Robert Yager’s Intimate Portraits of LA Gangs

It might come as a surprise to many that photographer Robert Yager was born in London, thanks to the intimacy with which he photographed LA communities.

His journey into street photography began after seeing an exhibition at the Barbican, inspiring him to photograph throughout his hitchhiking in Europe. During that time, he felt a draw to Latin American culture, and decided to study Latin American studies in Mexico.

While living in LA, Yager came across a newsstand magazine in downtown LA called Teen Angels, which would publish submissions by gangs. Intrigued, he began waiting out near a gang mural. To his surprise he was quickly asked to “Sacarme Una foto”, and welcomed to photographed the gang as they posed for the lens.

Over time, he began regularly meeting up with the community, motivated to portray the individuals and families behind the headlines. The group Yager had found were the playboy gang, marked by striking ‘PBS’ and bunny logo tattoos.

He felt the culture hadn’t been documented, especially not from an inside perspective without the presence of police. Yager would learn that the LAPD were seeking the photographs as proof of gang activity, both for prosecution and training - he was even once asked for a magazine copy by a police department.

The shots show a striking balance of family life and gang culture - in one photograph, crack is cooked next to where a baby’s bottle is being sterilised, while another shows a heavily tattooed hand alongside a newborn. He became friends with many of the members, allowed behind closed doors, crafting a vivid portrait of their lives.

Although much of the press on Yager enters on his portraits of gangs, he’s too had an extensive career in portraiture and advertising. He extended his approach of embedding himself to these fields, from getting completely stoned with Hunter S. Thompson to an intense assignment with then President elect George Bush while he selected his cabinet. His coverage of gangs went on to be the reference for his shoot for Balenciaga, and have become a time-capsule for many of those photographed.

All images Robert Yager.