Photographer Richard Ross wants to make invisible and forgotten children visible. He wants them to have a name and not a number. He wants to give them a voice and show the world that they do have a soul.
Richard Ross, an artist and professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, travels across the country and searches for lost children who live behind bars.
More than 60 of Ross’ photographs will be on display through April 13 at the Ulrich Museum of Art on the Wichita State University campus. More than one dozen were shot in the Sedgwick, Johnson, Wyandotte and Douglas county juvenile detention facilities. The faces of the minors are blurred or hidden, but their essence remains.
“They’re victims as much as anyone else on the planet,” Ross said. “They’re kids that deserve a chance.”
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Ross visited more than 200 facilities in 31 states. He’s photographed inside detention centers group homes, police departments and juvenile courtrooms.
“I’ll sit on the floor so that they’re above me,” Ross said. “I’ll listen to them for an hour. Then, I’ll work with them as a co-conspirator and take a picture of them without their face showing.”
Along with the picture, Ross writes up a short narrative. By giving their images context, Ross hopes to give onlookers a better understanding of what it is like for these youths who can be as young as 10.
Although the stories are arresting, the images are striking and hold artistic merit.
“This exhibit crosses those boundaries between the fine arts and social awareness,” said Jodi Throckmorton, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “The images really capture your attention.”
The exhibit opens with a photograph of a prison door.
“You feel as if you’re coming up against the doors yourself, “Throckmorton said. “This (exhibit) is a way of making photography more accessible.”
This traveling show also has started conversations between the museum, the university and the community. These discussions have led to innovative programming and new activities.
On Monday, the museum will host a Policymaker Panel on “How Kansas Human Trafficking Legislation Has Changed the Face of Juveniles in Justice” at the Wichita State University’s Campus Activities Center Theater with Timothy Henderson, Sedgwick County district court judge; Marc Bennett, Sedgwick County district attorney; Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Karen Countryman-Roswurm, professor and founder/coordinator for The Anti-Trafficking/Anti-Sexual Exploitation Roundtable for Community Action. A satellite exhibit of ten photographs is in the student center, adjacent to the theater.
On March 6, the Ulrich will present “Kids for Cash,” a recently released documentary that examines a corrupt kickback program and a privatized detention center.
“My dream is for us that have not experienced the justice system to understand a little better that these youths are people,” said Aimee Geist, the Ulrich’s curator of education. “This exhibit could be (the springboard) for a parent or a guardian or a teen to have a conversation that they normally wouldn’t have.”
Ross found that other than in Missouri, many of these facilities are often cold and impersonal. Ross, the son of a New York City policeman wants to start a dialogue between the community, the legislators and the workers. He wants to see the youth’s helped; not just housed.
In Los Angeles, Ross met a 10-year-old boy who was incarcerated for stealing cars.
“The boy told me, ‘I just like to drive. I live in Watts; I just want to go somewhere else,’ ” Ross recalled. “He doesn’t know where he’s going; he can’t read.”
This is the boy’s third arrest.
“He’s really tackling a tough topic,” Geist said. “They are strong quality images. I think people will be fascinated by them.”