In 2005, I was living in the Mission district of San Francisco and working in advertising as a creative director. I was struggling with the pressure of endless briefs I didn’t enjoy, and my mental health was starting to deteriorate. When I wasn’t working, I’d go out and take my own photographs. I became fascinated by some of the people living on the streets in my neighbourhood. I’d recently bought a Hasselblad, and started approaching those who intrigued me most, chatting with them and taking their portraits. I found it very therapeutic and ended up spending most weekends on this project for the next three years. I built up strong relationships with some of the people. We’d hang out and I’d take them to lunch.
The first time I saw Bruce, he was running down the street, shirtless. He had a stab wound in his chest and an untidy bandage around his neck. It turned out he’d recently had his throat cut – for the second time – for supposedly selling someone “gaffle”, or fake crack. I later learned it was the same man who had cut his throat both times, and that Cut Throat was one of several nicknames he was known by.
Bruce was one of the more daunting people I approached, but once I told him what I wanted to do he was really open to it. He could be pretty wild but was also charismatic, smart and mercurial. Over those three years, I took many portraits of him and no two are alike. There are some where he appears quite menacing, others where he’s joking around. He liked being photographed with his shirt off and would do press-ups to appear as pumped as possible. I never directed him: I’d just press the shutter as we talked.
In one image, I caught him just as he turned his head and spat through the gap where his two front teeth used to be. Later, I took some photographs as he came out of rehab: he was wearing a tailored shirt and wireframe glasses and giving off a very different vibe. But this one is my favourite, I think. You can see the scar around his neck, the marks and ink on his body, and there’s something going on with one of his retinas. But there’s also a sense of peace in that “shush” gesture, as if he’s calming everything down.
Back then, I don’t think I had heard the phrase “privileged white male gaze”, but I was very conscious of never wanting to create images that were exploitative. I always presented people in a dignified light, often making prints for them. As far as I was concerned, I was photographing my neighbours, and when the images were exhibited locally I invited everyone. Some came but I wasn’t surprised when Bruce didn’t show.
There was never any question of arranging to meet him. I’d just take photographs if our paths crossed. I saw him being arrested a number of times and was warned off by the police. On one occasion, as my girlfriend Britt and I were driving to a restaurant, I spotted him with his crew. He ran towards the car and we slowed down to chat but he started waving a gun about. I said: “We’d better get off. We’re going to miss our reservation. Great to see you, Bruce!” And Britt drove away slowly. He wasn’t being serious but was clearly incredibly high. I didn’t want to take any chances.
When we decided to leave San Francisco, I told as many people as I could, but I don’t remember the last time I saw Bruce. I recently made contact with Christian, another guy I photographed back then, after someone recognised him in an image I’d posted on Instagram. He’d been in a really bad state when I last saw him but got cleaned up and became a drugs rehab counsellor. He listed all the people I’d photographed who had since died, but he wasn’t sure about Bruce.
I once recorded Bruce talking about himself. At one point, he said: “I’m very bright. I’m very stunning. I’m very sexy. I’m spontaneous. I’m spectacular. I’m awesome. I’m immortal.” I certainly hope he’s still with us. I’d never have expected Christian to make it out alive, but knowing he did gives me hope that Bruce did.
Wayne Hanson’s CV
Born: Huddersfield, 1966.
Influences: “I’ve had a very generous mentor for 30 years: Robert Walker, a photographer based in Manchester.”
High point: “Being discovered by Vivienne Westwood on Instagram.”
Low point: “Getting four shortlisted images at the Taylor Wessing awards but none chosen for the gallery wall.”
Top tip: “In light of my work starting to get more recognition as I reach my mid-50s, I feel like I ought to go with an old chestnut: never give up, just keep on keeping on.”
• The Bruce Allen Cut Throat Zine is available from @waynehansonstudio. All proceeds go to St Mungo’s homeless charity.