[Interview Series] Documentary Photographer Boogie on the Life/Death of the American Dream
Convo is a new interview series produced exclusively for Annals of Americus.
For nearly 20 years, Serbian-born photographer Boogie has documented the lives of people marginalized by society, and those living on the fringe. He has photographed gang members and drug addicts in Brooklyn’s housing projects; neo-Nazi skinheads in Serbia; and transsexual prostitutes in Sao Paulo, Brazil — gaining unfettered access into worlds where outsiders are normally greeted with violence, suspicion, or a combination of the two.
He has told these stories with an unflinching eye — never recoiling, but always attempting to provide a truthful portrayal. “It’s just the way I see the world,” Boogie says. “People who view my work can make their own judgments.”
Boogie’s photographs have the power to knock the wind out of you, or set a fire in your mind. His shots are provocative in an unexpected way. Amidst violence, sorrow, and grim reality, he manages to wring clarity and beauty from the chaos.
Over the last several months, I’ve been corresponding with Boogie by email, talking about everything from the death of the American dream and parenthood to life in post-crash America and what it means to be happy. Our talks have been insightful, and I’m pleased that Boogie is the inaugural interview in this new ongoing series.
[The American dream] used to mean something, but now I think it’s dead. Before coming to the U.S., I had this vision of Americans starting their little business and succeeding based on their hard work and good ideas. Nowadays, you open your little coffee shop, you do great, and then Starbucks comes and destroys you. Or you pay your health insurance every month for years, then you get sick and the insurance company won’t cover you, so you go bankrupt. You hear more and more stories of normal, middle-class people struggling to meet ends. Doesn’t sound like a dream any more.
Do you think this means that life in America has become harder, or that life in the 21st Century is just more difficult as a whole?
I think life is more difficult in general, but it doesn’t make any sense to me. With all the technological advancements we see, people’s lives should be easier, not harder.
You are originally from Belgrade and moved to New York City in 1998. What prompted your move and what attracted you to settle in New York?
I never planned to come [to America], but I won a green card lottery—so I couldn’t not come. We had some family friends living in New York, and at first they offered me a place to stay. But a week before I left they changed their minds. I came anyway, stayed a week at a friend of a friend’s place, rented the first studio I could find in Queens, and the rest is the classic immigrant story.
When you first arrived in New York, did you experience culture shock?
Of course, it was a huge culture shock. I’d never been to the States prior to moving here. So whatever I knew about the U.S., I learned through the movies. It meant I knew nothing. In the movies, even police detectives have amazing lofts in the heart of the city, and there I was in my studio in Queens without TV, just a mattress and an old radio. So it was rough. But what can you do? You accept it and get through it. It took a while to adjust. And if you ask me if I would do it all over again? Nope, never.
Can you tell me about your experience living through the Serbian civil war?
It was actually the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. It’s really too much to get into here, it was all surreal, people suffering around me, pretty heart-breaking. I go into more detail in my book Belgrade Belongs To Me, but just to give you an idea, children and old people in hospitals were dying because of lack of medicine and food (The U.N. imposed economic sanctions on us in 1993); people were committing suicide in order to not starve to death; suicide rates were through the roof; and soldiers were coming back from the frontlines half- insane.
How did living through this experience influence your perception of war?
It made me feel more for my fellow human beings, probably because it was a direct experience, I wasn’t just watching it on TV.
How do you select a topic or person to photograph? And once that choice is made, how do you gain the trust needed to shoot such intimate photographs?
I don’t really select a topic or person [for my photos], or have a method of gaining trust. I just go with the flow and things somehow work out. I try not to judge people and approach them with an open heart, with respect. And people recognize that and feel ok with me. Most of the shots that I have of gang members with guns and people shooting up I have because they asked me to take them. You can’t really ask people if you can shoot them in those situations—imagine going to the projects and asking people to take photos of them with guns? It wouldn’t end well
Have you had any frightening situations come up when shooting in a sketchy area?
I guess I [have been] pretty lucky, so nothing bad ever happened. I always listen to my gut instinct, and when it tells me that something is off, I simply leave. I obviously took some pretty intense photos, and those guns pointed at me were all loaded (otherwise what’s the point of having them). But I didn’t feel threatened in those situations. Also, in situations like those, the adrenaline runs high and that keeps you going. I would only realize later how crazy it all was.
What attracted you to photography as a career?
It’s simply the only thing I can imagine myself doing.
Do you believe photography can have an impact on people’s lives?
I’m sure it can, but that’s never my goal. I don’t ever try to moralize through my work… I don’t think I can change the world, I am just taking photos and trying to show things the way they are.
By showing things the way they are, what do you hope to achieve?
Nothing, really. It’s just the way I see the world. People who view my work can make their own judgments.
Do you enjoy your work?
Oh I do very much.
You have released several books of your work, exhibited in gallery shows, and had your photographs featured in publications ranging from Juxtapoz to Time. Do you consider yourself successful?
I know it sounds cliché, but I don’t measure success in terms of money or fame. Success is something deeper. For example, being okay with oneself no matter where on the social or financial ladder you happen to be at the moment. All these things can disappear tomorrow and then where are you left? I think enjoying your work and family is a better measure of success. There is no need for other people’s approval. So to answer your question, I love my work, I love my family, so I think I am pretty successful.
How do you maintain a healthy balance between your personal life and professional life?
It’s not very hard, because I don’t have that many distractions lately. My life revolves around family and photography, and I am very focused on both.
What moments in your life have left a lasting impression — helped to define who you are today?
The death of my father and the birth of my daughter.
When did your father die?
My dad, Aleksandar, died in 2004. I loved him more than anyone else. But I guess I told him that only on the day he died. I realized what is important in life, and that I won’t be around forever. Some things that I thought were important (money, etc.), suddenly weren’t anymore. I wish I could live every day like it were my last. But then I wouldn’t get anything done.
When was your daughter born?
My daughter Maya was born in September of 2007. She gave my life purpose, and things started to make sense.
Basic necessities aside, who/what do you need to have in your life?
My family and my camera.
How has your life changed since moving from Serbia to America?
In every way possible, and it’s always changing, but that’s good. Also, as your life changes, you evolve as a person so your work evolves. It’s pretty amazing. I’m constantly inspired, like a kid.
Can you cite some examples of inspiration—people, places, objects, or scenes—that catch your eye?
Travel, for example. Seeing how other people, other cultures live is priceless. It changes you, gives you new perspectives, and keeps you grounded. It changes the way you see your own life, because seeing different ways of being helps you decide where you wanna be in your own life. But pretty much everything inspires me. Simply walking down the street I could shoot a roll of film in one block — doesn’t matter if it’s people, or birds, or clouds, or buildings. Good shots are everywhere. I think the the point is in opening your mind and letting them come to you.
What are some of the milestones in your own personal evolution since moving to America?
When I started making a living doing only photography (around 2004); meeting my wife (2006); and having a baby (2007).
What, if anything, frustrates you about America? And what surprises or impresses you?
The current situation [in America] doesn’t seem good. A lot of things remind me of how Serbia was before the war broke out. And what’s surprising is that people aren’t hitting the streets yet.
What are some things, specifically, which remind you of Serbia before the war broke out?
One thing that’s very similar is government trying to get out of the economic crisis by printing money. That was a disaster for Serbia, and it’s gonna be a disaster for this country too. All the talk about bailouts and recovery is all nonsense. Laws of nature don’t work that way.
Also what’s happening in the media is pretty similar, there is only one opinion that can be heard. Any dissenting voices are portrayed as traitors or nutcases.
For much of the last year and a half in America, everything seems to be talked about in terms of before and after the stock market crash of November 08, much the same way we talk about life before and after 9/11. How do you view the crash and our current state of high unemployment and economic troubles?
I think the worst is yet to come. Unfortunately, I think this is just the beginning. Again, similar to what happened in Serbia, the middle class is getting wiped out, and the rich are getting richer. It’s a new kind of feudalism.
All photographs featured in this interview were used with permission from the photographer. Photographs are © 2010 Boogie, all rights reserved.