Update: This photo essay was first published on July 9, 2021 and was republished on August 22, 2022. Azita Agnew won Best photo-essay/story for this piece at the 2022 Voyager Media Awards. 

Young and The Reckless is a documentary about teens who lived on Auckland’s streets. Photographer Azita Agnew and filmmaker Johnny Agnew spent eight years following these teenagers and chronicling their lives. You can watch the documentary here on TVNZ OnDemand. In this photo essay, Azita documented what life was like for these young people.

Over years, we built up special relationships with those involved - eventually becoming friends. Here are some candid moments from that journey which began in 2014. 

Street Mum ‘Dana’ with her street kids in downtown Auckland, 2014.

“The street people have got it right in not being attached to the system and the western way of living and how they should spend their time. 

“The only reason they get looked down upon is because the majority of people in society choose to be sheeple. 

“They work most of their lives, they’re fucking working 40 or 80 hours a week, then they go home to their little box where they live, isolated within their own nuclear family or even by themselves sometimes. But the streeties have a lot of people contact, they all sleep together in a bloody old shack or in a fucking concrete building, you know, they’re all sitting around on the same level, smoking cones and enjoying life.”

- Anonymous street brother

“I started up on K’road, then Queen Street. 

“I just had this sense of like, belonging, where it was okay. Like, I had my problems and the person next to me had their problems and this other dude here might have just gotten out of jail yesterday, but we all sat comfortably and you know, just talk whatever, maybe had some beers, maybe smoked some synthetics. 

“And I could just sleep comfortably on Queen Street, you know, in feeling safe, like safer than it was a house even, just because there was a whole community that was looking after me.” 

- Patrick

Wiremu in 2014

“Queen Street is famous for everything, you know - people like to get drunk out on Queen Street,  people like to get silly on Queen Street. 

“So you might as well just go there, sit out on Queen Street and get puffed out of your brains. I mean, there was a lot of us out there back then [2014] sniffing glue. But there was one good thing about us, okay? It was that we always covered our bags when it comes to overseas people visiting our country. Like, they don’t see a problem because I’m hiding my bag under my blanket.” 

- Wiremu

Richard on Queen Street in 2014

“I could go and get $20, buy a bag of synthetics and smoke that in an hour and need another one for the rest of the night. 

“People that smoke synthetics, I know what their buzz is, they just want to go to sleep and wake up in the morning and it’s another day... they just want to forget everything, that's what synthetics does, it makes you forget everything. 

“You might have something stressful that day, you get a bag of synthetics and smoke it, and you'll forget everything that you're stressed about. But the thing that you're stressing about, is getting that synthetic. So it was just the same shit every day.” 

- Richard

Jaks and Phil in 2014

“When I first hit the streets, but like when I was enjoying it - when I actually liked it - we were cracking it. 

“We were making money, we were fucking just doing what we wanted. We would just sit there, be like: ‘Oi what do we want to do?’  We’d be like: ‘Yo, let’s go do it!’  

“But now it's just I'm lazy... and I just want to get stoned because I’m fucking addicted to this shit [synthetics] like crazy.” 

- Jaks

Millie’s “is this a dream?” tattoo in 2017

“A lot of bad things sort of went down, when I went on the streets. But I was very clouded with my addictions. 

“So I didn't really see all the bad things that were happening, I just focused on the good part of the high. Like, I saw a lot of dark things happen and almost died quite a lot, but at the time, it didn't seem it was that big of a deal. Because I was using, like meth, which makes you very confident, and very enthusiastic.”

- Millie

Patrick in 2014

“Sometimes I see friends from school and stuff, and most of them don't get it at all. 

“Like I've had some, some people that I was actually quite close to in school, and they kind of just don't even look at me, and that was kind of a shocker.  

“And then at the same time, there are people who come in, and don't even really bring up the situation -  like not in a way that they're ignoring it - but they kind of just talk to me as if it was back in the day. And that's what I appreciate.

- Patrick

Phil and Richard in 2014

“I don't ever plan. As much as I would love to have a plan, I don't get to plan at all. I don't know...maybe because my plan’s never going to work. 

“They always seem to be a bad plan. Something I would plan always seems to end up sour. So that's why I've given up on planning. My plans don't get to work. So it's better off me not planning things. And just see where I get to.” 

- Phil

Patrick organising his wardrobe in 2014

“One of the hardest things is being with your actual family, and trying to express to them that you’re alright. 

“Because they kind of, they see that I'm not in some kind of too bad of a position. But they also don't understand what I'm doing. 

“And I think they think I'm in a worse position than I am. And when I say that I'm fine, they think that I'm just lying or in denial or whatever, and they kind of want to help me but it's kind of like I wish they didn't, cuz I don't feel like I need any help.”

- Patrick

Phil in 2014

“My dream lifestyle is to have a nice house. Have my dog with two kids. Married. That's where I see my life. 

“You know, married living the dream, living the life not bunched up behind four walls in a cell, and just hear all these walls talking to you. I don't want that.”

- Phil

Richard at his relatives’ home in 2021

“I was in the youth unit for six months. And when you're in the youth unit,  all these youth people are like: ‘We're gangsters....we rob banks, we rob shops...We kill people, we do all this, we do all that.’  

“But to me, you know, youth prison was like... youth prison. We ain’t gangsters, we're just young people doing stupid shit. And then when I actually transferred over to mainstream, all the youth people said: ‘Where are you going? It’s better in the youth side...we talk about crime, we talk about criminal stuff.’  

“And I was like, I don't want to do that, I want to, you know, go into mainstream and talk about how to get out of here.” 

- Richard

‘Patches’ and Richard in 2021

“I wasn’t allowed to go and visit friends or go to the mall on my own, I always had to be side by side with my auntie or my Nan. I didn’t mind that at first, but when I saw people, like kids my age, walking around the mall without a parent around them, they looked so happy. 

“So I went and experimented it.”

- Richard

Phil and Karena at home in Ōtāhuhu in 2021

“I love Phillip because he knows our culture and our culture is dying. 

“And there's not a lot of us in our generation that know our language. You know, what to do when you go into a marae, and all those things.

“I barely know... I have to go and ask somebody so instead of me having to go and ask somebody, I can know now.”

- Karena

Phil at home in 2021

“Alcohol triggers Phil’s demons. And if I could talk Māori, he would be able to talk to me about how he's feeling and I would be able to understand. 

“But because he's so fluent in his Māori, and he doesn't know how to speak English well, when he's trying to explain things to me, it gets muddled up, because he doesn't know how to say it. And even when you're talking to him, you can talk to him proper and he will hear, but it will twist in his ears and he will hear it differently to what you've said.”

- Karena

David ‘Buttabean’ Letele in 2021

“Well these days, everyone is so busy. The saying ‘that it takes a village to raise a baby’, that's gone. 

“People are on the grind, just busy living and trying to survive, so that sense of community is gone. What we do, is we brought that back - when you come to BBM, you're welcomed with open arms, there's no judgements. 

“People from all walks of life, all shapes and sizes are welcome here. It's just a happy place, and that hour they're here, might be the only hour they're around positive people.

“Exercise is our vehicle, but it's much more than that - it's like a marae, our village. It's something you belong to.” 

- David ‘Buttabean’ Letele - founder of Buttabean Motivation

Wiremu and his training partner from BBM in 2021

“Yeah, I found it hard bro - I found that hard to give up the drugs. I found it hard to give up the drinking and also found that hard to give up the old gluebag.

Next day bro,  they were all gone bro - now I'm going to Buttabean, getting my life back on track again, moving on.  I’ll be getting a job and also get out there and help other people if they need help.”

- Wiremu

You can watch Young And The Reckless here.

 All photos by Azita Agnew.