How Joseph Rodriguez's Photographs Humanize the "Other America"
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But his focal point remains gritty intersection between the familiar and the alien. After traversing Los Angeles gang turf, he followed another strand of Latino America to the tobacco fields of North Carolina, where he photographed the sojourns of migrant farm workers. He's also traced the migrant trail to a band of homeless children in Nogales, Arizona, peering into the storm drains along the border where they found shelter. When he surfaced on the other side, he and his collaborator, author Ruben Martinez, navigated a border passage fraught with government patrols and drug traffickers and then accompanied the laborers into the fields, where they documented the daily cycle of their seasonal toil, from daybreak to twilight.
Beyond the southern rim of the U.S., Rodriguez's lens has captured other kinds of itinerants. On the other side of the border, his documentary project on sex workers, “ Spirit and Flesh,” illuminated the powder-masked faces of haunting Mexico City's cement harems and gothic alleys like charmed gargoyles. In a snapshot taken in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he froze the constant tear of a mother displaced from the Ninth Ward, who had sealed her past in a scar running down her forehead and an oozing plastic eye.
Shortly after September 11, 2001, Rodriguez snapped an image of a boy warrior in Kabul, grinning as he aimed the rocket launcher on his shoulder at the horizon, his back to a wall of sun-scorched stones. His eyes share that glimmer of mischief and menace that peppers Rodriguez's shots of LA gang youth. In a parallel portrait from that collection, a boy poses in front of a black car toting a semiautomatic rifle, next to his friend in dark glasses holding up the trademark splayed fingers. Their cool smirks betray no portent that the caption would some day read, “The Kid on the right is now dead.”
A few years ago Rodriguez panned to the immigrant neighborhoods of Malmo, Sweden, where Muslim youth from troubled places like Afghanistan and Algeria struggle to define themselves in a swirling mosaic of Scandinavian stoicism and hip hop bravado. Kids in hoodies stalk the generic concrete block housing that dots ghettos around the globe. “Homeboys hanging out in Nydala, Sweden” pose before a brick wall scrawled with “Crips.” Through Rodriguez's lens they flash familiar signs, refracting a globalized idiom back across the Atlantic. And back in Spanish Harlem, his Portraits of Another America hold up a nation's crooked mirror image to other obscured worlds, with all the feral innocence of a reluctant icon.
"I've always been interested in the other," Rodriguez says. "Because when you're the other, you're on the outside."
Joseph Rodriguez's Portraits of Another America is on display at Taller Boricua, 1680 Lexington Avenue, through mid-August.