Take Two®

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

Photographer documents prison inmates' 'Re-Entry' into society

by Take Two®

Two homeboys holding a .22 semi-automatic rifle in East Los Angeles, 1992. The teenager on the right is now dead. Joseph Rodriguez

Award-winning Photographer Joseph Rodriguez has documented jihadists in Afghanistan, the torture of Kurds in Southeast Turkey, and the destruction wrought by hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, but some of his most devastating images are of daily life right here in Los Angeles. 

In 1993 he documented gang life in East L.A. in his project East Side Stories. His new work is a photo series called Re-Entry in Los Angeles, and it features men and women recently released from prison as they return to life on the outside. The project grew out of his own experience: as a teenager Rodriguez did two stints in Rikers Island. 

This year Joseph Rodriguez will travel with this new project to universities and community colleges in California to help train young journalists how to better cover people as they leave prison and re-enter society.

Interview Highlights:

On his motivation for Re-Entry: Los Angeles:
"I think for me it was about taking a really close look at them as individuals, to illustrate some of the data coming out. California is amazing in terms of its research and data, but what I wanted to do was to humanize the subjects, humanize the data to look at the person and try and get a story."

On his own personal experience with being released from prison:
"I wound up in Riker's Island…A teenager, I grew up in lots of violence. Not so much gang violence, but domestic violence. My step father was a drug addict and by the time I became a teenager. It was the late '60s early '70s and drug culture was everywhere in New York, like it was out here in California. I wanted to get rid of that pain. The pain of trauma and what we call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So I became a heroin addict just like my stepfather."

On going from shooting heroin to shooting pictures:
"I came out of Riker's Island a second time. Things are so different today, in terms of the kinds of support networks out there for young folks. I was at the point where I was going to commit suicide…I had a heroin addiction I was kicking in jail, and there wasn't methadone or things to give you to calm down. When the judge called me that day, that was the day I was considering to jump off the tier, seriously. Then I got called into court, then they released me on probation and my probation officer said Ok you need to get a job, that was it. 

"I went out and bought a cheap camera, got some chemicals, I build a dark room. I used to photograph in my community in Brooklyn, but always with a telephoto lens. I was afraid of people because I didn't know how to deal with that world of communication, but communicating with a camera was a whole other way to develop myself."

On the themes of his photography:
"The family has always been key in my photography. You can go way back to my first project in Spanish Harlem, and continue on from there, its always been about the family. If we're going to talk about re-entry, if we're going to talk about incarceration, we've got to talk about the family…It takes a lot of courage for a mother or a father to try to regroup with your children after time has been spent and you have not been there for your child."

On the image of Jorge Carbajal and his family:
"The fathers are invited to come to these parenting meetings…This man was a really special husband and father. He quit his job, he was working for an airline and he was doing a lot of traveling, but when his wife got into trouble, he said,'Wwhoa I really want to be there for my wife and kids.' He really manned up and was there and you can see it, he comes to the meetings and tries to be supportive and tries to take care and be the man, be the father and the husband. I put them together as a family, and you have to wait when you're photographing children because they move a lot, you have to shoot a fair amount. Finally we got this picture that I like a lot, it speaks about the family. 

On the image of the father showing his infant daughter how to load a gun:
"I'd been working with this guy for quite sometime ... He lives on a corner where his rival gang also lives, so he's really in a vulnerable spot. All the guns were there because the night before his homeboys were there standing by the windows protecting the family. When I asked him what would be the caption for this photo, he said, "Last night they tried to shoot at my father," speaking as if he was the daughter…the baby. 

"It really was a moment of survival, complex of course. I have to be honest to tell you. I always had trouble with this photograph, because it's so loaded. In 1993, the Brady Bill was being passed in Congress, the assault weapons ban, I can't believe today we're having the same conversations we did in 1993, so for me, the project "East Side Stories" was always about the mothers that I met who told me that you must tell this story because our children are dying on the streets because there are so many guns on the streets. Simply put."

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