Brooklyn Boro

Practiced patience: The photographs of Joseph Rodriguez

September 3, 2019 Olivia Heffernan
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The photographs of Joseph Rodriguez offer a glimpse into the people and places not usually on view in gallery spaces: youth detention centers in Northern California, the gangs of East LA, sex workers in Mexico, the community in Spanish Harlem.

This month, the photographer’s work will be on view at Photoville in Brooklyn. The exhibit will showcase photos from his book “Spanish Harlem: El Barrio in the ’80s,” which depicts day-to-day life in the neighborhood from the mid- to late-1980s. In December, Rodriguez is releasing his next book: “Taxi Journey Though My Windows,” which features photographs he took as a cab driver in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s.

Rodriguez, a former drug addict who was once incarcerated on Rikers Island, is from Brooklyn. He was raised by his mother, who — when he was 9 — married an abusive heroin addict. The absence of a stable family structure, and a father in particular, is a recurring theme in his work.

“My home was pretty tumultuous,” Rodriguez told the Brooklyn Eagle. “There was lots of arguing so any time I could escape or fantasize in my head, I would. TV became my babysitter. I think early on I started to be connected to creating images.”

Rodriguez, to this day, is obsessed with films. In conversation, he references filmmakers as frequently as he does photographers as influencers on his work and style.

“I loved the cinema,” he said. “Films became a library in my subconscious of imagery that I could pull from much later on. I like to look at my work the way I viewed cinema as a kid. Films are narratives, a storyboard of moments, and to capture moments is not an easy thing.”

Joseph Rodriguez’s desk. Eagle photo by Olivia Heffernan

But growing up in 1960s Brooklyn in a working class, tumultuous home, film only got Rodriguez so far. In his teens, he entered a period of restlessness that led to an opiate addiction.

At age 17, Rodriguez spent time on Rikers Island. During this time, he considered suicide.

Not long after his release, he found photography. It began with a $58 Praktica film camera and a small darkroom he built in his apartment. “That was a special awakening for me,” he said. “It was a step forward to see how I wanted to change.”

He used every free moment to shoot. Spending his Friday and Saturday nights on or near the Brooklyn Bridge, Rodriguez would photograph buildings and trees — anything but people. Looking for subjects, he turned back to his family.

Around the same time, Rodriguez was working several jobs — including as a taxi driver. He began taking shifts cleaning the darkrooms at the International Center for Photography. Eventually, he was given a scholarship to attend.

“I didn’t understand what I was missing until I got to ICP,” he told the Eagle. “It’s not until you become a student that people start asking you why you’re doing what you do. No one had ever asked me ‘why’ before.”

Joseph Rodriguez holds a photograph of himself and his father. Eagle photo by Olivia Heffernan

Rodriguez’s photographs are unique in their intimacy. He gets close — and then even closer. In his work, he relies on patience and listening to gain the trust of his subjects.

“For two years I waited in apartments in Spanish Harlem, waiting for something to happen, watching the cockroaches,” he said. “That’s the art of patience.”

But he also acknowledges that his own lived experience of anger and confusion resonates with most of his subjects.

“I’ve been in jail, on methadone,” he said. “I’m a cancer survivor, post Hep-C, so I see myself looking at and understanding people that have lived their lives dealing with these types of issues.”

Rodriguez takes the trust and access he is given seriously. He recounted a revelatory moment when visiting the home of Peter and Yvonne, both of whom are central subjects in “Spanish Harlem: El Barrio in the ‘80s.

“I was coming to visit like I would every week. I walk into their house and Peter was doing crack, heroin, all sorts of crazy stuff … Yvonne was on the ground crying. She looked up at me, and that’s when I realized I have been here before. This is my mother with my stepfather. And I knew this was not the time to take a photograph. Photographs not taken are just as important as those that are. Sometimes you have to let things go and just be there in the moment.”

Joseph Rodriguez’s workspace. Eagle photo by Olivia Heffernan

After the waiting, listening and photographing, comes the task of depiction. This, Rodriguez, says, is the hardest part.

“If you open your life to me, it is a very sacred thing. To get to someone’s kitchen table is one of the hardest things to do. That’s where these photographs come from.”

Even after the camera is off and the photos are printed, his subjects never really leave him. “You have these ghosts that sleep with you at night. They’re there, in my mind all the time,” he said. “I have a heart; I don’t just let people go — a life is a life.”

Rodriguez likes to self-describe as a humanist gazer. That fixation with humanity — and especially family — comes from a personal need to fill the absence of such in his own life.

“I tell my students to show us something else in the human spirit that doesn’t just leave us in the negative space,” he said. “These episodes in life have a lot to do with the things you choose to look at. And for me, it’s about family. I figured out early on that if I want to tell a larger story, I can always tell it through the family. It is the most basic unit that connects us all.”

Photoville’s 2019 exhibition will run from Sept. 12-22 in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The exhibition is free and open to the public. For more info, visit their website

Olivia Heffernan is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who covers labor organizing, immigration policy, and criminal justice reform. You can follow her work on Twitter.

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