Waiting for the Work to Be Done: Ruddy Roye and The Outhwaite Project
Ruddy Roye is a documentary photographer whose editorial clients include the New York Times, Ebony, Essence, Fast Company, The New Yorker, and others. In 2016, TIME Magazine named him the Instagram Photographer of the Year. As a 2020-2021 National Geographic Storytelling Fellow, he created “When Living is a Protest,” a project documenting how families who have lost family members to gun violence cope with those deaths. Roye has taught at NYU, Columbia, and the Cleveland Institute of Art. Originally from Jamaica, Roye came to the US in 1990 and lived in Brooklyn, New York, for several decades. He and his family moved to Cleveland in 2020.
According to Shari Wilkins, founder and strategic director of the Cleveland Print Room, Roye was the recipient of a 2022 Cleveland Foundation Equity in the Arts grant. The Print Room invited him to be in residency for 2022—though their collaboration began in 2017, when Roye worked with youth in the community. This past spring, he offered salons at the Print Room to build community through photography.
Three o’clock shadows from trees dapple the half-wrecked building on the corner of East 46th and Quincy Avenue. Across the street in a parking lot, a tall man crouches with a camera, framing a man in a red sweater who stands with grace before the ruin.
Photographer Ruddy Roye asked to meet here, on the border of the Outhwaite Homes public housing projects, for our interview. Opened in 1937, Outhwaite was one of three of the first public housing projects in Cleveland. It was home to Congressman Louis Stokes and Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, who lived here with their mother, Louise.
According to the most recent data available from ProPublica, in March 2019, 1,563 residents lived in the 712 units of Outhwaite. Ninety-eight percent of those residents were Black and 86 percent had incomes of $22,437 or less, reflecting that Cleveland still remains one of the most segregated cities in America, according to data compiled by William Frey, senior demographer of the Brookings Institution.
School had just let out. Kids walk by, their kid-noises falling silent when they pass us with quick glances. Off of each of Roye’s shoulders hangs a camera on a long looped cord. They hit about waist-high. A young girl walks by and softly asks Roye, “Are those Glocks?”
He gets that question a lot at Outhwaite. He also gets advice: don’t stand too long on the sidewalk. Don’t come here without a gun. Don’t sit down when you’re here. Roye remains standing while I sit to type at a stone picnic table next to a playground. He scans left and right, turning to see what’s behind us as we talk.
Where does your work begin?
Overall, my work begins with the idea that I can make a difference. That anything I produce can shed light on someone’s living condition; hopefully my images can make a difference. I say that humbly, for it sounds like a very arrogant way to go poking at life as an artist.
For the Outhwaite project, I was driving through the community here, seeing the usual food desert, when I saw something that made me open my eyes: a rip in the butt of a kid’s shorts. This is a thing we used to spot a level of poverty where I’m from—Jamaica—and yet here it is. When I see a kid with a rip in his underwear, I think: unavailable public transportation to get a new pair; someone too tired or working too much or too sick to fix it. It immediately strikes a chord with me and so I am immediately curious. So Outhwaite jumps onto my map.
So I started to come here and walk around. I started walking on Easter Sunday, 2022. I saw yellow and green tiles on the buildings on the east side (on East 55th Street). There’s tiles, and stonework, and that feels like there was a dream—now deferred. The question is always, “what happened?”
It just went into a decline. People moved away. People now don’t have the same interest that those had before. I came down on a Friday at 6 pm. People told me that at 1 pm that day, four 14-year-olds were shooting in front of Lonnie Burton (Recreation Center). One walked through the playground and died over there (points).
What brought you to Cleveland?
Art. I knew that sometime I wanted to walk away from the magazine work. I felt like my words were being filtered—I’ve always detested the middleman—I hate when something I’m doing is whitewashed. The only places I have traveled to for assignments where I could work continuously were Jackson, Mississippi; New Iberia, Louisiana; Wichita, Kansas; and Cleveland, Ohio.
I was in Cleveland in 2020 for Cleveland Public Library’s sesquicentennial—my images were on exhibit there. I taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cleveland Print Room. I take any opportunity I get to share how I do work. We have lost the art of storytelling; if I can put some minds on a path to be better storytellers, I’m always interested.
Here, I can do work that is meaningful and speaks to what is going on in America or the South, even if it’s here in Cleveland. And it just felt a little homey to me.
What has being an artist-in-residence at the Cleveland Print Room been like this year?
I’ve produced maybe fifteen images (of Outhwaite) right now. They have been the hardest fifteen images to collect.
Tell me about your show opening at the Cleveland Print Room in November.
I did not want to tell the same story about Outhwaite. But every time I’ve come here, somebody has said to me, “This is the hardest place to live.”
Once, I introduced myself to a father and his kids who were out. The father said, “What do you want? Hurry up! It’s not a safe place to be standing and talking.” That makes it really difficult to connect. He was done and walked away.
I have no idea yet about the show (we met in early October). I’m shooting—no, photographing; I’m changing my language around that—and then I’ll look and see what I have that authentically speaks to my experience here from Easter until October 15.
(Ruddy will also speak about the series he did as a National Geographic Storytelling Fellow, “When Living is a Protest.”)
Your Instagram work is often accompanied by written statements. Does the show follow a similar format? What does text do that images do not or cannot do?
No, no text. The show doesn’t encapsulate what this project is. The show is an extract, a minute part.
I haven’t yet sat down with people, gone into their houses. I’m still on the periphery, and people are figuring out who I am. I’ve already met a few families here; a woman who is battling cancer and her son spoke with me; a kid who told me I needed a gun when I came here introduced me to his family. People need to trust before they let you move into their space, however long that takes.
On Instagram, I add text because of the history of Black images in the past—how easy it has been to throw it in spaces like “thugs,” “hos,” “prostitutes,” “hustler,” “athlete”—instead of “man,” “woman,” “the human family.” The accompanying text humanizes the person.
In an article at art.net by Brian Boucher, you said, “If you’re willing to have a conversation with me about your plight, then I have to listen.” What are you hearing from residents of Outhwaite Homes?
From adults I hear how hard it is to live here. For kids, it’s their home. For kids, gunshots are normal, killing is normal, the blood of Robert—the 14-year-old who died over there—a lot of kids point to the place he died. For SanTasia, a single mother of four, her apartment filled with rats is normal.
How do you connect with the people you photograph?
I just introduce myself. Like with Anthony, the man in the red sweater in front of the demolition I was photographing earlier. He heard my accent, said he had worked with Jamaicans, and the next thing you know I’m taking pictures. He can give me his image.
Your work shows people who are deliberately made invisible by white culture. At the same time, that same work has reached and been lauded by some bastions of white culture: The New York Times, Fast Company, Columbia University, and TIME Magazine, to name a few. Tell me about that disconnect.
My work is not for Black folk. Black folk know this. We need Black folk to shift to the other side. We are the power—we have congresspeople and senators, we should be able to help somewhere like Outhwaite. Maybe someone’ll say, “Oh, Ruddy did a series on this,” and write a letter to a councilperson or congressperson. Or write two. Or four. It doesn’t take money. Write a letter.
How do you think your work celebrates the individual and accuses the system?
If nothing else, I stand up as a mirror. Because now I’m at a different space, my fingers are pointing less to the Other and more to the Black folks with money and businesses. We have to get to a place that Black folk want to be respected; we have to join the party, help our own communities and stop depending just on the city and state. How can we find the proper money to put up a grocery store in a food desert? That’s binding us together and helping our people.
Like if Jay-Z, a billionaire who left the projects with the reputation of selling drugs there; it would be nice to see him fund an urgent care center in that same project, fully stocked with drugs and doctors—that’s how you give back.
I’m conditioned to do work because it has to be done. I have friends who are Black, who have bought my work to hang in spaces where traffic is both Black and White, to start conversation.
His recent post on Instagram speaks to this question:
“My practice as a photographer or as a seer is somewhere between a 24mm and an 80mm lens—depending on the platform. I am accustomed to determining how I am going to proceed with a photo based on the sight, smell, and sound, that moves around the frame—and in some cases the sweetness or sourness of a story.
A photograph made by me surges up from the rattling tectonic shifts between my collaborators and the organic archives of experiential senses that make up my sensibilities—gifts I have been honoured to hold unto in my time on this earth.
Black folks have always lived between the grip and the grind—and our stories are oftentimes found in the shards we leave behind.”
What else do you want our readers to know?
In order for us to get to a place where we can see better, we all have to participate in constructing a space that allows change to happen. And then we need to bring diligent, intentional commitment to see it through. I cannot stop working. Someone is waiting for the work to be done.