Joseph Rodriguez is the author of four books. His latest book, East Side Stories: Gang Life in East L.A., is a documentary about gang life, published in 1998 by powerHouse Books, New York. His next book, entitled Juvenile, will be published in 2001 by powerHouse. He is affiliated with the Pacific News Service and is represented by Black Star photo agency and Mira Bildarkiv in Sweden. His work has appeared in numerous publications including National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Time, and GEO. He has exhibited widely in the United States, Sweden, and Mexico. He won Pictures of the Year from the National Press Photographers Association in 1990, 1992, and 1996. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation, Open Society Foundations’ Center on Crime, Communities and Culture, Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography, and Konstnarsnamnden Stipendium.
A couple of years ago my mother was cleaning out my old room when she came across some letters that I had written back in the early 70s while I was incarcerated at Rikers Island. They were the usual prison letters of remorse and forgiveness. I look at these letters now and remember how I felt as a young man struggling to find my way. Coming out of prison was a daunting experience. I was placed on probation for drug possession. There was little support for my transition back into society—the only advice my probation officer gave me was, “You better get a job.” But I did get a second chance; I found photography. Eventually I moved out of the community where I had gotten into trouble, educated myself, and became a productive member of society. These experiences became my motivation for this documentary project.
Recently the FBI reported that youth violence in inner cities is declining. However, even as violence declines, incarceration rates rise and prison terms lengthen. The drive for harsher penalties races throughout the country. In the wake of the school shootings in small town America, legislative bodies are mulling over proposals to try even 11-year-olds as adults. If the current rate of incarceration continues, one out of four of the generation born in 1997 will be in prison by the age of 21. Among the African American community, it will be one out of every two in that age group.
In 1999, I received a media fellowship from the Open Society Foundations’ Center on Crime, Communities, and Culture to document the lives of youthful offenders, their successes and their failures. I spent the year following over a dozen youth and documenting their experiences. Some are on probation or in group-homes while others are struggling to find meaningful employment or complete their education and yet others remain incarcerated.
Many of these kids face more obstacles today than when I was a teenager 34 years ago. They are children of the crack/cocaine era. They are growing up in a world with gangs and easy access to guns. And, they face a criminal justice system with a decreasing interest in offering second chances. All the same, I met many youth who are trying to change their lives despite these difficulties. These people are struggling to become reliable citizens–they have turned their experiences into motivation to turn their lives around and become upstanding citizens.
I would like to thank the Open Society Foundations for allowing me to exhibit part of this project, Sandy Close, David Inocencio from the Pacific News Service, and Christa Gannon of the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office.
—Joseph Rodriguez, October 2000