‘Are you FBI?’ how I captured the everyday life of gangland LA

Imperial Courts is a LA housing project most Americans have only seen from a helicopter camera. But, over the course of two decades, photographer Dana Lixenberg chronicled its characters and everyday life

When Dutch photographer Dana Lixenberg first started her series Imperial Courts in 1993, on the Watts housing estate of the same name, the area was on edge after the Rodney King riots the previous year and the retrial of the officers in the King case was in full swing. The media focused on the Bloods and Crips [gangs], and would come in a van, shoot an item, and leave, she says. I felt photography was a way to step into the real scenario. I worked with a large-format camera on a tripod, slowing down the process, and focused on details and body language.

This was a radical and necessary approach for an area that, on film, was seen by the rest of America through a frantic helicopter camera. I dont want to use a person to illustrate a story, she continues. I want each image to be its own self-contained story, and then together, as a body, they present the community in a certain way. Its not the wild west with people shooting each other, but people do live with a lot of loss and death.

J
J 50, 2008 Photograph: Dana Lixenberg

To get access, she was introduced to Tony Bogard, a Crips leader who had recently brokered a peace deal between the warring gangs. Initially reluctant, he liked a test shot, and introduced Dana to a local man, Andre, to use as her assistant: He figured at least Andre would get some money out of this.

Chin
Chin with his daughter Dee Dee, 1993 Photograph: Dana Lixenberg

Her earnestly beautiful portraits were exhibited in the Netherlands and published in Vibe, cementing her international career; the magazine commissioned further portraits of 2Pac, Notorious BIG and others. Then from 2008 to 2015, she returned to Imperial Courts every year to add to the series which has now been nominated for this years Deutsche Brse photography prize and found a place still struggling to break a cycle of poverty and crime.

Felia,
Felia, Diamond and Sheena, 2015 Photograph: Dana Lixenberg

Kids talk so casually about prison not because theyre posturing and being cool, its just part of their lives, she says. The majority of the guys I met in the photographs go in and out of jail. The conditions in Imperial Courts have stayed very much the same; schools are still crap. If you dont have any guidance or foundation in terms of education, to go on job interviews, learn a trade, its understandable that youd want to make a shortcut.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/may/17/dana-lixenberg-imperial-courts-la-project-deutsche-borse

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