With all the focus on gang culture in England recently, we thought we'd look a little deeper and have a chat with a man who knows his stuff. With twelve photographs nominated for this year's AOP Photography Awards, Josh Cole is a photographer at the top of his game. Having begun his career photographing the UK hip hop and graffiti scene, Cole now travels the world photographing slums and hard to reach people in hard to reach places. From a Romany gypsy community in Lithuania to patients in a drug rehabilitation centre in Bournemouth to gangsters in the Argentine projects; his beautifully composed, honest photography documents the good, the bad and the ugly in everything he sees. Don’t Panic spoke to Cole about another of his AOP nominated projects, Young Guns, in which he photographed active gang members from London. Amid the media furore surrounding gangs in the aftermath of the riots, here’s his take on the riots, gang culture in London and the British media.
What inspired you to begin the project?
I was approached by the Independent to do a photo feature on UK street-gangs. Having been a class A drug dealer in my youth I wanted to show a deeper side to the "monsters" that were being portrayed in the media at the time. There was a lot of talk about knife crimes and their perpetrators but no one was talking to these gangs. I wanted to give them a voice. I didn’t have full control of the editorial so it didn’t really work out. It was a learning experience for me about the British media.
Can you tell us about the process of documenting the gangs?
To gain access I went through contacts of the 'elders' of the gangs - mostly inactive gang members in their mid to late 20s who still had a great deal of respect on the street. I talked to a large number of contacts- probably 20-30 - the majority of whom turned it down or couldn’t convince their 'youngers' to get involved. Out of the ones who agreed to be photographed it was a long process of going to meet ups and being let down, driving up and down the country to meet various gangs. It was emotionally and physically exhausting. My girlfriend (now wife) was six months pregnant at the time and I was driving around with guys with sawn off shot-guns in the back of my car. You can imagine it was more than a little stressful. On top of that I kept pushing the editorial deadline - what started out as a two week project took almost two months in the end.
What was the main message you were trying to send, or story you were trying to tell, with the photographs?
I was trying to show a deeper side to gang members. This was meant to be in combination with the editorial which was supposed to be giving a voice to these youths and to former, reformed gang members. On the whole I feel I was unsuccessful. In hiding the youths’ identities, essential to protect them from prosecution, I feel I ended up perpetuating the image of the monstrous gangster if the pictures were taken out of context, which they often were. I'm about to start a new project in reaction to the recent riots which I hope will show a deeper perspective on the reasons behind the actions of these young people.
What was your relationship like with the men you were photographing? Are you still in touch with any of them?
I'm not in touch with any of the active gang members and I never was but I am still in touch with all my "fixers" and have built many more such relationships since.
Are there any pictures in the series that really stand out for you?
Yes the image of the young white boy standing in a derelict building. He had a very dark past having been kidnapped and forced to sell drugs at the age of 12. He was an old man in a teenager's body.
Boy mentioned above
What’s your opinion of the media coverage of the riots?
In general I don't trust the media and so don't put a lot of value in this information. It would appear that the riots were started when a group of riot police beat a 16 year old girl, yet that information seems to have been suppressed after it was first reported.
In the coverage of the recent riots, a lot of the media has focused on “delinquents”, “youth” and “gang culture”, implying that the riots are just a manifestation of gang violence, ignoring the wider social problems. Do you think that there is any truth in this – is it just gang violence?
I think the important question here is why there are so many people who have so little respect for our society. In my opinion this isn’t about race or poverty, this is about the prohibition of drugs. Because we have made drugs illegal the government has given people an easy form of income and has created a large segment of our society which has no respect for the law and mainstream society. In the States the amount of alcohol consumed tripled under prohibition and created a huge sub-culture of gangsterism. The same thing has happened in modern society with drugs.
The government has then disrespected this part of society by taking away their youth clubs and funding for youth projects while making it harder for poor families to get an education. These things combined with a police force that on the whole has a very poor understanding of this group has created an extremely volatile situation and I for one was not at all surprised at this week's events. We need to address the fact that prohibition isn’t working, which is also the opinion of many people high up in the police force, and to start to gain a higher level of understanding of these problems so that we can welcome this group back into society.
Cole's new project, "Physical Graffiti", looks at break-dancers from ghettoes around the world. As well as being Cole's first film project, there is a major exhibition and coffee table book coming out early 2012. See a music video he shot in the slums of Rwanda and Burundi for Ministry of Sound here. To see the rest of the photographs from the Young Guns project and more of Cole’s work, visit his website at www.joshcole.co.uk. You can find out more about the AOP Awards here.