A young man glares stonily into the camera, his hands in his pockets and his shoulders slouched. Half of his body is covered with tattoos, the legacy of a life spent embroiled in violence and gangs. This photo shoot is a chance for Dennis to picture himself in a whole new light – but will he like what he sees?
Born in the United Kingdom, photographer Steven Burton started out as a successful fashion model. After working with some of photography’s biggest names, he made the switch to the other side of the camera.
Having taught himself, Burton – now based in Miami and New York – has carved out a career traveling the world and snapping photographs along the way. In the likes of Tibet, Burma and Papua New Guinea, he captures images of cultures and customs that can sometimes seem alien to Western eyes.
In many of these images, his subjects can be seen showing off intricate designs inked or drawn onto their skin. But it wasn’t until he watched a documentary about gang rehabilitation in Los Angeles that tattoos became a real focus of Burton’s work.
Released in April 2013, G-Dog focuses on the mission of Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who runs the Homeboy Industries youth initiative. The program, now rolling out around the world, helps encourage gang members away from violence and towards being productive members of society.
One of the topics covered in the documentary is the removal of gang tattoos and how the process can help ex-members to rebuild their lives on the right side of the tracks. The documentary had a profound impact on Burton, and so he began to formulate a plan of his own.
“The concept came to me when I watched the homeboys going through the tattoo-removal process,” he told PEOPLE. “The idea was to digitally remove the tattoos, present the before-and-after photos to the subjects, and see how they would react.”
Burton wanted to understand the impact that gang tattoos had on ex-members trying to rebuild their lives. So, for the next two years, he dedicated himself to photographing the people at Homeboy Industries and editing the results.
Using Photoshop, Burton spent as much as 20 hours on each subject, digitally removing their tattoos. And after almost 400 hours of retouching, his project was finally complete.
The people Burton photographed came from a wide variety of backgrounds. But they all had one thing in common: each of them was heavily tattooed. Furthermore, many of them also believed that their tattoos were holding them back in life, preventing them from being seen as they now wished to be seen.
“I’ll sit down on the bus and no one will want to sit next to me,” subject Dennis Zamran said in an interview for the project. “They would rather stand up than sit next to me. Or I will see old ladies and they will start grabbing their purse. I will see a couple in the street and a guy will pull his girl real close. It’s like, ‘Dude, relax! I am coming home from work.’”
The gangland lifestyle runs in Zamran’s family. His father used to work for the Mexican cartels and was brutally murdered in a disagreement over a girl. Now, however, Zamran wants a different future for his own young son. Ironically, he remembers that his father disliked tattoos.
Marcos Luna, another subject, took a more philosophical view of his tattoos. “This person has been through a lot, he has been through his own masterpiece,” he said. “I call it a book, you know – this is my book right here.” But when Luna saw himself without the tattoos that usually covered his face and body, he was almost speechless. “I don’t know what to say,” he proclaimed. “This is art right here. This is a human being like you, eh?”
Some of Burton’s subjects, such as Matthew Perez, were suffering from addiction problems when they came to Homeboys Industries for help. Father Greg, affectionately nicknamed G-Dog, gave him the motivation he needed to turn his life around.
“Usually Father Greg helps,” Perez admitted. “But he said to me this time, he said, ‘We don’t have the funds. I can give you a car and I can give you a job but that is not going to change what is going on with you. It’s not going to change the issues you are going through.’”
With Father Greg’s help, Perez plans to head to rehab and is looking forward to what the future might hold. Sadly, others involved in the project were not so lucky. One of them was Vinson Ramos, who told Burton that “nobody knows what will happen tomorrow.” Sadly, he was shot dead by police officers on July 7, 2016.
Meanwhile, Calvin Hastings, the foster brother of rapper The Game, spoke of his frustration at the stereotyping of his appearance. “I don’t want you rolling up your window when you see me coming down the street,” he said. “It’s like, I don’t need what you got. You don’t need to do all that.”
When Hastings saw Burton’s image of himself without his tattoos, he described the experience as being like the beginning of his life. However, the father-of-one also died in June 2016.
For most participants, however, Burton’s project has genuinely been the first step on the road to a new life. Francisco Flores, another of the subjects, laughed as he looked at the results. “I haven’t seen this since I was 13,” he smiled. “I’m changing, but I think I’ll get more accepted if I look like this.”
In October 2016, Burton launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to create a book from his photographs, accompanied by in-depth interviews with his subjects. The 172-page volume is due to be released in late 2017, and Burton hopes that it will give a new face to some of those that society is often quick to shun.