One could argue that, in certain ways, writers have it easy. When we want to illuminate some nuance of the psyche hidden from plain sight, there's a slew of tools at our disposal: simile, abstract symbolism, even (not that I would ever stoop to this) imagined internal dialogues. But when a photographer wishes to convey the complexity of the human condition, he or she has to root out actual physical evidence. The camera won't capture what isn't right in front of it. For this reason, in part, wars have always attracted the great photographers. War – any war – is pretty much guaranteed to flush into the open the full spectrum of human nature. If a talented photographer bothers to show up, chances are good that the varied faces of humanity will unveil themselves before the waiting eye of his camera.
It would seem logical, then, that photographers would rush to record the wars closest to home – namely, the gang conflicts of the inner cities. And indeed, ever since the late '80s, when gang violence became a staple of the nightly news, hoards of camera-wielding freelancers have strode into the poorer areas of town to bag their own photographic trophies of urban warfare.
Over the last decade, the products of such endeavors have shown up with grinding regularity on the desks of every photo editor of every magazine and newspaper in Los Angeles — including this one. But while foreign conflicts, from World War II forward, have produced moment-defining images from the likes of Robert Capa, Philip Jones Griffiths and Eddie Adams, the photos that emerged from East L.A. and South-Central all had an unnerving sameness: shot after shot of tattooed homeboys striking fierce poses and holding large handguns or automatic rifles. There was usually a colorful snap or two of a gang funeral and, inevitably, at least one shot of a gang member putting a gun into the hands of his child.
In the seven-plus years I've spent researching East L.A. street gangs, I've bumped into at least a dozen of these intrepid photographers, most of whom were practitioners of the hit-and-run school of photojournalism. They'd blaze into the barrio, ply the homeboys with a case of beer to persuade them to drag out their weaponry, fire off a bunch of rolls of film, then blaze out before somebody took a shot at them. With occasional notable exceptions, the proof sheets they later brandished seemed intended more as evidence of their own machismo than documentation of the complex and tragic social issue known as gang violence.
In early 1992, an award-winning New York photographer named Joseph Rodriguez became fed up with the gang-member-as-monster stereotype he felt was being perpetrated by many of his colleagues. So he flew to the West Coast and, for most of the next two years, planted himself and his camera in East Los Angeles (with occasional side trips to South-Central). The result is East Side Stories: Gang Life in East L.A., and despite Rodriguez's original good intentions, his book begins with two images that can't help but reinforce the very preconceptions he is trying to explode. First, the cover photo shows two young gang members striking the usual tough-guy poses, with one boy cradling a humongous automatic rifle. Inside, the first shot depicts a gangster named Chivo placing a .32-caliber pistol into the tiny hands of his confused-looking toddler daughter as the baby's mother looks on, smiling radiantly.
After this rocky start, Rodriguez's images widen into the more intricate and compassionate portrait he clearly desired. Instead of viewing gang members suspended in the contextless limbo of outlawry, we see two homeboy brothers at the dining-room table with their mother and sister, frilly kitchen curtains blowing in the background. In another shot, a “new bootie” named Egor (who looks to be about 13) is shown hanging around with some older guys from his neighborhood. Egor leans against a homeboy's car gazing at the night sky, his eyes wide open and dreamy, his expression euphoric at his sudden inclusion in the older boys' world.
There is a particularly poignant triptych of pictures featuring Gyro, a pudgy, mustachioed gangster from Evergreen, an Eastside gang that has been in existence since the '50s. In one picture, Gyro celebrates with Oscar, a homeboy who has landed a job outside the hood. “I'm glad for you Oscar,” Gyro declares in the text. “I would rather get out; I'm tired of looking over my shoulder. I don't want to die, but I'm down for my barrio.” In the next picture, Gyro is being given a haircut by another homeboy, Frankie, in preparation for job hunting; a third friend, Spanky, plays with a toy gun nearby. The last photo in the series shows Gyro lying inside a quilted casket. Fellow job applicants Frankie and Spanky lean over Gyro's still and waxy form, stroking his hands and forehead. The photo is shocking not for its violence but for its intimacy. Gyro is no longer the dehumanized gangster, but a young man we have seen alive and full of promise.
Later in the book, there is a photo of two homegirls — members of the Insane Juvenile Queens of South-Central — in which one girl drapes herself against the back of the other, her face suggesting the kind of yearning one sees when a child dissolves into the embrace of its mother. It is a telling portrait of the “homie love” to which gang members, male and female, constantly refer. Over and over, I've watched boys of this most supermasculine of subcultures standing with arms slung tenderly around each other or, in times of stress and sorrow, absently grasping each others' hands for comfort. Such gestures are, of course, familial rather than sexual, but they are not easily shown to an outsider. Rodriguez hung out long enough that, in photo after photo, the mask was dropped as gangsters of both genders showed themselves to be children – albeit children capable of horrific violence.
Rodriguez says that his inspiration for this project came in part from a 1950s Esquire photo essay on a Brooklyn youth gang by Bruce Davidson, with text by Norman Mailer. For his own text, Rodriguez made two smart choices. Poet-journalist (and former Weekly staffer) Ruben Martinez wrote the vivid introductory essay in which he retraces Rodriguez's photographic steps, interviewing many of the subjects with a novelist's instinct for the telling emotional detail, then effectively helping the reader place the images of gang life in the larger social context of the history of the Eastside. The book closes with an interview with renowned author and poet Luis J. Rodriguez. A former gang member, currently a gang worker and educator, Rodriguez is likely the most important and lyrical voice presently writing about la vida loca. His words bring the book to a strong interpretive close: “You see the face of God in all these children. That's what it's all about.”
If there is any real shortcoming to Rodriguez's book, it's that one continually has the sense that we aren't seeing all of his photos. A string of nearly unreadable proof-size shots scattered through the book's introductory text reinforces this feeling. Another source of irritation is the fashion in which many of the photos in the book are ordered. Sometimes, a series seems designed with a narrative flow in mind; other times, the sequencing appears maddeningly arbitrary.
In the end, I suspect that the gang wars of Los Angeles still have not found their Robert Capa. But in Rodriguez they may have found another kind of worthy documentarian. In his introduction, Martinez writes that in looking at these photos, he felt he was “seeing the neighborhood through a mother's eyes. Joe Rodriguez's photographs tell me that these homeboys are our children: American children, living American lives, in an American city.” This statement comes closest to expressing the value of East Side Stories. Taken individually, Rodriguez's photos are good, though not quite brilliant. Yet he has brought with his camera the caring eye of a parent. And when shooting a war fought almost entirely by children, perhaps that is the eye that's needed.
Celeste Fremon is the author of Father Greg and the Homeboys and the forthcoming Girlfriends, stories about the women of the Pico-Aliso housing projects.