Stephen Shames’ vital work documents the experience of impoverished youth in the Bronx
I started photographing the Bronx for a magazine called Look in 1977. When the magazine folded after my first day, I continued the project alone; New York at that time was on the verge of bankruptcy – it was gritty and impoverished and I was hooked.
At the time, I was working as assistant director of photography at Parade magazine in the day and hanging out in the Bronx at night. With long-term photo essays, you have to spend a lot of time get- ting to know your subjects, for them to accept you and let you take pictures – especially when, as was sometimes the case, people are selling drugs. So – as with this image of Martin, who I got to know well and wrote the text for the book I published of these photographs – I hung out, started taking pictures and the story developed from there. It would continue for 23 years.
In the ’60s and early ’70s, I photographed the Black Panthers movement and spent a lot of time in African-American areas of the US, in the ghettos, seeing both the poverty and the politicised people who were trying to do something about it. It made me realise that there’s a lot of positive energy and good, decent people trying to raise their kids and overcome these huge obstacles. I photograph survivors, people who fight to overcome their situations. And I try not to portray these people as pathetic, as many photographers do – their work becoming a form of charity.
In a sense, I see myself as a kind of crusader, like Lewis Hine and Arthur Rothstein – people who photographed challenging, abject conditions in order to increase awareness. I hope my work brings a degree of visibility to these marginalised people, and if the viewer sees them in a different light, then it has been a success. We need to look at things that are hard to face; if we don’t, nothing will ever change.
As told to George Upton
Stephen Shames’ vital work documenting the experience of impoverished youth in the Bronx was showcased by President’s for their AW18 campaign, reflecting the collection’s inspiration taken from New York City in the ’80s and ’90s. Since 2014, President’s has highlighted independent photographers, profiling the work of one artist each season and selecting an iconic image from their archives to represent the collection in print.
This article is taken from issue 23. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here.