How I Got Here: Joseph Rodriguez

As a taxi driver in the 70s and 80s, photographer Joseph Rodriguez captured the intensity of New York City from the driver’s seat. He talks to us about his childhood, learning from the greats, and his ‘get close’ mantra

Joseph Rodriguez has an instinct for storytelling. He speaks with verve and familiarity, and talks about the world as though he’s seen it all. In many ways, he has.

Before his career as a photographer fully took off, Rodriguez was a taxi driver. His new photo book, Taxi: Journey Through My Windows 1977-1987, sees a coming together of these two lines of work and, through his lens, he reveals a visceral and unflinching view of New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

As a cab driver, Rodriguez was at once hidden and exposed – a little like his subjects – hidden enough to earn the trust of his fares as they relayed their histories, yet exposed by ferrying dangerous passengers in the obscurity of the small hours. His position as silent observer became a conduit for his anthropological brand of photography, encapsulated in the elements that frame many of his shots: the edges of the car window, the reflection of a wing mirror.

Rodriguez’s black and white photographs diminish none of the colour and intensity of the city or its people as we catch fleeting glimpses of S&M club goers, homeless people, elderly couples, children playing in their neighbourhoods, and everyone in between. In a recent exhibition at the Galerie Bene Taschen in Cologne, the series was placed in dialogue with another significant, long-term black and white project, Gold, by Sebastião Salgado – a photographer who Rodriguez looked up to at university.

Like Rodriguez’s other projects – from his early documentation of Harlem communities to illuminating gang life in east LA – his remarkable photographs of New York City bring disregarded people out of the shadows. In the book, detailed captions about these people lift away some of the forced anonymity that comes with being a member of the underclasses in a city that could quite easily swallow you. When it comes to his own life story, Rodriguez speaks candidly about his difficult childhood and later struggles with addiction.

Ahead of the book’s publication in the UK, he talks to us about his early years, working as both a cab driver and a photographer, and the role of empathy in his work.