I have a searing memory of coming home from elementary school to find my stepfather nodding off with a needle in his arm. A memory that, as I grew older, I relived in my own body, becoming a user myself. Then a felon. Then a Rikers inmate.
That’s where my work starts from. The fact that I was raised in violence, and enacted that violence against the world. What saved me was the camera, its ability to focus, to investigate, to reclaim, to resist, to re-envision.
In the early 1990s, I moved to Los Angeles, which the mainstream media was calling the gang capital of America, to learn about the world of street gangs. After serving time, battling addiction, studying photography, and spending several years as a documentary photographer in Vietnam, Cambodia, Mozambique, and Romania, I had decided to come home to the United States, to turn my lens on communities and problems that interested me more. My aim was to get close to the core of violence in America – not just the physical violence, but the quiet violence of letting families fall apart, of unemployment, of our failed education system.
Racism, classism, lack of education, lack of fathers, lack of mentors: we shared these experiences, and talked about them. That’s how I gained their trust.
In East Los Angeles, I discovered a gang in Boyle Heights called Evergreen. Scooby, Little Igor, Chivo: these kids’ lives were not just stories of drugs, crime, and violence. They were stories of the struggle to survive and make a better life. Stories like mine.
Many of us Latinos and African Americans had faced similar challenges. All of us were born below the curve. Everything was a constant fight for us, since we were kids. These people, I knew their family values, their religious values. Racism, classism, lack of education, lack of fathers, lack of mentors: we shared these experiences, and talked about them.
That’s how I gained their trust. By not coming in as a journalist. I was honest from the beginning about: “I’m a photographer here.” But my camera was the vehicle. More important were my ears. At first, I would just hang out and listen. I wanted to get beyond the street, into the living rooms and kitchens, because that’s where American life happens.
Slowly, members of Evergreen allowed me and my camera into their world. I documented their lives for the next three years, a project that led to my book, East Side Stories: Gang Life in East L.A., published in 1998.
The subject matter was very attractive to mainstream media, the kind of story that leads the local news. I was adamant that the book be more than just images, and had to fight hard to include written stories that explained the history of Los Angeles and the complexities of its gang culture. I wanted to give voice to the lives I was depicting, and guide young readers from such communities to reimagine their futures.
That last part mattered to me most, which makes me an imperfect journalist, I guess. But I go back to these communities, and not a lot of photographers do. Guys from the Los Angeles Times and many other publications tend to drop in for a week, document this violent lifestyle, go get their Pulitzers, and move on. I’ve had editors look at my photos of gang members playing with their kids and say: “But it’s about violence and guns and death. Where are those photos, Joe?” Especially when dealing with Latino and African-American communities in the U.S., there’s a clichéd image of us that goes back to slavery.
I want to show that people can redeem themselves, especially when we know where the bottom is. Because life is complex. And because I’m the lucky one. I grew up poor in Brooklyn, went to Rikers Island – then managed to educate myself and move on. When we were growing up, we didn’t have guys like me whom we could emulate. We certainly didn’t see our lives and families represented in mainstream media.
I’ll never forget the day in 1990, after my first cover story on Spanish Harlem came out in National Geographic, that I walked into the public library on East 110th Street and heard some neighborhood kids looking at my story and saying: “Oh wow, look at this, this is our neighborhood!” Then they noticed my name, and realized I was Latino like them.
That’s where my work comes from: a profoundly personal, and also a political, place. When you don’t see yourself recognized, you feel like you have to create something. That’s what gang kids do, too: they create their own world and intimidate within that world, to make their mark on life.
In 2012, 20 years after I first photographed Evergreen, I returned to Boyle Heights to reconnect with my original subjects. Some had succumbed to the gangster’s path and were dead or incarcerated. Others had gotten out of the life, finding redemption through work and family.
I spent time with Steve Blount, a first-generation Evergreen member whom I had photographed in 1993 shooting up with his wife. Since then, Steve had lost his son to murder, which spurred him to get clean – 15 years ago now – and become an active father and grandfather to his big family, and a surrogate one to the kids in his neighborhood.
I also spoke with Gypsy and Igor, two more of my original subjects, both now trying to raise their kids outside the life they grew up in.
Over time, I’ve come to realize something about Evergreen. Not only are members connected through the gang, they are connected through a complex web of blood ties stretching back generations. Two decades into reporting their story, I see it differently than I did early on. It isn’t mostly about struggle, any more than it was mostly about violence. In the end, it is a story about family. Just like mine.