Research Spotlight: Richard Ross

UCSB Art Professor Researches American Juvenile Justice System

Image Courtesy of Richard Ross

Joanne Rhee
Staff Writer

“The question is, how do we treat each other this way, and why? Does it make sense on ethical and moral grounds? Does it make sense on financial grounds? Can we get a better outcome for children, families and society by revisiting our policies and our habits? Instead of having kids answer to society, what happens if we have society answer to kids? You start thinking changes and your outcome changes.”

These are the questions that have driven the research of Art Professor Richard Ross. Professor Ross has taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara since 1977 and is well known across the globe for his photography. Ross has been featured in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Vogue among other publications.

While at UCSB, Ross’ research has focused primarily on the juvenile justice system in America. He didn’t always know he was going to be a modern-day reformer.

“I did bodies of work that became more political, more involved,” Ross said. “I photographed the El Paso Juvenile Detention Center doing architectural work and I realized there were kids in there. Once I started talking to the kids, there was no stopping. It’s not hard to figure out where it started. It’s pretty impossible to figure out how to stop it.”

Since then, he has been involved in various projects dealing with the juvenile justice system. His Juvenile In Justice project, and book, has received national recognition. The project includes photographs and interviews of children from over 100 juvenile facilities in 30 states.

Currently, Professor Ross is involved in multiple different projects. One focuses on photographing those involved in significant Supreme Court cases such as Graham v. Florida, Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana. “I’m going to photograph some of these people so that there are faces, and you realize that there are and were real lives at stake with this,” he said.

“I’m also photographing older prisoners, inmates, who were charged as juveniles and now are in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, in some cases,” Professor Ross said, describing another project. “It’s like the flipside of the coin.”

“You’re trying to deal with changing juvenile legislation, and you’re dealing with people who were charged as kids,” he said. “Now the reasons that you’re holding them are so unsupported, and you have to help people buy into the fact that maybe this doesn’t make that much sense.”

Additionally, Professor Ross is in the process of creating an illustrated children’s book called My Brothers in Juvie. “There’s some children’s books that deal with difficult topics like divorce, suicide, cancer, and there’s nothing on kids in the criminal justice system,” he said. The book is going to follow two children — one Latino and one African-American — and the circumstances they’re in.

Most recently, Professor Ross’s solitary confinement room was erected at the UCSB University Center from April 4 through 8. The room resembled a typical solitary confinement room found in juvenile detention centers. Visitors were able to walk around in the display, while listening to recordings of children who had been in solitary confinement. The installment was hosted by UCSB’s IGNITE (Invest in Graduation Not Incarceration, Transform Education) campaign, a statewide campaign that seeks to raise awareness of California’s disinvestment in education and investment in the state incarceration system.

Though he has seen a lot over the years, one of the most shocking things Professor Ross has experienced during his research was one of the photographs he had taken. In the photograph is a whitewashed cement brick wall with small red smudges.

“Blood on the wall,” Professor Ross said of the photo that had been taken after a young girl banged her head repeatedly on the wall of her room. “How does this exist? You think of it as a metaphor with his or her hand-prints all over it. It’s always a metaphor. When you see the blood on the wall and there’s a kid there, and the kid’s crying, how do you walk away from that?”

It’s clear how passionate he is about his research and various projects. Ross says being an activist requires “perseverance, focus, inability to understand the word no, an understanding that there are lives at stake. Mostly, you have to have a conscience to do it.”

“You have to have the understanding that your life has meaning,” Ross said. “And at some points in your lives, depending on your family, depending on your upbringing, you think that money is the big valuation to what you think accomplishment is. You do have to be able to look in the mirror at the end of a day, at the end of a week, month, year, lifetime, and you never want to say to yourself: I could have, I should have, I would have. You want to live a life that has very few compromises in terms of what you hope to achieve, because it’s all there for you.”