Stephen Shames


: Stephen Shames

Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova
 
Photo: Heidi Gutman

Following its release last year to critical acclaim as a first of its kind photo Ebook for the computer, Bronx Boys, published by FotoEvidence, is now available on the iPad. Regina Monfort served as the photo editor. The iPad version was designed by David Gross of Mimetic Books, and represents one of the first high-resolution digital photo books to be available for Apple’s iPad. It operates using iBooks, available for the iPad without charge from the iTunes store. Most of the work in Bronx Boys has never been seen or published. For over two decades (1977-2000), Stephen Shames photographed a group of boys coming of age in the Bronx in a neighborhood ravaged by drugs, violence and gangs. These young men allowed Shames extraordinary access into their lives on the street, in their homes, and social clubs. Shames met the “Bronx boys” as children, and tracked them growing up, falling in love, and having children of their own. Shames is interested in the interplay between good and evil, violence and love, chaos and family. He captured the brutality of the times — the fights, the shootings, the arrests, the drug deals – but also revelatory moments of love and tenderness. Bronx Boys can be downloaded by visiting http://itunes.apple.com/us/book/bronx-boys/id504153095?mt=11. It is comprised of 265 pages and 122 photographs.The cost is $14.99.


SB. How do you feel about revisiting the Bronx through your images, some taken 30 years ago?

SS. I feel nostalgic. This is a family album. The photos bring back memories of kids who are gone and of sons who are still part of my life.
While I have been living with some of these images for thirty years, I hope the photos are new and exciting to people seeing them for the first time. I hope people will reconsider their perceptions of The Bronx, see that there is tenderness, love, and family, not just brutality and drugs.

Photo : Stephen Shames



SB. How did you end up shooting in the Bronx?

SS. I took my first photos, at John Durniak’s request, for Look Magazine in 1977. Look died while I was on assignment. I continued for two decades, sometimes staying on the block for weeks at a time, sometimes visiting only once or twice a year.

SB. Do you remember the first picture you took there?

SS. I took the photos Ralph Jumps and the photos of the Claremont Boys Motorcycle Club the first day I shot there. Both are among the best photographs I ever took. I guess having such a great first day hooked me on The Bronx.
I was wandering around Claremont Avenue and met Ralphie. I hung out with him, his brother Tony, and his mom. She was close to the motorcycle guys because she had brought up one of the leaders, who was an orphan. Ralph took me up to the roof and showed me how he jumped - a proud kid showing off. The motorcycle guys took me into their clubhouse and showed me their women.
I was worried about both shots for different reasons. With Ralph, there was the chance he could fall - and die. With the Claremont Boys, once in their clubhouse, I was at their mercy. As a photographer, you have to go with it, trust the people you are with, know that they know their world better than you do. You have to put yourself in their hands, which is what I did in both cases.
Ralph and his family moved from Claremont to Decatur. I followed them. Ralph and Tony are the key to Bronx Boys. It could not have happened without them.

Photo : Stephen Shames



SB. What attracted you and what shocked you there?

SS. What attracted me was the vitality of the people. I said in my introduction, "The Bronx has a terrible beauty— stark and harsh—like the dessert. At first glance you imagine nothing can survive. Then you notice life going on all around. People adapt, survive and even prosper in this urban moonscape of quick pleasures and false hopes. I am attracted to survivors, to people who overcome incredible odds and harsh environments. Some of the kids in these photographs did just that. My images reflect the feral vitality and hope of these young men.
What was shocking was how wild things could become and how these young people were often completely on their own, left to their own devices. That led to bad choices — in their view their only choices. The other shocking thing is their life expectancy. These young men dropped like flies while I was doing the photos. I went to many funerals. Most of the people in these photographs are not around today. They are either dead or in jail. And we let it happen. The low value we put on life is shocking to me. The things that you see in these pictures are not predestined.

SB. Is your work in the Bronx more about capturing moments of time, or an attempt to use photography as a tool for social changes?

SS. My entire career as an artist and photojournalist has been about using photography to affect social change. This set of images is no exception.

However, what was different was that I did not try to create a photo essay out of these photographs. I did this as a personal project. So I would have to say capturing moments in time was more important in The Bronx Boys series than in any of my other projects. My other photo stories have a point of view and a purpose. There was no purpose here. I was just taking photos. I found a home in The Bronx. I did not do these photos as a journalist, as an outsider telling a story. I just took photos of people I met, people who became my friends, my crew.

I did not show these to many people or make serious attempts to get these photos published. In fact, I did not think any magazine would publish this work because it was not "objective". There was no beginning, middle, and end. This is personal work. That always makes it different.

I just took photos I wanted to take and did not worry about what they meant. There are themes but not a coherent story. As I say in my introduction, Bronx Boys is about "the interplay between good and evil; violence and love; chaos and family are the themes but this is not a documentation. There is no 'story line'. There is only a feeling.”

There is only a feeling. If you believe that most journalism is two dimensional, focusing on facts rather than the emotional world most people live in, perhaps this set of photos is both more dreamlike and more real. It is complex and layered, like life.

SB. Is your work in the Bronx more about capturing moments of time, or an attempt to use photography as a tool for social changes?

SS. My entire career as an artist and photojournalist has been about using photography to affect social change. This set of images is no exception.
However, what was different was that I did not try to create a photo essay out of these photographs. I did this as a personal project. So I would have to say capturing moments in time was more important in The Bronx Boys series than in any of my other projects. My other photo stories have a point of view and a purpose. There was no purpose here. I was just taking photos. I found a home in The Bronx. I did not do these photos as a journalist, as an outsider telling a story. I just took photos of people I met, people who became my friends, my crew.
I did not show these to many people or make serious attempts to get these photos published. In fact, I did not think any magazine would publish this work because it was not "objective". There was no beginning, middle, and end. This is personal work. That always makes it different.
I just took photos I wanted to take and did not worry about what they meant. There are themes but not a coherent story. As I say in my introduction, Bronx Boys is about "the interplay between good and evil; violence and love; chaos and family are the themes but this is not a documentation. There is no 'story line'. There is only a feeling.”
There is only a feeling. If you believe that most journalism is two dimensional, focusing on facts rather than the emotional world most people live in, perhaps this set of photos is both more dreamlike and more real. It is complex and layered, like life.

SB. You became very close with the people you met and photographed. Coming from very different background, how did you manage to gain their trust?

SS. I don't think people care who you are or where you come from if they like you, if they think you come as a friend who is trying to learn from their life. I try to understand the point of view of those I photograph. I embrace the lives of those I photograph. I learn from them. I listen to the music, read novels, listen to people talk, try to understand how they make sense of the world. I come as a traveler but not as a tourist. The tourist stays in his cultural bubble, sleeps in a hotel, eats American food, then gets on the tourist bus to ‘see’ things. The traveler experiences life. He eats the local food, stays with people, hangs out. I think good photographers do that and that is why we never have problems fitting into different places.
I think people will trust a photographer who portrays them honestly, who does not look down on them. People know who they are. They can accept someone who comes as a friend and who shows their life, warts and all, if it is done sympathetically. Doing it sympathetically is all about the attitude you bring to your work, what you are trying to say, and why. I try to photograph from within, to take photographs that the people I am photographing see as true. In a sense, I am closer to a novelist than a journalist. Truth has layers. I am not as interested in the facts as in revealing the emotional reality that people feel. If you can get to that level, then you are really there.
But I do not pretend to be someone I am not. White people who try to act black are comic figures in the ghetto. People see through that. You have to be who you are and just try to understand and be simpatico. The greatest compliment I got was from a teen, who looked at me funny, trying to figure out who I was, then turned to me and said, "I know what you are, you're an undercover nigger." I think he was telling me he saw me as sympathetic.

SB. The Bronx boys seem to like you. They allowed you everywhere, in their games, bedrooms, when they shot dope. It looks like there were no boundaries. The visiting photographer became brother and dad. Some of them still call you “Dad”. Tell us about those relationships?

SS. I feel comfortable in The Bronx. I have been photographing in the ghetto since the 1960s, when I photographed the Panthers. Bobby Seale was like a father to me. My friend, the photographer Jeffrey Scales, who knew me back then, says that Bobby taught me "black". Bobby taught me how to be a man — not a black man — a man.

I came from an abusive family and felt like an orphan. The black community is used to abuse. People I met in the ghetto welcomed and nurtured orphans like me. Because they welcomed me, I feel a part of that community. I feel at home. The first person who mentored me was my 8th grade teacher, a black man, who took me, a lost kid, under his wing and taught me I could be a leader. I learned from him and other mentors, like Gene Roberts, the legendary editor, and my father-in-law Isaac Stoffmen.

I guess these kids in the Bronx are also lost boys. They let me into their lives because I did not judge them. Many of them saw me as a father / mentor / friend. Sometimes when I was not photographing, I listened to them and helped them comprehend their confusing world. I will not mention them by name because we changed the names in the text.

I got close to the youngsters I photographed. I am still in contact with a few of them. There are two kids in particular. Both are now in their 40s and have children entering college. First is Martin, whose story comprises this book's text. Martin is a supervisor in a food company — on his way to higher management. Second is Poncho, who now owns his own business, employs a few people, and recently bought a house. His three daughters are incredible. His youngest, who is 8-years-old, started a Facebook page to raise money for L.E.A.D Uganda, the NGO I started to educate AIDS orphans and former child soldiers and train them to be leaders. With her, this has come full circle. I was mentored, I mentored her dad and he prepared her. Now it is her turn to help me.

SB. How have your images impacted the lives of the people you met? Do you have a success story?

SS. The images have not been widely published or seen, so I don't think there is an impact from media outreach.
I think the photographic relationship, the experience itself impacted lives more than the actual photos did. Photographing someone is an intense and intimate experience. You are there 24/7. You become part of their lives. You know things about them that their family does not know.
The act of photographing, taking an interest in someone's life — especially if society does not care a hoot about them — can have an enormous, positive impact on someone. Plus, I gave pictures to everyone. That is how I work. I always give people their photos. I think seeing themselves, seeing how good they looked in the photo boosted their confidence.

Photo : Stephen Shames



SB. You have photographed extensively projects related with poverty, lost childhood and social injustice. Then you left your camera and started working with L.E.A.D Uganda, which locates AIDS orphans and former child soldiers, giving them the opportunity to study in the best colleges and schools. Does this mean that you have lost trust in the power of photography for social changes?

SS. I have not lost trust in the power of photography to effect social change. I started L.E.A.D Uganda (www.leaduganda.org) to create social change — specifically to educate AIDS orphans and former child soldiers at the top schools so they can become leaders who will help solve Africa's problems. Keeping 100 kids in school requires me to spend more time fund-raising than photographing but photography is central to L.E.A.D Uganda's branding. We use videos and still images to show what our AIDS orphans and former child soldiers and sex slaves, child laborers, and street kids have accomplished.
Photography is powerful. Advertising relies on visuals to move products. News photos of disaster cause millions to donate money. That is not in dispute. The problem is many of the things people do after being moved by photos are ineffective. Some of our aid even makes the situation worse. Just doing photos of issues and hoping someone else will figure out the right way to help is like buying a lottery ticket — the chances of success are slim.
If we are interested in effecting change we need to think of our photos as a starting point, not a final destination. We photographers are used to being soloists. Creating social change requires an orchestra. Creating social change works better if we are part of a movement. Our photos gain increased traction when they are used by an organization with a good plan and the manpower to put that plan into action.
My first collaboration was in 1967 with The Black Panthers. I partnered with the Children's Defense Fund in 1985 to produce Outside the Dream: Child Poverty in America. Family Support America used Pursuing the Dream: What Helps Poor Children & Their Families Succeed as a catalyst for change during a five year campaign to improve services to poor families. In this century, I completed projects that were utilized by advocacy groups on street kids, the importance of dads in low-income communities, and how anti-retroviral drugs help children.
In March of 2000, while in Uganda doing a story on AIDS orphans, I photographed the funeral of a woman who had died of AIDS leaving behind five orphans, the youngest a baby named Sarah. I formed a special relationship with Sarah who is now eleven and calls me “dad.” I paid their school fees at the village school.
The turning point, the moment I went from being a photographer who is interested in social change to a social entrepreneur who uses photography, came when I realized that just putting a child in a local school, which is what most NGOs do, would not really help them get out of poverty. I was attached to these children. I wanted to create real change in their lives, not just sustain them in their misery. I talked with Ugandans I knew and we came up with a plan.
We started L.E.A.D Uganda with the goal of transforming forgotten children into leaders. We locate the brightest children living on the edges of society. We educate them at the best schools. We help them acquire the entrepreneurial skills they need to help their communities. We have more students in top schools than any other NGO in Uganda. More than half of our scholars receive "A" grades. Our students receive scholarships at top universities in Uganda, India, and the United States.
I have not lost faith in the power of photography to effect social change. I do understand better the limits of photography. What I have learned in 40-plus years as a photographer is that photography can capture people's attention and open their hearts, but you need a good plan and a movement if you want to make the world a better place.