In discussions of justice in America, talk of punishment and retribution dominates. There is little interest in offering criminals, even juveniles, a second chance. But Joseph Rodríguez’s story makes a strong argument for the possibility of redemption.
As a teenager in the late sixties, Rodríguez was incarcerated at Riker’s Island in New York City for harassment. After his release, he became a heroin addict — and then a thief, to support his habit. He was sent back to Riker’s for robbing a small grocery store. He came out a second time determined to beat his addiction.
Rodríguez went to a free methadone clinic and moved out of the neighborhood where he’d gotten into trouble. The Family of Man, a book of photographs by photographers from around the world, inspired him to buy a camera. He took a workshop at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and started taking pictures everywhere he went — until he got mugged, and the camera was broken. Undeterred, he attended New York City Technical College through an affirmative-action program and later went to the International Center of Photography, where he cleaned darkroom sinks in exchange for a chance to attend classes.
Rodríguez is an award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in Time, Life, and National Geographic. His book East Side Stories: Gang Life in East LA (powerHouse Books) was a critical and popular success in a genre — photography books — that rarely garners much attention. He still lives in Brooklyn, where he grew up.
Rodríguez’s latest book, Juvenile (powerHouse Books), documents the lives of incarcerated youths in California’s juvenile-justice system. But Rodríguez doesn’t just photograph the boys and girls behind bars. He follows them back into their communities as they try to find jobs, get an education, and raise their children. Many fail because they can’t stay off drugs, are overwhelmed by college-admissions paperwork, or don’t know you have to call in sick when you can’t show up for a job.
Rodríguez’s photographs demonstrate how precipitously close to disaster these young people live. “All kids make mistakes,” he says. “The difference is that if you’re in the middle or upper class, you have a wider safety net to catch you when you fall.”
Thanks to Maria Finn Dominguez for bringing the work of Joseph Rodríguez to our attention.