Thursday, October 15, 2009

You have to become invisible

Eddie Cuevas talks to gang members at a midnight meeting in a schoolyard.

 

The Street Gang Story

 

August 25, 1972 was the publication date of one of my most important picture stories. It was entitled The ‘Prez’ of the Reapers. A profile of Eddie Cuvas and his 200 member gang, The Reapers, it ran for over 10 pages.

I pitched my boss, picture editor Ron Bailey, on the idea of doing a picture story on a city street gang since street gangs had come roaring back in New York and other major cities. The fact that gangs were springing up all over the country interested Ron. He approved the idea. My mentor, Gordon Parks, had done a famous story on a Harlem gang leader named Red Jackson in 1948. Gordon’s story had been in black and white. I wanted to work in color and use only natural light. High speed Ektachrome was the fastest color slide film at that time. It had a film speed of 160 but you could push it in the lab and double or even triple the speed. However the more you pushed the film, the more monochromatic it became. Still I felt that color was the way to go; it would better capture the feeling of the times.

My first challenge was to find a gang. I first looked at the gangs in Chinatown. There were 10 -15 large gangs, but on my third day walking Chinatown’s mean streets with a M6 Leica tucked under my arm, I was approached from behind by a group of young kids with metal tire irons and told to leave now or later in a box. I knew then something that every photojournalist has to learn. To do a good picture you have to become invisible and there was no way I could do that in Chinatown. I looked at gangs in Harlem but concluded that my story would be too much like Gordon’s, and that would never do. My next stop was the Bronx.

The Bronx in the early1970’s had the greatest number of gangs and while I didn’t speak Spanish, I looked the part. I didn’t take a camera with me on the first series of trips to the Bronx. I wanted to get a sense of the place and its people without a camera tucked under my arm. I walked the streets of the South Bronx for about a week looking for the right gang to photograph.

The South Bronx at the time was a tough place to work as a photographer. On every corner there was someone with a challenge--who was I, were did I get all the camera equipment, why did I want to take their picture? My lack of Spanish made coming up with answers to all these questions hard at first. That was until I realized that more than half the young men I met spoke a combination of Spanish and English, Spanglish, as we later called it. And with some patience, I began to understand why the gangs were so important for the young guys I met. Many had no fathers and the gang became family-- a group that looked out for one another and were there to support each other if someone needed help or a strong shoulder to lean on.

I had been up all night and was nursing a cup of strong coffee when I met Eddie Cuevas. Eddie was on his was into a local bodega. I had parked my tired frame on the front steps and was sipping coffee. Eddie tripped over my feet as he entered and gave me a look that was meant to kill.

Cuevas was about five ten and thin as a rail. While he might have seemed small at first, once he spoke a larger than life image filled your mind. He was a leader, it was clear without being told. Fast Eddie, they called him on the street: President of the Reapers and the king of Tremont Avenue.  I told him what I wanted to do and he said that I needed to come back. He had to check me out. I returned several days later and because of my stories about Attica, the Black Panthers, and Muhammad Ali, I seemed to pass muster.

Eddie impressed me for his cunning and understanding of people. We quickly became close. He loved art and had painted all the gang colors on members’ jackets. He loved the comics and had followed my father’s comic strip, Quincy. We lived together for six weeks. We formed a bond and Fast Eddie took me everywhere he went. He allowed me to go war with him when the Reapers fought the Black Spades, a rival street gang, and I took pictures as we went on a gun-buying trip when the Reapers purchased a 50-caliber machine gun.

Unintended consequences: After the story came out the police followed Eddie’s every move. Once he had a national spotlight on him they seemed to feel it was their job to bring him down. Within weeks Eddie was charged with attempted murder. I somehow felt responsible and helped Eddie get a lawyer. There was no real case against him and the charges were thrown out of court. What I saw was a young man with talent and potential who needed a break. I was able to help him get a job painting sets at the Metropolitan Opera and he left his gang life behind.

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1 comment:

  1. I actually have this article in my hand right now. Thank you for your work. It was really a truly a pleasure to read.

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