Richard Ross is the author of Juvenile In Justice, a 2013 Alex Award that’s a photographic essay of lives in over 200 juvenile detention centers in 31 states. His photos, and the stories of the teenagers feature in them, are on display as a part of a traveling exhibition and on his blog.
As a librarian who works with incarcerated teens, I am always surprised by how rarely society seems to think about them. Most teens in our community, luckily I suppose, never even seem to realize we have a juvenile detention center. It seems that if you don’t know someone in detention, it is easy to forget it exists. I know your goal with your book and exhibition is to shed light on the juvenile justice system. What initially sparked your interest in the topic?
I did the project Architecture of Authority, which was more successful in terms of intellect and recognition than I imagined it would be (success can me a difficult mistress). So I look[ed] for the work that had been done as part of it that could be mined in more depth [… A]s I explored the world my kids disliked, high schools and adolescent corridors of power, that led to a more in depth investigation….
Some of the facilities you go into have hundreds of residents. How do you choose who to interview?
I try to get a range of kids, ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, length of stay, charges. [I]t also depends on which kids are willing to speak. Although most of them are happy to have attention paid to them as they may be intensely bored.
Getting into these buildings can be a challenge, as you mention in your afterword. Is there a white whale for you? A facility that you really want to photograph but you just can’t get in the door?
Birmingham, Alabama. But I am persistent … It took me a year and a half to get into Santa Barbara.
Do most of the facilities you gain access to have a library? If so, have they placed your book in the library?
Many do have a library … or at least access to books. Some don’t allow any book except the Bible into the cells. My book is in several institutions that I know of.
In some cases they don’t allow it, they may look at a flex binding as a hardbound, but I think this is an excuse to keep it out for political reasons.
I assume that residents don’t just answer your questions, but probably ask a lot too. What is the most common question you get from teens in detention?
“What is the worst facility you have been to?”
That’s the common ground.
What have the reactions to the book and exhibition been by both those inside and outside the juvenile justice system?
Outside the system many people think I am a saint. It is an embarrassment as to how much people respect the work, the effort, the goal and the accomplishment. Embarrassing. Inside it has polarized people. I am either REALLY welcomed or totally shunned.
Are there any reactions that have surprised you?
Nothing “surprises” me about this world. I enter it thinking everything is counter-intuitive. Some of the places you think would be most restrictive are enlightened and vice versa….
This book and exhibition is the work of over half a decade. What’s next? Will you continue on this mission or will you move on to new topics to photograph and interview?
I can’t leave this world. It is too demanding and too rewarding. I am working on a subsequent book. Still photographing in institutions and now working with families … and working on a play that can be presented in a middle or high school class or auditorium or a higher end production. I hope to be able to distribute the play through YALSA. I am also going to a juvenile detention center, going through intake, wearing a jumpsuit and spending 24 hours in isolation (as some of these kids do) and more. I will be filming a world that I try to exist in without books, TV, cards, paper, pencil, etc. and at least experience it. Some kids do this for hours, days, weeks, months and longer. I will try.
— Kate McNair, currently reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern on audiobook