Photojournalist Joseph Rodriguez spoke Tuesday in the Morgan Auditorium about photographs he took for “East Side Stories,” a book about gang life in Los Angeles.
The discussion, before about 150 students and faculty, was also about the interviews and photographs Rodriguez gathered between 1993 and 2012.
Rodriguez showed pictures of people from a gang called Evergreen in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles.
“(I am) pleased to have the opportunity to be a witness, to photograph this,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez was born and raised in New York and has photographed for magazines including The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, LIFE Magazine, The Village Voice and others.
He was influenced by hip-hop and rap when he decided to begin his research.
“(The artists) were really telling me true stories from the street,” Rodriguez said.
Some of the pictures Rodriguez showed were difficult to look at.
One in particular was of a guy named Popeye, then 16, who was shown holding a 9 millimeter pistol in his room and was positioned to shoot something.
Rodriguez said he asked the gang members if he could take a picture of them and they chose to pose whichever way they wanted.
One reason Rodriguez went back to Evergreen this year was to document the differences in these people’s lives.
Rodriguez showed another picture of a reformed Popeye cradling his daughter.
Popeye became a family man and left the gang life in the past.
Rodriguez said that he liked taking time to work with families.
He took pictures of some of the sons, daughters, nephews, nieces and grandchildren.
“(The children) see the difficulties around them,” Rodriguez said.
Steve Blunt, subject of one of the photos, takes children to safe zones where the children can be children. Some of the places they visit are community pools and magic mountain.
“People can redeem (themselves), that is the American way,” Rodriguez said.
Sometimes having a family motivates gang members to leave gang life. Going back to school also helps them find a different way to operate in the world.
Some people never get out of it and get caught up in alcohol or drugs, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez told the audience that from the beginning to the end of his project 11 of the subjects of his photos died.
At the end of the presentation, Rodriguez said that one little boy he was working with asked him to be his father.
“It wasn’t about journalism anymore, it was about the journey,” Rodriguez said.
Following Rodriguez’ presentation, a panel including ULV Professor of Sociology Sharon Davis, Associate Professor of English David Werner and Professor of Religion Richar Rose, joined Rodriguez on stage.
Rose talked about three images that he remembered while watching the slide show.
“I think we need to ask some serious questions about our society,” Rose said.
Davis said that juvenile gangs are not simply in poor neighborhoods and they come in different colors, shapes and sizes.
“Joseph humanizes individuals who have been dehumanized by our society,” Davis said.
Werner said 70 percent of people who were in prison return in two-to-three years.
“It was inspiring to see him talk,” Ana Laura, freshman Spanish major said.
Laura said it showed how passionate, personal and intimate Rodriguez was about his work.
“East Side Stories” and “Juvenile” were two books that were sold after the panel.
Rodriguez said “Juvenile” is a personal book and his mug shot can be found on the first page.
When asked if gang culture was going to fizzle out, Rodriguez was once convinced that it would but has now realized that it will not go away.
Ingrid Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.