A Lens On Life For Boys In The Bronx : The Picture Show An intimate and personal photo essay explores what it's like to come of age in the Bronx.

A Lens On Life For Boys In The Bronx

Photographer Stephen Shames was on assignment for Look Magazine in 1977 when he fell in love with the Bronx. Though the magazine folded during the assignment, Shames continued photographing there for decades. His work is compiled in a new e-book, Bronx Boys; he responded to a few questions about what makes the subject so special to him.

The Picture Show: What's your background? What drew you to the Bronx?

Stephen Shames: I had a rough childhood due to an abusive relationship with my dad (although my mom was not much better). I search through photography for what I didn't have as a kid with my own dad: love, support, encouragement, etc.

Rafael, 13, jumps between buildings, eight stories up, 1977 Stephen Shames hide caption

toggle caption
Stephen Shames

In a sense, my photo work has always been related to fatherhood and family. In my early work, I explored abuse and neglect. In my later work, I create a world — a family I could not have as a child. My work is a healing process for me.

My first photographs documented the Black Panther Party. [That] was possible because of my relationship with Bobby Seale, who was like a father to me. Later, when I started shooting the Bronx Boys and child poverty, street kids, and later Ugandan AIDS orphans and child soldiers, I became a father to some of these kids.

Poncho and Martin, who provide text for the book, are my family. I have known them for 30 years. I am a dad to them. Now I am "dad" and "uncle" to 104 kids in Uganda. I not only photograph, but also started a foundation, L.E.A.D Uganda, to put orphans and soldiers into the very best schools and train them to be leaders.

What kept you in the Bronx?

I stayed with this because it was so much more than journalism. It was not just a story. It was the chance to photograph from the heart.

I was living in Manhattan when I started this in 1977. I hopped on the subway and rode up to The Bronx all the time. I would spend days there just hanging out. I became part of the scene. I was not noticed. In 1986, I took a job with the Philadelphia Inquirer, so my time there was more limited, maybe once every other month.

What was the process of fitting in like?

I have always been an outsider, but I do not feel like an outsider. The people in The Bronx made me feel like an insider. They were welcoming and supportive of my work. I think people felt comfortable in front of my lens because I was comfortable being in their neighborhood — and I spent a lot of time there in the beginning, so people got to know me.

Where are the women?

The women were there, but they are in the background since this is about the boys growing up. This is autobigraphical. The kids I was photographing were on an emotional plane similar to the one I lived on when I was a teenager. Their raw world of violence, rejection, love, hope and redemption was mine.

The idea is to create a world that others can see and feel and know what it was like. That is why the photos are so personal. Many others just see the rawness, the crime, the violence and miss the subtle moments, the yearnings, the humanity. I try to see both.

A more extensive interview with Shames can be found on the publisher's website.