Two current photo exhibits in the Quad-Cities are part of Richard Ross' mission.
"Girls in Justice," now on display through March 15 at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, features 53 photographs that Ross took at juvenile detention facilities around the country. The exhibit at the Figge is its first showing nationally, and a book of the photos has just been published.
Its predecessor, "Juvenile in Justice," will be on display from March 12 to April 18 at the Augustana College Art Museum in Rock Island.
In a phone interview from his office at the University of California-Santa Barbara, where he is a distinguished professor of art, the 67-year-old Ross talked about what went into the "Justice" series.
Q: How did this all come about?
A: I decided I needed to change the world a little bit, and I decided that I was going to use art as my weapon. It's a very simple premise.
Q: Once you decided to do it, what were the biggest challenges?
A: Every image you see in the show takes at least 50 emails, 50 phone calls. The shutter may be released in a fraction of a second, but the advocacy and the paperwork to get in there was endless — and daunting.
Q: Was there a point in this where you felt like saying, forget it, this isn't worth it?
A: I'm really the only one who has the ability to give voices for these kids whose families have no resources, from neighborhoods with no power. So as soon as you make that little self-reflective decision, you have little choice in the matter.
Q: Was it what you were expecting when you got in the doors or was there a drastic difference?
A: My expectations when I got in the doors were really very minimal. My goal was to go in there and listen to these kids. When you listen to a fifth-grader sitting in a cell because he got in an argument with another kid and they started pushing each other and all of a sudden he's in a concrete cell for a day until his mother can bail him out, (you realize) this is no place for kids.
Q: Was that among the more shocking aspects?
A: I go down on a regular basis to Los Angeles, which has one of the biggest systems in the country, and they have the youngest boys. They're basically 10, 11 and 12. What's the logic of putting them in an 8-by-10 cell?
Q: Was it tough to get the trust of the kids you were shooting photos of?
A: Everything takes time. And time is really limited when I have access to these kids. What I did is sit on the floor and give them the authority to cut me off at any point and make sure they knew they were in charge of me instead of vice versa. It was an unusual situation for them, where they were speaking instead of listening to an old white guy who was below them. It was a reverse in the power structure. Those kids are very interested in speaking, no matter what.
Q: Was the girls project different at all emotionally from the other juveniles?
A: When you're dealing with adults incarcerated, you feel bad. When you're dealing with kids, it's worse, and when you're dealing with girls, you realize how (screwed up) the system is. Society really doesn't give the mitigating circumstances of these kids' environment. You ask how many of them have been sexually assaulted, and all of them have. ... Pretty horrifying scenario. These kids are victims as much as they are (criminals). A lot of their behavior is criminalized simply for survival. They refer to things such as sex trafficking, but a lot of girls are simply using sex for survival — for food and shelter. And people take advantage of that.
Q: You talked about wanting to change the world. What do you hope this, whether in book or gallery form, spurs people to do?
A: Well, I give the images to nonprofits so that they're able to take their data and their statistics and put images with them so that people realize that there's lives at stake. It's not just an abstract thought. The goal is to keep kids out of these situations and have better resources put in these communities. When they have yoga or art programs in these centers, it's all well and good, but they need to be more active politically.
Q: Do you think it's made a difference so far?
A: I'm arrogant enough to think I've made a 1 percent difference, which I'll take at this point. For me, it's a tremendous accomplishment because art in this world has really not been dangerous enough in the United States to have an impact. The work that I'm doing makes some of the establishments that I'm dealing with nervous because it means that their world can change. And institutions don't like change.
Q: Have you figuratively or literally closed the book on these projects, or are they open-ended?
A: The problem is you can't when you realize there's a limited number of people who have the ability to do what you're doing and there's an unlimited number of kids.