Photo Essays

A Photographer Documents the Fantasy World of Six Shut-In Brothers

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Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015) (all images courtesy Damiani and Dan Martensen)

For 14 years, the six Angulo brothers were locked away from society in a Lower East Side housing project. Their paranoid father forbade them, along with their mother and sister, from leaving the apartment. Movies provided their only window to the outside world: they learned almost everything they knew from obsessively watching films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and The Dark Knight, and they spent their days reenacting scenes and violent, movie-inspired fantasies.

Last year, the family went from anonymous shut-ins to cult stars after the release of The Wolfpack, a documentary by Crystal Moselle that told the story of the brothers’ isolated upbringings and eventual journey to freedom. The astonishing documentary, which won the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year, led to the brothers’ integration into the outside world — for the first time in their lives, they now have friends, jobs, and Facebook pages; one has a girlfriend. 

Back in 2010, Moselle met these long-haired, leather-clad teenagers on the street during one of their first furtive ventures outside their apartment. Fascinated with their tale, she introduced this “Wolfpack” to a photographer friend, Dan Martensen

For five years, every few months, Martensen photographed the boys in all their masked, superhero-costumed glory. The boys invited him to their three-bedroom Lower East Side apartment in which they grew up, giving him a tour of the imaginary realm they’d created to escape stifling confinement. Shortly thereafter, Martensen invited the Wolfpack to his house in upstate New York. There, “the boys experienced nature – wading through shallow creeks, running across fields – for the first time beyond the frame of their television.” 

Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)

Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers, a new book from Damiani, compiles Martensen’s striking photographs of the brothers’ fantasy world and their first ventures out of their apartment. “In taking these images, my desire was to the reveal the true character of the boys – to give voice to their wildly beautiful imagination – not necessarily to lay bare their past, nor focus upon where they are from,” Martensen writes. Instead of revealing the boys’ backstory, or digging into the reality behind their elaborate imagination, as the film does, the photographs play into this fantasy and give it a stage. Martensen largely shot the boys at their most performative, in Joker masks and Batman suits, aiming cardboard guns at the camera. “As years of confinement finally fade from their psyche, I’ve watched this band of brothers, this ‘Wolfpack’ grow, each becoming in their respective ways, characters of their own making,” Martensen reflects. His photographs suggest that, even if they’re more unusual, these action movie-inspired characters are no less real than the so-called conventional identities any mainstream individual creates and performs on a daily basis.

Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)
Dan Martensen, from ‘Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers’ (2015)

Wolves Like Us: Portraits of the Angulo Brothers by Dan Martensen, out from Damiani, is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

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