Shano Rogue, 2010. C-Type Photograph, 1.9M x 1.5M
Photos by JONO ROTMAN
In the 1960s, a gang of variously disaffected youth sprang up in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. They didn’t ride bikes, but they quickly developed all the trimmings of an outlaw motorcycle club: patches, club colors, and a fiercely violent process of initiation. They came to be known as the Mighty Mongrel Mob and today they’re the largest gang in the country, with around 30 chapters across both islands.
Media access to the Mob is rare, which is why this photo series by Jono Rotman is kind of a big deal. Jono, who is a Wellington born photographer now living in NYC, cut his teeth capturing New Zealand’s prisons and psychiatric wards, before he took on gang life in 2007. We asked him how he convinced hardened gang members to sit for large format photography, and what he learned along the way.
VICE: Hey Jono, how did you get access to these guys?
Jono Rotman: Initially I called the gang liaison officer at the NZ police and got a list of numbers of people who communicate between the gangs and the police. When I started it was to cover the gamut of NZ’s gangs, but ultimately I focused on the Mongrel Mob.
How did you convince them this was a good idea?
I explained that I wasn’t trying to “tell their story,” expose them, or some shit like that. Instead I told them I wanted to take martial portraits. And you know, regardless of where the Mob are viewed in the social hierarchy, these men have committed to a creed and fought battles, sometimes to the death. Basically the more they thought it was honest, the more they understood I wanted to produce something more complex than a cultural postcard. Then once there was go-ahead from the top, the guys down the bottom were happy to cooperate. These guys are hierarchical.
Did you feel intimidated?
Of course. Mob history is very bloody and NZ is a country with few guns so these guys don’t earn their stripes without putting their bodies on the line. Perhaps because of this, they have little to prove and are very upfront to deal with. There was always a tacit understanding that they could kill me if I fucked with them.
Denimz Rogue, 2008. C-Type Photograph, 1.9M x 1.5M
Can you describe the first portrait you took?
The first place I went to was in Porirua to photograph Denimz, the guy with the dogs on his cheeks. That’s a largely Pacific Islander and Maori area with a lot of state housing. Denimz’s place is nice though, he’s got a good family and he’s a well-organized guy. I think as they get older their outlook gets wider: it’s less about turf war, and more about the health of their community. When we met I tried to speak as directly as I could. At that stage, I didn’t know what I was dealing with, so I just said what I wanted to do, and he told me what he didn’t want to do.
Bung-Eye Notorious, 2008. C-Type Photograph, 1.9M x 1.5M
Generally speaking, what are their homes like?
Their houses are pretty clean. Many have wives, and a lot of them have been to prison, so they’ve come away with that regimented attitude towards cleanliness. I’ve tended to focus more on the older guys too, so they tend to have their shit together. But I’ve been to some squalid dives, too. In general, they’re not loaded so there’s not a lot of ostentatious wealth.
And what are they like in person?
They’re pretty significant characters forged from the coalface of life. I’ve been a photographer for a long time and I’ve had my fair share of meeting the famous and lauded, but in many ways I found a lot of the mobsters to be more impressive human beings. I’ve taken maybe 200 hundred portraits since I started. Of that, there weren’t any overly negative experiences, maybe just some teething problems to start with. Sometimes someone would get an idea about what you’re doing and, down the grapevine, it’s completely off track.
Greco Notorious South Island, 2008. C-Type Photograph, 1.9M x 1.5M
Did you ever see anything that shocked you?
OK, here’s an anecdote. I was on a memorial run, which is a basically a road trip to visit their fallen brothers around the country. They drive classic V8 Fords, which they call “Henries,” and we were 30-cars deep going through a town that was Black Power territory. That’s their rival gang…