Joseph Rodriguez

The documentary photographer in conversation with Pete Brook on mass incarceration and photography.

Joseph Rodriguez is a 1985 graduate of the International Center of Photography’s Documentary and Photojournalism Program and is currently a faculty member at the ICP School. The following interview is excerpted from a longer conversation between Rodriguez and writer/curator Pete Brook of the Prison Photography blog.

Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Juvenille".
Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Juvenille".

Pete Brook: What’s this all about? You’ve photographed communities, ordinary folk, struggling folk, generations that sometimes do well and sometimes struggle. We have a wider economic gap than ever before. What do we need to do to improve?

Joseph Rodriguez: You’ve really got to work on family. This country lies to us a lot. As soon as it's time for an election, all the politicians get up, hold a baby, and push “family, family, family.”

I remember my mother having to go on welfare because my stepfather just wasn't providing. He had people looking for him and all kinds of stuff. The welfare office wasn't the most pleasant experience, but I remember Mayor Beame had pushed the program of welfare reform to a certain extent. If you were on welfare and you were able to work you had the opportunity to go to a university for free, and that's what my mother did. She went to community college at night, built her education up, and what does she do? She goes on to work for the Board of Education for the next 25 to 30 years of her life.

Another program is Head Start. Fund it! If you don't support daycare the way the government used to, you don't give families an opportunity. It all starts right there in that little nuclear world, and then you go out into the public world and then a lot of things can happen or not happen. There’s not just one thing that's going to fix everything. It's got to be community, church, government, some social programs, and some value-based education.

PB: What do prisons do?

JR: There are people that should be in prison. Some people are just really violent, and you're just not going to twist that around. You've got enough psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists that have been writing about that for over a hundred years, so that's not going to change. But this war that's been going on for the past 25 years isn’t about those violent people.

Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Juvenille".
Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Juvenille".

PB: The ‘War on Drugs’?

JR: Yeah. It's just absolutely destroyed so many people,

You have to remember addiction’s a disease, and it's more complicated [than the War on Drugs suggests]. You've got families that now are mentally challenged, physically challenged, economically challenged, educationally challenged, socially challenged.

One of my daughters was in a bad relationship. And this young man, he seemed like a good guy, but he was constantly abusing her, putting her down. It wasn't until a couple years later that I found out. This young man never got a high school diploma. I remember what it was like when I was 19 and I had a girlfriend. I had no education and she did; she was moving on in her life and education. I felt so insecure; I needed to control her, [and] the only control I [had] was to be abusive, “You're stupid, you're this, you're that.”

If a man doesn't have an education usually — and that doesn't mean just an education from NYU or college, but something that he’s been taught, a job, something from which he gains autonomy — then he does not have a sense of purpose. He's going to hate himself. Now, put that on top of all the other issues— if you're Black, if you're Hispanic...

Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Juvenille".
Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Juvenille".

PB: You’re poor, you’re in ill health, and you’re in friction with the law...

JR: As BIllie Holiday used to sing, you don't want to feel the pain so what do you do? You find ways not to feel the pain. You drink, you maybe do some drugs, Maybe you have sex or maybe eat too much.

I’ve been reading Jessie's story. His family are Mexican migrants working in the fields. He goes to school. He has to get up at 3:30 in the morning to work the fields, then get back to the house at 7:30 to go to school, nothing in his stomach. There are eight kids and Jessie’s father's doing everything he possibly can to make a better life for his wife. His mother's working as well. Jessie would fall asleep at school, and the teacher's saying he’s a lazy and stupid Mexican. He starts getting bitter at 12.

Now, Jessie also comes from a family that didn't use the word “love” but he notices that white people love. Other fathers say they love their children. If a man does not have dignity he doesn't like himself, but he’ll continue. “You know, I didn't like what I had to do in my life but I took care of my family,” people say. Was the love always obvious?

Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Juvenille".
Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Juvenille".

PB: Providing parents can be seen as cold and distant?

JR: A lot of people have a problem with that, so what are you going to do? You're going to come home, have a couple Budweisers. You don't like yourself, you're watching football, your wife's asking you something, you tell her to shut up, hands are raised, and then the cycle starts. If kids see this, they carry it on. They do the same thing. So, yeah, we could say violence is a societal problem, but a lot happens in that little bedroom when you’re a kid. That's my own personal view. 

PB: What do you think about your mugshot?

JR: I want people to know who the photographer was and still is. I just got this beautiful message the other day from a young man who's been in 15 foster homes and who just graduated from RIT. He told [ICP School Dean] Fred Ritchin, “That Joe Rodriguez changed my life, and I never met the guy!”

PB: Because of the mugshot in the context of your wider body of work?

JR: Yes. My mother would be embarrassed, my family would be embarrassed, and my daughters have seen it. They see the struggle and pain in my eyes, but that picture's there for a reason, it's not for vanity. My work is about mentorship. The work is about our kids, it's not just about making pictures. We can't all hoop, rap, or dance our way out of the hood all the time, you know! 

Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Juvenille".
Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Juvenille".

PB: You made images to get out?

JR: I don't like that term "role model" sometimes because it's so parochial; I feel like a priest! My mugshot shows the kids, “Hey, I fucked up. It took me a while, but we can change our situation.”

We have a very important word in our country, and it is “redemption.” All our movies are made about that! Why do we always love the underdog? The guy who messed up? The guy who changes his life and gets the beautiful girl and walks into the sunset?! I just wanted the kids to see that and to be honest with them that maybe the work and maybe the identity of a photographer can help you work with your story.

PB: I understand David Inocencio, director of The Beat Within zine, was the guy who got you into San Francisco Juvenile Detention Facility. Juvenile is a big body of work. How did you get in? Did you need to know people, so to speak?

JR: David has a lot of juice in that town. He's been putting in serious hard work in San Francisco for 30 years. David writes back every prison letter, and you know what that's like. You can get tons of mail, but he would always take the time to write them back.

David was someone who actually helped nurture me with this gang project and introduced me to writers like Ruben Martinez, Richard Rodriguez, and Nell Bernstein. So I like this collaboration idea. Facility wise, we went into several different facilities, but truly that's not my way of working. I've seen photographers work by moving around a lot, but I like to be in one place and work one space for a while. Recently, I received a letter from the Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall.

PB: Which appears in your book Juvenile...

JR: A probation officer wrote, “Dear Mr. Rodriguez, we don't know each other, but I wanted to tell you that your book Juvenile has been used to teach the counselors.” (They don't call them corrections officers, they call them counselors). “Counselors as they come in,” letter continues, “give it to the parents who have their children locked up in here. It's been our bible.”

Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Eastside Stories".
Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Eastside Stories".

PB: This is very interesting that your photography is being used by the facility itself, because I've come across plenty of examples where photography is being used by opponents to the system.

JR: Tiffany Lopez, an English professor at the University of California, Riverside, uses the Eastside Stories and Juvenile texts in her curriculum. A professor out in Arizona has been using both books as well. I feel very proud that the work is being used like that because what I try to do is bring a human face to these ridiculous numbers, that's all.

PB: Everyone needs to see what our kids are going through. What did the kids and their caretakers think about your work? Did they have a similar attitude like you're doing a good thing Joe, and we're with you on this?

JR: I don't know. I never know. I do the work, and it goes out. It’s like having a baby—it's just out there in the world. Ted Koppel had a show on ABC. Koppel had a producer in the same facility as me for six months. She went in everyday because they’ve got mad money. Me, I go a couple times.

I couldn't believe that I waited six months for the piece to air, when they were passing this bill in California to lower the age to be tried as an adult. It was a seven minute piece! I was like, “You got to be kidding me, man! This is seven minutes?” Meanwhile, I couldn't get Eastside Stories into the facility because it's considered edgy. I got the access from the judge.

Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Eastside Stories".
Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Eastside Stories".

PB: If someone wants to be in the world with a camera in their hand, what should they be thinking every morning when they wake up?

JR: What do they care about? What do you care about? What provides the inquisitive nature to go in and look at something deeper? I'm looking to make great photographers out of my students —not good photographers.

There are a million photographers out here; everyone can push that button. These days, you need to care about people.

We're such a mess in the world today that I think the social documentary practice is almost as important as it was for the great photographers of the FSA. And we have a lot more ways of getting the work out, vis-à-vis the web. Of course, there's a downside too — there's a lot of noise out there on the web so a lot of great work gets lost. But I'm a true believer that good work will always find a place, not just about money, but it will find its voice.

Take The Photo League — a bunch of photographers from the ‘30s, all like ourselves, living in a city that was pretty crazy. They wanted to speak about the city, so they created a collective. Today, it’d be in Bushwick somewhere.

PB: Do it yourself?

JR: Get out on the street, sit on the stoop, get the story. The Photo League is one of the foundations for ICP... the whole idea of being in a small little room where photographers can talk about photography. We're a socially minded community. In one of the workshops I teach, I give students the option to go to one of four different neighborhoods. It's gone on to really great things for some of the students.

Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Eastside Stories".
Joseph Rodriguez. From the series "Eastside Stories".

PB: In the same way that young RIT graduate said you’d changed his life, did you get in touch with photographers and say “I like your work, help me, mentor me,” when you were in your 20s? Did you reach out?

JR: I was shy. I gotta tell you. I did it at ICP. Going to school there was amazing. I remember Salgado looking at my pictures, and all I could do was photograph my life as a taxi driver. I was really very shy, and I just I wound up shooting through the windows a lot—stuff on the street. It was pretty cinematic, but he saw the pictures, and he didn't say anything. I fucking blew it. That killed me!

Then I took a workshop with Mary Ellen Mark, and she was the one who really kicked my ass. She said, "You don't believe in who you are." I got defensive and said "What do you mean?"

"Well you don't believe in yourself as a photographer,” she said. So, she gave me this exercise. "When you get up in the morning in your underwear stand in front of the mirror and tell yourself you're a photographer for 15 minutes." Doesn't that sound a little hokey to you? Believe it or not your boy did it and so I began to slowly believe more in myself as a photographer.

Now, I tell my students the same. If you don't go out with reverence when you say you want to photograph somebody, they're not going to take you seriously. You're going to get a snapshot, nothing more. This is important especially if you’re not coming from a place of people photography. I found photography in a very amateur way; it gave me happiness, gladness, and made me want to produce something that I was interested and excited about. To this day, though, I'm still nervous when I've got to go out and photograph.