INTERVIEW Joseph Rodriguez
Joseph Rodriguez in his own words
by Steen Sundland & Katrine Rantzau
Since he started taking pictures in earnest in the 1980s, Joseph Rodriguez has been one of the most important photojournalists in the U.S. His landmark books “Spanish Harlem”, “East Side Stories” and “Juvenile” have helped redefine the outlook on Latino culture, keeping a focus on marginalization and American violence – gang-related as well as structural and systemic – but always with an intimate angle that stays sympathetic with his subjects. Known for his long-term commitment to his projects, Rodriguez has been able to achieve a level of intimacy that’s rarely seen in photojournalism. This approach carries through to his international projects from Iraq during the first Gulf war and Romania post-Ceausescu. I was lucky enough to be able to interview him about his background, inspirations and work.
“As a child I was always interested in the
cinema, the cinema was the big picture show. Back then I didn’t understand the art of photography, it was an escape from the dark living of my home – of my mom and my stepfather and him being a heroin addict. Leaving the house was a way to be free, and to be free, well, a lot of us go to the cinema to forget the problems and we go into the screen.
That cinematic screen became something that I would think of as a foundation for me, not knowing where this was gonna go. I loved the image and the story. As I grew older, I was looking for adventure. Becoming a teenager became problematic for me, the situation in the house became very tense, my brother was born and I went into the streets.
It was also a time of rock n’ roll, the hippie movement, the Vietnam War protests. I started to associate with socialists. Issues were being talked about through music, you know, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye. That was our generation: to question, not to trust. Then I got caught up in the drug scene and went to prison at Rikers Island. When I got out of Rikers Island I knew I needed to fix a couple of things. As an addict, I needed to control the addiction. I tried different programs and in the end went on methadone. While I was on methadone I got my high school diploma back and studied really hard to get into university. I was very young at that time, only about 20 years old. I got a job working at a factory, and one day, on my way home from work at the factory I was walking through Fort Greene to Clinton Hill. At that time, it was a predominantly African- American community, no hipsters. That day, I ran across a small museum, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. There was a black and white photography class that was being taught by an African-American photojournalist called Beuford Smith. He became this guy who opened up the world of photography to me.