The Outsider Photographing the Gritty Side of Brooklyn
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because, frankly, you’re never going to get this close on your own.
The photographer known as Boogie has a style that veers toward the darker side of human existence. A street-photography O.G., Boogie’s elevated his game to the next level, capturing not only the gritty and grimy side of life represented in his six published monographs — with titles like It’s All Good (2006), Istanbul (2008) and A Wah Do Dem (2016) — but also shooting superstar athletes like Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt and Italian soccer player Mario Balotelli for high-profile clients like Nike, Puma and HBO. From celebrity athletes being paid millions to hawk global brands to the struggle of poverty, drugs and addiction, Boogie’s lens takes in the whole spectrum.
Growing up in war-torn Belgrade, Serbia, in the 1990s, Boogie used the camera to document the growing unrest and violence that raged around him when Yugoslavia erupted in civil war. Winning a green card lottery in 1997, Boogie took the opportunity to journey to the States, ending up in New York. He’d roam the city and take photographs, but his lens was drawn to the crime-ridden parts of the city. It’s All Good, rereleased in a 10th-anniversary edition, chronicles the time he spent in Brooklyn shooting the junkies, drug dealers and gangsters he encountered in Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Queensbridge at the height of the late ’90s drug game. OZY sat down with Boogie for a chat. Here’s what he had to say.
How did your country’s civil war affect the way you shoot?
Boogie: I grew up surrounded by cameras. My dad and my grandfather both used to be photographers — not pros, but more on the amateur side. Cameras were all around, and I remember when I was little my dad was trying to teach me how to use them, but I was never into it. I was twentysomething when I started shooting. The same time shit hit the fan and war started in my country. I think it’s because I like to distance myself from reality. When you’re behind the camera, you don’t feel like you’re participating, you’re an observer.
When I started shooting, it was in the middle of darkness. It was fucking hell, and that stayed with me in a way. I don’t know children or puppies or flowers. Everything I shoot has some kind of dark overtone. I think it’s just part of what I am. I won a green card lottery and moved to New York. I did all kinds of weird, odd jobs. I had to survive, but I was shooting on the side a lot. The moment I see something out of the corner of my eye, some guys across the street looking at me in a weird way, you don’t just stand there, you just go, you leave.
As an outsider, how’d you get to the hoods in Brooklyn?
Boogie: I started with some junkies and then I got really depressed. I got sick of looking at people shooting up, smoking crack. It’s fucked up. And then I was like, OK, I need to change something. So I went to the projects. I went to the gangsters. This is all weird, you know. I remember the first time I went there, just walking around with a camera and my photo bag. When you’re doing a project you need to show wide angles, you need to go in more. People need to feel what you felt at the time, see the way you saw it. It’s always hard to edit and to show it the right way and people will never feel it exactly the way you felt it, because they couldn’t smell it. When you go into these houses, into these crack houses, it’s terrible — you know, like hundreds of cockroaches and shit. It’s crazy. You can never present it right but you do your best, so you have to show some environment.
People always say that my shooting crosses certain lines, but the deeper you go, the better shots you take.
And you weren’t freaked by the guns?
Boogie: I wasn’t that scared. You know, I like guns. Bad guys will always have them, but let good guys have them too. With these people on the margins of society, these gangsters or skinheads or whatever, they just feel you. Words come later. Everything is done before words are spoken, I think. You feel each other’s energy. It’s all about energy. We all watch movies about gangsters and junkies, and the whole thing was pretty much like being in a movie, in some really crazy movie. People always say that my shooting crosses certain lines, but the deeper you go, the better shots you take. No one can tell you where those lines are, and then all of sudden you’re in the middle of madness and it’s very interesting.
But it takes time to build the trust. For example, of course I have photos with the face and the gun in the same shot, but I didn’t use those for the book. I never wanted to get anyone in trouble. I would never do that, and they trusted me. I just shoot what I see. I shoot every day. I never leave my house without a camera. I never suggest anything, and I never moralize. I’m trying not to judge people. I think we’re all the same, and it’s all about making decisions. One wrong decision and you’re fucked. You never know where you’ll end up.
After two years I felt like I owned the hood. In the beginning I was, like, all cautious. But after two years you walk around, you know all the guys. Bushwick was kind of sketchy, but even then hipsters were moving in at a rapid pace. Usually I would hang out with these drug dealers and you see hipsters passing by, looking at the ground all scared. It got to the point where I’m walking around and some guy would see me and say, “Hey, Boogie, you want to take some pictures? I’m going to go smoke some crack,” and I’m like, dude, no, I have hundreds, thousands of those shots. I don’t need anymore. And that’s when I realized it was done.