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Miki Johnson: Tell me a little about the re-entry project, how you got interested in it, and why you wanted to tell the story.
Joe Rodriguez: I’m going to be very honest with you. This is a very personal story. It started when I was a young child. I watched my stepfather come in and out of prison over the years, about a decade or more, and a few of my uncles did the same thing. Then he was also an addict, so we had to watch this whole process, this up-and-down roller coaster ride with the family. And there wasn’t really much support for addicts back then in terms of re-entering society.
My stepdad died many years ago, and as a young boy growing up into a photographer, that story has always stayed with me. So this project was a personal journey. When I was working in Spanish Harlem and all around the country doing socially impacting stories, I started to see that this issue of incarceration was affecting many families. So I’ve been watching this growth of incarceration throughout the United States of America for some time. You know, I watched it go to 1 million, then 2 million over the years.
Then last year the Pew Research Center did a study called “One out of a hundred people in prison.” That was kind of the spark to seriously revisit this story and see what I could do about telling it in a different way. I did not want to repeat myself, and I didn’t want to repeat what other photographers have already done with work inside prisons. I wanted to challenge that story somewhat, because I think when you come out of prison, you’re still doing time in many different respects. You may be on parole, you may be an addict, you may have problems getting employment, and you can’t vote — all those different issues that affect many ex-offenders.
I thought it could be interesting to look at a non-profit organization like Walden House, which has been dealing with people coming from prison, specifically addicts, and working very intensely on changing their behavior. So a couple of years ago, in 2007, I connected with the people at Walden House. And a whole year went by talking about this possibility of working together or me coming to work inside some of their facilities in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And then last year they gave me a green light; I visited three of the facilities. One was dealing with mothers and children, one was dealing with just women, and one was just with men.
It was overwhelming and daunting because I profiled 40 to 45 people. And out of the 40 to 45 people, I focused on about 5 who we did these multimedia pieces on. I am hoping to reach a larger audience, because of the Internet and its long reach. I also just wanted to create a historical document of these people. And to be very honest, I don’t know what more I could do right now. I would love for it to change things, but I’m not that gullible.
MJ: Tell me about that decision to make this into a multimedia piece and, especially, to gather audio?
JR: The first trip was completely on my own, but I received a grant from the USC Annenburg Institute for Justice and Journalism for the second trip. That was specifically to do multimedia stories. The reason I wanted to do audio was because I can’t always get down everything the subjects are saying in a written interview. So the audio became a way to tell a more concise story and also to bring the audience in, in an emotional way. I want to grab the audience so hopefully they can feel Tracey’s story and Darlene’s story and John Vaughn’s.
MJ: And also they can’t ignore the words, right? I think a lot of people never get around to reading text with photos.
JR: We’re living in the age of interruption. I’m starting to look around and watch people when they’re reading on the web. It seems to be tricky for them to stay focused for pages and pages of text. I think audio really helps get the story in their head much faster. And then if they really want to learn more, they’ll be hungry enough to read. I think it’s a way to pull people in, not just into your immediate story, but to hopefully give them something more where they can go further with the issue or with this person’s life.
MJ: And when you were actually doing these interviews, how did you make the creative decisions, when to record and when to make images and how those work together?
JR: I just tried to keep myself calm knowing that what this person is saying while I’m photographing, I’m gonna hopefully be able to revisit in audio. One guy, Marko, was working in a bakery and I wanted to take pictures of him there. I photographed him working behind the counter, dealing with the public. Then the pictures slowed down and while I was waiting for him to go in the back with the ovens, I did some ambient audio of the store.
Then I knew I needed to do a portrait. I went into it thinking that if I could make a very engaging portrait, and I have a pretty engaging interview, I was gonna be happy with that. If I got anything extra, more reportage-type stuff, that would just help it even more. So I was actually multitasking with that particular interview. It really just depends on the subject and what’s happening.
What I like about the way I work is that it’s slow, so it enables me to revisit the person. And the more I revisit, the better story I get, either in audio or pictures. But I try, really, really earnestly to separate them — if I’m taking pictures, it’s gonna be about pictures. I try not to start thinking about what they’re saying or what’s going on, because then that just fractures me even more.
MJ: When you were planning the actual multimedia pieces, how did you think about how you wanted to put them together?JR: The first thing that was very important for us was just to listen to the audio. For an hour’s worth of audio, we could use maybe 5 or 10 minutes of workable audio from that. And after listening to the audio — and saying, is that important, that could be good, that could be good — then we laid out the proofs.
We feel that proofs are a more concise way for us to edit than on the monitor, because we can leave them down on the floor or leave them up on the wall and revisit them. That was the thing that we learned, the importance of revisiting. It took actually two or three months just to do the first multimedia piece. Now we know how to do it. I have to give major props to Benjamin Jarosch, our studio manager, who had never done this before, just like myself.
Revisiting is key because some days you think you’ve got it, and then you go back and you see it differently that time. Not to the point that you’re gonna pick it apart to death, but just making sure everything makes sense. When we laid the pictures out and looked at it with the audio, we’d say, ah that doesn’t really work there. Do we have a photo that kind of relates to this or can be a metaphor for this? Or can give us some atmosphere?
In the Darlene piece, she talks about her father passing away, and there is an image of a cemetery. That cemetery is not far from where she grew up, although that image was not taken at the same time the interview was. Because I know this culture so well, some of my images from other projects, even from East Side Stories, came into that story. And I would not have been able to do that if I didn’t allow myself the time to look and listen and then leave it alone and come back and revisit.