Over the last seven years, Wellington-born, New York-based photographer Jono Rotman has regularly returned to New Zealand to photograph members of the Mongrel Mob, regarded as the country’s most notorious gang. Rotman has travelled the country extensively for this project. It has granted him unprecedented access to the inner life and workings of a culture that operates on the margins of normal society.
These photographs were shot on location, often at the homes or clubs of his subjects. Rotman used a large-format camera and a plain background, often taped up in the eave of a doorway. He used available light, and did not style, pose, or direct his subjects. Rotman has made over 200 portraits in this way.
Rotman uses formal portrait conventions and presents large scale and elegantly framed photographs to counter the ways his subjects are usually seen – through mugshots and surveillance camera footage that emphasise a narrative of criminality and monstrosity. Rotman’s portraits offer neither glorification nor caricature. Instead, he sets up direct encounters with the individuals who have chosen this patch and way of life. When brought together, these portraits of individuals present a collective portrait of a group who live by a shared code and values.
Mongrel Mob Portraits follows an earlier series, Lockups (1995—2005), where Rotman photographed the interiors of prisons and psychiatric hospitals. Both series reveal the strains of a colonised, bicultural, and supposedly egalitarian society. Rotman insists that we can not avert our eyes from the undercurrents of our culture, as troubling as they may be.
Rotman’s portraits were first shown at Auckland’s Gow Langsford Gallery in 2014. City Gallery’s exhibition also includes previously unexhibited works from the original series and several new pieces. These include a collage of mob images made by one of the original portrait subjects using Rotman’s photographs as raw material.