Page last updated at 14:25 GMT, Tuesday, 18 August 2009 15:25 UK

Portraits capture ex-gang members

By Alex Bushill
Reporter, BBC Radio 4's PM programme

Former gang member Vipoh

Photographer Adam Patterson has captured the lives of former gang members on film for the Royal Photographic Society.

And in a little barber's shop in Brixton, South London, I catch a glimpse of 20-year-old Vipoh, one of the main stars of the exhibition.

He is sitting in a chair, enjoying a £6 haircut. As his tight curls are shaved away, his grin steadily grows.

King Vipoh is his name to those that do not know him. But he wants us to know him - to like him even. To know he is a reformed man.

He may have turned his back on the gangs that have shaped his short and troubled life - but he still remembers them well: "RBC, Rare Brew Crew, Royal Black Criminals, that's for both of them. DSN, Don't Say Nothing. LS - Loughborough Soldiers or Loughborough Stars. BG - Brown gang."

As we start talking, he is quick to admit a list offences that he makes sound more like a rite of passage than a criminal record.

He chuckles: "I was a hustler. I used to rob people, rob people's houses, just to make money.

"I used to take people's belongings, take people's phones and sell them at Brixton market. I don't care if it's £10 or £20, at least I'm eating."

Forget death and taxes: low level crime and gangs are the two certainties of his life.

And it is when he invites me back to his council flat that I realise another constant in his life: boredom and poverty.

His Playstation is one of the few comforts he can afford.

It is here that I meet photographer Adam Patterson.

Former gang member Vipoh (l) and friend
Becoming a professional footballer is seen as one way out of gang life

He has spent months photographing Vipoh's life and the life of so many young boys who are drawn into gangs.

Adam Patterson was commissioned by the Royal Photographic Society to undertake this long-term project on youth gang culture, and the images will feature in the Noorderlicht International Photofestival 2009.

For him, one of the images stands out from the rest.

"It's a shot of Vipoh showing his scars," he says.

"It was taken right here in this room with the light coming through this window.

"He's got his T-shirt off and it's basically him with his arm up touching his head and it kind of shows that he is in thought.

"But it also shows he is offering his vulnerability to me - as the viewer. He knows what this project is all about."

The image has a sense of intimacy. But does it have a sense of hope?

For Vipoh, and so many like him, hope is often pinned on being a professional footballer or a rap star. Vipoh is no exception.

He spends his days pursuing a musical dream at a nearby recording studio, run by Asha Senator.

Supported in part by Lambeth council, Code 7 is designed to help youngsters off the streets.

But what Asha did not know was Vipoh dropped out of college and a course to become an electrician to pursue his musical ambitions.

It is a decision Asha says he would never have supported, had he known.

Nonetheless the question remains: are the hip-hop dreams of a generation of deprived youngsters part of the problem and not the solution?

Photographer Adam Patterson
Adam Patterson's photographs seek to explain the seduction of gang culture

Not according to Asha.

"A young person can come into the studio to fulfil his aspirations.

"Do his mix and come out with something there and then," he says.

"And then either he sells it or gives it away, but this is him, this is me. This is what I am saying. This is my whole life in this little project here."

He goes on to point out the countless boys he has helped to turn their back on a life of crime and gangs, all through the structure and guidance he offers them in his recording studio.

And what about Vipoh himself, does he have any regrets?

Rather than aspire to be the next gangster rapper, would an apprenticeship have been a better bet?

"No, no, no. I see so many people here with qualifications but they still don't have a job," he tells me.

"You got smart people out here with the top grades but they still don't have a job."

And yet he swears he will not go back to his old gang-land ways.

The reason is simple: he has been attacked, stabbed, set upon by dogs... and it is no way to grow old.

"If I still want to be in this gang thing then I'm gone," he confesses.

"I don't want to be gone. My mum is still here, my grandma is still here, my great grandma is still here. God says 'look son, I'm going to give you one more chance'. This is the chance he's given me now."

So without any real qualifications, he is pinning all his hopes on his passion: music.

His gamble - his story - is shared by so many he knows.

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