For the past eight years, photographer Richard Ross has been documenting juvenile detention centers across the country.
He has visited more than 200 facilities in 34 states and been given rare access to interview and photograph more than 1,000 juveniles.
In 2012, a collection of Ross’s photos that appeared in Harper’s magazine won the Best News and Documentary Photography Award from The American Society of Magazine Editors. The NewsHour also interviewed him that year.
His latest collection of photos focuses solely on the girls who make up roughly 30 percent of the country’s incarcerated youth. They are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice population.
Ross said most of the young females he interviewed had remarkably similar stories. Few had committed serious crimes, and many had been the victims of either sexual or physical abuse before their arrest.
“You talk to girls, and they’re in there for shoplifting, drug abuse, and probation violations,” Ross said. “It’s much different than the boys.”
Before taking any photos, Ross spends time talking with the girls in their cells, often for more than an hour.
“I’m not a sociologist, I’m just the schmuck on the floor trying to make sense of all this,” Ross said.
Few adults, especially white males, have asked these girls about their lives, Ross said.
“I have the advantage of being a stranger to their experience and gender, and they like to talk,” Ross said.
After building up trust and a bond, photographer and subject develop a plan together to capture a compelling portrait.
“With very heavy theatrics, I try to have them become co-conspirators with me to create an image without their face showing,” Ross said.
The stories he’s heard have been heartwrenching. Among countless stories of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, one 14 year-old girl recounted being raped at age 3, another admitted to being suicidal.
When asked what surprised Ross most about his project, he didn’t hesitate: “How many times I’ve cried,” he said.