What was your best experience during this assignment?
Being invited into the homes of these rappers, and then having them into my home was by far the best part of this assignment. We'd get together, and I'd learn something about writing rap lyrics while they'd learn about the life of a National Geographic photographer. Best yet, the pleasure in this social exchange was mutual: We all just enjoyed each other's company. The rapport we developed was so good, in fact, that it got me thinking about carrying this story forward into other formats, like a hip-hop book or a film.
What was your worst experience during this assignment?
There's no way for a tall white guy to be unobtrusive in the South Bronx. So one of the worst aspects of doing this story was dealing with the apprehension I always felt going there, which really has something of a Wild West feeling about it. While the neighborhood may look calm, things can turn on a dime. In truth, the atmosphere is hopped up with guns, drugs, and turf envy, and the street can go from quiet to disaster in the blink of an eye. But I dealt with my fears by being the "picture man." If anybody came up to me and said "Take my picture," I'd do it. And I was always bringing pictures back for people to see and to have. I didn't want to be someone who was coming in and taking without bringing something back.
What was the oddest experience you encountered during this assignment?
Seeing the other side—the domestic side—of my new rapper friends was quite an eye-opener. Take Ruckus, for example. I watched as he decorated the room for his new baby daughter and then later fixed lunch for his wife and me. Ruckus has only been out of jail for a year or so. This is a guy you'd be afraid of on the street.
Same with Uptown, who's an ex-convict on parole, but he doesn't drink beer or cuss in front of his young daughters. So there's a real double life going on for these guys. They'll go to church, dress up, take care of their families. They seem to be trying to do the right thing, even if their music says otherwise.