Before entering a youngster’s jail cell, he asks permission to come in. If invited, he sits down on the bare floor.
Then Richard Ross, internationally known Guggenheim Fellowship-winning photographer, looks up at the teenager and listens.
In the course of this work, “I realized I was their conduit,” Ross said of the more than 1,000 young people he’s visited in U.S. juvenile justice facilities.
This Monday evening, Ross will speak and show his photography in Centrum’s Communiversity Arts & Lectures series. The 5:30 p.m. event will go online via Zoom; tickets are $15 via Centrum.org.
“I’m doing a conversation rather than a talk. Conversations are always more interesting,” Ross said in an interview. Walking around the University of California at Santa Barbara campus near his home, he reflected on his ongoing work.
“It was definitely daunting,” Ross, now 73, said of the day 15 years ago when he sought to go inside a juvenile hall. He wanted to show Americans the reality of imprisoned children.
“It is incredibly sad. But rather than wring your hands or say ‘I will pray for you,’ there are ways you can impact change. One of the best ways,” he said, “is by witnessing anything and everything. Showing up.”
As for gaining access, “everything’s difficult. But nothing’s impossible. You make a compelling argument.” His argument and mission are to give incarcerated young people a voice; a presence not as data, but as humans. The results appear on juvenile-in-justice.com.
Ross has witnessed — and photographed — fleeting rays of light. One lunchtime at Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall, the staff “opened up from normal routine,” he recalled, “and created a beat on the steel lunch tables. The girls began a very free-form and enthusiastic dance. Very unplanned,” he said, “and unique in the joy and spontaneity I have seen.”
Rob Birman, Centrum’s executive director, pursued Ross right after seeing him on KCTS-TV in the “Brief but Spectacular” segment, in which artists talk quickly about what’s on their minds.
“I remember watching this three-minute thing. I was so moved by what he does for a living, and by his commitment,” Birman said.
“I just reached out to him, cold,” and the two agreed on Ross’ Communiversity appearance.
Ross will converse Monday night with Crosscut.com’s Shaminder Dulai, a fellow photographer who also has won numerous fellowships and had his projects appear in Newsweek, The Guardian and NBC, among other media.
“I hope he starts with questions,” Ross said, since he prefers dialogue over monologue.
One question he asks: “How to keep morally centered and still active around issues you care about, when they’re competing with every other issue on the planet?”
In these times, “you’re cooking on six burners simultaneously — and the oven’s on fire.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.