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How Joseph Rodriguez's Photographs Humanize the "Other America"

From gang life to migrant workers, this Brooklyn photographer gives voice to people who don't often have one.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Joseph Rodriguez

 
 
 
 

 

Joseph Rodriguez doesn't photograph people, he lives with them.

For over two decades, the Brooklyn-born photojournalist navigated the crawl space between insider and outsider, roaming cities, farms and border lands to snatch images from the margins of society and spring them into the foreground.

At a recent opening for an exhibit at the Taller Boricua, a community art space in East Harlem, he displayed photographs of youth and families who have been at the heart of his work on gangs and the criminal justice system in Southern California. Into his vivid snatches of urban life at its most banal and grotesque, he folds flashes of humor, awkwardness and searing beauty.

You can read it in the lines etched in a mother's face as she heads home to her sons from Chowchilla State Prison. Or in the luxuriant wings unfolding between the outstretched arms of a bare-chested ex-convict, his face to the sun and his back to a chain-link fence.

"I work real hard to try to look at other elements of their lifestyle," Rodriguez says, his lanky figure surrounded by a forest of characters who populate his Americana: bodies plastered with gang insignias, a brooding young shooting victim looking out from a wheelchair perched on his mother's terrace in Dallas, a living room scene of a grinning baby sitting amid scattered bullets, her hands clasping a handgun and cupped by her father's warm grip.

What's most important about the relationship he developed with the people he's photographed lies outside the frame. "I went to quinceañeras. We spent a lot of time eating together, sitting around together. And lots of times I didn't take pictures,” he recalls. “Since I had a car, I'm the guy to the car. I would sometimes drive these guys to go the ob-gyn clinic, the grocery store.”

When he was younger and just starting photography, the camera became a vehicle for him to push closer to his subject and toward his roots.

At first, he says, "I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be able to make all those beautiful photographs and nudes and all those things that really inspired me when I was younger. But the camera came in at a time of crisis in my own life... so that driving energy with the camera forced me to look at stories that I was very close to and experienced." He's sometimes followed subjects for years to chronicle a gang member's transition back to normal life after leaving prison. Keeping a journal is often a critical part of his documentation. "I take each one of the people that I photographed pretty seriously," he says. "And I try to listen."

 

Rodriguez doesn't see “gang life” as a criminal phenomenon. He notes that in many of the troubled communities he's photographed, boys growing up without adult mentors drift toward whatever makes them feel whole.

"A gang is pretty much like an extended family," Rodriguez says. “If they don't feel like they're connecting in the classroom, they don't feel like they're connecting outside in society, then they're going to create their own little group. And then you get your own affirmation within that group.” They became Rodriguez's group, too, in a way. He recently returned to the communities he began shooting 20 years ago and found that many of his guys are still around, and still remember him.

His photography and writing has been used in community education programs to encourage "at-risk" youth to express their perspectives and articulate their aspirations—and maybe discover along the way, as he did, that they have a gift for storytelling. "We usually have a couple of ways to get out of the hood. We can dance, rap or hoop our way out," he says. "But a lot of the youth are very creative." He now makes a point out of mentoring younger artists. But his students might find the art scene more accessible today than it was when Rodriguez was just breaking out, thanks to digital technology and social media. His own palette has tracked those new trends by incorporating new media like video and web-based documentary.