Serbian photographer Boogie grew up in the war-torn region of former Yugoslavia, documenting protests and the disturbing portraits of skinheads. After moving from Belgrade to Brooklyn in 1998, he started observing New York’s bleak street side of life with monochrome shots. Distinctively, his work isn’t emphatic. He doesn’t judge. He is more reporting on a not so distant universe with a fine eye for detail – and a lot of guts. He showed PingMag his depiction of Brooklyn gang life and junkies.
Written by Verena
When did you start documenting your neighbourhood?
I started taking pictures in 1993. My country was falling apart: We were under UN economic sanctions, and people were starving and selling everything from their homes to survive… I had some money, so I started buying vintage cameras at flea markets. I liked the way they looked. Then one day, my dad bought me a real camera that was actually capable of taking pictures – and I was hooked. Also, since my dad and my grandfather were both amateur photographers, in a way, photography was part of my life from an early age.
What drove you in the beginning, curiosity? Or just the weird things that happen next door…
I think the real reason was to preserve my sanity because of all the madness around me…
Why did you choose to portrait gangs and junkies? They are so obvious in such defined areas?
I’m not sure why. I started working on these two projects by accident, since you can’t really decide to take on a project like that. I mean, you can but chances are slim that you’ll do anything…
How long did you spend time with the gangs, like a couple of months?
The whole project took me 2,5 to 3 years to complete.
Now, how did you approach the gangs? Was it maybe easier being a foreigner?
I first started taking pictures of drug addicts. Then I got sick of it – looking at people shooting up dope and smoking crack on a day to day basis is heavy – and so I decided to go to the nearby public housing projects and try to take pictures of gangs… I just went there and walked around as a white guy with a camera in a black/Puerto Rican neighbourhood. And, of course, I didn’t have to look long before the gang guys approached me. I think that being a foreigner might have helped. At least, I didn’t sound like anyone they hate.
Very true. Which gang members exactly did you meet?
Can you tell us a bit about the group dynamics inside a gang?
There is a strict hierarchy, and if you give respect, you get it back.
What was your most memorable incident with them?
I was very lucky there were no incidents. But danger was always present.
Were you never frightened?
Of course I was scared! Whenever my gut instinct told me to leave, I would take off… In situation like these there are no rules, and the most important tool you got is the gut instinct. Bad things can happen at any moment.
For sure. When looking through your series, there are two pictures I want to know more about with people on roof tops, observing… [see below]
About the photo with the police officer on the rooftop [below right] – it’s called VERTICAL PATROL. Meaning, cops are patrolling rooftops and hallways of public housing buildings, searching for drug dealers. In the public housing projects, you are not allowed to go to the rooftop, because people used to be thrown off of them… The other one is a gangster on the lookout for cops [below left].
Two sides in the air: Patrolling gangster… © Boogie
… and patrolling police from above. © Boogie
About the crack junkies: These images are pretty tough! How did you get so close?
Same thing like with gangsters: I was just walking around the neighbourhood, bumped into a group of homeless people in an abandoned parking lot and asked them to take some pictures… They wouldn’t let me and probably thought I was a cop. But one of them – Christine, 50 years old, who spent seven years in prison on drug charges – told me to go ahead, no problem. We started talking, I went back the next day and we became sort of friends. A couple of weeks later she introduced me to her friends, and two of them asked me to take pictures of them smoking crack. Then again, one thing led to another, smoking crack, shooting up dope, crack houses – all pretty surreal and out of the limit of normal people.
But how come they let you document so much?
They liked me and I never judged them. Because who am I to judge anyone? That junkie, or a gangster, it could’ve been me and you. This whole life is a bunch of choices you make and they just made a couple of wrong ones.
It came to the point where I would just go to their houses, hang out, and they were doing whatever they would do, had I not been there. It’s the moment every photographer lives for – when you become a fly on the wall…
Did you have to pay them?
No. I would buy pizza and donuts for the kids many times cause they are the ones who suffer the most.
Coming from a war-torn region of former Yugoslavia at that time – I’m sure that must somehow affect the way you perceive New York: the gangs, the crime and all. Am I right?
I mean, the way you grow up influences everything in your life, that’s pretty normal, not just for me but for everyone…
Boogie. Nice gun pattern on the hoodie, by the way. © Boogie
True. Though I guess you experienced far more drastic things then many… Thank you very much, Boogie!