Mongrelism - reviewed
By Jono Rotman
Published by Here Press, 2018, London and Images Vevey, Switzerland
Available from Remote Photobooks
Reviewed by Peter Black for PhotoForum, August 2019
“I think it is glorifying gang culture and completely offensive to their victims, and members of the public and society who live a socially acceptable and tolerated life” said Ruth Money of the Sensible Sentencing Trust speaking to the NZ Herald in April 2014 when eight 2 x1.6m framed Mongrel Mob photographs were exhibited at the Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland.
I wonder what ‘socially acceptable’ members of society will make of this finely produced book that contains not eight but 152 photographs and a wealth of contextualising information.
Jono Rotman is a New Zealander who lives in San Francisco and in 2017 his book won the prestigious Images Vevey book award (9,000 Euros) from 194 projects submitted from 34 countries. To make the work he travelled and worked with New Zealand’s Mongrel Mob (1) over a period of 10 years from 2007.
The publishers describe the work as a handbook for the Mongrel Mob. As such it’s a collaboration between Rotman and the Mob community where all decisions such as design, placement of images and the many redactions have been agreed together. This respectful process that features ”joint ownership and ongoing connection to the work“(2) is mirrored in the presentation of the book itself. The result is a publication with a distinctly Biblical feel in its Latinate font (3) and double column text layout. The Mongrel Mob red carries through in the page headings and the redactions to the texts – every detail has been thought through to reflect Mongrel Mob culture and hierarchy.
Right from the Mongrel red of the cover that features a gold embossed impression of a self-portrait whakairo (carving) by Little Man Rogue, RIP, we are immediately alerted to the whakapapa of the mob.
The photographic plates are beautifully reproduced on gloss coated paper and the other half of the book, which includes texts and 16 conversations (barks) with Rotman and various members, is on uncoated paper. These powerful and lengthy Barks (transcribed by Rotman) are the oral history of the Mob, dealing with its members’ history and present and future concerns, and are a major part of the work.
Also included is a map of the gang chapters around the country, followed by a title page with the words ‘Foul Masks’, (perhaps referring to the Mob tatts on faces and bodies); close up images of gang regalia and patches of rival gangs taken as spoils of war; collages from members’ collections, snapshots, newspaper clippings relating to important fights and notorious court cases and moody landscapes taken in regions important to the gang. The collages, fold-out maps of the various chapters of the Mob are on delicate paper as if to make the point that these artefacts are ephemeral and like memories could be easily lost.
NZ gangs have been photographed both by Glenn Jowitt in the 70’s and by Peter Quinn in the 90’s. Peter’s book was called Staunch and featured writing by Bill Payne. Both these works, while excellent for their times, were photographed in gritty, fly-on-the-wall style in black and white, and both were from an outsiders’ perspective. Jono Rotman has attempted something quite different with Mongrelism presenting the gang members in a formal portrait style. For Rotman it is not a case of ‘taking’ photos but working closely with the gang on all aspects of the work.
In 2015 when the portraits were shown at the City Gallery, Wellington, criticisms included why gang members were chosen for a series by a Pākehā artist and that the work didn’t show the diversity or breadth of contemporary Māori society. The work was also criticised as being Orientalist and objectifying the indigenous ‘Other’.(4)
The criticisms are similar to points made by historian Dr Paul Moon who said in a NZ Herald article of the Gow Langsford show: “New Zealand's art history is strewn with images of the indigenous barbaric, which were frequently used - even if unwittingly - to accentuate the counterpoint to the civilised European.” Dr Moon also cited the passivity of Goldie portraits. “His (Jono Rotman’s) emphasis on the lurid "Other" no doubt has an appeal for some viewers, but at the same time, the echoes with 19th century propaganda art which aimed at denigrating Maori are deafeningly loud,“ Dr Moon said.
The book should go some way towards answering these criticisms as it provides a larger context to the portraits in its collaborative dialogues, both photographic and written and as such provides a sense of the interior lives of the Mongrel Mob and the social and political circumstances that have created gangs. There is also something else (apart from the obvious iconography of the clothes and tattoos) and that is the feeling that you are meeting the members as equals and not with the usual power imbalance between the photographer and subject. Most of all the portraits are not clichés of the “indigenous barbaric”. If anything the soft natural light makes the members look vulnerable and human.
(A truly frightening series would be of the New Zealand armed offenders squad, black head to toe and wearing their body armour and carrying Bushmaster carbines and Glock pistols. Another series for Jono Rotman perhaps?)
While some of the photos do contain the feeling of menace and bravado expected from one of New Zealand’s most notorious gangs there are also signs of sadness and despair, especially from some of the older members. This ruefulness undercuts any sense of glamorization and the apparent anguish and distress that Rotman has been able to photograph also undermines the idea that he has become too close, and thus has become like an embedded war journalist there only to serve the Mob propaganda machine.
The concentration required by photographer and subject in large format photography results in this authentic connection of Rotman’s photographs. This is apparent in the first photo in the book of Greco Notorious, South Island, RIP. Greco squints his eyes below his German Second World War helmet. His face is heavily tattooed and he wears the usual mob emblems such as the swastika and bandana. This is a powerful image, at once showing Greco both looking calm and confident and not someone to mess with, but with a look that is softened with a hint of a half-smile.
Rotman is a believer in the power of the objective image, in his words, to “portray the intrinsic soul of the sitter.” And “people in gangs often come from environments where there is difficulty, perhaps violence and often prison experience. I’m interested in exploring how these sort of experiences might be revealed in the linage and topography of the person’s face.” (5)
Rotman’s work is not a romantic vision however; the portraits can be terrifying in their x-ray like scrutiny and Rotman seems to have been able get under the skin, through the masks and into the heart and soul.
Jono Rotman: A lot of the times I think- it comes across in a bunch of the photos - you can just see some kid whose had his life stomped on at six, seven, ten, eleven. You know something very bad’s happened and it’s just …. Lock down” (Mongrelism, Bark with Greco Notorious, South Island, page 8)
One photo not taken in a formal setting is the photograph of Triple J Notorious burning rubber on his motorbike in Waipawa. Early morning in small town New Zealand. The rugby goal posts, the frosty grass and telephone poles, and then in the middle of the frame, there is J Notorious, left arm raised triumphantly in the air, middle finger raised in a magnificent fuck you (6) as the smoke cloud drifts into morning sunlight.
Bark between Notorious Son Dog and Jono Rotman (Mongrelism, page 59)
NSD :Yeah, I think that’ll be the ultimate portrait, him doing a smoky on his bike[ laughs ] Woah, fucken hell, that’ll be a mean portrait! Because he can do them, the old bro.
JR Can he stay in the same place?
NSD Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
On the page opposite there is a beautifully lit picture of Notorious Son Dog’s mere, not raised as it would be as a weapon but appearing to hang in the air, against a soft milky sky.
One of the most poignant photos, evoking a sense of deep hurt , is the one of T K Notorious, a boy about ten with his chin on his hands and with eyes with such sadness that it pierces your heart. On the opposite page is a collection of snapshots of gang members and the largest photo in pride of place is of a vicious dog fight.
To capture this sense of weariness and trauma it is obvious there is trust from the sitters. Despite some striking a tough pose in their gang regalia they appear as individuals rather than Mongrel Mob members. Some photos have become treasured by the members and are used on headstones (King Notorious Roy) and also found in the collages hanging in pride of place in club houses, and thus now become part of the lore and history of the Mongrel Mob.
These photographs are also formally beautiful works of art.
Another well-known portrait series and book is Richard Avedon’s In the American West, photographs made between 1979-84 of everyday working class subjects.
Art writer Max Kozloff described these photos as being of “ a blighted culture that spews out casualties by the bucket…” (Richard Avedon’s In the American West ASX 2011)
In Avedon’s photos there is always a feeling of a contest of wills between him and the sitters - one which Avedon always wins. Kozloff describes them as “objective cruelty.” There is a hard-headed clinical realism in Avedon’s work not found in Rotman’s photos. Avedon says, “there is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photos are accurate. None of them is the truth.” Jono Rotman’s portraits have the openness of one-to-one human contact that is absent in Avedon’s work but whether they contain the truth perhaps only the Mongrel Mob can decide.
Another portrait series closer to home was photos of the Black Power gang taken in 2016 by Sydney based photographer, Casey Morton who has relatives in the Black Power(7) . Morton, who is Māori himself (8) , spent one and a half days photographing the Black Power in a remarkably similar style to Mongrelism. What makes one series of work more authentic and simply better can be mysterious but in this case it is obvious.
Bark between King Notorious Roy and Jono Rotman (Mongrelism, page 48]
JR “I was wondering what you thought of the photographs, when you saw them in the gallery.
NR The portraits?
NR Yeah, they’re alright. Haven’t seen them blown up that big before. Didn’t realise they cost that much.
JR What did you think of them as art pieces?
What was your reaction to them when you saw them?
NR All of the bros with the mokos and all that, remind me of our tipunas, back in the Goldie portraits. Just wearing gang clothing, that’s all.”
These Barks are a vital oral history and one thing that comes through most strongly is a deep desire for the Mob to be seen as a community rather than a gang. Also they don’t come across as frightened victims of forces not under their control, but more like strong people trying to make sense of their past.
The Mob members also talk movingly about the future of their children and things such as their fears of Meth, mainly it seems because of the loss of control they have over P addicts in their hierarchical society.
Bark between Jono Rotman and Jelly Rogue (Mongrelism, page 139)
Jelly Rogue “Fucken abuse. It’s like abuse at the utmost. Yeah, it fucked up a lot of our brothers. But I suppose we had to learn.
JR What would be your message be for the one’s coming up? (Mongrelism, page 142)
Jelly Rogue I’ve no message for them. As I say, they don’t know what I’m talking about. What could I say? They’re not going to listen, and……nah, pfft, pfft ,pfft on the pipe. They go ‘Nah, not fucken gonna try to listen.”
Most of the older members were put into foster homes or boys’ homes and then ended up in borstal and prison. Just seeing the names in the glossary gives a chill: Mt Crawford, Epuni boy’s home and Lake Alice psychiatric hospital. As the Human Right’s Commission’s Dame Susan Devoy said in a 2017 article in the Commission’s newsletter: “Boys sought the protection of gang affiliations while in care, many of those lost boys tell us the gangs themselves began in boys’ homes.”
Denimz Rogue “ …we’re just living the life born of how we were treated. If you treat us like animals we act like animals”. (Mongrelism, page 79)
In 2019, in an address challenging the state welfare system, Jean Te Huia, Chief Executive of Ngā Maia, Māori Midwives Aotearoa, said that between 1960 and 1980 one in 12 Māori boys were placed in care. Only one in 1000 Pākehā boys ended up in the welfare system. Today nothing had changed as 86% in state care were still Māori, which closely mirrored Māori imprisonment rates. Seventy-eight percent of the Mongrel Mob were wards of the state. (9)
There is also a sense in the Barks of Mob members wanting to get back to their language and whakapapa.
Bark between Jono Rotman and King Notorious Roy (Mongrelism, page 47)
JR “You believe in tikanga, right?
NR I never used to believe in it. It’s only since I’ve been on this journey. Okay, like I said, when I was taken away at seven….. My mother used to be fluent. Speaking all. I didn’t know what the heck she was talking about. Having all that taken away from me, going through the system and all that…..”
Bark Jono Rotman and King Notorious Roy (Mongrelism, page 37)
JR “So what was your mindset back in the day?.... how where you thinking twenty, thirty years ago? How’d you look at life?
NR Fuck, I just lived a day at a time. I couldn’t see a week, or a month, like I can do today. It was one day at a time. If you lived, wake up next morning, that was good. I didn’t give a fuck about life, anything. That’s where I come from. And I hated anything to do with the system - police, jail, the whole lot. And I lived with that, all those years. I rebelled to any of that. And I guess it comes back to the boy’s home thing, when I went through that. That’s why I hated everything. The only thing there was the Mob, that was my life. Nothing else.”
The Government has an inquiry into state abuse from 1950-1999 of children that were put into state or church care. This Royal Commission will report in 2023 on its findings on the physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect. Let’s hope they are talking to gang members and reading this book.
As this review is been written the land dispute at Ihumātao is ongoing. This dates back to the wars of 1863 and has been characterised as New Zealand’s ‘trail of tears’ by historian Vincent O’Malley writing in The Spinoff. Many Māori rightly feel that colonisation is ongoing, and the loss of land, culture and language which led to the formation of such things as the gangs is still to be addressed.
Bark between Bruno Porirua and Jono Rotman (Mongrelism, page 63)
BP “… it keeps us strong, our language strong. ‘Cause our Tuhoe language; that’s what kept us going. So, they took our land, killed our people, they done everything, but they never killed our culture and our language and it’s still strong today.”
Some will dismiss this book for reasons such as continuing a colonial type tradition of picturing Māori, or because they have been affected by horrific gang activities such as meth dealing, robbery, rape or murder.
However, this book is unlike liberal documentary projects that attempt to challenge the social order and the status quo and often portray a group of powerless people to the socially powerful; Mongrelism explains the Mongrel Mob not only for themselves but to themselves.
A book of the photographs alone would have made this an outstanding work because of Jono’s talent and craftsmanship, and the respect that brings the Mongrel Mob to life, not as evil caricatures but as powerful, and sometimes damaged, very human, beings.
The support material brings a powerful cultural dimension as the Mongrel Mob describe in their own words a broken justice and welfare system, and the impact of colonisation. This combination of the photographs and the words make this an important and urgent book. Mongrelism is a taonga among photobooks in Aotearoa.
Peter Black has been photographing the social landscape of Aotearoa/New Zealand for over 30 years. His work has been widely exhibited and published, notably the books ‘i loved you the moment i saw you’ (VUP) and most recently ‘The Shops’ with Steve Braunias (Luncheon Sausage Books).
1. The Mongrel Mob is New Zealand’s largest gang, and has at least 1,000 patched members with more than 30 independent and loosely affiliated chapters. (Greg Newbold and Rāwiri Taonui, 'Gangs - Māori gangs and Pacific youth gangs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand)
2. Raw Matériel: in conversation with Jono Rotman by Emil McAvoy 10.06.19. #contemporaryhum.com
3. The font looks remarkably like one of the Bible typefaces.
4. Robert Leonard – Jono Rotman: Our enduring image of strength (The Tusk website where the original articles by Matariki Williams and Claire Adele Baker appeared, has expired)
5. SOME/TALK Jono Rotman interview with Shana Chandra.
6. Mob salute- thumb and pinky
7.The Culture Trip, February 2017 by Alex Jordan
8. Feature Shoot February 2017 James Cave
9. Address to the Indigenous Nurses Aotearoa conference, reported in Stuff.co.nz 10/08/2019.
Gallery captions for mobile devices
Jono Rotman, Triple J Notorious, from Mongrelism
Jono Rotman, Notorious Son Dog, Mere, from Mongrelism
Jono Rotman, TK Notorious, from Mongrelism
Jono Rotman, Notorious Album no 29, from Mongrelism