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Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys, Young man with toy gun. His son is at left. Two teens kiss. 1985 (detail)

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Stephen Shames documents the gritty reality of life in the Bronx

If the photographs in Stephen Shames’ series Bronx Boys don’t seem to sit comfortably alongside the funny, shareable, imagined-one-day-and-shot-the next photographic projects which we are so accustomed to seeing on the internet, then that’s because they don’t. Rather, Bronx Boys is the product of 23 years spent photographing a group of people living in the Bronx, New York City, and the photographs were taken not to garner likes or shares, but to publicise the plight of one of the poorest areas in NYC.

It’s not the first time Stephen Shames has undertaken such a task; now in his late 60s, the photographer has spent much of his long career working to raise awareness of social issues, with a particular focus on youth and poverty. As he told me in our interview, his aim is “to give a voice to the aspirations of young people struggling to survive in poor, neglected corners of the world,” and it is without a doubt one he has fulfilled.

The photographs in Bronx Boys are raw and touching, if not always easy viewing. From a young couple kissing on a stoop, to a boy helping his 15-year-old friend to inject heroin, and an image of a child jumping from one building to another eight storeys off the ground, they are a varied bunch, but all equally honest in their depiction of their subject.

To celebrate the launch of the series in book form we spoke to Stephen about his enduring relationships with these people, some of whom he first photographed in 1977, his thoughts on the recent string of shootings of young black men in USA, and the duty of photography to raise awareness about social issues.

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Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys, 13-year-old Rafael jumps from one building to the next, eight stories up. 1977

What made you decide to start taking photographs in the Bronx?

In 1977, John Durniak, the managing editor of Look asked me to do a series on the Bronx. Mr. Durniak had been photo editor of Time and was an influence in my professional life. Look died after my first day in the Bronx, but I had taken my iconic photo Ralph Jumps. I was hooked and continued the project for the next 23 years (until 2000) as a personal project. What kept me interested, in addition to being able to make really good photographs, were the people. Poncho and Martin who wrote the text are my family, as are Ralph and Tony, who introduced me to the neighbourhood: Albie, Cuco, and the rest of the crew.

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Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys, Claremont Boys motorcycle gang inside their clubhouse on Tremont Street. Man exposes his girlfriend’s breasts. 1979

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Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys, Poncho and Tony cool off in water from the fire hydrant on a hot summer night. 1987 or 1988

What do you think it is about the Bronx which makes life there different to anywhere else?

The Bronx is similar to other poor, ethnic neighbourhoods in New York and elsewhere, but it is also a special place with a unique history. I remember seeing a 1940s war movie where the actors are talking about the Germans invading New York. “They wouldn’t make it through the Bronx”, one of the actors said. The Bronx became a symbol of poverty when Jimmy Carter visited the South Bronx in the 1970s, when he was running for President.
 
When I took my first photos in the Bronx in 1977, it was one of the poorest areas in the United States. In 1982, soon after I started photographing, heroin became easily available there. I took photos of a 15-year-old boy who became an addict after his mom died and left him homeless. Then came the crack epidemic, which devastated neighbourhoods. Crack promised easy money for many of the teenagers I was photographing, but also delivered death to most of them as battles erupted for control. Drugs and crime are still evident in the Bronx now, but less so than during the 1980s.

“I see the Bronx boys, the young men I photographed, as people who are abused and neglected by society. They are ‘outside the dream,’ outside of the mainstream. But rather than succumbing to victimhood, they banded together and made a crew or family for themselves — brought themselves up and cared for each other. That is inspiring.”

Stephen Shames

How has it isolated itself from the rest of NYC?

I do not think the Bronx isolated itself from the rest of NYC. The Government of New York City separated itself from and ignored the Bronx — especially in the 1970s. Garbage was not collected. Policing was not done well. Housing deteriorated. That was how things were when I started this project.
 
I see the Bronx Boys, the young men I photographed, as people who are abused and neglected by society. They are “outside the dream,” outside of the mainstream. But rather than succumbing to victimhood, they banded together and made a crew or family for themselves — brought themselves up and cared for each other. That is inspiring.

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Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys, Two teens wear the stocking masks they use to hide their identity when they rob people. Bathgate Avenue. 1982

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Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys, Early in the morning, a 10-year-old boy sleeps on the fire escape, where he slept all night. 1989 or 1991

Many of your photographs in the series are incredibly candid. How did you persuade people to let you shoot them so openly? Did you spend a lot of time there?

I approach people I photograph as friends. I try to insert myself into their lives and live along with them. I try to approach things as an insider rather than as an “objective” journalist in the 1950s National Geographic mode of Europeans looking at “the natives,” as if they are an alien species. I become part of the community I photograph. I want to produce a true document that people who live there can look at and say, “yes, that is the way it was.” I try for that inside point of view. That takes time. I spent a great deal of time in the Bronx, sometimes remaining there for days.

Did you have lasting friendships with any of your subjects from these photographs?

I formed lasting relationships with many of the young men I photographed and with their families. We remain friends today. The Bronx in the 1970s was often dangerous. It could be a terrifying place. People got robbed and killed. Poverty breeds desperation. You had to be tough to survive. But the Bronx also felt like home because the people living there were (and still are) wonderful — very warm and friendly.

“I try to approach things as an insider rather than as an ‘objective’ journalist in the 1950s National Geographic mode of Europeans looking at ‘the natives,’ as if they are an alien species. I become part of the community I photograph.”

Stephen Shames

The Bronx felt like home to me because the people I photographed took me into their hearts and made me family. When you are family, a place can still be dangerous at times but it is home. People protect you. I am still close with many of the kids I photographed, who are now in their 40s and 50s with children and grandchildren of their own.
 
The text for Bronx Boys was written by two of the Bronx boys: Martin Dones and Jose Munoz. That is a good collaboration between a photographer and his subjects. I think the subject should have an equal voice in the project. That is the idea behind Bronx Boys — to give a voice to the aspirations of young people struggling to survive in poor, neglected corners of the world.
 
We had a book signing in the Bronx and 30 or 40 people who were in the book showed up. It was quite a reunion party.

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Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys, A friend helps his 15-year-old friend shoot heroin on the roof. 1982

Which is your favourite image and why?

I have many favourite images, but if I have to choose only one, it has to be my signature, iconic image Ralph Jumps, the photo of a boy jumping between two buildings. That photograph became a symbol of poor children all over the world — the dangers they faced just trying to play like normal kids. That image of hope is on the cover of the book.

Do you believe the ability of photography to raise awareness about important social issues, from poverty to race, has grown over time?

Photography has the ability to make people aware of things, but journalism and photography cannot produce change by themselves. That is a more complicated procedure. I am not sure this has grown over time. Images get wider distribution, but change is still a slow, cumbersome process. Look at the recent police shootings of young black men in the United States. Those images were splashed all over the place, people marched and protested; yet there are still no indictments. Awareness is just the first step in the process.

How do you feel now looking back through these photographs?

I feel great. Bronx Boys is a family album of sorts. The people in the book are my family and this set of photographs celebrates their lives.

What is the thing you are most proud of having done in your career so far?

I am most proud to have brought the lives, the dreams and hopes of poor children of the world to people’s attention.

Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys is available now, published by University of Texas Press.

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Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys, Teenage boys jump into a public swimming pool at night. They climbed over the fence. 1984

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Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys, Teenage boy with M-16. 1985

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Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys, Teenagers and adults play dominoes. 1985

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Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys, Young man with toy gun. His son is at left. Two teens kiss. 1985

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Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys, 16-year-old Poncho and his girl friend. 1991

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Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys, Boys in the hallway outside a party. 1992-99