A first-person account from off the beaten track,
as told to Anne Ford.
“I’ve never been afraid of walking down a dark alley. There’s a chaos and anarchy that is very refreshing, as opposed to Main Street, where everything is regulated and nothing is surprising. I started photographing these places, like an alley in the middle of the night with puke on the ground and graffiti and an old mattress, and somehow the pictures end up having this positive feel.
“I’ve run from street gangs. I’ve had people point guns at me. I’ve had drug addicts try to attack me. The police stop and frisk me regularly. The craziest thing that’s ever happened was on one of my night shoots in Compton, California. I found a couple of guys who were willing to go with me to watch my back, and the three of us end up in this alley, doing a shoot. We’re there for about half an hour before 12 guys—all of them in hoodies tied real tight so you could just see a little bit of their face—run down the alley towards us, yelling.
“We jump in the van, we lock the doors. The gang surrounds the van and tells us to get out. I think, ‘If I gun it, I might hit one of these guys, and I think this van’s gonna be full of bullet holes soon after.’ And because I’m a photographer, I think, ‘If I stick around and talk to these people, maybe I can still get a shot.’
“So I roll down the window a little bit, and I start apologizing. The gang leader says, ‘Wait a minute. Don’t I know you? Aren’t you Luis?’ I say, ‘Yeah, man! I’m Luis!’ And he goes, ‘I know this guy! He’s cool!’ I open the door to this sea of love. They’re hugging me and giving me high fives. ‘We didn’t know you were Luis!’
“So Jorge, the leader, says, ‘If you want to take your photos, go ahead.’ A few of the gang members stick around; the rest of them go off to do whatever it is they do. We get back to doing this photograph, and 20 minutes later, a police car races through this alley. I was in the middle of this long exposure, and I saw the police car was gonna ruin it, so I’m running to the camera to block the lens. The cops jump out, and since I’m running, one of them points his laser-guided gun at me, and when I face him, I notice that I’ve got a vibrating red dot on my chest.
“Soon after, Jorge goes, ‘Hey, officers, you know Lieutenant [name withheld]? He’s a friend of mine.’ The cops turn white. They step back to their vehicle and say, ‘We’re so sorry, we’re gonna leave now.’ It turns out that Lieutenant [name withheld] was being paid off by this gang.
“After that happens, Jorge comes up to me and says, ‘You’re not Luis, are you?’ I say, ‘I’m not Luis. My name’s Xavier.’ He starts laughing. It just doesn’t matter anymore. He says, ‘Let’s go on with your photo.’ I get a nice shot, and when it’s over, we do a group photo, and above my shoulder in the group photo is some graffiti on a wall behind me that kind of reads ‘Luis.’ I ended up calling that photo Angel Luis.”
This article has been amended to shield the identity of the lieutenant.