Two decades ago, Luis Rodrigues was in prison, a gang member who aspired to be the top drug dealer in Boston. On Tuesday, his 5-by-8-foot photographic portrait stood on the Boston Common, right next to Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s.
“You see the beard, rough life, Boston on my chest, some of my tattoos showing, so hey — that’s me,” said Rodrigues, now a college readiness adviser to young people, as he gazed at his enlarged image.
Rodrigues’s and Walsh’s portraits are two of 26 black-and-white images featured in a photo exhibit called “The Uncornered Photo Documentary Project,” which highlights Bostonians — famous and unknown — who overcame difficult life situations. The portraits, including those of Boston police Commissioner William Gross, WGBH host Callie Crossley, and Portland Timbers defender Claude Dielna, line a walkway of the Common across from the Public Garden’s Charles Street entrance.
College Bound Dorchester, a nonprofit that helps gang-involved youth graduate college, partnered with PJA Advertising + Marketing to create the exhibit.
The series is named for one of the group’s initiatives, Boston Uncornered, in which former gang members receive a weekly stipend, along with peer mentorship, to pursue college degrees. The rationale: Gang members are leaders who, with the right incentives, can rechannel their energies toward constructive endeavors, preventing violence and saving taxpayers money.
The exhibit shares some of the participants’ stories, and those of public figures who prevailed over their own difficulties.
Walsh’s “uncornering,” text alongside his portrait explains, was his recovery from alcohol addiction, which helped him achieve his dream of becoming mayor.
“It gave me a second chance to rebuild my life,” Walsh is quoted as saying.
And US Representative Ayanna Pressley, a survivor of sexual assault, was featured for her experiences with trauma, which informed her platform as a city councilor and her campaign for Congress. She wanted to “save other victims” of all types of trauma, including gun violence and poverty, the exhibit explains.
Michelle Caldeira, whose portrait is also featured in the exhibit, said the mix of well-known and regular people “really introduces and amplifies the idea that fundamentally, we are all the same.” Caldeira, the senior vice president of College Bound Dorchester, struggled as an immigrant from Guyana, living with her seven-member family in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. Caldeira said she prefers staying in the background, but sharing her experience helps her connect with young people at the nonprofit.
Rodrigues, the former drug dealer and gang member, gained notoriety after a federal investigation was opened against him more than a decade ago.
“I know now looking back that’s all I knew — I didn’t know anything else,” Rodrigues said.
He turned his life around after getting shot 10 times, and then imprisoned for four years after police found a gun at his house.
Thinking of the pain he caused his mother helped him redirect his life, said Rodrigues, who helped develop Boston Uncornered so that others could do the same.
John Huet, the photographer of the series, normally shoots sports and was an official Olympic Games photographer in 2004. “The thing that’s always important that I see in these athletes is that inner strength that it takes to get to the level that they’re at,” Huet said. “The very first day that we photographed the students, I saw that in them.”
While taking the photographs, Huet said he asked the participants to think about their stories, without speaking. Their experiences, he said, were “suddenly on their faces.”
That resilience was inspiring for Josh Hudson, a 29-year-old Dorchester native who cleans buildings and makes music on the side, and who came to the Common to see and support his friends featured in the exhibit.He thought the representation was important, especially in such a white part of the city.
“I feel good, I feel happy, and I’m proud to be black,” said Hudson. “I feel good when I see black people doing things like this — we need more positive energy in the community.”
The exhibition is on display until Aug. 25.