‘Confronting Photography Exhibition at City Gallery Wellington’, Media Release, February 2015.
An exhibition of portraits of Mongrel Mob members by New York–based, New Zealand photographer Jono Rotman will open at City Gallery on 14 March and run until 14 June.
Mongrel Mob Portraits is a body of work that has been over seven years in the making. It’s seen Rotman travel all over New Zealand photographing over 200 men. ‘I was given access no outsider has ever had’, Rotman says.
‘This is an important and challenging project by a Wellington photographer that extends his inquiry into life on the margins’, says City Gallery Chief Curator, Robert Leonard. ‘Rotman’s images are confronting because they clash our expectations of gangs and our expectations of portraiture.’
Rotman employs traditional portraiture techniques used to capture heroes, celebrities, politicians, and royals. His photographs of mob members unsettle our expectations of portraiture. ‘Is it glorification because they are good photographs? Should these guys only be shown in bad photographs or police mugshots?’, says Rotman.
Rotman’s Mongrel Mob Portraits were first shown at Auckland’s Gow Langsford Gallery in 2014. City Gallery’s exhibition expands on this selection, extending Rotman’s engagement with different types of portraiture and the perspectives he offers on the country’s most notorious gang.
Rotman’s portraits offer neither glorification nor caricature. He says, ‘I hope that viewers are forced to consider each man in person and consider deeply the forces that made him.’
In 2013, Rotman was awarded the prestigious Marti Friedlander Award for Photography for his Mongrel Mob photographs. Renowned photographer Marti Friedlander says, ‘The photos of these men moved me to tears. It seems almost as if Rotman has understood something and revealed the person behind the badge without prejudice.’
Rotman grew up in Ohariu Valley, Wellington. He studied printmaking in Argentina and photography in Wellington. He has exhibited throughout New Zealand and Australia, including in Parallel Worlds, a 2001 exhibition by the Adam Art Gallery, Wellington, and the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne. Rotman’s work is represented in the Wellington City Council Art Collection and the Chartwell Collection, Auckland. He is represented by Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland.
Exhibition Wall Text
Jono Rotman: Mongrel Mob Portraits
These men inhabit a New Zealand I once knew little about.
Gangs hold a mirror to the forces that have made modern New Zealand. Members typically come from violent and deprived backgrounds. They have had rough lives, and, in turn, have tended to revist that trauma on others. However, their core values include many things that society lauds—commitment, perseverance, resilience, loyalty.
Today, the Mongrel Mob is a community, generations deep, with a density of lore and custom. Their legacy extends from the abhorrent to the redemptive. There are positive shifts, as members work towards providing different experiences for their children.
In producing this work, I had no intention to gloss over or excuse negative aspects of the Mob legacy. My focus was on my subjects as cultural artefacts—products of the forces that made them. The work asks a simple question: what happens when you photograph maligned people in a respectful and dignified manner.
—Jono Rotman, 2015
Over the last eight years, Wellington-born, New York-based photographer Jono Rotman has regularly returned to New Zealand to photograph members of the Mongrel Mob, regarded as the country’s most notorious gang. Rotman has travelled the country extensively for this project. It has granted him unprecedented access to the inner life and workings of a culture that operates on the margins of normal society.
These photographs were shot on location, often at the homes or clubs of his subjects. Rotman used a large-format camera and a plain background, often taped up in the eave of a doorway. He used available light, and did not style, pose, or direct his subjects. Rotman has made over 200 portraits in this way.
Rotman uses formal portrait conventions and presents large scale and elegantly framed photographs to counter the ways his subjects are usually seen—through mugshots and surveillance camera footage that emphasise a narrative of criminality and monstrosity. Rotman’s portraits offer neither glorification nor caricature. Instead, he sets up direct encounters with the individuals who have chosen this patch and way of life. When brought together, these portraits of individuals present a collective portrait of a group who live by a shared code and values.
Mongrel Mob Portraits follows an earlier series, Lockups (1995–2005), where Rotman photographed the interiors of prisons and psychiatric hospitals. Both series reveal the strains of a colonised, bicultural, and supposedly egalitarian society. Rotman insists that we can not avert our eyes from the undercurrents of our culture, as troubling as they may be.
Rotman’s portraits were first shown at Auckland’s Gow Langsford Gallery in 2014. City Gallery’s exhibition also includes previously unexhibited works from the original series and several new pieces.
—Robert Leonard and Aaron Lister, curators
Jono Rotman grew up in Ohariu Valley, Wellington. He studied printmaking in Argentina and photography in Wellington and has exhibited throughout New Zealand, USA and Australia. Rotman’s work is represented in the Wellington City Council Art Collection, and the Chartwell Collection at the Auckland Art Gallery. In 2013, Rotman received the Marti Friedlander Photographic Award from the Arts Foundation of New Zealand. He is represented by Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland.