Behind the Lights – Joseph Rodriguez
The New York lens master who portrays humanity in all its facets
“I grew up in South Brooklyn, New York. In the 1960s the area was very different, it was a small multicultural village. Puerto Ricans, Italians, Jews, African Americans and many others lived side by side with their virtues, flaws and contradictions. I received a very Catholic upbringing, I was never a gang member, but I still had problems on the streets. I ended up in prison on Rikers Island and when I got out I found my perfect place because of photography: a place where I could express what I felt, where I could portray and share what had always surrounded me, humanity.”
Joseph Rodriguez should need no introduction. His portfolio is a boundless human gallery capable of capturing social evolutions, intimate biographies and anthropological investigations without filters or rhetoric. This lens legend, now a volcanic 71-year-old with a lucid and rhythmic speech, began his artistic journey breathing the most cryptic New York: a multifaceted Big Apple, constantly balancing between self-destruction and elevation, hip hop and mafia, oblivion and redemption.
“Photography is about caring for others. Photography is the art of listening and not taking. The first assignment I used to give my NYU students was to take pictures on the subway for a week: they were forced to talk to people, to listen, to become better human beings and, as a result, better photographers. Now everyone can take a picture, everyone can be a street photographer even with just an iPhone. But it is essential to understand the meaning of each story, of the subjects and the realities around them. That’s why when I shoot I always focus on people’s eyes: there is their soul, there are their stories, their dreams and their emotions. I think for example of José Garcia, a Dominican baseball player who was trying to make his way in the American minor leagues. José is part of the socio-documentary project ‘New Americans,’ produced in collaboration with writer Rubén Martinez and focused on the topic of U.S. immigration. During the days we spent together, his eyes always spoke to me about family: his sporting sacrifices were entirely dedicated to his relatives and the dream of a better future. Away from home he had also managed to recreate a kind of family unit, living with other boys who shared his same hopes.”
In Joseph Rodriguez’s vivid account, sport takes on a denotative role of the human condition, becomes a means of discovering societies, cultures, individuals, and to dialogue with them. Because photography is a continuous dialogue: a dialogue that first Rodriguez experienced aboard his cab, the atypical and obligatory set of his debut series, then around the globe between Sweden and Romania, Mauritius and Vietnam, Mozambique and Argentina… Nations, places where Brooklyn’s paradigms were being confirmed or disproved in front of his lens’ inexhaustible thirst for knowledge.
“When I was studying at the International Center of Photography, I had no money, so I started driving a cab to pay for classes. Inside that car I shot my first reportage. Then I photographed everywhere: traveling opened my eyes, my ears, my mind and made me realize how sports in its universality is a fundamental revealing tool. For example, I remember my assignment to Argentina in 2001. At the time there was a huge economic crisis and I found myself among rich bourgeois people playing polo in Punta del Este, a Uruguayan tourist resort, during winter break. A few hours earlier I had seen old ladies in tears in the streets of Buenos Aires; they had lost everything. Meanwhile, these upper-class members of society were throwing parties and relaxing while drinking fine wine. Beyond this anecdote, I think sport is invaluable for its ability to infuse a unique, cross-cultural sense of hope. In Malmö, Sweden, I followed a Palestinian child who trained methodically every day, dreaming of becoming a soccer player like his idol Zlatan Ibrahimović. Again, this was a multi-layered story: this boy was the son of Muslim immigrants, and football success in his life took on a much broader and more complex meaning. In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, I met a very young boxer who lived most of his time in contact with the ring. His parents traveled many miles each day to take him to the gym and watch him train with the utmost seriousness. Around him, during practice, I could see so many pictures of local legends, interspersed with national flags…. Everything was so rich of tradition, of pride, of identity.”
Tradition and identity, but also rupture. Joseph Rodriguez’s visual compositions often tell us about internal fractures within social flow, they meet the darkest and most marginal areas of it, they portray, without judgment, guns and drugs, as well as revolutions in trends and habits. Everything is intertwined, in New York as in the world, Rodriguez explains, recalling the days when he used to park his cab in order to drink an espresso and enjoy the first battles between B-boys. Quoting giants such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Letizia Battaglia, Federico Fellini and Mario Giacomelli, he goes back in time, thinking about his Italian background, shaped by cigars and bocce, as well as the powerful Gallo and Canale families, and the tragic heroin epidemic.
“Italian grandmas were incredible, they controlled everything and everyone. I knew people who were connected to certain families, when I was young I used to play basketball with them or we used to throw horseshoes, because we were not allowed to play bocce. Unfortunately, heroin destroyed everything and created a huge tension around us. It took me a year to take my first pictures in someone’s house. I went out every morning at 6 a.m., because I knew criminals were asleep at that time, and I tried to lean on local priests in order to get in touch with as many families as possible. It was a trust process, I had to make these people understand that it was not my life that was important, but theirs, I had to create intimate and deep relationships. It takes time and empathy to build a relationship with those you want to document, which is why with young photographers I often quoted a Johnny Depp line, “Are you a MexiCan or a MexiCan’t?”. Fortunately, I’ve also experienced positive epidemics, such as the hip hop, rap, and sneaker waves. These were incredible revolutions that encapsulated the creative force and competitive spirit of NYC. I’ve always thought of my city as a big sports arena: everyone here fights to win, to achieve their dreams, not just to survive. It’s like an immense playground where you have to basketball your way in order to achieve excellence. My dream was to become a photographer, and even today, when I cross the Brooklyn Bridge, I feel so proud.”
Joseph Rodriguez could talk for days, perhaps weeks about his life experiences. His testimony seems to be a cathartic lecture, a wonderful autobiography from which we can extrapolate as many tips and tools to translate the reality around us. The important thing is to talk about life, about what human beings are like and how they manage to coexist. This is the most important lesson this lens master gives us, along with some direct questions that should populate every young photojournalist’s mind.
“Young photographers need to understand that they are living in history. They need to ask themselves simple questions: do I really want to document this? Am I hungry enough to do this? They need to understand that photography allows them to reach people, to touch people. And they need to understand that people can change. At least those who are allowed to do so. The prisoners I portraied during a bodybuilding competition, for example, cannot do it completely. They have ‘put them to sleep,’ as we say here, they can never wake up again, because they will be in prison for life. So many people I saw wielding guns 30 years ago, however, today are fathers and grandfathers with normal lives. They are bus drivers and workers, they are a majority that the media routinely avoid mentioning. I keep following these people, I keep documenting their lives and communicating through my platforms, I keep showing human beings. And this is what has always driven me to love photography.”
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