AFTER a long day at the office, Chaim Lazaros could be forgiven for putting his feet up, flicking on the TV and watching re-runs of The Simpsons.
That's what many 25-year-olds do when confronted with the monotony of the hamster wheel of life, when nothing matters but who you are going to the pub with at the weekend and whether you happen to get lucky. Instead, each night when he gets home from his job at an non-profit organisation in Brooklyn, he goes to his wardrobe and pulls on his superhero costume, then goes about the important business of saving the world, one step at a time.
He is not alone. Lazaros, or 'Life', to give him his superhero moniker, is one of a legion who make up the real-life superhero movement, a worldwide community of loosely affiliated individuals committed to a broadly defined ethos of making the world a better place.
These people may look as though they have jumped out of a comic book or Hollywood blockbuster, but they are all ordinary citizens who haven't got a super power between them. What they share is an all too human ambition to help solve some of society's most challenging problems by donning masks and costumes and venturing into their respective neighbourhoods to feed the hungry, comfort the sick and protect the innocent.
"We are just people who want to make a difference," says Lazaros, who co-founded the New York-based website Superheroes Anonymous, to bring superhero groups together through outreach, education and creative community service. "We are not delusional – we know we're humans with limited abilities. But inside every human is the capacity to do something kind, brave and strong for our fellow humans; some among us simply choose to do so in secret."
But why the need for costumes? Would these good deeds not be equally welcomed if carried out in jeans and T-shirts? Working from the basic premise that the definition of a real-life superhero is someone who creates their unique persona to do good acts for others, Lazaros believes that "just because you are becoming something greater than yourself when you do these acts of good does not mean you have to be wearing a mask while doing them.
Nevertheless, the costumes do provide a universal symbol of good that people can recognise. When my father went out on the streets dressed as a Rabbi, people recognised him and trusted him. Dressing up in a superhero costume means something similar to me."
The Real Life Superhero Project is photographer Peter Tangen's attempt to document the work of the individuals who make up the movement. "They are some of the most amazing people I have ever met," he says from his home in Los Angeles.
"As I researched the project I was struck by the irreverent and almost insulting tone of some of the reporting into these altruistic people who devote their time and effort into helping others. Their approach is very savvy though. In some ways they are marketing good deeds. They are drawing attention to personal power in an entirely unique way."
Despite the hurdles the movement faces, its numbers are growing fast and are currently estimated to be in the region of 250 to 300 around the world. The work they do is varied; for example, The Cleanser will actively go out and clean the streets. Direction Man will go out and offer directions.
Other people have less specific personas and just aim to help. With great costumes, though, comes great responsibility, and while the superheroes are united in their aim to make the world a better place, their community has at times been divided on how that should be done.
Some members advocate a high-profile existence, helping the less fortunate through established non-profit organisations. Others want to fight the bad guys, vigilante-style, hiding in the shadows while supporting the work done by those in law enforcement.
Before moving to New Jersey to be with her boyfriend, 20-year-old Nyx, like Peter Parker in Spider-Man, prefered to keep her true identity secret. Living in Kansas, she would secretly take photographs of drug dens and send them to the authorities.
"It was dangerous work and I used to carry weapons. But I'm in New York now and things are different," she says.
"We need to remain focused about our aims. I ask myself how I can be most productive. I want to help people feel safer and happier, but the best way I can do that is by volunteering. So now I work with my boyfriend at a homeless shelter. Everyone has it in them to make a difference, and I think this is the best way I can help."
In Atlanta, Crimson Fist, a compact 5ft 6in, admits on his first night patrol it was the shock of seeing a man in a red and white cape and mask that scared off the two men he had confronted in an alley for attacking one another.
With a history of substance abuse, he says his superhero work is an attempt to make up for treating people poorly in the past.
"Generally when I go out on patrols I pack up a backpack with different supplies – in the summer I hand out bottled water, in the colder months, I give them clean shirts and socks and things like that."
Citizen Prime, real name Jim, works for an unnamed financial institution by day and is one of the most respected members of the superhero community. Recently retired, he is consulted by many of the other super- heroes for advice. Prime distributed literature on drugs and crime and boasted a $4,000 custom-made outfit with breast armour.
On reflection, he likes to think his humour was his key weapon in diffusing awkward situations as he patrolled the streets of Arizona.
It would be easy to assume the actions of these members, and the many others committed to the movement, stem from a sense of disillusionment with society's limitations, and that the new breed of superheroes are simply looking to find purpose in their lives. This isn't always the case though.
Many of these people come from extremely successful backgrounds. Some are employed by non-profit organisations but others work on Wall Street or in politics.
As Peter Tangen puts it: "These people come from all walks of life. The organisation is very focused but it isn't political. There are committed Democrats, Republicans, the whole spectrum of society is included. These are people with relationships, families, successful lives.
"They are not people who are lacking. They are people who are doing what they can to make a difference to the world they live in."
For Lazaros, the motivation to get into the movement wasn't through some sense of disillusionment, but more a desire to share his good fortune. Raised in the Jewish tradition of leaving the world a better place than the way he found it, he was imbued at an early age with strong values of charity, courtesy and kindness, modelled for him by his Hassidic parents, who always gave to others, even when it was hard to do so.
This moral code, underscored with a powerful sense of social justice, led him to his work with the homeless and disenfranchised.
Now minimally costumed in a mask, tie and jacket, he sets out every day with a backpack brimming with toothbrushes, lotions, soaps, even sweets, delivering the smaller necessities of life that fill in the gaps left by the NYC Department of Homeless Services.
The challenge, as Lazaros sees it, is to find people who are creative and altruistic and encourage them to express those charitable impulses in ways that may range from the subtle to the extreme. It is also what he sees as the ultimate mission of Superheroes Anonymous. "If I can inspire someone to do even the littlest of things to help others, and they in turn can do the same, think of how many thousands can be helped."
This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday on Sunday, 5 September, 2010