HIGH SHUDDER SPEED; STOCK PHOTOGRAPHY TAKES TO THE MEAN STREETS: GANGBANGIN' IN L.A. WITH ROBERT YAGER

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ROBERT YAGER HOLDS THE DUBIOUS DISTINCTION OF being the official gang-appointed photographer of L.A.'s West Side Playboys: He follows the Latino gang members on their drug runs, their brutal initiation ceremonies and assorted gun-wielding exploits. He's gone to court to watch teens fight drug charges, he's been shot at and he's stared down the barrel of a shotgun through the barrel of his lens.

"They certainly do a lot of bad things," Yager admits of the group that he's followed since '92, documenting their lives for a book he hopes to publish on Latino culture. "But it's important to understand them, why they do those things and how they fall into that. It's very much the culture-it's not just peer pressure; it's their whole lifestyle."

What's compelling about Yager's b&w photos, which encompass the humor and creativity of the culture as well as its violence, is that they bridge several genres; as they emulate the Magnum style he grew up admiring, they also work as educational visuals for L.A.'s Community Youth Gang Services.

They're also a rare example of realism in stock photography. Yager, 31, whose work has appeared in a group show at London's Photographers' Gallery called "Pulp Fact," maintains such close ties with his subjects that they readily sign model releases, something rarely obtainable for these kinds of images in commercial use. "I'm not exploiting them," Yager insists."They urge me to get their photographs printed wherever I can. They want to be recognized as being bad or tough. They feel like celebrities-it's their 15 minutes of fame." Certainly Benetton ads, the popularity of TV shows like "Hard Copy" and feature film blood fests like "Natural Born Killers" and "Pulp Fiction" have glorified gore, or at least made it more palatable. This has convinced stock photo agencies to spike their often bland but beautiful libraries with more-controversial imagery. In 1993, for instance, The Stock Market started selling images from the German photojournalism agency Bilderberg Archiv der Fotografen, which includes shots of a raging mosh pit taken at a Moscow rock concert and a lineup of Red Army soldiers in eerie gas warfare suits. Still, most of these images are targeted for editorial use only, with the exception of a few shots, where people aren't identifiable, that can be cleared for commercial use.

Yager sells his shots exclusively through Tony Stone Images, mainly because he grew up with the Stone family in London; Tony Stone taught him his way around a darkroom and introduced him to the work of Henri-Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank. And while Yager's work, according to TSI U.S. creative director Sarah Stone, will begin getting wider play in the catalogue, it's already seen a fair share of magazine pages; besides being prominently featured on a Newsweek cover depicting teen violence, Yager's shots have illustrated various stories on gangs, as well as a documentary on girl gangs, some psychology books and even a smattering of ads and direct mail pieces.

Bob Ericksen, creative director at Ericksen Advertising & Design in New York, used the same Newsweek cover, a blurred shot of a gang member chasing a pack of rival homeboys with a gun, to illustrate violence in a news series running on WNBC-Channel 4 in New York. "It was important to get a sense of threat and reality across," Ericksen says of the image, which he found after exhausting sources at UPI and Magnum, which could only guarantee editorial rights. Yager's work quickly shows up anything that's staged, he says, pointing to an unconvincing photo of an ersatz carjacking.

Many of Yager's shots-like a closeup of a tattooed thug shooting up or gang members kicking a pledge-would scare away the bravest client, admits Stone, but she's quick to point out the images that do work commercially, which offer aesthetic appeal to art directors steeped in graffiti style or raw conceptual power, such as a point-blank view of a gun. "Looking down the barrel of a loaded gun shows the vulnerability of the photographer and society," Yager suggests.

While he trusts TSI to sell his images in good taste, there are certain uses he says he doesn't approve of, such as ads protesting illegal immigration. It's a stance that underlines Yager's constant struggle to resist taking sides. "It's really easy to fall into a trap where you can't work objectively because you're so affected by the subject," Yager admits. Sometimes he's forced to take a moral stance: Once he refused to passively watch girls rob a woman on the street; another time he says he was "sickened" at the sight of a pregnant teen trying to buy crack.

"I photograph gang members playing with their guns or selling drugs, whatever they're doing. It's quite natural. Everything works because it is real. If I do draw a moral decision, it's usually conflicting and puts me in a difficult situation. So I try to remain apart from that. I'm looking through a camera most of the time, so that detracts from the reality of the situation."

While he hasn't witnessed any killings, he has captured grueling gang initiations where girls are beaten. That was easy to watch, Yager professes, because the "victim" stood up smiling. "She's happy she's in the gang," he explains. "That was a happy occasion all around."

Yager grew up just outside London and majored in Latin American studies in college, spending a year in Mexico City and some time in Central America, where he discovered the surreal and symbolic imagery of Latin American cultures.

After moving to California and assisting various fashion/celebrity photographers such as Peggy Sirota and the team of Daniel Schridde and Louise O'Brien, Yager began his assignment career, shooting for Time, Newsweek, Interview and London's The Observer. But photographing gangs was always in the back of his mind. After a little frustration trying to find his way into the gang structure, he drove to a popular mural south of Hollywood and began photographing it, when two homeboys emerged and asked him to take their picture, which resulted in one of his favorite images, called "In God We Trust." In it, they flash their gang signs in front of a beautiful mural of the Virgin of Guadeloupe that's laced with graffiti. "The images that they draw show their aspirations, their dreams," Yager explains.

After that he was slowly accepted, he says, until now, some three years later, one of the gang leaders has recently denied other photographers access to the group, preferring Yager as their "CM" (short for cameraman). "At first they even helped me out, paying for the prints," Yager explains. "I was just very broke." And now that he's started to bring in some money, he says he gives them prints.

Yager's days in the 'hood may be coming to a close, though-he's already shot 6,000 images. He says he's also tired of dealing with the resistance from the Los Angeles police, certain members of which believe he's encouraging the gang's behavior and glamorizing it. Last March, while he was photographing a gang birthday party, the police raided the joint and arrested Yager, who they claimed was obstructing them by setting off his flash in their eyes. "I was attacked by the police," Yager says. "They yanked the camera off my neck so hard that the strap broke; my neck hurt for a month."

While the District Attorney eventually dropped the charges and he got his camera back, albeit with ruined film, Yager's losing his patience, moving on to more assignment work and into less contested areas of Latino culture, such as the Quincenera, a religious coming of age celebration for 15-year-old girls.

He's also embarked on a photo essay of a dominatrix friend, and Tony Stone Images has already expressed interest in some of the conceptual work, he says. Just like the gang project, he explains, "it's important to understand the different, often bizarre lengths humanity will go to, whether in play or in

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