RENO, Nev. — One picture shows a 12-year-old boy in a yellow jump suit staring at the wall of a tiny, windowless cell at a Mississippi detention center. Another zooms in on the bruised and blackened eye of a 14-year-old Oklahoma girl locked up for running away from a group home.
A third depicts a 10-year-old Nevada boy, barefoot and beltless in a white, concrete intake cell with a sandwich and a small carton of milk.
The stark images are part of an exhibit, “Juvenile In Justice,” that photographer Richard Ross hopes will bring changes in the way the nation deals with what he said are the roughly 70,000 youths held in detention or correctional facilities across the country on any given night — many of them for offenses no more serious than skipping school.
“These are no places for kids,” said the longtime art professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, adding that he is on a mission to test the limits of the “power of images in social advocacy.”
“I’m not a criminologist or a sociologist,” he said. “I’m just trying to help arm those people, give them visual tools they don’t have to make their case. They can show policymakers this is real.”
The exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art through Jan. 13 — and a book of the same name — are the product of Ross spending parts of the last five years photographing and interviewing more than 1,000 incarcerated youths at more than 300 facilities in 30 states.
Excerpts of the interviews supplement the pictures:
“I spend all day and all night in here,” said a 16-year-old boy in a cell at South Bend (Ind.) Juvenile Correctional Facility. “No mattress, no sheets and I get all my meals through this slot.”
A 14-year-old boy at the Pueblo (Colo.) Youth Services Center held on a gun charge and probation violation said: “I’ve been in 15, maybe 16 times … My dad can’t visit ’cause he has warrants out against him. He’s in a gang. So are my four brothers.”
The stories and the settings are all too familiar to Shawn Marsh.
“It is an accurate reflection,” said Marsh, who worked in a number of facilities and now is director of the Juvenile and Family Law Department at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. “In many ways, the photographs are mild. They don’t show the abusive side.”
“These are not facilities that encourage even the best of the best to be human,” he said.
It’s a very different view of the world than Ross, 65, used to capture as principal photographer on a number of architectural projects at the Getty Conservation Institute and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, or shooting pictures for the New York Times, Harpers and others.
“I spent years and years — maybe too much time really — doing beautiful things, creating things with lines and texture, shape and form,” said Ross, who quotes Booker T. Washington in the book saying: “The study of art that does not result in making the strong less willing to oppress the weak means little.”
“I lecture more now at law schools than art schools,” he said. “People are using my images not only in museums, which is great, but also in public policy.”
That includes Rebecca Gasca, a juvenile justice advocate and consultant with the Campaign for Youth Justice who intends to take his book with her on lobbying trips to the Nevada Legislature. “We need to put this on coffee tables in every legislator’s office,” Gasca said.
The project — which opened earlier this year in Paris and is off next to Chicago, Atlanta and New York City — became possible initially when Ross won a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation.
With prior experience photographing juvenile detainees, he began to take a more thorough look at the situation and became convinced it was a project he had to do during a visit with a juvenile justice instructor in El Paso, Texas.
“I asked him, ‘Do you ever think you’ll be so successful that you’ll be out of a job?’ He said, ‘Not as long as the state of Texas keeps making 10-year-olds.'”
Over the following five years, Ross sat on bunks and floors, listening to their stories. “They work with me on how we can take their pictures without their faces,” he said.
Public radio’s Ira Glass, host of “This American Life,” wrote the forward for the 192-page book the Annie E. Casey Foundation helped support along with the overall project.
William F. Dressel, president of the National Judicial College at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a former judge in Colorado, hopes the exhibit will help lead to reforms.