I just finished the epic and traumatizing TV show, Them, about a black family that moves into Compton in 1953, when the neighborhood was whites only. The show is many things, including a history lesson on Compton before it became the notorious "Compton!" and a view into the nightmare that greeted the first black people to move there.
The show brought me back to one of the craziest/dumbest photo shoots I ever did. In March 2008, me and two friends walked into one the most run down back alleys in Compton with all my photo gear, and proceeded to almost get ourselves killed. Above are the two photos I shot that night: Angel Luis and High Wire
This is my Blog post from the day after, March 24th, 2008.
I don’t know where to begin… Yesterday was a mind-blowing day - First I meet a TV legend and then I’m almost killed.
In the afternoon I met one of my collectors whom I’d been wanting to meet for some time. Earl Hamner is the creator/producer of TV’s The Waltons (and later Falcon Crest, plus he wrote many episodes of the original Twilight Zone). I grew up watching the Waltons. It ran for nine seasons, won a ton of Emmys, and drew audiences of 50 million per week, so I’m honored that he has two of my pieces: Alley #40 and Dance of the Spirits.
We sat in his office and talked for 3 hours! It was a wonderful cerebral and goofy conversation. The man is a brilliant and engaging legend, and what a privilege it was to meet him. He sent me an email some time ago with the greatest compliment anyone has given me. He said that looking at my art made him want to live longer, and that this was a feeling a painting had given him only once before, long ago.
Before saying goodbye, I told him I would be shooting alleys that night. He became very concerned, and then fearful for me. I hope you aren’t reading this, Earl…
Last night’s shoot turned into an unbelievable story. After my recent reflections on shooting in Compton, I end up back there walking through its alleys after my companions, Ben Bernstein and Jeff Nelson, say they are okay with it. In fact, like me, they are eager to go there. We head to one of the spots I’d picked out a few days earlier and I set up - its at the intersection of three alleys, far from the street. Thirty minutes later I have to go back to my van to get a light.
As I turn to walk back down the alley, I see Ben and Jeff madly running toward me with my gear. “Open the doors, now!! We gotta get outta here, now!!” Then I see a gang of maybe 15 guys in black hoods chasing them.
I start frantically looking for the keys I’ve just put away. I unlock the doors and throw the gear in. Then we jump in and lock the doors. Moments later, the mob turns the corner and surround us. They’re all yelling at us to get out of the fucking van, and Who the fuck do we think we are. “You in our territory now!”
They are a Latino gang, and like a delusional nut, I’m still holding out hope that I can go back and get the shot. So I roll the window down a bit and tell them (thank god I speak Spanish) “I’m real sorry, I didn’t know this was your territory. I mean no disrespect. I’m just an artist taking pictures.” They lighten up a bit, but then one sticks his nose in, “I wanna see your camera!”
Then the oldest guy, and the only one wearing a shirt (he turns out to be their leader), says “Hey I know you, aren’t you Luis? you work for Ramon. Its Jorge - you remember me?”
I look at him and say, “Yea, that’s me, how you doin?”
He looks around at the members, “Hey I know this guy, he’s alright - es un buen chico. I seen him around.” He puts his arm through the window and we shake hands. He keeps repeating to everyone, “he’s cool, he’s cool,” and the whole mood in the gang changes. Suddenly everyone is all smiles and friendly, and I’m shaking one hand after another.
With some hesitation, I decide to open the door and get out. Jorge gives me a big hug, “How you doin, man, you remember me? Te acuerdas de mi?”
“Of course I do, you crazy guy.” I end up hugging half the guys there. Ben and Jeff come around and we are one big happy family.
Jorge tells me I can do whatever I want - I’m safe here. I’m not sure I want to pull out all my treasured equipment, so I just hang out with them for a while. Minutes later I really do feel we’ve passed that hurdle and everything is cool - and this is my chance to continue my work.
We pull all the gear out and set up again. Jorge decides to hang out, and so do a couple of his blackhoods - he calls them his gangsters.
Fifteen minutes go by, and a cop car rolls in, twenty feet away, around the corner of one of the intersecting alleys, and surprises us.
Two cops jump out screaming and pointing laser guided hand guns at us. I stare down at my chest and see a red dot vibrating. “LET ME SEE YOUR FUCKING HANDS!! PUT YOUR FUCKING HANDS IN THE AIR!!” A minute later, we’ve all got our hands on the hood of the cop car. One cop starts checking around dark corners in the alley, in case someone is hiding. I’m wondering how itchy his finger is, and what a goddam tough job he has, trying to secure these streets night after night. He also takes a closer look at my gear.
When he returns, I’m about to explain what we’re doing, but Jorge - who’s been cool as a cucumber throughout all of this - says, “Hey you guys know Officer Menendez - he’s a friend of mine”
The cops suddenly freeze and become a shade more pale. “Ah, ok… sorry - we thought maybe you were up to something.” One cop shakes Jorge’s hand, and they say, ”We’re gonna leave now.” They get into their car and back away. I look at Ben and Jeff and we all have the same thought: “What the fuck just happened?”
I tell Jorge he’s the King of Compton. He says, “and you’re not Luis.” But it doesn’t matter any more. By this point, we’ve become friends, so we just laugh and pat each other on the back.
I finish the exposure, and I tell him there’s one more shot I want to do, 2 blocks away. He says he’ll go there with me. We go and do the next shot, and I’m thrilled cause I have a good feeling about these two images. I tell Jorge I want to send him the pictures, and he gladly accepts. He gives me his address, and phone number. “Anytime you want to come back and do more pictures, give me a call. You’ll be safe here.” He even explains which streets are at the perimeter of his territory, meaning beyond that, I’ll be at the mercy of some other gang. We start wrapping up, and Jorge invites us for a beer. We head to his favourite bar, where we eat and drink and have a good ol time! “Man, is you lucky you look like Luis,” he says. Cheers to that!
Jorge, in white shirt. On his left is one of his gangsters, as he called them. From his right: Ben Bernstein, Jeff Nelson, me, and finally a crazy drunk who happened to stumble by, singing Spanish love songs. Taking the picture is another gangster. Behind Jeff is my trusted Hasselblad camera way up on a tripod, where it was for the last shot.