Getting Intimate with Gangs

Documentary photographer Donna DeCesare is known for her coverage of US gangs in Central America. Most recently she published Unsettled / Desasosiego: Children in a World of Gangs, a book that is both a memoir and a visual history of her experiences in Central America and Los Angeles. It includes intimate images of gang members and their families that span over a thirty-year period.

We had the opportunity to meet with DeCesare when she came to Columbia Journalism School to receive the Maria Moors Cabot Prize. As an experienced freelance photographer and writer, she had a lot to say about access, trust, and persistence in your work. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

Finding Your Story

Meeting one person can lead to a story. Ideas come from talking to people, so talk to as many people as you can. For DeCesare’s work on Central American gangs, she met her first source at a hospital while doing a story on HIV. That source told her about immigrant kids involved in gangs in the US and introduced her to important characters.

No Stone Left Unturned

When you’re starting a project, cast a wide net. DeCesare was determined to find the right people to lead her into the story and to give her access. She explored every resource she could think of: street youth, immigrant organizations, politicians, nonprofits, gangs, police, Central American immigrants.

Prizes and Grants

You need to fund your project, and it’s unlikely that a publication will fund you long term, especially if you’re just starting out. Apply to all the grants and prizes you can. It’s good to get a prize, even if it’s not a lot of money, because “It’s a message that you aren’t crazy,” said DeCesare.  It’s a sign that your story is worth it, a form of validation.

Embrace Your Independence

“Sometimes not being attached to a publication is better,” says DeCesare. While a big publication name can open a door sometimes, it can also be scary for sensitive sources, like gang members, who may not want to appear in the front pages of local or international paper. If you aren’t attached to a publication your story can be perceived as less of a threat.

Present Yourself Carefully

“Don’t go in looking like a camera store.” Keep your gear in your bag until you know you have permission and access. Then, consider the way you affect the scene: “Downplay yourself, it’s not about you,” DeCesare says. “Fade into the background.” To accomplish this, she wore a plain wedding ring (even though she wasn’t married) and no jewelry or makeup.

Do Your Research, but Remain Open Minded

DeCesare says, “You need to gain trust.”  When you approach, you have to have knowledge about the sources’ situations. Even after you’ve done your research, “approach it with an open mind.” In other words, learn as much as you can, but assume ignorance.

Gain Their Trust

“Show them your track record.” DeCesare also suggested keeping an ID or press badge on you so your subjects know you’re not a cop. She showed her potential sources her photographs clipped from newspapers, with her byline so they would trust she was who she claimed to be.

Showing past work may make participating in your project seem more attractive. “Let yourself have something interesting to show,” she says. “You have to let them know you.” You shouldn’t become friends, but do share things about you. Be mindful of group and family dynamics, also: DeCesare always met with the wives and girlfriends of her male subjects first, so she didn’t seem like a threat.

Take Silly Pictures

“I took a lot of silly portraits of kids posing, to make them happy.” DeCesare used a point and shoot film camera, which gave her an excuse to meet with the gang members again because they had to come back for their prints of photos.

Trust Your Instincts

“As you gain experience, your instincts tell you what to do,” said DeCesare. Even when you don’t have a plan, trust your gut. “I think afterward: I’m glad I did that.”

Photograph Everything

Don’t just photograph the negative. It’s not fair and the subject will pick up on it. DeCesare found moments of play and happiness in the lives’ of her subjects, though the subject matter could be dark.

Get Photo Releases

Sometimes asking for releases can make a situation awkward. Find the right time to ask for a release, and consider including more options than the standard release form does, like a clause saying that the photographer will keep their word. Some of DeCesare’s subjects were offended by being asked to sign a release, because it seemed that she doubted their honesty about spoken agreements. Be mindful of your subjects’ feelings on this matter, and find a way to procure releases that is comfortable for everyone.

Use the Down Time

Use your down time to talk to people. When the light is bad, or when nothing is really happening, use the time to interact with the subjects. “You really have to be involved in their lives to tell their stories. Visual journalism is different that way.”  Remember you’re a human being first.

Find Closure

When you’re done, it can help to have a party or a dinner where you can give your subjects photos and thank them for participating. This can keep your sources from feeling used. Having a celebration to mark an end to your project can be a way of honoring your subjects, and letting them know what working with them meant to you.

Donna DeCesare is a consultant to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and an Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

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