In 2008, photographer Adam Patterson traveled to London to work on a Master of Arts degree in photojournalism at the London College of Communication.
He says part of what drew him to the city was a crime wave involving gangs that resulted in a high number of teenage deaths, something that seemed alien to the Northern Ireland native.
“I was curious about how the media was reporting these events and who the young people were,” Patterson says. “I wanted to know who they were and whether they were really as dark and dangerous as was being suggested.”
His attempts to find the subjects he wanted to document got off to a slow start.
At first he tried collaborating with social workers and anti-gang programs, hoping to meet the appropriate subjects. “They were never able or too afraid to make the proper introductions,” he says.
Then he heard about an underground music studio that would let kids record tracks for free.
“At first all the youth thought I was an undercover cop, but eventually they realized they could use me to take photographs for their MySpace sites and YouTube videos,” Patterson recounts.
That’s where he met the central subject in his project, Jean-Claude.
“Jean-Claude asked me to take some (photos) for him, and two weeks later we were on a bus together to Paris for his auntie’s wedding. We shared a concrete floor for five days, and I finally had someone who wanted to let me close to him.”
The young man’s family moved to London in the late 1990s to escape the instability and civil war of the Ivory Coast. But the life he found on the streets of London wasn’t exactly stable.
“Typically, as a working-class immigrant family they settled in an impoverished area of South London, and Jean-Claude fell into violence, theft and social disorder at a young age,” Patterson says. “I met Jean-Claude when he was an active gang member. He has almost died after being attacked by another gang – he watched his best friend almost die.”
When they first met, Jean-Claude was the leader of the Loughborough Soldiers, a gang that was involved in theft and other illegal activities, Patterson says. The rest of LS allowed Patterson’s presence, but he says they never really accepted him.
“I never felt in danger, but only because Jean-Claude had invited me in and he was the boss. Even if the other youth didn’t like a photographer with a funny accent hanging around, they had to accept it out of respect for Jean-Claude.”
In response to the violence, London police were given broad powers to stop and search in hopes of catching people carrying weapons.
“The city of London was panicking and they wanted to stop young people carrying weapons and getting involved in violence,” Patterson says. “Sadly, from what I witnessed, their attempts to implement these motives amounted to profiling young people – typecasting them in a way that would only serve to alienate them further from authority figures.”
The Metropolitan Police web site describes these powers in part as the police’s “right to search people in a defined area at a specific time when they believe, with good reason, that: there is the possibility of serious violence; or that a person is carrying a dangerous object or offensive weapon.”
Patterson says police vans hang around London's housing projects and assume that any large group of black men was a gang. “The young people felt intimidated and under siege and a damage was done that would not be easily repaired. “
Conversely, the photographer says he was surprised by how normal the lives of the LS members actually were.
“I was searching for normality but was surprised how regular these kids’ lives were,” he says. “They were bored, they went to church with their mothers, they were mostly good people.
“They lived in an area of relative poverty and deprivation and sadly some got drawn into this world, but for the most part the members of Loughborough Soldiers were more like good friends than a gang.”
Through their interactions, Patterson saw Jean-Claude change over time. He credits the photography project as a vehicle that helped him leave the gang life behind.
“He knew something had to change or he was destined for jail or an early grave,” the photographer says. “I think our project allowed him to stop going to the same house parties and kept him off the streets. When his friends called he would tell them he was busy, that he was working with me.”
In late 2009, Jean-Claude met his girlfriend, Mo, while she was in London visiting friends. They later moved to Mo’s hometown of Doncaster, where their son, Curtis, was born in 2011.
“This started as a wider comment on gang life in London and now stands as the journey of one young man that was at the center of that world,” Patterson says. “I hope it shows that people adapt, that people make mistakes, but that the paths we choose can change through time.
“Following this, I am further surprised that I gained a good friend in Jean-Claude. I am the godfather of his son, Curtis, and I expect our friendship to continue for a long time.”
- Cody McCloy, CNN