The gangs: 'You've got to be a bully'

Before he became a photographer, Josh Cole was in a street gang. For this issue, he returned to his old haunts – and found a world far more frightening and unstable than the one he left behind 10 years ago
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The Independent Online

Even though I've had first-hand experience of gangs and street violence, I was still surprised by how difficult and intense this project turned out to be. During my early twenties I spent five years in a "crew", but nothing as serious as the guys I photographed here.

When I was almost busted in a police raid I decided it was time to get out and I went to university to do a photography degree. I got involved in the hip-hop scene, taking pictures of musicians and dancers, which I've been doing professionally for 10 years. It's a much more positive environment, but there is a certain amount of crossover with the criminal world, so through my work and my voluntary youth work I'm still closely connected to the street.

For this reason, even though I'm now 34, I was fairly confident that getting back into the scene and getting people to agree to be photographed would be easy for me. I spoke to over 50 contacts to try to find gangs who would be willing to be photographed and ended up with just four real leads to gangs in London and Derby. It's a closed world and trust is everything. You can't just go and hang out with these guys.

It was immediately obvious that things have got much worse on the street since my day. There used to be a code, a sense of honour. Now it's just wild. The kids are younger ' and colder – there are no holds barred for them anymore. Everyone I spoke to knew someone who had been killed.

The guys I photographed in Tottenham (see front cover), in particular, were just out of control. They didn't seem at all bothered about covering their faces for the pictures where they were posing with their guns; I had to point out to them that they were going to get nicked if they carried on like that but they didn't seem scared of anything. The guy who put me in touch with them said they were trying to intimidate another local crew by showing off how hard they were.

These kids told me that the way it works on the estates they live on is that you need to be a bully or you may as well own nothing because you'll get robbed all the time. I never felt intimidated by the guys I was photographing, but I was very aware that if I hadn't been with the people who brought me there, I might not have been safe walking round.

I think the shots help to explain why these kids join and stay in their gangs. I know myself that the buzz is addictive. You build your reputation and have the respect of your peers. Having to go back and start on the bottom rung in the straight world, where you're nothing, seems too hard.

But while it's impossible to avoid the stereotypes when they are all standing around with their faces covered, there are some positive things going on with these kids – a lot are involved in urban music and dance. I just hope some of them might be able to use that to replace the buzz they get from the street – in the same way I have with photography. '