Arresting. Exquisite. Gripping. Chilling. Disgraceful. Unacceptable. These are all words people have used to describe portraits made by Jono Rotman. Created over the last decade, his project Mongrelism presents an intimate look at members of the Mongrel Mob – New Zealand’s largest, most notorious gang. Though he is looking at a subculture as an outsider – a domain regularly mined by photojournalists – Rotman eschews a traditional documentarian approach to his subject matter. In so doing, the project’s scope extends beyond the Mob itself to touch upon issues related to New Zealand’s charged colonial past and self-professed biculturalism, the politics and ethics of portraiture, and the intersections of seemingly disparate human experience.
The New Zealand-born photographer explains that since childhood, “I always felt certain violent and uneasy forces within my country”. In Lockups (1999-2005), Rotman photographed the interiors of prisons and psychiatric hospitals throughout New Zealand, exploring the medium’s ability to convey the fraught “psychic climate” embedded in these state-controlled institutions. The works are eerily devoid of people, a deliberate decision made, says Rotman, “because I wanted to encourage a direct, personal interaction with the spaces. With prisons, for example, as soon as you introduce people into the picture, it becomes easy to think, ‘Here’s the storyline: this place is for those sorts of people. And I can fit it all into my established worldview’.”