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It’s all good

We’ve featured him before, but it bears repeating: the work of Brooklyn-based photojournalist Boogie is so gritty and personal it makes you feel as though you’re right there in the front row, rolling with the punches as he documents the malaise of contemporary urban society. His photos are not so much a critique of the worlds that his subjects inhabit but rather a candid portrayal of what goes on when the rest of us have our backs turned. With themes such as the New York subways, the Serbian counter-culture, the Nazis of Belgrade, and the crack houses of New York City, his work is raw and honest – there are few windows lurking beneath what’s captured in the frame. And yet, while it’s confronting and challenging, it never degrades the subjects or the choices they’ve made in their lives. Instead his photo essays allow the essence of the characters to shine, never overwhelming the moment with unnecessary visual clutter, in the process adding a nice sense of pathos to an otherwise still existence. And then there are the moments of genuine tension where he exploits the potential for explosive action for everything it’s worth. It’s vibrant, compelling work, all cloaked in a sense of underlying melodrama – as if something is just about to happen at any moment, whether or not anyone is watching. Yet they are. And they’re armed with a rather expensive camera.

Boogie first moved to New York from Serbia nearly a decade ago having won a green card in a lottery. He arrived without formal training in photography (his background actually lies in electronics and computer programming) but with a keen sense of adventure and a strong do-it-yourself work ethic. Even today as his star continues to rise, he still processes his own film in the bathroom of his Williamsburg, Brooklyn loft. It’s in his blood. Both his father and his grandfather were amateur photographers, and like them before him, Boogie has simply learnt to trust his instincts. ‘I just hope people understand that I’m not trying to moralise’, he says of his often contentious subject matter. ‘I always carry a camera with me, even when buying groceries. I have that sick fear that I might miss something big. People on the margins of society have always inspired me; people no one cares about – homeless, neglected, unnoticed. Sometimes they have wisdom other people don’t. And of course sometimes they’re just plain nuts!’

Most of his photo themes develop through friends who happen to have friends who are part of a scene. For instance, his series on the skinheads of Serbia came about because ‘a friend of a friend is a soccer hooligan and a member of United Force – a violent soccer group. Some of the members are Nazi skins. He hooked me up and fortunately the guys liked me’. His other celebrated series, on the gangs in the projects of inner-city America, came about in an equally unexpected manner. ‘I was first down with junkies’, he says, ‘then I got sick of hearing the same shit stories day to day, such as “yeah I’m going to detox tomorrow, I wanna go back to school”, so I decided to change the scenery and go to the Projects where the gangsters are. I didn’t have to look much. They found me. Hey, I was the white guy with the camera in a non-white neighborhood! We started talking and they liked me. After a month or so of hanging out they asked me to take pictures of them with guns’.

Do you take your photographic inspiration from the ‘gonzo’ school of journalism?
‘Hmmm, I wouldn’t say so. Inspiration is all around, I just happen to bump into some interesting people, and get into some weird situations by chance. From a photographer’s point of view, I can say I have been lucky. I’ve found them interesting and gone with the flow. It’s all came naturally. Lately I’ve been shooting just normal regular street stuff. It feels good to find beauty in normal, everyday situations. Though of course I need an adrenalin rush from time to time!’

What do you feel is the most complete photo series you’ve done – in that it has a real beginning, middle, and end? ‘I think my drug and gang project. I spent some serious time – nearly three years – in and around public housing projects, mostly in Brooklyn. Or maybe my Belgrade stuff. I’ve been documenting life in Belgrade for years, even still while I’m living in Brooklyn. I go there at least twice a year. My Belgrade book will probably come out in the Fall of 2008 through powerHouse books’.

What camera gear are you working with these days and are you obsessive about having the best equipment or is it more the mood that influences the taking of a good shot? ‘I’m in Barcelona at the moment and I have a Nikon F100 + 28-70/2.8 afs Nikkor and Konica Hexar with fixed 35/2 lens. It’s an amazing camera. Equipment is important. But the most important thing is to be at ‘one’ with your gear, so there is not much thinking. You react automatically. Of course, this goes for the kind of photography I’m doing – street work. The definition of ‘best equipment’ is flexible. I went through several systems, realised what works for me and that’s it. My favorite camera ever is a Nikon F3. I am not very obsessive about equipment, but the fact is that every new piece of equipment inspires me to shoot more. But you know, good shots are talent plus work, work, work, because the way you see things changes over the years. It evolves’.

What are some of the more harrowing and dangerous moments you’ve experienced over the years of documenting gangs, skinheads and crack users?
‘I almost shit my pants several times in crack houses, thinking I wouldn’t make it out alive. Your sweat smells weird when you fear for your life, at least in my case. But I’m still here. I always had a knife in my pocket. Funny … like that would help me! I got beat up once in Belgrade while hanging out with Nazis. About 40 kids jumped five of us. I went to the projects the other day to see my gang friend. Some guys from the rival gang tried to kill him a week before. They fired nine shots from the car but missed. It’s all risky, you never know when shit is going to happen. I think I should start shooting chicks and puppies! Yeah, yeah, yeah …

So no fashion photography then?
‘I do some fashion photography. I have a fashion client from Tokyo, a high-end clothing label called Shellac. But I like shooting fashion my way, street style’.

Having come from the rough streets of Serbia, do you feel an affinity with the energy and chaos of New York City and your hood in Brooklyn in particular? ‘Of course. I grew up in a country that was going through ten years of hell! I’m familiar with gun culture. I have nothing against guns, in fact I love guns. I’m not afraid of them. Ok, well, I am when they are pointed at my head. I might be an adrenalin junkie in a way. I easily get bored living a normal life without extreme excitement. I don’t know. It’s just part of who I am’.

Why do you work exclusively with black and white film? ‘I think it works well with the mood of my photos, and sometimes with my mood too. Urban, gritty, grimy … colour can be too much information. You can easily get distracted and lose the point. Although I do shoot colour when clients insist’.

How did your new book of photos ‘It’s All Good’ come about and do you think the collection of photos does justice to your body of work so far? ‘It was great working on the book. The powerHouse [Brooklyn-based publishing company] people were great. Naturally some compromises had to be made, but that’s normal. Some photos had to be left out because they were essentially evidence against some people and I didn’t want to get anyone into trouble. My publicist and publisher Sara Rosen was essential to the whole process. We did an edit together. I’m a lousy editor, especially with my own pictures. I think the book does justice not just to the body of gang and drug related work, but also to the people in it. It doesn’t moralise, it doesn’t judge. It just shows life the way it is’.

Do you think you’ll move away from edgy documentary photography in the coming years or is too ingrained in your blood? ‘I have no idea. I go back to normal street photography because really good shots are all around, you just need to see them. Then I get bored and need some excitement again. But I might change. Who knows?’

Did you have formal training in photography and do you think being a good photographer is really something that can be taught or is it purely instinctive? ‘No man, I’m self-taught. School can teach you the technical part, but you either have what it takes or you don’t. And it takes talent and a lot of hard work’.

So what’s next? ‘I hope the Trans-Siberian railroad. Or Sao Paulo’

[see also Boogie]