Stephen Shames’ photography captures the everyday struggles, joys and dangers of being a young man growing up in the Bronx. Starting in 1977, Shames documents over two decades of life, love, family, violence, drugs and community. He follows his subjects as they grow from boys to men, gaining their trust and becoming part of their chaotic world.
His images have a sense of intimacy, ease and comfort that only an accepted insider could achieve. He takes the phrase ’fly on the wall’ to a whole new level, capturing some jaw dropping moments along the way.
The images are accompanied by Martin Dones’ stirring autobiographical narrative. As a man in his forties looking back on his boyhood, he provides a backstory that shows the images in a completely different light. It’s almost impossible to believe that the smiling children they portray are living the same lives that Dones describes in his accounts. Behind those baby faces, there is little innocence left.
The images and text somehow tell two different stories, or perhaps more accurately, two sides of the same story. (Shames himself admits that there is no journalistic agenda, no particular point to prove, just captured moments.) In this way the two contrast and compliment each other, creating a well rounded account of Bronx life.
In his interview at the end of the book Shames talks about wanting to show the good as well as the bad, the camaraderie, the fun, and the love that these boys experience on their journey to adulthood.
In reality though, I can’t help but find an overall feeling of tragic inevitability portrayed in this work. Sadly many of the people in the photographs were later killed or imprisoned.
The very ’joys’ these young boys experience… hanging out on the street, having a close knit crew, skipping school, getting high, having sex at an insanely early age… These things may be portrayed almost as ’fond memories’ but to an outsider, they’re nothing more than the doomed beginnings of a downward spiral.
So perhaps it’s fair to say that whilst Shames keeps the reader in the spontaneity of the ’boy’ moment, Dones provides the gut-wrenching hindsight of manhood. The story wouldn’t feel quite so complete or truthful if only one of these elements were present.
In no uncertain terms this is a spectacular piece of photo-journalistic work, no matter how unintentional it may have been. Photography, interview, and autobiography come together to provide an eye-opening and thought provoking visual and literary experience, and it deserves a place on your iBook shelf.
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Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger, Photography © Stephen Shames, with thanks to FotoEvidence.