The BTS Interview with John Sevigny
BTS: Has photography always been your “grownup job”?
JS: May the gods save me from grownup jobs. But no. I've washed dishes, worked in construction, done factory work, taught, worked as a writer, and many other things. When I was 18 I was working with a brick mason in Florida. This is interesting because a lot of the things we built are still there and I feel proud when I see them. It's the same thing with photography except I feel a thousand times more pride. Also, in 2006, I was teaching English in Guadalajara, Mexico probably 50 hours a week. But at night I was out taking the pictures that became a project called Ladies' Bar. My day job made that project possible. In the past 10 years or so, however, I've been lucky to survive taking pictures and talking about pictures.
BTS: What I am trying to ask, without prying too much into your private affairs is this: you have traveled a great deal to truly interesting places, and as you say, not really as a tourist documenting a “freak show carnival of the locals” in that horrid colonial tradition the “enlightened and educated white man.” You have become more of a neighbor, if still somewhat an outsider.
A case in point, you were invited into a pretty rough prison in El Salvador.
First, how do you get invited into a prison? I am thinking of an American prison. Under no circumstances can I image you being allowed to wander amongst the inmates.
JS: The prison thing was totally unplanned. In probably 2012 I was sort of washed up on the rocks, depressed and had no clear idea what I wanted to do next. I had published a book of photographs, traveled all over the place promoting it, and was burned out. A university in San Salvador invited me to give a workshop - four Saturdays over the course of a month. It was a wonderful offer because I was teaching, getting paid and still had five or six days a week to wander around the city taking pictures. I was totally uninterested in making pictures of gang people with tattoos on their faces because it had been done before. I actually started photographing the interiors of local dive bars, the cheesy decorations and jukeboxes and crumbling walls. I ended up spending most of my time at a bar-brothel-drug house that had fantastic decorations inside. What I didn't know was that the place was owned by Barrio 18, a very powerful gang. I took pictures there on several subsequent visits and at some point a guy came up to me and told me that I needed to go to a prison to take pictures the following Monday at like 7 am. I told him no, not interested, and I'm not a morning person. He made it clear that it wasn't an invitation but rather an order passed down from the highest levels of Barrio 18. So I went. What they wanted was for me to photograph the miserable, dungeon-like conditions in which they lived. And without meaning to, I had earned their trust by taking photographs at their bar.
And you're right. "Wandering" was not a part of it. But at that prison, which has since closed, the inmates were in charge. For the first part of the visit, I was trailed by this guard who couldn't have been more than five feet tall. And then he disappeared. But understand. I was in single, huge cell where 3,000 inmates lived. Moving around was not an option. There was hardly enough space to breathe.
After that I was "invited" to the prison for women three times and the level of supervision varied. The first time was like a guided tour. On the second I was almost totally free to do what I wanted. On the third, I was actually prohibited from even speaking to inmates I was photographing - something that goes against my entire philosophy. It was, to say the least, interesting.
The outsider thing haunts me. There's the blessing of having traveled and met wonderful, terrible, inspiring, frightening people. And then there's the flip side which is not having a place that is home. Someone once said of me, and it wasn't a compliment or even true but is relevant - "That man has no roots. And a man with no roots is dangerous." Right now, for complicated reasons, I'm an outsider in Buffalo, New York. In August I expect to be in Guatemala for the semi-long term. I have wonderful friends there but I will always be seen as the outsider. Nothing can change that.
BTS: I notice you do workshops and classes on photography, as well as show your work all over the world. I also read somewhere that your father put a camera in your hand at 4 years of age, and you wonder if you choose to be a photographic artist or if the art choose you.
I have a 12 year old who has been playing violin since he was 5, I took violin for a couple of years as a teenager. He is an extremely talented, if somewhat disinterested violinist. I never got good enough to play in a public performance. This makes me wonder a couple of questions.
Did you go through a phase of talented disinterest?
JS: It's fascinating that children stick with certain things and not others. It's impossible to figure out why one thing holds their interest and another doesn't. I confess to being terribly liberal about this. If you have a house full of books, musical instruments, cameras, and things to make art - as we did - your kids are going to gravitate to one thing or another. My father - or someone - did put cameras in my hands before I was even five. I know this because of photographs of me, a stark naked toddler dragging some antique camera behind me by the leash. I remember carrying an SLR to elementary school. But I'm no Jacques Henri Lartigue, who was a savant. Like most people, I took photos when I was small, took a few years to grow up, took a few more photographs, spent a few more years skipping school and being a delinquent, and then went back to photography. In 1996 I went to work as a reporter in Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexican border, and I was seeing a lot of things I wanted to remember. My father sent me a camera and a complete darkroom set up from Miami and I haven't stopped since then. I might add that having played around with a violin, taking pictures is far easier and offers more immediate gratification. I've never been disinterested in anything except school. I always hated it. I am a highly disciplined person but it's my instinct to reject discipline by others. I am a classic, anti-authoritarian.
BTS: Did you major in the art of photography in college?
JS: I did not. Formally, I've studied art history, literature, English language education, and art education.
BTS: You have been doing this for decades, and I would not be alone in saying you have become a master at what you do, in spite of your insistence that it is hard to sell what it is hard to classify, I can certainly see having one or a dozen Sevigny photos on my wall, if I had the budget. The photos I have seen are extremely powerful, the passion and empathy come right out the front of the picture. Are you able to survive through the sale of your work?
JS: Money comes and goes. There are times when I sell a lot of prints and times when nothing moves at all. At the moment there's a roof over my head and food in the kitchen so I don't worry too much. I can go out for a drink if I want but rarely do. On the other hand I only have one camera at the moment - no backup - and that makes me nervous so I need money to keep going. I do make more money teaching in different places and giving talks about my own work and other subjects - from how artists have dealt with violence to experiences I've had making pictures. Regarding what art costs, I've tried to set things up in a way that anyone can afford one of my pieces. I understand what you're saying. Even at $100 a print, a dozen would turn in to quite a chunk of change for most people. But if anyone ever wrote saying they'd love to have one of my prints but didn't have the cash, I'd find a way to make it happen. My work belongs partly to me but partly to the people who value it. What I've done recently is put everything in one place online. Blog, shop, portfolio, etc. I have worked tenuously with galleries but they take 50 and 75 percent commissions which forces me to put absurd price tags on my work. So I've severed all those relationships and now everything is centralized, and hopefully, affordable to more people. This is very important to me.
The question of what people will put on their walls is fascinating. There are people who buy my darkest, hardest-hitting photographs and people who say "Well that's wonderful but I'd never put it on my wall." I am extremely lucky to have found an incredibly diverse group of people - such as yourself - who see the world more or less the way I do. I can't possibly express how thankful I am that anyone cares about these pictures at all. What's also interesting is that there is no one "type" of person who values my pictures. I think it's obvious that I lean pretty hard toward the left politically but there are hardcore Trump supporters who own my work. I've had New York college students buy my prints as well as struggling Mexican farmers. Again, those connections mean more to me than I could ever express. Interestingly, other photographers rarely care about what I do.
BTS: More to the point are you self taught?
JS: I can't say I am. My father was a painter, sculptor and photographer who taught me many things. My whole family is motivated by art, music and probably to an even greater extent, the politics of the human condition. And I learned things from many people I met when I was young, from editors and boxers to teachers and gamblers. What I do has been shaped by all of that.
BTS: I see a few photos that do not include people and faces. Again, at least to my eyes, the passion comes through, but it seems as if people are your real subjects, even when you photograph an "empty place." Do you find you are more motivated to capture the human, if not form, maybe the human soul?
JS: You're right. I am a portrait photographer first and foremost. Blame Diego Velazquez for that. When I discovered his work in a book when I was a kid I knew what I wanted to do. I spent the next decade or so trying to figure out how to do it. I'm no Velazquez but I can feel his work - along with my father's and those of other artists - flowing hot through my veins. A lot of what I do is Expressionistic, bombastic and hard hitting. Portraits work for that because they tend stare at you even harder than we stare at them. It's a kind of black magic or alchemy. Because it's ink on paper but it ripples with strange energy. Some of my favorite pictures, though, are very quiet and have no people in them. They are empty and haunted and that's a different kind of energy.
BTS: Can you give us a bit of how that 4 year old came to give us portraiture art of real people, living real, if often very hard lives?
JS: This is going to sound evasive but I don't know if I have any insight into how that happened. There was no plan so there's no blueprint to look at now. I grew up around pretty rough people, most of whom had lived hard lives. For some reason, probably personal curiosity more than anything, I decided to photograph the same sort of people. Later, I accepted the role of what I jokingly call "paparazzi to the iconic unknown." And then other people started paying attention to it, placing value in it, and now it's what I do. In the past 10 years I've actually quit twice, deciding that it wasn't worth the hard work that it requires. But the fates have their own plans and the non-photographic things I've pursued have not worked out. So here I am.