Edwin Torres, new-Historian of the ‘Hood

Edwinby Kate Nemeth

Edwin Torres’ photography project “Gotti: From El Rey to Fatherhood” tells an American story. City-dwellers, especially those living in the outer neighborhoods of the outer boroughs, can vouch for me on this point. The story is mainly centered around Gotti, an ex-Latin King gang member from a remote neighborhood in the Bronx who quits a life of trouble to take on the responsibility of raising his newborn daughter and his wife’s four children. More than dive into the adversity they face day-to-day as a family living at poverty level in one of the wealthiest cities in the States, Torres focuses his lens on the human moments and the familial bonds between sisters, fathers, brothers and spouses. Torres delicately enters one family’s struggle to live a good life after years of violence in a neighborhood where being a part of a gang can be as inevitable as being a part of the family. The work showcases Torres’ great skill as an up-and-coming and enthusiastic documentary photographer working with what he knows best: Home.

What follows is an interview with the artist for Salon Ciel magazine. Join Salon Ciel and Mr. Torres on Friday, September 6 at 6pm for the opening reception of “Gotti: From El Rey to Fatherhood” at Two Moons Gallery in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

You went to school at Colby College in Maine and studied Photography?

So, I went to Colby and my concentration was American Studies. It was really interdisciplinary with Cinema, Photography, Literature, History and anything with that involved the American story, which is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. That’s the American Studies line right there. I started off as a filmmaker originally, but my photo teacher told me that if I wanted to be a film major I should take a photography class to learn composition, light, and exposure. Ever since then I’ve been much more multifaceted in my approach, using whatever multimedia I need to tell the story. I especially love audio and I think it is particularly powerful.

Do you listen to a lot of podcasts?

I used to work for my school’s Communications office and do a lot of documentary videos and interviews with different clubs for different issues. My school, being a liberal arts school, was very concerned with what was happening next. But, it kind of bothered me because everyone who went to my school came from affluent families. I was the only Puerto Rican guy there and I was on a Leadership scholarship.

My mom is a home attendant. My dad is a garbage truck driver. My sister dropped out of high school. My brother is a firefighter… so my family is all over the place. When I went to Colby I saw people concerned with all these issues, but the people who were in the issues were not concerned. It’s easier to be involved in something when you have money or when you have family to back you up. At the end of the day I appreciate that. I have no knocks against people who do that because if they don’t do it, who will? But I do feel very critical about coming from the Bronx, growing up and seeing what I saw, and putting up this photo show about a guy that I feared… The cold blooded guy who, when you’re walking down a bad block with your phone out will push you down and steal your phone with ease- no question about it. He’s the guy I never would have spoken to but the guy I lived across the street from.

How did you meet Gotti?

It was my Junior year in college, I had come back for the summer and I wanted to hang out with my sister. She stayed in the Bronx and hung around with different crowds. She takes me to this house and it’s a Latin Kings gang house. I didn’t even question how my sister knew these people but I started noticing that there were a lot of huskies, the house was a mess, there were a bunch of tattooed, shirtless guys wearing yellow and black beads. I started taking pictures of the kids and Gotti asks me, what I’m taking pictures of, so I show them to him and he’s like, “Damn you’re a good photographer. Let me bring you upstairs I wanna show you something.” He brings me upstairs with this huge guy who has scars on his face and tatts everywhere and we get up there and they pull out two guns and they say, “Start taking pictures.” So I start and in those fifteen minutes of them posing with the guns I take some of the best photos I had ever taken by that time. What I got a year and a half ago was very different from what I do now with Gotti, with the documentary aspect. But in a way, those pictures are still a part of the story.

You really got in on a ground level with this guy.

Well, it started very superficially. I gave him portraits. Nothing was necessarily staged, but it was all about their fashion and their guns.

About a year later I got involved with the Bronx Documentary Center, this great place that brings dialogue and multimedia and photography and documentary to the Bronx in this very stylish, SoHo looking gallery. That place is very close to my heart. I’ve always wanted to tell stories about the Bronx. People at BDC were talking to me about my work asking questions like, “What’s the point of your photography, what are you trying do,” etc.. and that plagued me for a little bit. I was shooting a lot of street photography with no backbone to it.

Around the same time Gotti called me up again and asked me to photograph his daughter’s first birthday. I had no idea he had a daughter. I went there, took some photos and asked him if I could spend some time with his family and learn more about his story. He went into prison at fourteen  and got out when he was nineteen for attempted murder. I wanted to know how he went from being that kid to being a family man. He was cool with it.

I don’t think he knew what I meant exactly until the first day of shooting. I went to his house in this really remote area of the Bronx with no trains, no busses. Basically the perfect place for bad things to happen. I show up with my Leica and start shooting, and it was good because the family wasn’t interested in my camera or my equipment. I got to the house and started making pictures, telling the story, for seven months.

You have spent almost a year with this family now. Do you feel close to them?

Yeah. It’s gotten to a point where I try to help out in little ways. I have an insurance job, which doesn’t pay a lot, but they’re both unemployed living at poverty level. So I’ll ask them if they need anything when I’m on the way over. They’ll ask for small crucial things like paper towels, detergent, meat. I try not to buy them cigarettes and stuff like that and I’m really straight up with them about it because they’re straight up with me.

So the story of how I met them is long. But it was a long process. You know I met with them yesterday to show them some of the pieces that will be at Two Moons and it’s great because they are excited, but there is also some tough stuff in there. In documentary you try to show both the good and the bad.

What do you think the bad is?

There are a lot of journalists and photographers who want to go in to the hood or travel abroad and photograph the edgy stuff; people getting shot, people going hungry, this and that. Someone else working on Gotti’s family could go in and just show the kids crying and the frantic chaos, the dogs tied up… I could have photographed all of that but I did not want to only focus on the bad stuff. I feel there’s a responsibility you have as a documentary photographer to show the good and the bad. Nobody is interested only in the good. You have to show both.

That’s what I liked so much about the premise of this project. Here’s an ex-gang member and what you want to get at is his process of becoming a dad and learning to take care of his family- but all of that comes with this turbulent and very recent past.

It’s tough. He’s a guy who grew up just wanting control and power. The anger all came from proving his manhood. Now what I find is it was a really hard process for him. He was useless for a long time when we were shooting, at least useless in terms of the way that we define manhood. He would be at home, washing dishes and cleaning, taking care of the kids with his wife. But he was unemployed. It’s interesting to see him in this useless way when years ago he was this powerful gang member who always had agency in what he did.

Have you ever asked him what made him leave that life?

Having his daughter opened his eyes. He didn’t have a strong parental figure when he was growing up. So when his daughter was born he wanted to break that cycle and be around for her. He left the gang. He was the toughest guy in the gang. He was the guy the gang would call on to do dirty work. They were threatening to come and get him and when I asked him if he was worried he said he told them where he lives. He’s not scared of them doing anything.

What’s his back story with his family? You mentioned he didn’t really have a father figure.

His real Dad is doing thirty-five-to-life upstate. When Gotti grew up he did so with a father in mind, but it was the wrong father. He didn’t have the right information. I can only say so much, he can probably break it down better. I went to visit his dad up state with Gotti. His dad is an old G. He is an old school gangster; this tough dude who is really intelligent, really calm but really sharp.

It was good because Gotti’s dad is happy that there is someone around to tell the family story. I didn’t have my camera there, but this meeting was really just about connecting. In a way I want the whole project to be about the whole family. I don’t want to make it seem like the big story is Gotti. I met him first, but really everyone has a big role in keeping the family together. The mother, Gotti’s girlfriend, was there first with her four children, taking care of all of them.

How did they meet?

The mother has an interesting story. At one point she was a parole officer’s assistant, but it didn’t work out. After that she became a member in the female equivalent of the Latin Kings. So her and Gotti first met as brother and sister in the gang world. Gotti really appreciated her independence and mental strength as a woman and I think that is what attracted him to her. It was unexpected- but it had a large impact on how Gotti would change.

So… it’s a tough story. It’s important for me to show that the family is still happy even with these adverse conditions.

Are you still shooting them now?

Yea. The project hasn’t ended because I don’t think it really does come to an end… I know this family. They’re still there and I’m really close with them. I’m not with them as much as I was when we first started shooting but I told them if they ever need a photographer that I’d be there.

You’re like the family historian.

It’s funny. Gotti’s dad while he was in prison tried to write a book. Very similar to this book called Down These Mean Streets by Thomas Piri. It was about how he had Gotti and how he had only started to raise him before he went to prison. So I have this like, half-finished story that he wrote and I keep pushing for him to finish it. But in three or four years maybe it will be even more powerful with more content.

When you were shooting the family what were you looking for?

I was trying to interact a lot with the kids. Sometimes I thought the kids told a much better story than the adults because they were unfazed by the camera. They were just a little hectic. The adults had a certain attitude around the camera. They would always try to pose. I told them not to pose for me because it would make for bad pictures, that those photos wouldn’t tell me anything. It took awhile for them to be natural and just go about their daily lives. That’s what I was trying to get.

For me personally it was tough… on a variety of levels. It was very stressful being there. There’s a lot of tension in the household and I felt like I was a part of that tension just as someone standing in the way. And when the kids would be running around and the parents would be yelling all of that energy would get to me. When the parents were stressed out smoking cigarettes I would smoke one with them. I don’t even smoke cigarettes! It was stressful for me to see what I could have been, in a way. I could have easily been this person as well. If my mom didn’t kick my butt and keep me off the streets, if I wasn’t inside playing video games, studying, getting chubby and becoming academically interested, y’know? All the normal kids who go outside and play sports and have a social life get exposed to what’s going on outside. These questions of manhood and power and street credibility, all of these things come into play at a young age and I didn’t have that. I was a pussy. I got jumped for my phone. But Gotti and I grew up in the same neighborhood at the same time. We were so close.

It’s just tough. Seeing two sides of it; growing up in the Bronx and then seeing what’s out there. Going to a school like Colby and seeing the privilege and the connections and the guaranteed opportunity, and then seeing no opportunity no matter how hard you try. I was really fortunate that my Mom did what she did for me.

Do you ever feel like you’re watching out for Gotti?

I feel like he’s watching out for me. He’s like, “Yo Edwin, I don’t say this much anymore, but if anyone on the streets gives you shit about your camera just let me know and I’ll make them straight”. We got so close that he’s willing to vouch for me. That’s empowering, but I know that if I ever were to use that power it would be wrong of me. It would break me down, too.

How does the family make money?

Social security, welfare, things like that. They told me straight up, they’re not hiding it. Gotti has a felony on record. He can’t get a job if he tries. I told him he should be a personal trainer and create this passion brand for people who want to be trained by an ex-felon. He was in great shape when he got out of prison and that would sell really well. But that didn’t work out. He ended up doing case studies for pharmaceutical companies for a while. Fun-fact: It pays really well. Pfizer, all the big names… and the riskier exams would pay more money. He just got a $6,000 check and he’s really happy about it. That’s bread and butter for a few months. He wants to save up and move to Florida.

What’s in Florida?

A new life. A fresh start. They see it as a positive. They’re not on the same block with all the drama. People don’t understand the hood- Everyone knows everyone in the hood. Everyone fights and kills each other in the hood. It doesn’t make any sense and when I hear the stories I wish I could tell them what I know. Gotti told me when we were drinking once- I do everything with this family, I sleep over, we get together, it’s all about connecting and being with them- he was like, you know what Edwin, I respect you. Not because you’re tough or smart or make a bunch of money but because you’re different. You’re a preppy dude coming to the hood, not caring what people think about you, and just trying to get to the heart of it. You don’t change yourself in front of anyone. You don’t try to play along the rules of the hood.

What’s in the future for this project?

I won’t work on it as frequently. I’m 23, a year out of college doing this corporate-world thing that I don’t really care about, and I’m in the midst of finding my passion. The time I’ve spent with Gotti I wouldn’t trade for anything. I want to continue to work on different things, to shoot with more families, to keep learning and growing and, really to keep telling stories about the Bronx. That’s my goal. I’m also photographing my own family which is how I was featured on the NYTimes Lens Blog with the picture of my grandmother. There was a lot that made me feel like I had to tell the story of my family.

My ultimate goal is to contribute something to get people to think differently. It’s very vague, so it’s perfect. I can do it my whole life. It’s been a passion for a long time and we’ll see where it goes. There’s a lot of potential to do that with documentary photography.

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