Looking at Stephen Shames’s photos is like traveling back in time. Smiles, hugs, laughter, tears send the viewer on a nostalgic journey into the teenage experience of the 1970s and 80s. Born in 1947, the American photojournalist has spent much of his life photographing impoverished youth around the world. The stunning collection of some forty black-and-white photographs exhibited at the Esther Woerdehoff Gallery in Paris focuses on the United States and Canada. It showcases rarely seen prints by a photographer whose name has become synonymous with his portraits of the Black Panther Party.
“This exhibition is not just about poverty. It’s about kids discovering what love is, having dreams like all kids do, even if they live in poverty,” says Stephen Shames, a Leica slung over his shoulder. Several series are brought together here, including his Bronx Boys. The photographer spent thirty years photographing the residents of this poor New York City neighborhood.
Heroes of the streets
Fifty years later, his photos are just as potent. The duotones are powerful, intimate, vibrant. We discover the daily life of street kids, tattoos on their arms, cigarettes between their lips, and a pistol tucked into their pants. They burst with energy and thirst for life. One feels eager to join their gang; listen to their music; fall asleep with Chucks still on your feet; leap from one brick building to the next; fall in love for the first time. For Stephen Shames, these photos are universal: “Everyone must confront adolescence, we all go through this period in life.”
Stephen Shames’s photography is not poverty porn. He captures real-life moments, puts himself on equal footing with these unemployed youngsters without passing judgment. “Most people look at the poor as victims and feel sorry for them out of a sense of superiority. I’m not saying that poverty is a good thing, but I’m trying to show that these young people are heroes. They survive, they live their lives,” explains the photojournalist.
For years, he has been following these young people, becoming one of them to better capture the daily life in poor neighborhoods. “I didn’t grow up poor, but I didn’t have an easy childhood. I was a bit like them, I spent a lot of time outdoors,” he admits. This affinity has produced some wonderful portraits, such as this teenager, lying in the sun on a tiled floor, his eyes closed, a radio sitting on his stomach; or these touching, intimate scenes with young people embracing on the carpet, or on a bed, copies of the satirical Mad magazine scattered on the floor: “You have to spend a lot of time with people, and they slowly come to know you. In these photos, they are just living their lives, they are not ashamed of who they are,” Shames explains.
One can’t help but be moved by the photo of “Didi,” a boy prostitute from Times Square swinging upside down off of strap handles on a New York subway which he rides with his friends. “He was a really good kid. Now everything’s different, Times Square has become Disneyland. But in those days, there were boy prostitutes on one side of the street, girls on the other, transvestites further down… That was Times Square for you,” says Stephen Shames.
“I prefer people to landscapes”
Shames wistfully looks back on these images: “Nowadays, the Bronx is gentrifying. I pop over sometimes to see what’s going on. There are still some slums, but many areas are now occupied by artists or families.”
Wherever he travels, Stephen Shames is driven by the desire to share what he sees: “Most people live in a bubble. The role of a photojournalist is to show them what is happening elsewhere. Our planet is made up of many different worlds.” He adds half-jokingly: “Sometimes I feel like I’m on Star Trek, off to discover new worlds and bring back photographs.”
Although he has since switched to color and does fewer photo stories, the seventy-three-year-old photographer has fond memories of his first subjects. “It was an important job for me. I continue to take these kinds of photos.” He sums up: “I’ve always preferred people to landscapes.”
By Michaël Naulin
Esther Woerdehoff Gallery
From 29.01.2020 to 7.03.2020
36 rue Falguière, 75015 Paris
Free Entry: sea. – Sat. 12h – 19h
The photographs are for sale