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Member Spotlight - Robert Yager


[ January 2, 2003 ]   For photographer Robert Yager, there is no formula. The soft-spoken Brit, now 38, was a teenager when he first thought about photography. Hitchhiking around Europe, he borrowed a friend's camera and started making pictures. When he returned to his home city of London, he viewed a show of American photographers that caught his eye.

Especially the documentary photography. "It was interesting and relevant, and artistic at the same time," Yager recalls. "I was 18 at the time. I've been doing photography ever since."

To complete a degree in Latin American studies, Yager spent a year in Mexico. After growing up in "punk London," the streets of Mexico's capitol city seemed the next logical step for the budding shooter. "The people on the streets, the market -- it's all so visual down there. It's beautiful and rugged and disheveled. I was drawn to the timelessness of it all," Yager says. At that point, he had no intention of selling his pictures; he only wanted to hone his craft.

Now heralded for a decade of work documenting Los Angeles' Latino gangs, Yager says the only way to become a successful street photographer is to head out to the street. He spoke to altpick.com from his LA home.

Why gangs?
After Mexico, I decided I wanted to move to LA. But when I got here, it seemed there was nothing going on in the streets -- not like London or Mexico. One of the few things that was going in the streets was gangs. At that time, gang life wasn't something that was known widely. This was the end of 1991.

So you just started shooting them on your own?
I had been assisting for about five years. Then I showed some of my portfolio to an editor at Buzz magazine. He was interested in me proposing a story. I thought about it for a while and said, 'I'll do a gang story.' I was interested in Latin culture and street culture, and a gang story seemed to be an interesting challenge.

How did you begin the reporting process?
Well, like policeman, there's never one around when you want one ... I spent a lot a time wandering around looking for them. A friend of mine told me about a really amazing mural down on Pico -- a story-board of gang life. I checked it out, and pretty soon a couple of gang members came out and said (in Spanish) 'Take my photograph.' That's how it all got started. I went back to the editor at Buzz, but we had just had the LA riots at this point, so he said he didn't think he could publish my work, because there had been so much violence. But, I just carried on with the project anyway.

The gang photographs eventually were published by some big magazines. Did that lead to more work?
My first national publication was a Newsweek cover ... It was the August 2nd, 1993 issue. It was a photo of an 18-year-old running in the street with a rifle, trying to catch a member of a rival gang. The title of the cover was 'Teen Violence Wild In The Streets.'

Some adventurous editors at places like the Observer, the New York Times magazine, and the Independent started giving me some really interesting assignments. Any editor that gives you an assignment is supporting your work. It was really encouraging.

Did you ever feel like some of those shots of gang members throwing their gang signs, or posing like tough guys with their guns, only glorified their culture?
I didn't try to glorify their culture, but document elements of it. I do know that I took a little step when I got very much inside and intimate with those guys.

Their culture is explained as their crimes and bravado and that needed to be examined. Their culture includes many things, like visual expression, tattoos, murals, handsigns, their appearance, ways etc. As well as, their crimes and bravado. I realized that I needed to go further and really get into the family and the life. So it's not just about getting in further and further, but finding the things that are important and valuable. Like the photograph of the baby having his hair shaved by his father. That says a lot more than just a kid having his hair cut.

You revisited the gang story for Time magazine last year in a story titled "LA's Gangs Are Back." Is this one of those stories that will be with you forever?
The neighborhood is much quieter now, but I'm still sort of around. I hang around with the guys who I've photographed. I was just at a wedding the other day, just on Friday. BooBoo who is not hanging out in the gang anymore, but married one of the guys in the gang, which is still big part of her life. She's now trying to concentrate on family and friends.

Did you ever feel like their life was more interesting than your own?
Well, my life at the time was a lot more by the book, so I definitely found it kept life stimulating. It was one of the main things that kept me in LA.

You do celebrity photos also. How different is that from your work as a photojournalist?
With journalism, I am there to document what is going on -- to look for any poignant image that in particular has greater meaning. That is my approach anyway.

With portraits, I just have to work with whatever's around me. I just show up at a location that they choose, and I have to decide what works best for me. I just try to chat with them -- that's the best thing.

Sometimes I'll show them my portfolio beforehand. I did that with Peter Fonda -- and I did it with Hunter S. Thompson, too. Hunter ended up inviting me to hang out for the entire evening. He was something else.

It sounds like developing a rapport with your subjects is really important to your work?
Well I suppose that with journalism it's good to be a fly on a wall who doesn't get noticed. And when you do get noticed, have a good vibe about you.


- Contributed by Kelly McEvers


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