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Big Mike

I had a very tense encounter with a gang Saturday night while shooting in East Side Indianapolis. It made me wonder why I never pack a gun. I used to carry a can of bear mace, which will sting a gang of 12 from 30 feet away, but I lost the mace – I seem to lose many, many things – including my mind. If I’m going to risk my life for my art, I really should stack the odds in my favor. I went scouting with a friend for shots early Friday evening and ended up back where I had shot Compactor the year before. A lot has changed in one year, and the economic crisis has produced more dangerous conditions, forcing me to be more careful. Nearby, I find an abandoned residential apartment. It has crumbling stone steps that twist and turn up to the front door. The whole building and setting is ghostly and rich with character – It will make a great shot. Saturday afternoon, at the last minute, my friend tells me he’s unable to come shooting with me. With the show winding down, I have to now start searching for someone who will watch my back in the worst part of town, at night, in the dark. Just then, two of the unlikeliest candidates approach me to tell me they like my work and if I ever need help shooting, they are willing to help. Abigail and Chelsea are dressed in summery flower dresses, but there’s something about them that tells you they are not to be messed with. I recruit the two young ladies on the spot. It is night when we arrive at this dodgy setting and as I'm walking around with my two friends, looking for a shot, I notice there are many more dubious characters than a year before. After finding and marking my shot, I pull the equipment out and I set up the camera. A few people have gathered a block away, staring at us until finally they leave. A few minutes pass and there’s a hulking figure walking toward me a block away. He is huge… very tall, very big and more than a little intimidating. I look at the girls and decide to put the camera away. I tell them there’s a small chance we’ll have to run which doesn’t go over well with them. The man arrives and I introduce myself. Appropriately, his name is Big Mike, and he’s a 37-year-old drunk homeless man. We talk and joke for a while. He sometimes sleeps at his mother’s, but he doesn’t like being there, so he mostly sleeps on the streets. In the winter, he goes to the top floor of a nearby abandoned building and he covers himself with a dozen blankets. Ten years ago, he spent a year in jail for Breaking and Entering and for Robbery. An acquaintance had stolen 50 hits of acid from him, and he was trying to retrieve his goods, only to get caught in the process. He tells me how he used to do acid every day and once took 25 hits. He didn’t sleep for four days and lost the ability to speak – then at one point had the classic drug-induced belief that he could fly. But through his acid haze he also had the life-saving inkling that jumping from the 4 story rooftop might kill him. Now he just drinks. Despite his shady past and present, I decide I can trust Big Mike. He has a noble and endearing quality. But I also decide I can use Mike for protection. There are shady characters around, so I ask him if he wants to make $10 as my lighting guy and he happily agrees.

I start setting up again and my beautiful and expensive Hasselblad is once again on top of the tripod for all to see and admire. Ten minutes later five guys arrive and they surround us – their leader is Jay, and he’s not happy. “You in my place – you don’t just take pictures on my turf – that ain’t cool.” Then several more black hooded guys arrive and they are now completely surrounding us. We’ve been swarmed by a gang. Two of them are standing a foot behind me. No threats have been made, but clearly this is bad. Big Mike also seems a little nervous but he towers over us all, and my $10 has become the best investment of my life. Big-ass Mike is on my side. So I try to keep a light conversation going with Jay and about the neighborhood and the abandoned buildings. Then Big Mike says that I’m paying him $10 to do the lighting. Jay’s eyes open wide and he looks at me, “I wanna get paid too! we all wanna get paid.” I tell him all I can afford is what I’m paying Mike, but the gang is not listening. I turn and face one of the two guys standing behind me, and I say “Hey, how ya doin, I’m Xavier.” They stare at me in disgust without saying a word. I shiver inside, then turn to Jay. I keep a minimum amount of small bills on me for just these occasions. “I have $20 dollars on me. If I give Mike $10, I’ll have $10 left. I can give you half of that cause I’ll be broke if I give you the whole $10.” Jay is pondering this but is not entirely convinced. The one flaw in my offer is the same thing Jay has been staring at: my gleaming Hasselblad on the tripod, the big Metz flash in my hand and the camera bag full of seemingly priceless equipment.

This shot was aborted when Jay and the gang arrived, but its now time to put the gear away in preparation for a getaway. The tense small talk continues, but now the attention turns to the girls and its time to slowly disassemble the gear. Jay is looking at Abigail and smacking his lips. “You have a boyfriend? coz I’d like to be your boyfriend.” I’m starting to feel guilty – if something were to happen to the girls I don’t think I could forgive myself. Before meeting Big Mike, the girls had freaked when I took them here. “We never go to the East Side – its dangerous here.” “But you saw my work – where do you think I get those images?” I had said, irritated. “I only shoot in these places.” I tell them its ok, we’ll be safe. But now 30 minutes later I’m not so sure.

Nevertheless, the girls are playing it very cool. Abigail has picked up an empty 24-ouncer of gin from the ground and she’s clinking it repeatedly against the brick wall, joking that she likes to smash people in the face with it. I look down at the ground. I really don’t want to be here any more and I’m wondering how this tense situation is going to play out. I start imagining what everyone is thinking. Big Mike is thinking about his $10. He doesn’t have it yet, and as long as I’m safe he’ll get it. If the gang attacks us and wins, he doesn’t get his money. Jay is thinking he wants everything, but how does he get it? He wants the money, the camera and the girl. He’s trying to work out the odds and with Big Mike there, he’s not sure which way to go. Does he signal the gang to jump us? While this chess game is being played out, I’ve put the gear away and zipped up my camera bag. Our vehicle is down the dark alley next to us, but that would be the wrong direction to go. I signal to the girls that we’re heading for Washington – a half block away. I pull out my money and I only have $10, not $20 as I had thought. I tell Big Mike I’m done – thanks for the great job, and here’s your money. The girls and I instantly head for Washington and Big Mike follows. This all happens more quickly and smoothly than I expect and in no time we’re on the main street. Jay’s gang is left in the dust befuddled and angry they let this fish go. I’m feeling a massive weight lifting. As we walk quickly I tell Mike how he really earned his money. He looks at me uneasy and says, “They wanted my money, they were going to take my money too!” Abigail, Chelsea and I walk around the block and end up behind the building where we can see the car in the small, dark parking area. Its risky, but we quickly head for it, with the gang possibly still on the other side of the building. We jump in and race off.

I returned the following night with my digital camera for a quick memento. This is where I was set up:


  1. Randy Grant5.23.09 / 7am

Hi X, my collection of vintage Nuez’s are presently insured for half a million pounds sterling. Do you think I should contact my insurance broker to revise that figure given that the works of a deceased artist are worth more than those of a living artist and given the risks inherent in your late night, inner city photo shoots ?

  1. Snapshutter 5.26.09 / 5pm

Wow, what story. Glad you and the girls made it out of there safely.

Are you coming to the twin cities this summer?

  1. X5.27.09 / 12pm

Yes I’ll be there 2nd week of August, and I’m looking forward to it!

  1. X5.27.09 / 12pm

Hi Randy, no need to contact your insurance company – I will be careful from now on. I had my head examined and I’m all better now… turns out there was a ball-point pen lodged in my cerebral cortex.


Indianapolis Art Center

Tonight I drive to Indianapolis for the Broad Ripple art festival, which is hosted by the Indianapolis Art Center. I’m looking forward to it! The Center was created in 1934 as part of President FDR’s depression-era New Deal, which included the first federally funded program to fund the arts, and which got many artists working.

I’ll be doing some night shooting while I’m there with my photographer friend Kyle Spears. I was in Indianapolis last year roaming the run down corners.

Alley no. 110, Compactor (2008, Indianapolis, IN, 2am)

  1. Fotografia Ślubna - Światłem Malowane 6.19.09 / 10am

Fotografia Ślubna – Światłem Malowane…

Nice article. Its always a good time to see, what You are doing….


New Image: Alley 122, St Paul, MN

This image was shot in St Paul, MN last year while a few unusual things were going on around us.

This abandoned loading bay runs parallel to the Mississippi River and was a dramatic setting for the shoot. There were maybe fifteen old and corroding bay doors, flanked by great pillars, under a crumbling ceiling. Decades ago, trains would unload their cargo here onto waiting trucks.

While my friends and I are setting up, a dozen suped up cars appear and the drag racing begins. They race right by us, down a stretch of the Great River Road, returning again and again. This goes on for a half hour until the police arrives and a chase ensues. They all take off down the road with sirens blaring behind them and suddenly its quiet. Twenty minutes later they are all back to continue racing but this time it is short-lived: a couple more races and they don’t return.

At this time, a ragged man walks by us and asks what we’re doing. He’s just been kicked out of his home by his wife for drinking too much – this has happened to him many times before. He says he’s heading under the bridge where a friend is living and will give him a blanket so he can sleep. But then he recants his story, and now denies over and over that he’s planning to sleep here. He’s an incredibly bad liar, but he’s afraid the cops will bust him, and he’s suspicious of us. Finally he admits he really is going under the bridge to sleep, and he heads off to meet his homeless friend. He walks along the bay-door side of the bridge and into the picture frame while the camera shutter is open. His friend is at the far end of the bridge, but the long exposure leaves no impression of the man, and his nefarious deed goes unrecorded.

Alley no. 122, Pillars (2008, St Paul, MN, 12:30am)

A little note about the alley numbers: there’s a big jump in numbers with this image. Those numbers now belong to alley images that I wasn’t going to include in the series. They’ve all been posted in previous blogs, and I now think they deserve to live. This is my good deed for the day.

  1. Emmanuel 5.20.09 / 10am

This one turned out really well Xavier. I’m wondering when you’ll be heading back to Minneapolis? I’m collecting various locations for the the next shoot in my head.

Hope you’re doing well. Also, I tried to send you an email a couple of times but it bounced back to me. I wanted to say thank you for the photo, it looks great. Donald got his too.

  1. X5.20.09 / 10am

sorry your emails bounced back… I’ll be back for the Uptown art festival… more shooting sounds like a great plan!

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