Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

Mongrel Mob framed - in a new exhibition

US-based photographer admits there are few subjects as polarising in New Zealand as gangs

Jono Rotman's eight portraits are being exhibited at the Gow Langsford Gallery.
Jono Rotman's eight portraits are being exhibited at the Gow Langsford Gallery.

A month-long exhibition of portraits of Mongrel Mob members will start at an upmarket art gallery next week - and the photographer is expecting some negative reaction.

Jono Rotman's eight shots will be on show at the Gow Langsford Gallery in central Auckland and include members of the Notorious, Rogue and Mighty Mongrel Mob New Zealand chapters.

Mr Rotman, who lives in the US but grew up near Wellington, told the Herald the work took seven years.

"These men are part of the story of this country.

"I wanted to see what happened when they are separated from the way in which they are usually depicted.

"Each time I return [to New Zealand], I spend time with various Mob hapu, going on the road, staying at their houses.

"This work has always been about portraiture, not expose.

"This is what I pitched and I have been welcomed with great hospitality and trust.

"Because I keep returning, I think they recognise that I'm not in it for a quick media bite. This is a serious body of work and it is part of their story."

When asked if he expected to face criticism, he said: "Undoubtedly people will have negative reactions. There are few subjects as polarising in New Zealand as gangs.

"Does the work glamorise gangs? I went to their place and set up a camera and a backdrop, they sat down, I took maybe four photos using available light.

"These are images of the men as I found them and I am a good photographer, so they are good images. I don't believe that people thought of as bad or an underclass must be depicted by gritty black and white, or documentary photographs, or police mug shots."

The exhibition has been labelled "disgraceful" by the Sensible Sentencing Trust. Spokeswoman Ruth Money said she worked with the victims of gang members and struggled to understand the justification or thinking behind the photographs.

"I think it is glorifying gang culture and completely offensive to their victims, and the members of the public and society who live a socially acceptable and tolerated life."

Peter Sykes, head of the Mangere East Family Service Centre, acknowledged that the work could be upsetting to some people. But for the many families that he worked with, gang affiliation was a reality.

"Families that I work with may have gang members, so we have to take everyone by face value. We don't have the luxury of judging people," he said.

"If it's showing in a gallery, then it's art. The fact is, lots of families from South Auckland won't be going to see an exhibition in central Auckland."

University of Canterbury sociologist Dr Jarrod Gilbert, author of Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand, said those who joined the Mongrel Mob only came from certain communities.

"If you are influenced to go that way [join the gang], then you will see them [members] in your communities.

"I can't imagine there's going to be a kid from the North Shore that pops into an art gallery and suddenly wants to put 'mobster' across his forehead."

The Gow Langsford Gallery did not respond to a request for comment.

- NZ Herald

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