Photographer brings Mob portraits exhibition to Wellington

CONTROVERSIAL: Critics have variously blasted the photographs for being "cultural pornography", glamorising gang culture.
Tobias Kraus/Supplied

CONTROVERSIAL: Critics have variously blasted the photographs for being "cultural pornography", glamorising gang culture.

After creating controversy in Auckland last year before it opened, it's happened again for an even bigger exhibition of photographs of Mongrel Mob members coming to Wellington this week, writes Diana Dekker.

Jono Rotman's Mongrel Mob photographs had not even been hung at the Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland last year before there was fierce criticism. Not only was the subject matter generally rough and tough, but one specific portrait was of a mobster soon to be tried for murder.

Shane Harrison, pictured patched and sinister and peering out from under a black hoodie, has since been convicted for killing Sio Matalasi. Matalasi's father, Iafeta Matalasi, and others, were incensed that the killer would be immortalised. The grieving father and the New York-based, Wellington-born photographer have since reportedly reconciled and reached an understanding, with the father accepting the murderer's portrait would remain on display.

But last week Iafeta told The Dominion Post that many family members were unhappy Harrison's portrait will hang in Wellington's City Gallery from this Saturday.

Critics have variously blasted the photographs for being "cultural pornography", glamorising gang culture, perpetuating the colonial stereotype of the "violent savage" and being part of a continuum of 19th century propaganda art intended to denigrate Maori.

Rotman says he was surprised at the reaction to the work following "the lightning rod of the Matalasi situation" and before the photographs were even hung.

"Yes, I was surprised. I wasn't expecting it."

ON SHOW: Jono Rotman's ''Mongrel Mob Portraits' at the Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland.
Tobias Kraus/Supplied

ON SHOW: Jono Rotman's ''Mongrel Mob Portraits' at the Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland.

He knew that the subject matter would provoke discussion - "that goes with the territory".

"I was at pains to respond where I felt it important when really, in relationship to Matalasi, in a certain sense that had nothing to do with the work and in another is part of what is the truth of the work.

"I understood the potential for difficulties to come about because of the history and public perception of these guys. That was always understood. The work is not about specifics, not about who did what or what happened. This is a particular part of the country and history of the country I was interested in as a project, not about a stereotype but these particular people. I understood it was likely to upset some people and if I was to have a surprise it would be that there was such an uproar not in response to the work, but the idea that the work could be done.

FACE OF A KILLER: Shane Harrison, a convicted murderer featured in Rotman's 'Mongrel Mob Portraits'.

FACE OF A KILLER: Shane Harrison, a convicted murderer featured in Rotman's 'Mongrel Mob Portraits'.

"If not for the Matalasi situation someone would have dug around in any other of the subjects and found some equally incendiary kind of story. The fuss was kicked up before the work was up."

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One snide comment on the photographs was that the portraits of tattooed mobsters were made by a privileged white man and aimed at rich, white collectors.

Rotman says he intends joint success from the work. He has developed ongoing friendships with subjects and has "a very real appreciation that the work is their identity.

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"Everyone gets a proof which has a value to it and if the work ever turns a profit, which is some way off, we share the proceeds of that. It gets tricky to do the maths on this. More often than not the relationship is with the particular chapters."

Rotman has no intention of proceeds funding gang guns and knives, "equally it's not my business what they do with it.

"It's not a fortune. Maybe one day it will be a fortune. It's been a fortune going into it for seven years."

Rotman has added six pictures to the eight shown in Auckland for the City Gallery exhibition. He hopes the viewer will look at each individual portrait of a mobster and consider the forces that made him. Most, he say, come from histories and communities marked by pain and poverty.

"I think it boils down to these guys didn't appear from outer space. There are a number of forces in the community, and historically not uniquely a Maori situation". Though Maori, he adds, are prominent in negative statistics spawned by such forces.

His mobster photographs, taken over seven years, won Rotman the 2013 Marti Friedlander Award for Photography. They followed a series on the interiors of prisons and psychiatric hospitals he worked on for nearly six years.

Rotman grew up in Ohariu Valley "and every now and again crews would come down in their cars. I was surfing at Makara once and saw guys flip their car into the creek and helped them get their stuff out, but I had no dealing with them when I lived in Ohariu Valley."

After he conceived the project he called police in Wellington and was given names by the gang liaison officer. Rotman contacted several suggested gang members who were reassured that "it wasn't about an expose. The idea has always been portraits.

"They have pretty solid bulls*** detectors. I wasn't trying to gussy them up. Somehow what I said resonated. They [police] said try this guy and I called him up and we sat and had a chat and it grew from there. He called up a couple of his mates and I did a couple of shots and they seemed to like what they saw. It was always a respectful process. It was not like I took photos and they never saw me again."

The project, he says, evolved.

"In the very start I did a handful in the studio because I work in such a large format which is a tricky, fine craft and there's more control in a studio. It didn't feel right. It felt a controlled process and ultimately I did it on their turf."

Rotman says he was loath to do media interviews around the City Gallery exhibition until the life-size images were hung - "not just because of the experience in Auckland but because pretty much every written response was by people who had not seen it. Also, the image is not the work. The work is the physical print that hangs on a wall you have the desired communion with. It's different from a small j-peg on a screen. I just hope people go to see the work before they make their minds up about it. For me that's important."

Rotman studied photography in Wellington and moved to New York "for some idea that seems long ago and distant". He is married to a neuro-scientist who was expecting their second child as he prepared for the City Gallery show.

"I met her at a dodgy art exhibition sponsored by Lexus so you can understand the kind of deep, artistic merit exhibited. We bonded in our disdain for it."

 - The Dominion Post

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