How Joseph Rodriguez's Photographs Humanize the "Other America"
Photo Credit: Joseph Rodriguez
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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.
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.