As a teacher, I regularly have conversations with my students about how art can and should function. What constitutes an object as belonging in a gallery as opposed to a community? Who instituted these boundaries? Is it possible to make art that occupies both worlds? Finally, can art in either world effect real change? None of these questions are easily answered, or even attempted. The photographic work of Richard Ross dares engage their premise.
Ross is an artist and a professor, though in every sense his work is framed by, and propelled forward with, the cause of social justice. His images (and teaching) have long provided access to invisible sights that regulate bodies through discipline and containment. His 2007 photographic body of work titled Architecture of Authority pictured schools, the corridors of mosques, meeting rooms in the U.N., segregation cells in Abu Ghraib and a capital-punishment death chamber. The images are bleak but arresting; their compositions and color palettes feel almost painterly.
While photographing at a detention center in El Paso for that project, Ross asked the director if he'd ever be so successful that he'd be out of a job and was told, “Not as long as Texas continues locking up 10-year-olds.” Subsequent research revealed that children as young as 7 can be charged as adults in 22 states. Ross launched his Juvenile in Justice series (followed by Girls in Justice) in that moment and worked on it for four years — traveling to hundreds of facilities and photographing thousands of minors — without publishing a single picture.
Artists like Ross will be the first to tell you: for the "fine artist" who makes work that engages themes of social inequality, there emerges an interesting (and often productive) conflict. How does one navigate worlds that tend to not only be cut off, but also in fact negate one another? In making art that operates within both commercial and nonprofit channels, Ross is sensitive to this potential discordance. Though he's represented by a commercial gallery that sells his photographs as fine-art objects, Ross regularly licenses his pictures to socially progressive nonprofits and social-advocacy groups for free or at a nominal charge. In addition he deliberately exhibits his work in university museums. "Where better to show the work," he relates, "but amongst a younger generation who are themselves in the midst of learning about sociology, education, race and gender studies, journalism, political science, social work and law?" Real social reform, after all, comes from some measure of cooperation between all these fields.
This strategy of collaboration is visible across Ross's practice. He is currently working on several theatrical projects — one with Flex Dancers, another with preteens — with the director Peter Sellars. He has also collaborated with the sociologist Victor Rios (a fellow professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara) as well as his wife, the journalist Cissy Ross. The trio teaches a class at UCSB titled, simply, Justice. Though it's offered through the art department, the students are equipped with multiple kinds of constructive tools: they learn to write, think visually and methodize their research on the topic. Guest speakers have included Piper Kerman, the author of Orange Is the New Black; a transgender prison guard at San Quentin; the clinical physiologist Maryam Kia-Keating; and the black-studies professor Gaye Theresa Johnson (the latter two speaking to trauma and the African-American experience, respectively). The class visits a juvenile-detention facility, where, says Ross, "they check everything at the door."
It's a feeling Ross has gotten used to. In meeting his subjects, whose faces do not appear in the final photographs, Ross is conscious to be respectful and never assert power over them. Rather, he takes off his shoes and sits on the floor while talking and shooting. "I give them authority over me," he says (not an unimportant gesture in a place where the power usually flows the other direction). Mostly he listens. This exchange, perhaps more than anything else, is the sight of true creative, social and emotional collaboration.
Ultimately, the exchanges haunt Ross. "It is impossible to leave them," he says. "Last week I was talking to a girl who has tried to kill herself repeatedly. She had been raped, homeless, beaten. She was sobbing, body-racking sobs. Because she needs mental-health assistance, is a female and a minor, I wasn't allowed to touch her. All I wanted to do was hold her and tell her that it will be all right. But I'm not allowed to, and it won't be all right." These encounters can be emotionally draining and prompt a feeling of powerlessness, but Ross, who is one of the few conduits to their stories, cannot let up.
The answer to the initial question — how can we measure art's possible impact on human beings and vice versa — is impossible to locate. However, what is clear is that Ross's photographs make courageous strides toward change by inverting (or revealing) systems of power and returning to subjects their sense of worth and humanity.
For more about Richard Ross's Juvenile In Justice project, visit his website.
Carmen Winant is an Assistant Professor of Visual Studies and Contemporary Art History at Columbus College of Art and Design.