UK photographer Steven Burton was living in Los Angeles when he had the idea. He was watching a documentary called G-Dog, which follows Father Greg the man who started the organisation Homeboy Industries. The documentary explores the beginning of Homeboy Industries and former gang members as they tried to reintegrate into society. At one part, the documentary focused on how important it was for them to have tattoos removed, as the tattoos were no longer representative of who they’d become.
At that point Steven realised tattoos could also be superficially removed with Photoshop, giving everyone, including the general public, a way to see the humans behind the gang insignia. How would these former members react to seeing their own faces? He wondered. And how would outsiders react to seeing these supposed thugs as just people?
Steven’s questions formed the basis for the following photo series, which became a book called Skin Deep. We caught up with him to hear what it was like working with the former members of LA’s toughest gangs, and what he learned about image, identity, and judgment along the way.
VICE: Hey Steven, let’s start at the beginning. After you’d had the idea for this project, how did you recruit people to photograph?
Steven Burton: I spent a lot of time meeting people at Homeboy Industries [an organisation that helps former gang members transition into society]. Homeboy Industries was the main connection to finding my subjects.
What was the reaction when you first told the ex-gang members about your project?
At first they didn’t really understand what I was doing. You can actually tell in the book because the first four people I photographed all look kind of weary—check out the photos of Marcus and Francesco in particular. But overall, most were pretty interested. Many were actually super cool with it and were so interested to see the pictures. So contacting them a second time wasn’t that difficult because I had something to show them. This gave me the edge to complete the project. I said “I’ll show you the pictures and we will do an interview,” and they were like “yeah I want to see them pictures no matter what.” Even if they didn’t manage to go through the program at Homeboys and they slipped back into gangs they still wanted to see how they would look.
Where did you take these photos?
I lived in downtown LA near Homeboy Industries so it wasn’t that difficult to get them to my studio. But it was really interesting just learning how simple things like travel can affect gang members. They didn’t want to travel far because it meant crossing other people’s territory. And even if they’d left their gang they were still walking around with their tattoos.
How do most of the gang members feel about their tattoos on a daily basis?
They wanted to get rid of tattoos because the tattoos no longer represented who they were. A majority of them, especially the people I was talking to, I think 90 percent, had gone through some form of tattoo removal.
How long did it actually take you to complete the project?
The photographs didn’t take that long. The photography part just took me a couple of weeks. That was the easy part, but the actual photo retouching time took me around 400 hours.
You must have learned so much about these people and their worlds. Can you try to describe some of your insights?
Well it all started with this idea about the way people are judged. But once you spend time at Homeboy Industries you start to learn about these people and it’s incredibly emotional. I remember giving up smoking was difficult, but imagine giving up a gang—your family, drugs, cleaning up your act and actually coming out on the other side. I just found these stories so beautiful.
And how did these people react when you showed them their before and after photos?
The first person I showed was Marcus. He’s the most tattooed, biggest guy but also the rowdiest. When he first saw the images, he was humoured that he could see himself without the tattoos. But then, within seconds, he went quiet and tears started swelling in his eyes. He started talking about what the tattoos meant, what they represented, and how they didn’t mean anything to him anymore. Marcus said he could also understand why people said he looked like his son. He hadn’t seen himself without tattoos for so long.
Were tears a fairly common reaction?
What was beautiful was how they started opening up. It was almost like a shock. It was like their own emotion allowed them to talk to me like a regular person. That was really beautiful, that a lot of the interviews were honest and from the heart. And a lot of people wanted to show their mothers. I think a lot of gang members’ fathers are in jail and they grow up with their mothers. Their mothers are the strongest people in their lives. It’s always the mothers who are trying to get them out of the gangs. Marcus’ first comment was “I want to show my mum,” and I regularly got that from the toughest-looking people.
What surprised you most about this project?
The fact that it's affected everybody. I’ve got a lot of emails from people from all different backgrounds. The other day I got an email from this women who works in a prison. When inmates come out of solitary confinement she shows them the book, and uses it as part of her therapy lessons. I was so happy because this opens up a different conversation with these people. I had another woman email me, I think she is from a really wealthy background in Hollywood. She was struggling with her children because they were scared of people with tattoos. She wanted to tell her children that you can’t judge people by the way they look. I truly think it has affected a lot of people and it’s providing an ongoing conversation.
What was the most difficult part of completing this project?
I moved away from LA at one point, so when I returned it was hard to find the people I’d photographed. I kept in touch with some of them but ex-gang members have this habit of changing their phone numbers every four months. So, I spent a lot of time sitting on corners that I knew these people lived around. I had to wait, I was hoping people would pass by. It took me around six months to reconnect with everyone again.
Do any of the ex-gang members keep in contact with you?
I would say there are about three or four I stay in touch with. I keep in touch with mostly Francesco. He flew to my place in New York for the book launch. It’s really sad, but I know about three or four guys in the book were killed. A few went back into the gangs but a few are also doing incredibly well. One guy just got his degree. When I first photographed him he’d just got out of jail the week before. He’d done something like 20 years in there and he just decided he’d had enough and wanted to change his life
If you had to boil it all down, what do you think has been the most significant lesson you’ve taken from this project?
I suppose my biggest realisation is that if I’d grown up in the same environment as these people, I’d be in the same situation as them. I could only hope that I’d find the help of a place like Homeboy Industries to guide me back into society. But more than anything, you just can’t judge a person by the way they look. If you find yourself doing that you should reflect your own ignorance. You have to spend time with everybody, no matter who they are, just to hear their story. And I hope these photos give the public a chance to see these people for who they really are.
Interview by Mirjana Milovanovic. Follow her on Instagram