“I did time for eight parole violations,” said David Lee, 40, from San Fernando Valley (pictured above). Lee’s life is shaped in part by California’s “Three Strikes” law, enacted in 1994, which imposes a life sentence for a wide range of crimes upon people who have two prior convictions considered “serious” by the state. Lee is one of those people. “I have two strikes so I realized that I have this last chance before I wind up with a third strike and go away for life. That is why I came to the Walden House. This is it for me! I am still here.”
Photographer Joseph Rodriguez never strayed far from home, even as he traveled the globe. His career as a documentary photographer has stretched from 117th Street in New York’s Spanish Harlem to the barrios of Los Angeles, and taken him to Mexico, Romania and Kurdistan. But the drive that compels him to make photographs hasn’t changed since he first loaded a roll of Tri-X into a camera. Rodriguez takes photographs to open minds to the realities of the social justice system that most people — even, sometimes, his subjects — tend to skirt, bury and forget.
Rodriguez’s most recent series, “Reentry,” brought him back to Los Angeles, where he worked documenting gang life in the early 1990s. Now he focuses on former prisoners — men and women who have served their time and are reintegrating into society with the help of facilities like The Walden House, and its Female Offender Treatment and Employment Project. Like much of Rodriguez’s work, “Reentry” is anchored in family, which Rodriguez said he believes is key to ending the cycle of mass incarceration.
This fall, Rodriguez spoke about his work with Daniel Cassady, a freelance photographer and writer, as part of a collaboration with the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the @everydayincarceration Instagram project.
What surprised you the most when you began covering social justice stories?
I wouldn’t call it being surprised, it was more of a learning experience. I learned that with a camera I was able to create a relationship that I would not have been able to without a camera. I would become interested in a person’s life, and because this person grew to trust me and opened their heart to me, a bond would form between the two of us, and that bond became a revelation to me.
Do you think that people have a fundamental craving for this kind of bond? Most people, they say they don’t want to be photographed, or interviewed, yet once the process begins they open up.
I learned this early on in photography. When I was young, I didn’t have a voice. I wasn’t allowed to speak at home. Speak when spoken to, that was the norm. And, going way back, seven or eight years old, I spent a lot of time at home alone, you know, watching TV after school is what you did. And the heroes of the time, the classics — Superman, Batman, and even before that, Davy Crockett and Hop-along Cassidy — I always loved these guys. Why? Because they wanted to help people.
I’ve always had this dream of helping people. Because it wasn’t easy growing up the way I did, a stepfather coming home from prison and using heroin at home. And when you see darkness, and you live in darkness everyday it’s normal for you to look for hope. And the foundation is there, with those early heroes. I care about people, and I want to help them.
Tell me about your process of gaining access to stories and building relationships with subjects. Has that changed over time?
It’s a pretty simple formula: time and patience. It’s really about trying to go through the interview process first with a person, and sit down and just try to get a sense of who they are. There are usually a number of interviews. The first one is where you try to get access to this person’s life, “I’d like to take your photograph, this is the reason why.” Then you move on to, “How do you start your day?” and slowly you begin to understand this person who was once a stranger.