Cracking into challenging subcultures is one of Bronia Stewart’s main objectives as a documentary photographer. Which is why, when she visited Mexico City in 2013, she enlisted a local to help her find a gang that would allow her to photograph them. It goes without saying that such endeavors are incredibly risky; in 2009, a French filmmaker was killed in El Salvador by the Mara 18 Street gang, which he had already spent years documenting.
“We found Pepe and his gang hanging around outside his convenience store in Chalco,” Stewart told Hyperallergic. Surprised and flattered by her interest, he agreed to let her photograph them. For the next six weeks, the London-based photographer shadowed them, along with Pepe’s family, at the store, inside their home, in the street, and at parties in Chalco. The violent neighborhood is the sort of place where — ironically enough — joining a pandilla offers vulnerable youths a sense of identity, belonging, and protection.
Stewart found that many of the gang members she photographed aspire to live in the United States, where they believe life will be better; Pepe even kept three American sports jerseys behind the store’s counter, which he and his pals wore and swapped while hanging out. The resulting series, which Stewart also self-published as a book, offers an unusual look at a criminal life that has captivated the public’s imagination in television and film, as well as their outrage. Her provocative conclusion about the project seems poised to unsettle many: “Despite the violent nature and social disenchantment of these gangs, their regard for family values, relationships, affection, and intimacy strongly prevails.”