In 1992, Dutch photographer Mugge Lixenberg first travelled to South Central Los Angeles on a magazine assignment, covering the rebuilding of LA after the riots that had erupted following the verdict in the Rodney King trial – an African American taxi driver filmed being savagely beaten by several policemen, who were later acquitted.
What she saw sowed the seeds for what grew into a 22-year project featuring 393 black and white photographs, a book, a series of videos and audio recordings. It started when Lixenberg returned the following year, in 1993, to create a series devoid of the sensationalism typically seen when the media cover calamities in these areas.
Lixenberg was introduced to OG Tony Bogard, leader of the Imperial Courts Crips faction, which was pivotal in the direction and success of her project. He introduced her to Imperial Courts and its residents, and it became the focus of her work until 2015. “When I did the first series, it wasn’t my intention to make it a long-term project,”
images: “It was the first time I’d worked in 5 x 4 format [with a Wista Field camera], and I found my voice. Working with a large format camera became the perfect tool for me and how I see the world. There’s a formality to the process that I really like. It’s not invasive – it’s formal, but intimate. With this kind of camera you can really tell a story
working with a large format camera became the perfect tool for me and how I see the world.
she says. “It was shot at a pivotal time in the history of the community, during the re-trial of the four LAPD officers. It was partly a reaction to how the community was represented in the media. I went for a month with my new 5 x 4 camera and made the first series of portraits.”
Bogard’s approval gave Lixenberg the access she needed to form the trust crucial to the project’s success. Unlike the frenzied media attention following the riots, Lixenberg’s prolonged presence and patience allowed her to immerse herself in the community. She credits the camera she employed for the job as playing an important role in the pace and atmosphere of the
in individual images. It requires a lot of concentration from myself and the sitter, it’s very slow… a quiet and collaborative way of working with someone. The dynamic comes from very small gestures and the texture of the image. I still work with the same camera to this day.”
Over the years Lixenberg stayed in contact with the community. And as she entered a more reflective time in her life, her thoughts turned to returning. With new funding for the project, Lixenberg returned to LA and Imperial Courts in 2008: “I returned because of the stories the portraits had acquired with time… some of the people were killed, others jailed, new generations were born. For the residents of Imperial Courts those early portraits were their history and during my visits over the years they increasingly asked if I would come back. I was some of the people were killed, others jailed, new generations were born.
at a stage when you look back more and I became more aware of the power of photography to record a community’s history. That personal history is why I returned. I wasn’t thinking so much about that in 1993.”
The more time she spent there, the more Lixenberg’s relationship with the community evolved and her view broadened to the landscape, to groups and how they interacted. She started to add new layers to the project with different media. In recordings of the residents’
Lixenberg always intended to create a book of the work, and there would be a community edition everybody who participated would receive. “They’ve had to be very patient – it took me 22 years before it was there!” First, she had to decide when she would finish the project. “When the third generation was born – babies of people I’d photographed as babies – I thought that this might be a good moment to stop. You could go endlessly, but I was ready to work towards the completion of the book and to do a comprehensive presentation of the work.”
The 22 years Lixenberg spent creating this project allowed her to make a deep, rich and collaborative portrait of an underserved community. But she still isn’t finished, with hopes to continue engaging the community with the help of the £30,000 prize money. “It’s not the end of my relationship with the community. I want find a way to get the community to make new content for the website. Imperial Courts and the people I’ve gotten to know there have become a big part of my life. We’ve seen each other age. This relationship is something I treasure deeply.” We’re reminded that life can’t be represented in a snapshot. It doesn’t end when your turn your lens away.