the nadir of our morality”. Your morality is defined by how you treat the weakest and how you treat the children in your system.

You have traveled to more than thirty states documenting youth incarceration. Are there any sites or states that stand out to you?

I just was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, last week. You’d think Alabama — that is going to be the worst of the worst. Well, oddly they have four women that are basically running the juvenile detention system there. They’re white, former teachers, and they run a system that is through the lens of understanding the trauma that these kids have been through. They’re trying to help them instead of punish them.

So, in Tuscaloosa it is very unusual. It’s not a lot of ex-correction officers or ex-military. It’s more women. I have a sense in the South of this noblesse oblige — of saying, it’s a moral responsibility to help those with less. So when you can find these places, you point to them. Then maybe instead of getting totally frustrated with what’s going on, you can try to make the system a little better.

The model that I point to is Missouri. That in itself is pretty odd — if you read a book about The Missouri System, the preface was by the first cousin of Rush Limbaugh. The enlightenment of the community, the judges, and the social and political will, determines whether they’re going to see and accept youth in the juvenile justice system as my kids (as a part of the entire society) or if they’re going to look at them as the other kids and try to hurt them. That’s the way the world works.

You would think that California is very enlightened. It’s not. You’d think that New York is a liberal hub of the world — Rikers is a shithole. I’ve been to I think thirty-four states at this point, and over three hundred sites — I can’t get into Rikers for anybody’s business. Nobody has the power to do it. You can’t get in there.

When you can access a site, do you feel like your photographs of it have political influence?

I’ve been able to move the conversation one tenth of one percent — which is a miracle for an artist — and I’m happy as can be! I went to the Annie E. Casey Foundation about eight years ago. I couldn’t get an appointment with them, so finally I just went there because I was in D.C. Their director said he would give me ten minutes at the end of the day, and you know, an hour and a half later, we were still talking! They’ve helped support my travels a little bit. They said they’ve gotten so much more than they ever had anticipated from my work. It has impact because people are able to see that these are the lives that are imbalanced.

Have you had an opportunity to develop a relationship with any of the incarcerated youth that you have photographed?

I wish I had the opportunity to do more. People like Steve Liss, who is in the show, spent more time in places like Laredo, Texas. He was able to get the right institutional support so that he could show the faces of the kids.

Steve Liss’ photography in Try Youth As Youth exhibit — David Weinberg Photography, 2015.

My focus is to do a longitudinal study. It is easier for me to do so in a proximate location like Los Angeles, because I can go down there from my home in Santa Barbara. I have gone down to visit the kids in Unit J, which is the youngest boys juvenile hall and the biggest system in the country. I have been down there probably three dozen times, at least. When I do visit, I bring them homemade cookies and I talk to them.

Often I see the same kids over and over again, and I ask them, “You are still here?” It’s not necessarily that they are still there, but that they’re back.

I spoke to a kid in Miami Dade who I visited three times. This is a kid that was incarcerated for four and a half years before he had a resolution of his case. We have a sixth amendment in this country — which gives you the right to a speedy trial. But it doesn’t exist for these kids to that extent. Imagine being a teenager charged at thirteen, and not being able to have your case resolved until you’re seventeen. And now he is doing time in an adult prison…

Screenshot from Richard Ross’ blog, Juvenile In Justice.

How do you see people processing this reality when viewing your photography up close for the first time?

There are a lot of things that are hidden from you that you don’t bother looking at. It’s just the nature of our lives being very saturated with amusements, with Facebook, with everything else. It’s so easy to be amused and there are so many topics of critical importance.

I can’t say that the issue that I deal with is more important than adult incarceration, the environment, or equal rights for women, transgender, gay, lesbian, rights, etc… It doesn’t matter, it is all important. When I come up with something that I think is important, I’ll put it forward.

It’s not that it has been hidden, it’s that nobody has noticed. It’s just that events are too compressed in our lives. What people have started to notice is all the money it [youth incarceration] costs. When college students are noticing that they can’t get into classes, and they’re asking, “Why is there no money for education?” and you realize that all they money is going towards mass incarceration. Then people start noticing.

Also, when they look at mass incarceration and they start noticing neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, where eighty percent of the men are under the rule of the justice system in one zip code. Then they begin to notice it’s impact on families, they notice violence, and then they start asking…

You voluntarily spent 24 hours in solitary confinement in a juvenile detention center. How did that experience influence your personal relationship to this issue and your professional process?

I don’t think that you can really say that something is wrong. I believe that the death penalty is wrong, but that does not mean that I am going to be executed in order to become an advocate against the death penalty. That wouldn’t quite make sense to me. But, when I have the opportunity to be a participant and explain what is going on in first person, I think that is much more critical.

When I did the Architecture of Authority project, I had to go to Iraq. I also went to Abu Ghraib and to Guantanamo. Places like that. It was a very difficult negotiation with my family, but I was out of my mind. I think from a moral imperative and also from the vantage point that I’m not a kid.

At this point, I am trying to make sure that the world is something that is left in a manner that is not that much worse after I have contributed to it, but that I contribute to it in a positive fashion. It just helps me sleep at night. Although when I am spending weeks in Iraq, when I am sleeping on the floor, I don’t quite sleep that well there…

It really is nice to have the moral compass where I feel like I am doing good work. I am as happy as can be, although it is really hard work.

After experiencing solitary confinement, do you understand or define it differently?

I can say, These kids say it’s terrible! But actually going through it, where you are in a cell and you have nothing to read but a Bible — it made me a firm advocate that the Bible is relatively useless for inspiration for anything when you’re sitting in a cell.

What was the food like?

As an adult, the food was garbage — and this is a [good] facility that let me do it. They were nice, actually. But going through that experience is…

In 24 hours you eat food and then have to use the toilet. You have to press a button to ask a guard for toilet paper, and then he gives you four squares of toilet paper… you can’t write about it, you can’t photograph it. You have to experience it.
Screenshot from Richard Ross’ blog, Juvenile In Justice.

How do you think your experiment of 24 hours in solitary confinement compared to the way youth experience it?

I could have gotten out of that room anytime I wanted. When you have an eight or nine year old kid and they are taken in and they are away from their family, it is the worst day that you can imagine for anyone’s life.

So you take that situation and I can’t imagine how it translates to a kid. I knew I was going to do it for the 24 hours that a kid does. But if a kid acts out, then their stay is extended. They say, “Well, we don’t hold kids for twenty-four hours, we take them out for ‘large muscle exercise’. But, what do they mean by large muscle exercise?

Is there a comparable experience in the free world to those 24 hours in solitary?

It was horrible doing it. I was looking forward to night when just time would pass. I didn’t understand what the passage of time would be. Now I am certainly a little more sympathetic to people who are incarcerated. It’s basically just having your freedom taken away from you.

It is just so sterile in terms of what a life is like. It is just stripping them of opportunity. To experience that is something that rocks you to the core and gives you the energy to do more. That’s about it.

After nearly a decade of photographing incarcerated youth, how has your process as an artist and an activist evolved? What do want to document in the future?

Now I am trying to work with people at the other end of the system, because I think that is ignored. There is a guy in Philadelphia, who is now seventy-seven years old. He murdered somebody when he was fifteen and drunk. Yeah, it’s horrendous that he murdered somebody. But he is going to be seventy-eight years old. What are you doing? Is this guy a threat to society? Has he not paid a price of being in jail for sixty-two years? Is this cost-effective? Does this make any sense at all? In Philadelphia, there are five hundred and fifty people like that.

How do you compare the experience and conditions that incarcerated youth face in the other countries that you’ve visited?

It was more interesting to go to Germany. There I spoke to the detention center director. They let the kids out to spend the weekend with their family. I asked the director,

“Do you drug test them when they come back?”
His response was, “Why? They are just going to test positive for marijuana, and then what are they going to do?

So, rather than changing the kid, maybe you change the institution.

I asked the same question to someone in Alabama and they said,

“Oh I don’t have no objection to the kids smoking a little weed. But, I just don’t want the kids in the car with other kids who are going to make poor decisions.”

So, you understand that there are a lot of different points of view, and we are all trying to figure that out.

Richard Ross, Try Youth As Youth 2015 — David Weinberg Photography.
Screenshot from Richard Ross’ blog — Juvenile In Justice

As the only country in the world to incarcerate youth without the possibility of parole, why do you think the United States is so punitive in comparison to other countries? How did we get here?

We were sold a Bill of Goods by the media in the late nineties… All of these kids are “super predators”! They are going to roam the streets. There is going to be an explosion of drug, adult-minds and violence. They all have guns…

Which many do have, unfortunately. But, we were sold a Bill of Goods. We have now turned the corner and we have less of a population of kids in these centers. As this population is decreasing, we don’t have a spike in violent crime — which never did exist.

What can we do to address youth incarceration at the individual level?

Assist the kids who are in the system, or assist the kids that are you know, teetering on the edge. Assist a kid and make them a little more accountable. Act as a mentor once a month. It can make a tremendous difference in a kid’s life, and in your’s as well.

One example is Girls Inc. in Santa Barbara. Recently, I did book signing there. I’m giving a portion of the sales to them. It’s a good program.

Provided your insight and experience, how do you think the situation can improve?

It has to be political. I can’t do it. There has to be the political will to be able to spend money on kids besides incarcerate them. That means eliminate these institutions. As, Nell Bernstein said, “burn down the house!”. It has to be putting the money that you would spend in these institutions, into resources in the community, such as putting more money into education and into economic opportunities for the families.

I am always hopeful. I was born an optimist. I’m just crazy like that. Just getting out of bed in the morning when you are sixty-eight is an act of faith.

Screenshot from Richard Ross’ Juvenile In Justice.