I Should Have Shot That:
Shawn Nee’s Hollywood Brothel Date

11.21.12 Marina Galperina

ANIMAL’s original series I Should Have Shot That! asks photographers about that one shot that got away. This week, Shawn Nee talks about an intimate moment inside a hidden in Hollywood that red and velvet all over.

There was this one time a couple of years ago, when I was just doing photography all the time, every day. I was out, I was riding my bike in one of the seedier sides of Hollywood near Santa Monica and Western, looking for these people I had photographed in a make shift tent city right above the freeway, but nobody was around. I saw this girl leaning up against this fence of her yard, with her arm up on top of the fence.

We looked at each other and I just kept riding and I was thinking, “Look back, look back and something will happen.”

I did. She waved. All these great photographers have photographs of transsexuals in their portfolios and I had not done much of that at that point. So we started talking about photography and taking her picture and all of a sudden this yellow VW bug rolled up. This white guy like around 50 comes over and they start talking. And then I realize that he is there to have sex with her. She asked me if I wanted to come in.

We walked up to the house on that corner. There was a family with children living there in the front. We walked to the back porch and into a room that might have been a kind of screened room you could sit on in the summer. It was remodeled. Inside, it was all draped red velvet.

The guy sat down on the bed. There was a giant mirror and you could see us in there. I got a shot of her with her hands up my shirt, rubbing the outside of my pants while I’m taking photos through the mirror with the guy is sitting on the bed looking at us with a smirk on his face. I was trying to talk my way into allowing me to stay, but they were totally against it. Then they said it would be ok, but I would have to get naked. I would have, but I knew my girlfriend would have went ballistic on me. Back then I would get into all kinds of situations. She would get mad at me cause she didn’t want me to get hurt or killed one day, or whatever.

I had a knife put to my neck one time, but this Crip drug dealer stood up for me and got the guy to back off. There was a guy I knew that I’d photograph in his RV — he’s dead now — but people would come to the RV and hang out and sometimes smoke crack in there. There were certain people you didn’t want to be around when they’re high. I can’t say their names because the LAPD would know who they are.

The cops? Well, I slept on the LA River with this crew for a bit, with this guy Steve. One time, Steve and I and this other guy, an illegal immigrant, were hanging out at a gas station in Hollywood. Cops rolled up to the spot where homeless people would sit. The guys I was with each had two warrants and both were drunk with open containers and they let them go, but they fucked with me. I have it on video. The cop slams my camera on the hood of the patrol unit. They put me in the back of the cop car for about a half an hour because I would only tell them my name. I don’t carry my ID with me anymore. You’re not required to. It was pretty funny. The supervisor showed up, opened up the back door while those two were going through the code book looking for the part where it says it’s illegal not to carry ID.

I’m saying “Can I go? Am I free to go? They are telling me that it’s illegal to not carry ID.” The LAPD supervisor says, “Yeah, it is illegal, you’re supposed to have your ID.” And then he closes the door and goes over to the other cops and tells them, “Let him go. It’s not illegal to not have ID.”

In the neighborhood, everyone knows who I am now. I’ve been doing this around here for so long. When I first started, everybody thought I was a cop, like this crazy white guy always coming around and just hanging out, but now it’s almost like my camera is my drug and it is all part of our relationship. It was just something I did instead of drinking or smoking crack or whatever. That was my fix — just hanging out, taking photos. They are not even subjects. They are just my friends.

No, I don’t talk to Superman anymore. We had a falling out.

There were conflicts between the cliques on the boulevard. Superman got into a fight with this guy who dresses up as a Chewbacca. Then Batman ultimately got a restraining order to stay out of that zip code. He was always fighting. Superman saw me talking to Batman and then told me, “You can’t photograph me if you are going to take his side. You are going to have to pay me.” That was the end of it. Batman went to Vegas, still getting into fights. The thing about Batman is that he is such a great guy. He is the most normal out of all of those guys. I always got along with him. He was one of the first people I ever photographed like this. He just can’t control his temper.

Some people on the streets, they look really hardened. They scare people. Yesterday, these three white girls who looked like they were Mennonites literally ran by us. That’s how scared they were. I was with three hard looking black dudes that are super nice guys. But I’m not joking, these girls saw us and ran, freaking out, looking at us over the shoulder, huddled together, holding each other’s arms.

Oh, yeah. Betty and Oree, the ventriloquists? I was with them all the time in the Gilbert Hotel in Hollywood.  Then I would come home and a bed bug would crawl out on my bag. People are just so happy to have somebody with them to hang out and just talk to them. These people are so happy to see me when I show up. I get hugs. They say things like, “I love when you’re around. You just kick it with us.”

When I didn’t have work, I would wake up and go there and spend all day and then go to work and then I would just quit my job and go do that pretty much all day and then go home and just sleep and go back out.

I would not change for days. It was getting really bad, so I stopped. That was one of the reasons why I went to Boston for a few months, because I knew I needed to stop what I was doing. It was getting out of hand. I was eating with them, sleeping there, sleeping outside, sleeping in my car, just to be over there. It was not healthy.

In Boston, I hung out with my little niece and nephew. I was interviewing them about what it’s like to be four years old and photographing them. It was just so boring. There was nothing to do. All my friends were married and had their lives going on. If I walk outside my house, nothing would happen. In Los Angeles, if I get outside of my house, I know something will happen.

That shot is engraved in my mind. You could tell he was a regular client. He would have been on the edge of the bed, her leaning, his face up in her shadow as if they were about to kiss. I was more interested in moments leading up to them having actual intercourse. I felt like he was in love with her, like he was very happy to be there with her and it seemed like she was very happy to be there with him. I was not looking for anything graphic like sex.

Shawn Nee is a Los Angeles documentary street photographer who always finds himself in the middle of a definitive moment. Should Have Shot That! is illustrated by the amazing James Noel Smith.

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