Will Robson Scott is a London-born photographer whose work focuses on “people living on the fringes of society.” Whether documenting dog owners obsessed with their extended canine families or people-watching from the top deck of buses in London, Will has a knack for showcasing the idiosyncratic traits of tribes and individuals.
His latest work is “CHIRAQ,” a 13-minute black-and-white documentary and accompanying zine that focus on the epidemic of violence sweeping the South and West Sides of Chicago, where, since 2001, more Americans have been killed than in Afghanistan. I recently spoke with Will and journalist Julia Langbein, a seven-year resident of Chicago, about the film. Here are some of the choicest bits:
Dolapo Ladeinde: What inspired you to make “CHIRAQ?”
Will Robson-Scott: I got a commission from VIBE magazine last year to do a piece with the LEP Bogus Boys, who are the older generation of the big Chicago rappers, like Chief Keef and King Louie. I knew a little bit about the issues over there, but when I went and heard all the stories firsthand, there seemed to be a general acceptance of all the violence. I didn’t come up with the name “CHIRAQ” — that’s what all the kids from the South and West Side of the city called it.
Julia Langbein: The film feels very personal and intimate, like you’re just kind of hanging out and talking. And all the smoke! I feel like I have a sore throat by the end of the film.
WRS: I was just astounded by the amount of weed they smoked. They smoke more blunts than most people smoke cigarettes. I did take one toke of a blunt to make them feel better about me being there, and it almost sent me into a panic attack.
JL: How did you get them to let their guard down?
WRS: FirstIy, I was always introduced by someone they trusted. Also, the thing you’ve got to remember is that the kids in the film all wanted to be rappers. So if you say, “Oh, I [photographed] King Louie,” then that automatically gives you a seal of approval. To be honest, a lot of people there just wanted to tell their stories. When I first went to the West Side, they saw this white guy getting out the car with this camera equipment and they automatically associate you with something like Fox News.
JL: They thought something horrible had happened?
WRS: No, they were just like: Alright, some white guy's coming to to ask us these questions about our guns and how much we smoke, etc. But the funny thing was what really helped me was my accent. I’d open my mouth, and they’d be like: “What the fuck?! Where are you from?” [Laughter.] The only reference loads of them had was Austin Powers and the guy from the Geico commercial. [Laughter.]
When I started talking, they were like: "Oh shit! This nigga’s the motherfucking lizard from the Geico commercial!" [Laughter.] As soon as that happened, all their barriers were down and everyone was cool. My idea for going out there was to find four main characters and do the film through that, but it didn’t happen, so it ended up being quick portraits of people. In a way, it made it better, because it became more of a survey of different people throughout Chicago.
JL: But you didn’t structure it as a kind of argument. It’s very different from the specials you see on 60 Minutes.
WRS: The reason I didn’t want to do that is because I was only there for nine days, so it would be hard for me to make a deep political statement.
DL: There was an elderly woman in the film, she was saying that there was something missing from the young men’s lives ... what do you think could be missing?
WRS: Well, the issues that affect Chicago and [many] other inner cities are all pretty similar: the lack of jobs, a lack of education and the availability of guns. If kids in the hood have uzis, something’s wrong there. And although Chicago has really strict gun laws, Gary, Indiana right next to it, doesn’t. You can just go into a store and buy a gun.
JL: Which has ironically made Chicago this example for people who are against gun control because they say, “Look, Chicago has great gun control, but everyone is dying.”
WRS: And there's hardly any family structure. Most people I spoke to didn’t have a dad and, all the kids were having kids. Michael Jordan used to be their role model — everyone wanted to play ball and make it to the NBA. Now everyone’s role model is Chief Keef. If that’s all they see, then that’s all they'll aspire to be.
JL: Yeah, I was watching Hoop Dreams just a couple of days ago, the basketball documentary from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. Everything seemed a lot more innocent. The violence is being perpetrated by younger and younger people these days. There's so many small gangs in constant opposition to one another.
WRS: People would tell me, about the structure of the old school gangs, you couldn’t just go kill someone because there'd be massive repercussions.
DL: You had to ask for permission.
WBS: Yeah. Also, if you were selling drugs and you were under the age of 16, they made you go to school first, then you could sell drugs after. Basically, the whole thing with Chicago now is that they’re not really gangs, they’re just little cliques of kids from the same block. There’s no hierarchy. You ask anyone who’s involved in it, “Why do you want to kill these people?”, and it's always just like, “Because I was brought up to hate them.”
DL: I think a lot of them are bored.
JL: Well, yeah. If you look at the blight, you’ll go for 20 blocks, and there'll be nothing but a check-cashing joint and a liquor store. And they’re closing a lot of the schools. Were there any flickers of positivity, Will?
WRS: I'm sure there are blatant positives in South Chicago, but I didn’t see them. The most positive thing I saw were kids trying to make it through the music and people like The Interrupters, the old gangbangers who were doing something positive to change the city. But to be honest, I can’t think of any real positives, which is bad. I didn’t want to make it a completely negative piece.
DL: Going back to the music for a second, somebody in the film made a comment about the older rappers being in gangs before they actually became rap stars. So shouldn’t the problem be about real life affecting music, rather than vice versa?
WRS: It’s a bit of a contradiction. I don’t subscribe to the whole thing of blaming Chief Keef for all the violence. These rappers are demonized by the mainstream because of their ties to gangs, but it's the kids of white middle America who are buying Chief Keef’s records. It’s a strange situation.
DL: Were there any other common threads you saw while filming?
WRS: You know, it’s funny, even though there was lack of a father figure, there’s always a grandma there to take responsibility for all these young, wild kids. And it must be so heartbreaking if your kid goes down the wrong path because you’re a lot older and you probably can’t relate to what’s going on.
JL: So is this the beginning of a longer fascination for you? Do you think you might work on this again?
WRS: I’d actually like to go back to Chicago and do some more. I’d like to do something more based on the music as well, but at the moment, I really don’t know. Like I was saying, to really do this piece well, I think you have to spend about a year there. I don’t have a year to spare. Also, after a while so many of the stories are so similar.
Dolapo Ladeinde is a London-based journalist and screenwriter who has contributed to NME, Vice and I-D, and is currently working on a series of short films about teen tribes and sexual awakening.
KEEP READING: More Film
- The Scariest Place on Earth: An Interview with Escape From Tomorrow’s Director
- Dispatches from Shermer, Illinois
- 10 Hard-Boiled Lessons from 10 Noir Films