Joseph Rodríguez’s life in New York shaped the images he would go on to make

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With the release of a book and accompanying exhibition showcasing Rodríguez’s LAPD 1994 work, the photojournalist reflects on growing up in New York, its effect on his practice and his approach to documenting the notorious Los Angeles Police Department thousands of miles away

The photojournalist Joseph Rodríguez is a true son of New York. Like that city, his work comprises shocking moments of physical and emotional violence, as well as moments of vulnerability and intimacy, and sometimes heartbreaking efforts at connection. Rodríguez began experimenting with the camera while working as a taxi driver in the 1970s and 80s. He documented his passengers and their destinations, which culminated in a yearslong project on families in Spanish Harlem. In the early 1990s, he relocated to Los Angeles to document gangs in his classic monograph East Side Stories. When the project was complete, Rodríguez moved home to New York, but returned two years later when he was invited to embed with the notorious Los Angeles Police Department, which was trying to project a “kinder, gentler” image following the Rodney King uprisings. Those photos originally ran in The New York Times Magazine and have now been released as a book, LAPD 1994. As in all of his work, Rodríguez managed to humanise everyone he turned his lens to, even those who are too often objectified as dangerous, foreign, or perhaps made invisible: alleged gang members, squatters, sex workers, victims of gun violence, even the officers themselves.

Some of the photos from LAPD 1994 are on view through March 26, 2021 in a virtual exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center, New York City. Below are excerpts from a conversation between journalist Lauren Lee White, who wrote the forward to Joseph Rodríguez LAPD 1994, and Rodríguez


Officers at the Rampart Station restrain a man resisting arrest © Joseph Rodriguez.
Los Angeles police officers (Rampart division) are feeling the heat from all sides: from the mayor, from their superiors and from citizens like this man, who was assaulted by gang members and complained about the lack of police protection. This is the original caption that ran in NYT Magazine, 22 January, 1995 © Joseph Rodriguez.
Vice Squad arrest prostitutes at Rampart Division © Joseph Rodriguez.

How did your childhood in 1960s South Brooklyn contribute to the development of your humanist documentary style?

I grew up with [the American actress] Donna Reed. I don’t know if you know you know who she was, but she was in this big television show in the 50s, black-and-white, the perfect white American family. That’s what I grew up with, and that’s not what I was living with. So the cinema became the escape hatch. I fell in love with the image. 

Back in the 80s, when I was thinking about what I would do with photography, I was reading these poverty books. I was reading [James] Baldwin. I was reading things that were just opening up my mind. I wanted to say something that was to do with me. This is personal work for me. I really am true to my practice, my field work. 

My psychology is, I guess, a street kind of psychology. That’s where my foundation comes from. [South Brooklyn] was the hard core Italian mafioso, these goombahs were always on the corner. People forget how much violence there was in New York back in the day. Not that I was going around stabbing people or hurting people, but when you grew up on the streets, you learned how to survive and navigate yourself out there. 

People ask, “how did you [capture the images from LAPD 1994]? What did you want? I was ready for it, right? I had already been shot at in East Side Stories”. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen anybody pull out guns in front of you from three-feet-away; it ain’t no joke. But, I had already been mugged and on DeKalb Avenue and on South Oxford Place, with a .32 on my neck. I had already been stabbed in Brooklyn. This was all part of the foundation to be able to stand up and look at what was in front of me, right? I’ve seen death before. I mean, there was nothing I hadn’t experienced before.

Parts of Rampart Division uniform © Joseph Rodriguez.

As a New Yorker, what did you bring to the body of work you made in Los Angeles?

We are kind of brash in New York City. We’re a little like a Mack truck. We’re here, and we’re honest, we’re here to fix it. It can take a New Yorker to really understand that.

In a way, I’m following in the footsteps of Weegee. And I’m thinking about Jill Freedman and Angel Franco. I think that there’s something to be said about our New York tradition of documentary photography, of that human school. Look at Helen Levitt. Come on. You don’t see that in LA. 

There’s always been this kind of internal war going on between New York and LA, the different journalism, the different schools. We don’t fool around. I used to get a lot of blowback behind my personality or my way of working. I don’t like to use the word pushy. I’m assertive, right? Let’s get it done. Let’s go.

How was making photographs different for you in Los Angeles?

I’m Johnny on the spot with these cops. You’re gonna show me something new, you think I don’t know? The only thing that was new for me was the guns. When I first got to LA in ’92 for East Side Stories, I had nobody to talk with, so I wrote in journals. I was trying to make sense of this whole thing. I didn’t have no editor. I couldn’t talk to anybody that would understand where I was at. I wrote that LA is like a postmodern Wild West. Everybody’s got a gun. And it’s like freaking Hollywood. Everybody’s beautiful and famous. The minute people started telling me they loved me on the second day I was there, I was such a New Yorker, I was like, “Man, you don’t know me”.

Officer Hoskins responds to a car accident, truck has turned over to its side and driver and passenger were locked in. Hoskins tries to pry the door open © Joseph Rodriguez.

Honouring mothers is a regular theme of your work, regardless of where you’re shooting. Why is that important to you?

It was very hard for me to see these mothers in crisis. The mother is the key to everything. If you don’t take care of the mother and her child, you know what that child is headed for — we already know his destiny. And I’ve seen that destiny a lot in my book  Juvenile. You watch little 10-year-olds getting locked up. I mean, my God. Jesus Christ, America. What the fuck is that about? So the mother, what is that going to do to her? Or the mother losing her child over the police violence of today. The mother’s narrative has been around for quite some time. It’s even in the social documentary work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, the farm security administration, the migrant mother. The mother always has to stand alone, in a way. Maybe I work this way to honour what my mum went through, or what she could not go through, or what she could not have. I’m glad you asked me that question, because you know what? I guess it just finally all came out.

Joseph Rodríguez LAPD 1994 is available via The Artist Edition and the virtual exhibition by the Bronx Documentary Centre is on view until 26 March 2021.
Lauren Lee White

Los Angeles-based Lauren Lee White is a journalist and an adjunct professor at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, Los Angeles, California. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, The Appeal, the Christian Science Monitor, and others. In 2018, she was awarded a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to report on sexual misconduct at the Los Angeles County women’s jail, and won an award from the Los Angeles Press Club for that work. White was a John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Reporting Fellow at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in 2016 and a Fellow at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy in 2015. Previously, she worked as a documentary filmmaker in New York City, where she made award-winning short films and was an instructor with the Tribeca Film Institute, the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Downtown Community Television Center, and Artistic Noise. She held artists’ residencies in Paris and Marnay-sur-Seine, France, and Belfast, Northern Ireland.