I Should Have Shot That:
Hunter Barnes and
30 Bloods

10.03.12 Marina Galperina

ANIMAL’s original series I Should Have Shot That! asks photographers about that one shot that got away. This week, Hunter Barnes talks about dozens of East St. Louis Bloods waiting outside his window.

I spent a lot of time documenting the Bloods. I found out that the heaviest area was in St. Louis. I met a guy who could get me in. It was the murder capital of America that year.

I knock on the door, say I’m a documentary photographer. I lived with them for a month. Stayed in a hotel here and there. I would sleep in a car sometimes.

You know, they were actually super cool. A lot of places I go are a little bit more unseen, so you kind of have to hang out for a little bit, let them know that your intentions are honest. So, we hung out. It felt like it was a day in a life and it rained half the time, so we hung out in the house a lot, all day. They put me through a lot of tests.

I can tell you this one because I’ve told people before. When I got to St. Louis, we went for this ride. First, we had some really badass ribs at a barbecue. Then, they say, “We gotta go take care of something. Can you give us a ride?” Yeah, sure. So, I drive and we end up in this neighborhood and I’m like, oh, shit. It’s all boarded-up, bombed-out.

We make a right here, make a left there, park here, and end up behind this house with police tape around it. One dude knocks on the door and leaves me in a car with these other dudes behind me, just smiling with his gold teeth, looking at me in the mirror and I’m looking at him. He wouldn’t talk. I think we sat in this car for about an hour just looking at each other through the mirror, looking at this house and once in awhile somebody’s eyes would look through a window.

He leaned over and put his arm around me and said, “So, what are you gonna do when they come out of that house with a gun to your head and a bag full of money?” “Well, I guess we better go.”

He just started laughing. He called them, said we better go. After that, they were cool, they were nice guys. I mean, I met people’s grandparents. I met their grandmom and had lemonade on her back porch. I mean, it was just people. People are people.

I made some good friends over there. They were a little bit older. There are very few of those guys left. They were introducing me around. It took a long time for me to take any pictures. I hung out for weeks before that even happened. One of the old dudes was pretty much in charge, who would never have let me take his picture before, told me I could take his portrait for the the project and then, after I put that camera away, they started doing a Blood Walk in the middle of the street. I don’t remember ever seeing a picture of a Blood Walk before in the middle of East Saint Louis.

But the one picture that I really wish I would have had was this one shot through my hotel window. When I first got there, they took me out all night. They took me to the club to dance with this dude and his wife. I don’t remember much, just that I woke up on top of a Lincoln Continental at five in the morning.

Then, I remember waking up in this hotel with a bag under my head. Still in a leather jacket. Still got boots on. Literally three weeks had gone by and I had not taken any photographs yet. I had not taken one picture.

I was really freaked out because I had spent all the money that these people had given me to go on the road, that believed in me. I was literally down to my last twenty bucks. It’s the last day. I had spent all the money. So we go out. What else are you going to do? I wake up and I’m on this floor, shaken a little bit. My friends are all laughing. They are like, “Dude, you gotta get up man!” But I’m like naaahah. “Dude, it’s time. It’s time.”

I remember looking out and this is when I wish I had a camera, because there are 25-30 Bloods lined up outside my hotel, waiting to get their photos taken.

They were just hanging out, waiting. I just took all those pictures after the three weeks or so of hanging out. I took all those pictures in an afternoon, a couple of hours later and the next day, I flew out. It was that right time. By that time, they had trusted me and it was cool. I think we we trusted each other. It just felt right.

Yeah, it’s pretty much kind of what I do. I go into a lot of places, into these kind of unseen worlds that people don’t have access to. After the Bloods, I documented a California maximum security prison. For my Outside of Life project, I had been photographing bikers, all that. I lived on the reservation with the Nee-mee-poo tribe on-and-off for four years documenting them. Went to Sri Lanka and documented all the Tamil villages in the Civil War. I have a new book coming out about a serpent handling church in West Virginia. It’s the last state in America where it’s legal. They took me right in.

Hunter Barnes is a documentary photographer who shoots in analogue in places you’ve never imagined you could go. Should Have Shot That! is illustrated by the amazing James Noel Smith.

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