Social Worker With a Camera

Pic source: Sandra C. Roa

Joseph Rodriguez, 58, is what you might call an old-school cat, a straight talker who is a bit rough around the edges. As a photojournalist, his past is his starting point and his palette.

Any New Yorker could immediately peg him for a true Brooklyn guy. It was in Brooklyn, where he was born, that Mr. Rodriguez learned to survive and persevere in the face of poverty and crime.

“Photography kind of saved my life,” he said in a recent interview. “It gave me a sense of focus.Mr. Rodriguez did time on Rikers Island for burglary in the 1970s. During a second term on Rikers, he realized he was getting trapped in a cycle of incarceration.

On release, he bought a used East German camera for $54 and loaded it with Tri-X black-and-white film. His family members and daily street scenes were his first subjects. For the more than 20 years since then, Mr. Rodriguez has been focusing on marginalized families and their daily challenges.

He has spent years in poor neighborhoods exploring not just physical violence but what he calls the “quiet violence of letting families fall apart, the violence of segregation and isolation.

Mr. Rodriguez studied at the International Center of Photography. One of his instructors, Fred Ritchin, handed him an assignment to document the changing face of Harlem. For years, Mr. Rodriguez made images in the community, which led to a 1990 National Geographic cover story, “Growing up in East Harlem.”

This work resulted in Mr. Rodriguez’s proudest moment. He remembers seeing some kids from the neighborhood reading a copy of the magazine. “This is amazing, this is our community — and the guy’s last name is Rodriguez,” he heard them say.

Later, he published the photographs in his first book, “Spanish Harlem, American Scene” (National Museum of American Art/Distributed Art Publishers, 1995).

Then, living in Sweden, while listening to his gangsta rap albums, he found himself more and more curious about the lives and activities depicted in the lyrics he heard.

That led him to East L.A. in 1992, where he began his main body of work, documenting gang members and their families. These photographs reveal a street culture with complex layers of violence and criminal activity. Though often harsh, his work also shows surprisingly tender scenes of domestic life, albeit domestic life with handguns.
One day, standing at a school bus stop, he fell into conversation with a teenager. Mr. Rodriguez told him he was preparing to fly to Bosnia to cover the fighting there. He may never forget the teenager’s reply: “Why go to Bosnia? The war is right here.”

Mr. Rodriguez learned from the older generation that not much had changed in East L.A. between the 1965 and 1992 riots when it came to how marginalized the community felt. He published this work in “East Side Stories” (1998), the first in a trilogy published by PowerHouse.

The second, “Juvenile” (2004), illustrates young men during their incarceration. “Gangs on the street is an extension of prison,” said Mr. Rodriguez.

He has just completed editing for the last entry in the trilogy, “Reentry.“

The people in “Reentry,” newly released from prison, are struggling to fit back into society. Mr. Rodriguez uses audio recordings and medium-format portraits to convey their stories. The project reveals generations of convicts within the same family.

Mr. Rodriguez feels a strong sense of responsibility, not only as a Latino, but also as an observer. He describes himself as a walking social worker with a camera. His work requires trust, which he establishes by forming relationships within the community.

Mr. Rodriquez has dealt with the kinds of ethical challenges faced by any photographer who sets out — in the interest of journalism — to report on illicit activity. Once, he was on a rooftop at night with young, armed gang members. A teenager turned to him and asked him to take his picture, posing with his AK-47 assault rifle. Mr. Rodriguez knew that his flash would alert the nearby police helicopters and declined.

“I know I wasn’t considered the perfect photojournalist, to be completely objective,” Mr. Rodriguez said, “because now I’m acting as a parent.”

Sandra Roa

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