During the late 60’s and early 70’s, white nationalists terrorized New Zealand’s indigenous population. In response, some Maori and Polynesian youths banded together to form the Black Power Gang. The gang has been associated with violence and organized crime since it’s inception. Casey Morton, an Australian photographer, went to New Zealand to capture a different side of the gang. The results are these haunting portraits.
For Morton, getting the notorious gang to agree to the project was difficult. “It took a long time to get approval. I was speaking to a couple of members for quite awhile. I needed to gain their trust,” he says. And even when they agreed to the shoot, many of the members were still skeptical of the whole thing. “Once I was able to gain their trust, throughout the day there was a lot of trust gaining left to do.”
The Black Power Gang has a reputation in New Zealand that has bled into neighboring Australia. Violence in the gangs past hovers over the cultural imagination. For Morton, the goal of this photo series wasn’t to highlight the good or bad in these people but to document them as humans.
“They’re not the type of people that have photos of themselves at all.”
Once the gang was comfortable with Morton, they were surprisingly genial. “The biggest surprise was how friendly they became. I actually spent quite a bit of time with them that day,” recalls Morton, “We had to lunch at a Denny’s. They were super friendly with me and the general public. It was quite interesting.”
This photo series has been praised all over the world, but in Australia, some writers took issues with it because it humanizes a violent gang. According to Morton, the gang has toned down the violence in recent years, and the members are older and more reserved. Even if they have violent and troubled pasts, Morton says “in my opinion, everyone has the right to have their story told.”
The pictures do humanize the gang, but after all, they are humans. An almost poetic affirmation of this came just after Morton released the photos. Many of the gang members have rough pasts where they bounced in and out of foster care. “One of the males featured in a portrait actually got reunited with other kids from his foster home,” says Morton.
The friends had been separated when they were children and had no way of knowing where the other ended up. When the photos went viral all over the world, a woman recognized her friend from foster care, and, “It allowed her to reunite with someone she grew up with,” says Morton.
That rewarding experience and the unexpected connection has stuck with Morton over the year since he took the photos. The subject matter from the Black Power Portrait series is going to influence his work in the future. “It’s something I’d love to do more of; document people from the margin or the fringes.”