'I realized I was a conduit for their voices'

Perched on a bed that consists of little more than a black metal frame and a thin mattress covered in blue cloth, a 13-year-old girl takes in her surroundings. The walls are grimy and bare. Her back is to the camera. “I have two more months in here,” she says. “I’m in for VOP [violation of parole]. My mom visits, but my dad is locked up at Sing Sing.”

Meanwhile, E.E., 12 years old when she landed in the system for the first time, is now 13 and has been in juvenile detention five times. When not detained, she lives with her mother and sister. She hasn’t seen her father since she was 2.

And in yet another facility, 16-year-old T. crouches in the dirt inside a small animal pen. He cuddles a rabbit to his chest. With his legs outstretched, he barely fits the diameter of the space. He gazes down at the animal, gently holding it against his orange jumpsuit, stroking its ear with his thumb and forefinger.

T. is on his second go-around in juvenile detention, locked up for running away, breaking and entering, and burglary. With no one looking after him, T. found ways to fend for himself.

If pictures speak louder than words, Richard Ross’s images of these and other adolescent and teenage kids ensnared in the country’s juvenile justice systems are nothing softer than a roar.

Artist, activist and distinguished research professor of art, Ross is the creator of the award-winning “–In Justice” series, which includes three published volumes and a traveling exhibition. “Juvenile in Justice” documents the placement and treatment of adolescents and teenagers in facilities across the United States that are meant to assist, confine and/or punish them. “Girls in Justice” explores the stark reality of girls — ranging in age from 11 to 18 — remanded to detention centers. Most are there for low-level crimes — simple assault; public disorder; property, drug or status offenses; or technical violations — and nearly 75% are victims of physical and sexual violence. “Juvie Talk: Unlocking the Language of Juvenile Justice,” the third book in the series,” uses the teens’ and adolescents’ own words and vernacular — including those of T. and E.E. — to share what is true about their lives in juvenile placement centers. The next volume in the series, “First Arrests,” is forthcoming in spring 2024.


boy in green room


Ross’s ultimate goal has been to change legislation and, by extension, improve the lives of system-involved children. “My greatest achievement with this work,” he said, “is that I have been able to impact their outcomes. I have been able to move the needle a fraction of a degree. That’s landmark. It’s unimaginable for an artist to think they can do that. It speaks to the power of art.”

Ross has accomplished this by talking to the kids themselves. “I put their images together with their voices and I make a compelling case for who they are and the mitigating circumstances of their lives,” Ross continued. “And I put it into a world where people have to pay attention and they have to believe it. This is not AI. You can’t fake the words of these kids.”

Ross’s work requires a blend of artistic vision, sensitivity and a high degree of emotional intelligence, all of which he honed over decades interviewing and documenting more than 1,000 of these young people. His work has taken him to over 400 sites and 35 states. Given the sheer number of detention centers he has visited, as well as the number of residents he has interviewed, Ross has a rare perspective on the lives and histories of the teens and adolescents he has photographed. He also has become a conduit between them and the world, giving voice to kids who otherwise have no way to be heard. And the majority of those he has queried have been willing to talk.

Most creative work has its DNA in something else, and Ross’s “–In Justice” series is rooted in his “Architecture of Authority” project. Published in 2007 by Aperture Press, “Architecture of Authority” presents unsettling images of architectural spaces that are designed to exert power over the individuals within them. Among the spaces are churches, mosques, civic areas, the Iraqi National Assembly Hall, an interrogation room at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Angola State Prison Lethal Injection Chamber and a UC Santa Barbara lecture hall.

girls in a detention cafeteria

But it wasn’t Ross’s plan to become a de facto expert on the subject of juveniles in detention.

“By chance, I ended up at the El Paso Juvenile Detention Center, which looked a lot like Guantanamo,” he recalled. “I wasn’t really photographing kids; I was photographing architecture. But when I started talking to them, I realized I was a conduit for their voices. No one else existed for them. And that became a critical responsibility.”

And it became his mission. “Once I started talking to the kids, there was no turning back,” he said. Ross grew up in Brooklyn, New York, which he credits for his “scrappiness” and his “ability to get shit done.” “I grew up with an attitude that served me well: to believe I could do anything,” he said. “Not everything, but anything.”

His first mature work involved museums, exploring their basements, attics, storerooms and preparation rooms — those spaces that are away from the general public, where the illusions of reality and the curation of cultural history begin. “That came from my parents dropping me off at the Brooklyn Museum of Art before the doors opened and having me wander around there on my own.”

In fact, were it not for his father’s weekly handball game, Ross’s creative endeavors might have followed an entirely different trajectory.

“My father used to play handball at a place next to the museum and he didn’t want to be late,” Ross recalled, “so he’d drop me off before the museum opened. The security guards would let me in with a warning not to get into any trouble and I’d roam around for an hour or two before the lights were on.”

That led to art classes at the museum and then to the University of Vermont and the University of Florida and then a long career at UC Santa Barbara. “I started at UC Santa Barbara in 1978 teaching printmaking,” he said. “I was involved in photo printmaking, and I got more interested in the idea of the photo, which was more immediate, rather than the longer version of the process that included metal plates and stone lithography. The speed of photography and the veracity of photography and the time and space you could capture with photography fascinated me.

“When I began, it was a time when lecturers and adjunct faculty were respected and Santa Barbara was actually affordable for a young family,” he noted.

Ross’s photography career has been both deep and varied. “I had many careers simultaneously,” he explained, “as a gallery and fine art photographer showing at museums and galleries, as an editorial photographer, as a teacher, as a commercial photographer. And I was able to do everything simultaneously.”

In what he described as “the gig of a lifetime,” he was the principal photographer for the Getty Conservation Institute and the Getty Museum on many of their architectural projects. “That enabled me to get all over the planet, from China to North Africa to South America,” he said. “I’ve been to every continent less Antarctica.”

He has photographed extensively for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Examiner, Vogue, COLORS, Time, Newsweek and Le Monde, among others. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Public Welfare Foundation, and he is both a Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellow.

Ross’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, at the Tate Modern in London, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., Aperture Gallery in New York, ACME Gallery in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in the Capitol rotunda during hearings and votes on legislation and the National Justice Museum in Nottingham, England. Recently, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., acquired a large body of his work from the “-In Justice” series.

While the work of an artist may be judged by museums and galleries, Ross’s work as an activist has him heavily engaged in social media. “To get to the older policymakers, one must first engage the aides and interns,” he said. This requires posting on channels such as Instagram, X and TikTok, where some of his stories have garnered more than a million views.

two photos of girls in juvenile detention

In addition to his “–In Justice” series and “Architecture of Authority,” Ross also is the author of the recently released “Art as a Weapon of Justice: A Guidebook for Change,” in which he shares 101 lessons for life. Highlighting key concepts, words of wisdom and personal anecdotes, Ross aims to give readers — his target audience includes high school and college students — a set of tools for navigating life.

His work is ongoing, with Juvie Lifers, about people incarcerated at 16 who are just being released at 80.

At press time, Ross was packing for trips to Florida, Kentucky and Maryland, and planning a return trip to the UK. He also spent the past month working with the production team for Ken Burns’s documentary “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness” and collaborating on a publication with the nonprofit organization Human Rights for Kids.

But the work that matters most to him? Sitting on the floor of a cell and listening to the kids. Connecting with the kids who speak of the trauma and violence in their lives. Ross said the conversations do take their toll on him, and it can be hard to separate. “At the same time, it is the action of research,” he added. “Giving these kids time is also an act of charity.” He paused for a moment, thoughtful. “And simultaneously, it’s bliss. To be able to do work like this is magnificent. It’s not like an artist doing something clever or something people will appreciate because of its line, shape, texture or form. This work is so riveting and compelling that it’s ecstasy to do it.”

In Video

Fall / Winter 2023


illustration of a skull

Altered States

lightning and purple sky

What’s the deal with weather?

illustration of an American Eagle by Michael Glenwood

Democracy is more fragile than you think