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A Glimpse Behind Bars: Juveniles In The Justice System

In the confines of jail cells, photographer Richard Ross documents children's experiences. He snaps pictures without revealing his subjects' faces, aiming to "give them a voice."

The Juvenile In Justice project includes photographs of more than 100 facilities in 30 states. The project's website has numerous images and quotes from incarcerated children.

Shooting compelling images in a bare, 8-by-10-foot cell is not an easy task, the veteran photographer tells The Picture Show in an email. Neither is "coming up with a new solution that respects the juveniles' privacy, identity and still gives a feel of what the space is, without being boring or predictable."

His images highlight scarred arms, bright jumpsuits and angular, empty cells. They show a variety of facility conditions and inmates of different genders and ages.

One photograph shows a small 12-year-old looking over papers in his cell. He says he was sent to the facility for fighting with another boy.

Ross argues in a caption that "institutionalizing juveniles and branding this as criminal behavior rather than dealing with it as normal behavior wrongly places juveniles in places they should not be."

The online galleries feature testimonies with the children's ages and other background information, which add more context to the faceless bodies. But Ross says the act of hiding identities sends a message of its own.

"By not showing the faces, I can imply shame or a sense of universality," he says.

The goal, Ross says, is to hand over the photographs to "organizations that have better data and more skills at advocating for policy change than I do. I hope this will better arm them to show a human side to their statistics."

Juvenile In Justice has required a high level of perseverance and negotiation, Ross says.

"I had to try and convince many, many people I was working with them in a spirit of bonhomie," he says. "Yet, I still had to allow the images to be critical or comment on the situation, while not violating the trust of the people I was dealing with."

The photographer has a forthcoming book featuring his photos of the juvenile justice system.

"After the years and years of work I have done in many fields on many assignments," Ross says, "this is the one that has been the most rewarding."

PBS NewsHour also interviewed Ross and produced a video on the topic.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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