We chatted for a while. I was invited to head with them down an alleyway to where the other gang members congregated. It was exciting to head into dangerous and unpredictable territory. From then on I went back to the Playboys' neighbourhood almost every week for the first ten years of this work.
Q: What were their initial reactions towards you?
A: It was a mixed bag. Some were keen. Others, especially the older ones, were highly suspicious. I had to be very careful not to snap away freely. At first I would just hang around with my camera, waiting for someone to ask me to take pictures. Then, I'd snap a few that were more natural and of interest to myself.
Q: Did it ever feel as if they were putting on a show for the camera?
A: In the beginning they'd always flash their hand signs and bravado, maybe even pose with some guns. It took a while for them to let me be a fly on the wall. I feel that's an important element to record. They would do that for their own cameras if they had them. That said, many of the scenes that you might think are reactions to the camera, are actually so normal to gang life.
Q: How was the gang hierarchy structured?
A: If I told you, I'd have to shoot you... and myself! I can go into it a bit. Generally the age of the member told his status. The gang was made up of cliques, usually divided by sex and generation.
A new member would be briefed on the rules. If they didn't uphold those rules then there would be a 'check-court' held, like a quick court trial amongst them, and punishments would be dealt out.
Q: It must have been hard to gain their trust, how did you do it?
A: As time went by they realised that I wasn't getting them into trouble, or distributing any photos without their consent. After they saw the images I'd shot of them in Newsweek, The Observer, Rap Pages, LA Weekly and Camera & Darkroom magazines, they knew I was legit.
It was a matter of being invited in. I also needed to trust them. I felt that there was a certain level of trust after three months. That jumped after two years. They soon gave me a nickname, Camera Man, or CM for short.
I think it helped that I had an unusual car, a uniquely spray-painted, '76 Chevy Impala. Later I found out that they'd discussed mugging me and taking it in the first few weeks.
It also helped that I speak Spanish, have lived in Mexico, but come from England. I wasn't afraid of them, or of just being myself. I'm a pretty stoic, laid-back guy, with a dry sense of humour. I imposed no judgment and asked no questions.
Then, in 1994, the notoriously corrupt Rampart CRASH (anti-gang) police unit sealed the gang's trust in me. I'd been taking photos at a Playboys gang party when they burst in, fully decked out in riot gear. I took a couple of shots as they whacked away at anyone. Then the officers turned to me.
They knew who I was. They'd seen my LAPD issued press pass on previous occasions. I held it up as they approached. It was supposed to grant me passage through police lines, but one officer whacked me in the neck and a group of them jumped on me. They ripped the camera away, broke it and destroyed the film.
Q: Was there anything that you weren't permitted to photograph or perhaps even witness?
A: One time I attended a Mexican Mafia meeting in Venice. I wasn't allowed to take any photos there at all. I'm sure there were things that I wasn't allowed to see, but I wasn't even made aware of them.
Q: It must have been hard to not get too involved. How did you maintain objectivity?
A: My photography and the perspective it gives me, maintains objectivity in and of itself. Some of my photos even helped the gangsters to be more objective about themselves. Being aware of my integrity as a photojournalist and not getting involved in, or encouraging, gang activities also helped.
There were a few people I grew to like and became friends with. After all, we've experienced a lot together. Good times and bad.
Q: Did you have to take part in any form of initiation to prove yourself?
A: No, not at all! But of course they've joked with me about it on many occasions.
Q: Did anything about their lifestyle surprise you?
A: Some of the stories of brutality that I've heard are somewhat shocking, but I'll hold on to them right now. It surprised me that such a large, extended family could live together in such a tiny apartment and that the son of a priest chose to be in the gang. It surprised me how much time one particular member would spend foraging on the ground for rocks of crack-cocaine. Some wouldn't touch drugs at all, even alcohol.
I hadn't realised how much gang members closed themselves off from traveling around the city. They could encounter rivals and territory issues virtually everywhere. There were also lots of things that didn't surprise me.
Q: Did you ever feel completely accepted as one of their own?
A: Honestly, I've never felt like a member of the gang. I've been accepted, not as one of them, but as part of the neighbourhood and the history of it. The respect they've shown me, as their documenter and storyteller, is a result of mutual trust and 'respect' over a long period of time. Gang rules don't apply to me in the same way that they do to the actual members.
Q: How has the experience changed you?
A: It's definitely broadened my perspective, made me stronger and more street-wise. It's given me an appreciation of my own life. Working with the gang has been so much a part of my life that it has certainly shaped it in many ways. My work has sparked the interest of so many people around the world. I hope it gives them a better understanding of LA culture and encourages them to reflect.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: I shoot for the New York Times these days, along with occasional assignments for The Independent and Observer magazines. I'm also doing occasional shoots with David Lee Roth. He adopted me as his personal photographer and took me on the road with Van Halen for a few months.
Aside from that I'm still photographing some of the same gang members I met 19 years ago, as well as exploring counter-culture in Los Angeles.
See more of Robert Yager's photography at www.photoloco.com
Conducted by Francesca Bassenger, photography © Robert Yager