My Favorite Street Photographer Is a Fireman from Camden

By Chris Nieratko

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: skateboarders are the most creative people on the planet. Mark Gonzales, Ed Templeton, Chris Pastras, Jason Lee, Spike Jonze, Adam Wallacavage, Dave Carnie, Russ Pope, Jai Tanju, Brian Gaberman… those are just a few of the guys who the world owes a debt of gratitude to for making it a more beautiful and interesting place. It is the instinctive eye of a skateboarder in search of spots—or, rather, places to play with his toy—that allows him to look at the urban landscape from a different perspective. And so in a time when anyone with a cellphone is a "photographer,” it makes sense that any skater with a cellphone is a better photographer than the majority of the 328 million mobile phone users in America.

New Jersey’s own Gabe Angemi is a skateboarder with a cellphone. Gabe is a second-generation fireman in one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in America: Camden, New Jersey. The photos he posts on his Instagram are an unflinching look at the human (and often inhumane) conditions that exist in the once great city that Walt Whitman called home and often wrote so romantically about. Gabe’s photos are reminiscent of WeeGee’s in that he often arrives on the scene of a fire or crime before the police.

I recently caught up with Gabe to discuss his photos and life in Camden. The stories he told rattled my cage.

VICE: You were a sponsored skater back in the mid-90s. How did you get into photography?
Gabe: I’ve been an artist my whole life—since before skateboarding was introduced to me. I can remember drawing comic book pictures on the kitchen floor as far back as second grade. Like many skateboarders from my generation, though, the arts are connected… maybe even one in the same. I’m self-taught in just about everything I have ever done; skateboarding from the age of 12 will do that to you. I prefer to figure things out for myself. I had point and shoot film cameras from around my late teens on, and was always shooting. Then, when I became a fireman at age 24, I had to put a lot of things on the back burner to learn my trade. Then, after probie school (new fire fighters are probationary) I just never fully went back to those things—but I had a camera of some kind all along. I used to keep one at work with me up until recently, but on-duty personnel are no longer allowed to have cameras. Now I shoot on my days off more than I ever did before.

I feel like you’re the modern day Weegee—always on the scene before anyone else. How is that possible?
A lot of them were taken while I lived in Camden. A city of about ten square miles, if there was a job nearby I could get up and go shoot. If you’re listening you can go—you gotta be where the interesting things are happening if you want interesting photos. Back then I had a camera on me constantly, so with no family or responsibilities I would just hang around the firehouse on my days off. Since I moved out of the city, though, a family and young daughter keep me busy and I can’t go as often. I still shoot regularly, but I can’t do it while I’m actually on duty anymore. When I’m not playing fireman, I get busy.

Why do you shoot primarily iPhone photos? Are you strictly an Insta guy for fun, or do you have aspirations to do more with these photos?
Dude, the iPhone is incredibly fast and easy to use. What’s the saying? Something like the best camera is the one you have with you at the time? I have 20” x 20” prints from an iPhone at my house—they look just fine.

I guess I have aspirations, yeah, but not delusions of grandeur. I never was good at selling myself to the art world. We’ll see, I really do want to publish a book, but only under the right circumstances. I was in my first group show, 99 Days, at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, and have been talking to a bunch of people about future shows. I have a few good friends as mentors that I can reach out to for help. I’m going to try selling prints soon. If I’m lucky enough to sell any I’ll be donating some of the proceeds to the Heart of Camden, or Hopeworks in Camden, two non-profit organizations based in the city that I like.

Camden has been the poorest city in America for years, but last year it was also named most dangerous. How do you view Camden?
I view it on a daily basis with my own eyes, my cameras, the fine people I work with, and the rest of the city—many of whom, like me, understand how it got this way. We all know it’s a very complex situation to dig out from under; it’s hardly just one issue. I don’t have the answers, but I ask the questions. If you try, you can see through most of the political bullshit going on there, but the culture is decades in the making and to purvey another, you really have to be willing to try and get the message out, handling many setbacks along the path. There are a great deal of positive things going on in Camden—many of which I’m probably not even aware of—and unfortunately those things are always trumped by the stigma that’s attached to consistently being one of the most dangerous places in our country. For me, viewing it through my cameras and showing people what’s going on is my way of telling the story and asking for help, I suppose.

Ever seen a dead body?
Lost count. Ballpark figure, I guess 50 to 60? I really don’t know. They come one at a time or in bunches from all sorts of mishaps—from fires to industrial accidents. I’ve been assigned to the two busiest companies my whole career, so I typically deal with it one way or another. I’m assigned to our Rescue Company, we do all the extra stuff an urban fire department handles; vehicle extrication, structural collapse, confined space, high-angle rope… basically any other discipline that’s outside the realm of standard fire department operations. One of my wilder mornings involved a triple homicide, if I remember correctly. The assailant tried to light the house off where these folks were all shot up. I can remember masking up about to follow the line in a back door that led through a kitchen, listening to a police officer standing there telling us to “Try not to disturb too much shit.” Three-feet later I’m slipping all over the kitchen floor in blood and casings with several bodies all shot up—shirtless men with holes. We knocked the fire down before it really took off. The department sees this regularly enough, perhaps a bit more in Camden than other fire departments, obviously, but it is the nature of things. It really blows when they’re alive when you get there to help and don’t make it. That usually takes a hard toll on guys—a bigger toll then any of them admit. Kids are the worst. I can still smell an incident close to a dozen years ago that I dealt with involving three kids trapped in a car like it was yesterday; that smell was horror. People really have no respect for how delicate human life is—it really is by a thread.

Recently Camden removed its police force. Can that city, once known as the ‘City Invincible’ ever possibly recover?
Walt Whitman coined that term: “In a dream I saw a city invincible...” Who knows, man. I’d love to see it prosper, that’s what brings me to work, to try and help make that happen. The place has great energy and great people. What happened to the Camden Police is both a travesty and an injustice, but that’s a whole other interview. My answer is yes it can and will recover, but it needs help. It needs people and positivity. The stigma attached to it is perpetuated by people who never spent any time there. The surrounding suburban folks bash it and its people to no end. This South Jersey area really is one of the most hateful, pessimistic, and self-righteous places around. Regardless, I have hope. I’d like to help.

Tell me a couple stories of gnar that you’ve witnessed working in Camden.
This year alone I’ve seen a severely burned, slashed, and decapitated woman set on fire with lighter fluid in a home, and a man fall through the roof of a local commercial facility to his death, taking off some of his head on the way down. These things happen. Accidents are constant. There’s been a bunch of filler in between these things, but I only remember the crazier stuff these days—you kinda just go numb to it. The start of the year was busy. We had six fire fatalities fairly consecutively and I worked four of them. Mike Mercado and I humped a guy out of a fire from a second floor middle bedroom right around new years. I could tell his face had been beaten but it wasn’t easy to see him through the smoke and my mask. Thought he maybe had a chance, but he died. Apparently he had a dispute earlier that day with neighbors. The building he lived in was vacant, as most of ours are. A little late night arson revenge, I suppose. Gnar is the daily agenda for Camden. Fire, police, and EMS folks deal with it every shift there. God Bless them. I’m not sure how repeated exposure to certain things takes a toll on people—we’re all different mentally—but you just gotta tune it out if you want to come into your next shift sane. Or go home to your family without being an asshole.

Previously - Tony Hawk's Son Is a Stoner

Follow Gabe on Instagram for more photos of Camden @Ange_261

And you can purchase prints to hang in every room in your home here.

More stupid can be found at Chrisnieratko.com or @Nieratko

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