Photographer Jono Rotman’s turn of phrase is as crafted in thought as each of his photographs. His most recent body of work, “Mongrel Mob Portraits”, took eight years to create. His subjects sit for the camera without artifice, allowing us a glimpse of people behind the collective identity of one of New Zealand’s most prominent and notorious gangs. His series depicts a unique vein in the tissue of New Zealand society, bringing up questions about national narrative and the perspectives of its inhabitants.

What was it that attracted you to the mongrel mob as a subject matter?

I’m interested in universal themes of the human condition. In New Zealand, such themes tend to be manifest in specific and unique ways. As a New Zealander, I’m most familiar with the New Zealand condition. But I think the underlying currents are common through-out the world. The mob represented to me a particularly focused extreme of what manifests when people are pushed.

Despite the fact your photographs are so inherently New Zealand, and although there are similar gangs in other countries, your photographs have received a lot of attention from publications all over the world. What is it about the photographs that make people everywhere respond to them?

I think there’s a gingerbread house aspect to the iconography and tattoos that is immediately compelling because it’s so visually wild. However, I’m interested in how viewers respond to what’s within the witch’s house. What I am most concerned with expressing or giving people the opportunity to commune with, is the depth of human experience behind the mask. People in gangs often come from environments where there’s difficulty, perhaps violence and often the prison experience. I’m interested in exploring how these sorts of experiences might be revealed in the lineage and topography of the person’s face. The work has been engineered to be those [large format] prints which offer extremely fine details and, I hope, a very visceral interaction is encouraged by such fine detail. Sadly, much of that is lost when the work is viewed online.

With members of the mob wearing Nazi iconography, you’ve mentioned in the past it was done to agitate the white establishment and used as an ironic statement, are you able to talk to us more about this?

I think an ‘ironic statement’ probably understates the spirit behind it, it’s fundamentally an act of war. But it’s using irony and to a degree, vicious satire as well. A fundamental thing, as you say, is to agitate the establishment and certainly when they came around in the sixties and seventies, the Second World War experience and the ideologies and side-taking of that period was still pretty fresh in the nation’s psyche. So to take that iconography was a vastly more violent, in terms of symbolism, response to the establishment than perhaps it might be now. But it’s also a way of basically using the power of your enemies’ symbols and throw it back at them which is in a sense a marital arts move, so there’s that aspect of it. At the more pallid end of the spectrum that’s what punk did in using those symbols also, but I would argue that Mob use is a deeper and more visceral response to those concerns.

For me the overwhelming feeling I first got and continue to get from these portraits is this intimacy to them. An intimacy confounded by the fact that most people don’t get access to the mob or if you do, you don’t get the luxury of looking at them for such a prolonged period which your portraits do allow for.

It’s a tricky thing when you photograph people, especially when you present images, you open up an avenue of what is arguably voyeurism. And as you say ‘you don’t get an opportunity to look at those people’ intrinsically has an element of what I’ve been accused of - ‘caging the beast’ or ‘giving people an opportunity to look at the weird’. Obviously that’s an unavoidable aspect depending on where the viewer comes from. The thing that I was anxious to try and do was, whilst offering the opportunity for a communion with the subject, was to also let the subject retain their separateness, their power and within that, their mystery. I feel that was successful, that even though for many people it was an opportunity to ogle a subject, at the same time, I hope (and certainly speaking to members) I was successful in achieving a way for them to not have their privacy ruptured.

To comment on that - what I liked about the series so much was that a lot of the retaliation you got, was this idea that you were ‘glorifying’ them and that they shouldn’t be depicted at all. But they are part of our society and they shouldn’t be swept under the carpet, and so it is important for them to be visible in this way.

I think they are representative of an extraordinarily important part of the New Zealand narrative. I am conscious about making good craft and that’s how I work as a craftsperson. Other than that, I was simply taking a photograph of something that exists. The glorification argument comes from the deep-seated narrative about these guys that dictates that you are only allowed to take pictures of them in a way that subscribes to the established story-line: that is, gritty, black and white, underbelly documentary photographs, which I think is bullshit.

Can you talk more about how these guys have played an important role in shaping New Zealand?

The simplistic argument is that the gangs came about due to disenfranchisement, poverty and rudderless young men. Prison, and certainly at that time, the Borstal boy’s home and psychiatric hospital environment had an impact too- the apotheosis of state control. There’s a very significant aspect of this that feeds into the Maori experience. Maori are more represented in the gangs and in the mob specifically than other groups, and, sadly still, poverty, crime and incarceration statistics. If one uses that lens, then there is the argument that gangs are the result of an atomisation of community groups and the urbanisation of hitherto more rural bodies of people. In that sense, if you took a mathematical approach to the outcomes of the colonial process, then one of the equations might very well lead to gang-ism and even the explicit iconography and attitudes enfranchised in the gang identity.

In each of the different ways that they are sitting, you do get aspects of each of their personalities shining through. Most of the portraits are face on but the ones that aren’t, that are juxtaposed with these face-on portraits, they are also really powerful. Can you speak to me about the photo called Aaron Rogue, which is the close up of his hand?

I’m interested, not to sound overly highfalutin, in getting to the intrinsic soul of a universal theme. I am, in a way, quite scientific in how I approach subjects. There’s a conscious aspect of treating people as artefacts which informs the way in which I use the camera. It’s not about wanting to make those people artefacts, but I feel that, in utilising an objective approach, normally associated with an artefact, that that is the best way to open the subject to let soul come through. While the practice of the craft is almost clinical and artefact orientated, the intent behind using that process is to remove the barriers to direct communion. Therefore photographing a hand as an artefact, that choice was made to open a doorway into considerations of what that hand might have done and what that hand might represent. That’s another door into who that hand belongs to and what their life experiences might have been. To me the intent behind that hand image is that on one level you’ve got a picture of a hand and the arresting iconic quality of it, but within the detail of a print like that you have every hair, skin pore, and each scarred knuckle. So each part of the topography has a life story behind it.

The first exhibition you had at the Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland was pretty contentious. Did you anticipate at all that your images may have been received like this?

I think I would’ve been a fool not to have entered into the project without an understanding of the charged aspects of the subject, so in a sense I wasn’t surprised. I think they’ve been cast as the boogey man of the nation and so there was always going to be something come up about it. I think what I was probably more surprised about is the immediacy and the virulence of the response, and then twenty-four hours it had totally dissipated and someone was onto a car accident or a budgie being shot with a BB gun, or something like that. It speaks to a thing that I’ve been conscious of, that in a sense the mob are everyone’s favourite villain in the country. People are very vehement about their views on them. But in another respect, few people are actually interested in them as a people. I believe they are a very vital representation of the complexity of New Zealand society. The fact that there was a scandal and then the masses really didn’t give a shit about the nuanced aspects of that scandal underscores that complexity in, I believe, a quite negative light.

You’ve mentioned that through your photography you’ve met so many different people, and you find members of the mob more impressive as human beings. Can you talk to me about that?

It’s not a blanket statement that they are more impressive than others, but I have met members of the mob who to me as human beings are more impressive than many lauded individuals. One intent behind my work is to consider these guys in the context of their soul and the calibre of their humanity and hopefully separate that from the consideration of where they stand in the perceived cultural hierarchy. Within the Mob are guys who have come from very difficult experiences, experiences heaped on them and experiences they may have heaped on others, who have evolved their character within the course of their lifetime. I feel I’ve met some really beautiful individuals amongst a group of often quite damaged and troubled folk and I feel very fortunate, and it’s had a big impact on me. It is what you do with your experience that is what ultimately defines you. There is the rags to riches paradigm and as a society we are in thrall of people coming from no money and making a lot of money. I believe you can also apply that template to the development of character. If someone has come from an environment where there have been a large number of forces pushing them to be bad or have difficulty and yet they develop a wise, kind, and benevolent character in the face of that, I think this is no mean feat and ought to be lauded.

Mainstream New Zealand is magnanimous and accepting of the idea of poverty as something to be concerned about, yet they often have difficulty seeing the results of that poverty within that same context of understanding. When a logical result of poverty, such as violence, disenfranchisement and so on is activated, there can be a tendency to judge that from a hard-line and limited cultural framework - a middle-class, educated and enabled perspective of what’s acceptable. That’s not to say that those acts are acceptable, but I think when they are taken in consideration of context, they can be understood differently. Obviously we have laws that draw lines and I accept that, but it does bother me that New Zealand society can be elastic in how those lines are applied, depending on who is involved and the relative cultural weight given to the outcomes.

You spent eight years photographing the mob, can you talk to me about the length?

It is a very complex thing to be gifted the opportunity to translate an identity or carry an identity with your work, and it’s taken a long time for me to get my head around the challenges of that, the balance of presenting work, with the fact that it’s a people’s identity I’m trucking with. Building the relationships with the subjects, finding my way through the pitfalls of that process. It just takes a long time.

You talk about the mob being such a complex system, with certain hierarchies and it being very contextual. I feel that it would be never something you would understand completely unless you were fully immersed and were one of them?

Absolutely. I have more of an understanding than many people but I cannot presume to say I understand them. I have quite in-depth relationships with various people and I have a sense to varying degrees of them as a people and an identity, but I am an outsider, I am not one of them. I’ve endeavoured to understand enough what my responsibilities are in terms of showing the work. That’s to do with my relationship with them and their relationship to the work. This gets to the point where one of the criticisms I’ve had is ‘Why aren’t you telling us more about these people? You’re dehumanising them by not telling stories’, but I don’t feel that they’re my stories to tell. Any story I might tell would intrinsically be an editorialising of the life of an individual, I would have to be telling people something about them. I’m trying to offer a communion rather than dictate how someone views them. The work is very different to members of their community than it is to someone middle-class from New Zealand. Ultimately within the New Zealand context, the relationship of the work to the subjects is a more powerful pointer to what I’m doing than any other strata of the New Zealand society.

How have the members of the mob responded to your work?

I can only speak to my direct interactions to people about it, but I think by and large they feel it is respectful. The outcome that huge numbers of people from their communities and their families have come to the shows both in Auckland and Wellington, to me is a more telling result of the impact, than the response from the media or the arts community. It’s very important to me that whoever is depicted, and their chapter, has as much relationship to the work as possible. This is carried out in by the way I’ve consulted with and edit with the subjects, and discuss what I’m doing with the work and share any profits, that sort of thing. While it’s my work as an artwork, I don’t presume to have ownership over the subject’s identity. The work is a partnership.

Do you have any future projects coming up related to this series or otherwise that you would like to share?

I’m doing some work on the ur dynamic of New Zealand, which to me is the relationship of Pakeha and Maori and the relationship of humans to the natural environment. The work with the mob lead me to consider those points more deeply. I’m looking at some of my matrilineal family history in the Hawkes Bay that goes back to the middle of the 19th Century. I’m also working on a more ambitious constellation of subjects in the United States.

There seems to be a binding narrative within all your works that tends to focus on those on the ‘fringes of society’.

It’s less about an interest in the people on the ‘fringes of society’ than it is about an interest of the ‘fringe of the civilsation’ and what that tells us about the fiction that is civilisation. That doesn’t solely extend to people, it extends to the meeting point of civilisation and the natural world and it extends to the breakdown of the structures we’ve applied to our species and what’s revealed when they’re not working.

Interview by Shana Chandra S/TUDIO