In the summer of 2004, I was out in San Francisco and stumbled upon a little black-and-white photography magazine called Hamburger Eyes. I flipped through the mag and came to a full stop at a photo essay called Mean Streets. Ice-cold images of life in the projects of New York City popped off the page as I stood, slack-jawed, in awe. I looked for the name of the photographer: Boogie. “Who is this lil Puerto Rican hardrock with a camera?” I wondered to myself.

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A year later I would find out. Boogie sent me an email asking me if I would be interested in publishing his first monograph, It’s All Good. He sent me photos, photos, and more photos. I fell off my chair a couple of times. When I got back up, I got up on it. Over the next three years, I published both It’s All Good and Belgrade Belongs to Me under my imprint, Miss Rosen Editions.

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Funny thing is, no matter how much I learned, I always had more questions. I discovered this interview we did a couple of years back. It still gives me pleasure to read his words and contemplate his work. Boogie’s transformation in the time I have known him is tremendous, and I am grateful for the opportunity we shared to create these two monographs.

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Photograph © Boogie

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Miss Rosen: I’d like to begin with family background, about your grandfather and your father’s work, and how your exposure to their work may have influenced you, not necessarily as an artist but as a young man.

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Boogie: My dad was an icon painter and amateur photographer and my grandfather was too. My grandfather always had the best cameras—Leicas, Contax. He got arrested after the second World War for taking photos of some military facility and then the Communists put him in jail. He thought they were going to kill him so he wrote his last will and testament from prison. My aunt still has it.

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I had some photos of when the Americans bombed Belgrade in 1945, when the Germans were withdrawing. Then the Communists came and it was worse than the Nazi occupation. Yugoslavia was a totally artificial state. You can’t put together people who don’t want to be together in the same state. The second World War pretty much never ended over there; we’re just waiting for the opportunity to kill each other again. We, Serbs, feel like a great deal of injustice has been done to us. We lost more than 50% of our male population in the first World War, then we lost 2.5 million in the second World War (and we were on the side of the Allies), then the Americans bombed us in the 90s.

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Photograph © Boogie

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Living under Milosevic was like living in a mental institution. It was apocalyptic, especially during the biggest crisis in 1993. Pensions and salaries were like three to five United States dollars. People, especially the old and retired, were literally dying of hunger, or committing suicide rather than starve to death. The streets were empty. There was a shortage of gasoline, so there were very few cars on the street. And then, in the middle of the night, you would see a police truck cruising slowly. There were protests against Milosevic every day. In the beginning they were peaceful, so I didn’t go. I don’t believe in peaceful, passive resistance. It’s either grab the gun and go to the woods or sit at home. But then they turned violent. The police were very brutal, beating protesters mercilessly. And that’s when I started to go out and shoot [photographs]. Milosevic wasn’t sure cops from Belgrade would be tough enough—they might not want to beat on their neighbors. So cops were brought from other parts of Serbia, huge cops with mustaches, in riot gear. Shit, I ran from them a few times. Scary.

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Photograph © Boogie

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Miss Rosen: Tell me about your work as a young photographer picking up the camera, training yourself—and then going after Nazis as a subject!

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Boogie: I did a lot of photography back in Serbia. I used to freelance for magazines and newspapers, and I always shoot when I go there to visit. I did a series on Nazi skinheads recently. Belgrade is very cinematic, in a depressing way. A friend of mine is a supporter of a football club; one group of supporters is Nazi skinheads and he knew them so he introduced me to them. The whole movement is on the rise in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe; it came with economic crisis. It’s pretty normal when things go down, you blame someone else.

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It was like a dream come true, when you shoot stuff no one else can. For awhile that was the point of me being a photographer. It’s not anymore, but when you first start out and you carry a big camera around it’s cool, chicks like me now. You go through phases, and you want people to know you’re a photographer. Then you go over it and the only thing that matters is the final result, the photo, your equipment looks like shit and you’re totally low-key.

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In the beginning I would find inspiration in shooting rough stuff in things no one could get access to, but now I don’t really care about that. I don’t think that’s what makes a good shot.

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Miss Rosen: Moving in that vein I’d like to discuss the war, how it affected the people you knew, and the world you lived in?

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Boogie: I am what Belgrade used to be 20 years ago, in spirit. Belgrade had a really unique cosmopolitan spirit 20 years ago and it all got fucked up during the war. Young people left the country, we got a million refugees and that sprit of 86-89 is gone. A new one will somehow evolve and come to existence, but right now it’s just a mix of what’s left from the original spirit and what refugees brought with them.

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We had really great creative energy, bands that didn’t copy anything from anyone. We had something original, it was ours. The underground clubs in Belgrade were the second best in Europe in NME. I was 17, 18, 19.

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I went into the army when I was 19. You have to go. Of course, it was a waste of time being in the stupid army. The best part is actually shooting and you don’t do that often; and even if you do you have to clean your gun after so it sucks. I was in Air Defense; you don’t fly, you try to shoot them down. It’s antiaircraft guns. I got out in 1990.

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The conflict started in 1991 and it went through 1998.

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I started taking photos of the protests in 1993. It was weird—miserable poverty, no money, no gas, nothing. I wasn’t a photographer then. I was a kid with a camera and my photos from then pretty much suck. I think I got my first good shot in 1996. The first good shots I got were during 1996.

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Photograph © Boogie

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Miss Rosen: How did you come to live in the U.S.?

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Boogie: I was just drinking one night with friends at my place and we all applied for the green card lottery and I was the one who won. I never intended to come, and then I won, and of course I had to go because I won. 1998.

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I thought I spoke English. It was a huge shock. It was like your general opinion about the US is that money is all around, money is all around, land created by immigrants, they’ll love us—can’t be further from the truth. You start from below zero. I started working for some Serbian guy duplicating and delivering videotapes for $300 a week. I was living in a studio in Queens—it was nice, it wasn’t a hellhole, but everything else was grim. My life sucked.

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The first time I went back was after two and a half years. That was like, it was very hard to come back to the US after spending a few weeks home. At that time Belgrade was home. It took me five years to decide if I am here or if I am still there, but you can’t do anything until you really decide this is your home or back there is your home. Somehow, you put things into place and then you can move on.

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I wanted to be a photographer. I thought I was very good but I wasn’t.

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I got a job in a hospital, Beth Israel, fixing medical equipment walking around with a white coat and screwdriver and pliers. $17.50 per hour, overtime 50% more. I always had my camera with me. I would leave home early, shoot before work, shoot after work, rush home and develop. I had a darkroom in my bathroom. The whole hospital thing started driving me crazy and I decided I would learn web design and become a web designer. So I gave myself two months and I learned web design, Flash, and became a web designer; and that was okay because I was making twice as much money.

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Miss Rosen: I remember, after we published It’s All Good, I found a submission you sent to someone years ago at powerHouse. It never got passed along to me—which, in the end, seems to have worked out any way, but it must have been tough to have tried to get down in New York.

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Boogie: It’s just impossible to get into the photo world. You send your shit around and no one wants you and there is no feedback. You don’t know if you are talented, you doubt yourself. I got depressed and I stopped taking photographs in the year 2000 for two years. Not a single shot, not even September 11.

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I was doing some web design and I was bored one afternoon and made a website with 20 of my photos. I was searching for some lists of expired domain names and searching by “art,” and I found artcoup.com, and I bought it. It’s very random. I made this little website with just 20 photos and I sent the link around and I got like 20,000 visitors in a few weeks and feedback was amazing and I was like, oh, maybe I should start taking pictures again. So I did.

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I started shooting again and sending my stuff around and of course same story. No one wants you no one cares, so I was like, I won’t send anything to anyone anymore and it was like that for a few years. I wasn’t really pushing. I met Tim Barber through Vice.

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Miss Rosen: Yea! It was thanks to Tim that you came directly to me—I had seen your work and was interested, but with everything going on in this office I never seem to have the time to track photographers down. One of the things I remember our discussing in the beginning was your intention with this project—why were you doing it? You weren’t entirely sure, so I asked the obvious question: Are you a moralist?

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Photograph © Boogie

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Boogie: Am I a moralist? Hmm, I don’t know. The whole story about photographers doing what they do because they want to change the world, expose harsh reality of wars, starvation, violence—is aaaaaagh, crap. They (me too, I guess) do what they do because it gives them thrills. They become addicted to the adrenalin rush, to the world not everyone is allowed to see. You go to the crackhouse, and there is a chance that something bad will happen to you—then everything turns out to be OK. You get out of there, take a deep breath, and trust me, it’s your best breath of air, ever. I don’t judge people I am photographing. They made some wrong choices in life, and they were too weak to keep fighting, they just gave up. So I guess we’re not gonna change the world, but rather show it as is, fucked up to the bone.

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As for the gangsters and drug addicts—I guess I’m always after extremes; and, of course, the whole experience of dealing with people like that is like being in the movie. It all started one day when I went to Bed-Stuy. I was walking around when I saw a homeless group in an abandoned parking lot. I approached them (they either thought I was a cop or that I’m crazy or something) and asked to take pictures. They were all like, No, no, no. But one girl allowed me to take pictures of her. I bought her a beer, we started talking, I went there again the next day, and so on and so on. We became friends. Then one day she asked me if I wanted to take pictures of her and her friend smoking crack.

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I think photography is in a way similar to acting. You need to get into your character’s head, you have to become him in order to fully understand him. I’m a white guy, but white guy with an accent. I don’t sound like anyone gang guys hate, and I don’t really look like WASPy American guy. Also, I feel OK when guns are around (I don’t want them pointed at me, but what the fuck). Hey, I’m Serb after all!

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Photograph © Boogie

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