Richard Ross’ “Juvie Talk”

Posted on May 31 by SEASONS Magazine

Photo by Richard Ross.

Richard Ross’ Juvie Talk is the third installment to his “In Justice” series, comprised of projects analyzing the juvenile justice in America. This book follows Juvenile in Justice, which documented the treatment of children in the juvenile facilities and Girls In Justice, which explored the unique conditions of girls and young women in detention centers. Ross meticulously navigates through these spaces to shed light on often forgotten or condemned individuals in society.

In his daily life, Ross is an integral part of the Art Department at UCSB. He has taught at the school since 1977, guiding his students through the subjects of photography, photojournalism and art and social justice. Ross is also a very celebrated researcher and photographer and the impact of his work is not limited to UCSB students. Installments of his “In Justice” series have been exhibited across the country and his photographs have been published in Vogue, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Harper’s BazaarLa Repubblica, Le Monde and COLORS.

Juvie Talk seeks to portray young individuals’ lives as accurately as possible. Ross navigates this by recording their experiences in their vernacular and on their terms. This project is uncommon because it retells the story verbatim—including all the idioms and regional slang that color these occurrences. Ross’ interpersonal approach is also exceptional. He enters the spaces of these young people devoid of pretense and ego with his ultimate goals being respect and reciprocity. He knocks on the door and asks to come in, waits for permission to enter, removes his shoes before coming into the cell and sits on the floor. If these adolescents choose to share their story with him, he listens more than he speaks. These seemingly simple gestures of consideration can quickly change the dynamic of power.

Photo by Richard Ross.

“One of my previous projects is called ‘Architecture of Authority’,” notes Ross. “That project shows that with power, you are always ‘above’ someone even physically. In a court of law, the bench is above, the pulpit is above you, the word of God comes down from the mountain… if you physically change the perception of authority in the room it changes the dynamic—it opens the conversation.” By being humble and compassionate, Ross reaffirms these young people’s power within a system that leaves so many alone and disenfranchised. 

The main purpose of this project is to benefit the young people interviewed and to bring a contextualized light to the issues they face. Ross strives to shift the onus onto systemic injustice from poverty, a lack of agency and violence rather than onto the isolated actions of these teenagers. Juvie Talk was produced in conjunction with the MacArthur Foundation and is available to any educator that wishes to use these resources free of charge.

In addition, on the Juvie Talk website anyone can build a play created from the stories of the anonymous young individuals from detention centers. Users can pick specific stories from teenagers selecting from a certain age, gender or facility types. Once selected, these stories are compressed into a pdf file that can be used by educators to illustrate imperative messages about systemic injustice and incarceration.

Photo by Richard Ross.

The reward from producing Juvie Talk is not monetary—it is moral. “I’ve impacted legislation ‘this much’,” Ross states, holding his right index and thumb finger an infinitesimal distance apart, “but I’ve put a shone a light on juvenile justice that didn’t exist before and that’s the more important outcome.” Ross has visited hundreds of detention centers throughout his life and has interviewed thousands of young people trapped in this system—his intentions are to humanize the lives of these young individuals in the eyes of those who criminalize them. 

Juvie Talk is available for purchase online and is now shipping.

For more information, visit juvietalk.com.

—Lauren Bennett

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