A View of Gang Life Beyond the Drive-Bys

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So many say that L.A. is unseen. Most likely because too many traverse the length and breadth of it at high speed or on the busy system of utilitarian roads built for economy.

But for some who live the fast-forward life--those youths who see their ends at the very moments many others stand poised at the threshold of the future--slowing it down, basking in the details, becomes the mystery to unravel.

Joseph Rodriguez's photographs are like a slow float down the wide boulevards that L.A. made so famous. Bringing details into focus, Rodriguez's lens is the eye in the passenger seat, not just freezing but assessing the moment.

His new collection, "East Side Stories: Gang Life in East L.A.," out last month from PowerHouse Books, is the culmination of three years of work on the streets, behind the kitchen tables, sitting on the hoods of cars, kicking it on the porches and in the backyards.

"All I wanted to do is get behind the gate, beyond the car, get beyond the drive-by shooting, get beyond the door," says Rodriguez, just in from New York, zipping up his laptop and adding it to the rest of the duffels and camera bags that lie in wait at the threshold of the Glendale home where he's been crashing over a recent weekend. "Basically, I wanted to go inside. I wanted to see what the life was really like."

With an introductory essay by journalist-essayist Ruben Martinez and an interview with writer and youth activist Luis J. Rodriguez, a flip through "East Side Stories" is much more than just spoils from a parachute drop into the mix but, rather, an attempt to look at the mundane day-to-day, the minutes that fold into hours and ultimately make up lives.

Joseph Rodriguez, 46, who grew up in Brooklyn, knows it's better not to shy away from life's rough spots, the bruises. He doesn't want to clean up the edges. His attempt, instead, is to broaden the vision, supply a context and examine just how family functions--traditional and extended--in urban areas where young men and women, despite intervention or the dying wish of a loved one, perpetually find themselves in the embrace of the clique.

He wanted to strike a balance: not just images of homeboys with sly grins showing off their ever-blossoming supply of arsenals or helpless, hand-wringing martyrs, but to really capture an honest, fluid reflection. An image that could be stared into, and thus begin to be understood.

The vision had been at times skewed, warped, as Ruben Martinez points out in the book's introductory essay. For many journalists of color who had finally found themselves with voice and proper platform by which to impart their message, the desire was to try to take back their portrayal, scrub the image free of blemishes: "It's a kind of political correctness: Don't talk about the dirty laundry, don't give the media powers-that-be ammunition to reinforce the stereotype." But Rodriguez figures you have to stare right into it--all of it--in order to see it, to fix it.

His images are affecting as much for what is happening in them as for what isn't: boys raising sons; raucous house parties; the aftermath of a drive-by, the body crumpled; a young girl "playing marriage" with a gauze remnant tied about her head as veil; a young man fitting a .32 into his infant daughter's hands the morning after a rival gang had missed him for the fourth time.

The grouping of photos is the volume's power: progression of lives in vignettes. So when the image of Gyro's funeral appears after a succession of images of him hanging out with friends, having his hair cut in the shade of the yard, it is not just crushing but curt, blunt. It underscores the suddenness and absurdity of such a thing. You're left to flip back through the images to make sure it happened.

There is a little bit of Rodriguez in these boys, in the itchy urgency in their eyes. Maybe because he knows what it feels like to punch one's way out of circumstance as if it were a bag.

"Photography was introduced to me as a savior," Rodriguez says. "During the '60s, it was a great and crazy time . . . It was a time of freedom and a lot of experimentation . . . and I got caught up with that whole drug scene. But I was introduced to a photographic workshop taught by an African American photojournalist, Beuford Smith in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I was about 20, 21. This really interested me because my whole life I wasn't really able to speak. People always told me to be quiet. Speak when spoken to. And this was a great, great way for me to get my feelings out. I bought a cheap camera and started photographing the neighborhood. In the beginning I was really afraid of people, but I was trying to get closer and closer."

By the time Los Angeles erupted in the spring of 1992, Rodriguez had long uprooted himself from the States. Living with his then-wife and two children in Sweden, he kept his ear to the urban streets by way of gangsta rap: the breaking news. He had first made his mark as a professional photographer, cutting his teeth on the streets of Spanish Harlem (a sampling of the work collected in the volume "Spanish Harlem," published by the Smithsonian Institution) and had traveled throughout the world documenting minority cultures. But nothing could truly prepare him for the raw nerve he landed in. The size. The history. The breadth and depth overwhelmed him. In May of 1992, he followed the smoke of talk to the flash point in South L.A. and then later moved into Watts recording images there. Ultimately he found himself heading East--to Boyle Heights and East L.A. to turn his lens on the neighborhoods--Marianna, Evergreen and Florencia--where things had yet to coalesce, chill.

"When I arrived in L.A., there were a lot of photographers all over the place," he recalls. "People who were making movies, what have you." Because of it, sinking into the seams of their lives was even a slower, more delicate process. Easily undermined. "But I really felt as I talked to more and more people that there was a story to be told . . . and I felt more and more responsible, no matter how difficult, to try to tell a clear one."

But Angelenos tend to be wary of outside assessments. And who was to know what Rodriguez's ultimate goal was, says Martinez: "[At] first when I [thought] that he was like every other shock-photojournalist coming down to the ghetto for the quick, sensational shot. But . . . as I got to know him, and most importantly, see the work, I realized that I'd never met anyone with the same kind of commitment to intimate documentary portraiture. . . . . His philosophy goes beyond subject-object. It is subject-subject. He is not just a photographer of these kids, he is a friend . . . or a mentor. The contact is intimate, human, real. You are drawn to [your subjects] for some mysterious but very important reason, and you will learn about them as much as you learn about yourself in the process."

By September, with the support of San Francisco-based Pacific News Service and a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation in Washington, D.C., Rodriguez moved to L.A., taking up residence in Silver Lake. "Every day was a challenge. You had to start all over again--gaining their trust, confidence, each day."

"What was really wild about this was how comprehensive Joe was in detailing what gang culture is all about," says PowerHouse Books publisher Daniel Power. Rodriguez, so much of a completist, has agreed to set up a place on the Web site, www.powerHouseBooks.com, where readers can continue to follow one of his subjects, Chivo, on his journey through life outside the gang.

"It is not just kids hanging out with each other, but the parents and children," Power says. "But also, he wasn't trying to show these kids as being kids in Middle America either. Like the one image you have where a kid is posing with his mother, but he's also throwing a gang sign."

It's the contradictions, the intersections, the way families patch together an existence that Rodriguez's photographs open the conversation on: "For me, family is very, very important. It's something that I struggled with as a child. My father wasn't around. So it is something that I will continue throughout my work.

"Basically for me it is very personal. . . . I didn't start this project with the hopes of making a book. It wasn't about trying to get a message out. The key for me was that if we could really see ourselves, then maybe we can understand ourselves a little bit more. That I could start to speak for people that I felt close to."

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