Burton, 44, was inspired to launch his “Skin Deep” photo project after seeing the documentary G-Dog about the work of Father Greg Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries to help former gang members reintegrate into their communities.
“The concept came to me when I watched the homeboys going through the tattoo removal process,” the NYC and Miami-based photographer tells PEOPLE. “The idea was to digitally remove the tattoos, present the before-and-after photos to the subjects, and see how they would react. I knew that the subjects would be shocked by the images, and probably amused, but I didn’t realize the full impact these photos would have on them, nor was I aware of the kind of impact their reactions would have on me.”
Burton spent up to 20 hours Photoshopping tattoos off of each individual. The reactions have ranged from laughter to tears.
“One of the more heavily tattooed people, Marcus, started laughing because he just didn’t know what to say,” Burton recalls. “He was sort of shocked by the image. The laughter was followed by a heavy silence, then his eyes teared up. It was then that I realized how deep this story could be.”
While shooting his 27 subjects, Burton came to know their heartbreaking histories.
“Every story was shocking to me,” he says. “I was less interested in the crimes they had committed and more interested in the process they took in turning around their lives. Gangs are born out of abuse and desperation, and there is so much pain and abuse involved.”
Burton hopes the images help to humanize his subjects in the eyes of society.
“I wanted to comment on the way society is quick to judge these ex-gang members without taking the time to learn anything about them and understand who they are,” he says. “By removing the tattoos, I thought people might be inspired to pay attention and listen to the stories of how the Homeboys are fighting for a better life, and hopefully change their perspective.”
He is now fundraising to create a book with the photographs that will also share the stories of each of the men and women pictured.
“The plan is to let the participants tell their own stories,” he says. “I wanted to understand why they were in the gangs, why the tattoos. I wondered what they saw everyday when they looked in the mirror, how they would change the past if they could, how society judges them, and in the end, how they judge themselves. That’s all part of it.”