photographing strip club culture in the south
British photographer Ivar Wigan captures the high life of the hustlers and strippers in Miami, Atlanta and New Orleans.
Taking us on a candid journey across the most effervescent parts of the Dirty South, British photographer Ivar Wigan's latest exhibition, The Gods, is a darkly glamorous peek into a world that's seen by outsiders as a place of crime, poverty and broken dreams. In reality, Miami, Atlanta and New Orleans are thriving with subcultures that are evolving their own styles, music and customs--where strip clubs have no stigma attached and "dancers" are respected.
Tell us a bit about the places you documented in The Gods.
The first image in the series was taken in Miami. When I heard about the strip club culture of Atlanta, that became my next focus. I lived in Atlanta for several months to immerse myself in the culture. For me, the most important city in the South is New Orleans. It's from there that much of the slang, the style and the music spring.
Why did you title the series The Gods?
Most of the people featured in the series do not have jobs in the conventional sense. They hustle to get by, in the street in the day or in the club at night. Some of the stories I heard whilst making friends "on the corner" reminded me of ancient mythology. Money is made fast and once that is out of the way, life is dedicated to looking good, love affairs and the occasional ruckus. The first parallel lifestyle that occurred to me was those gods of ancient Rome. The term 'Gods' is also a slang term used to describe veteran hustlers who've survived the street life.
What's your favorite image and what is the story behind it?
The key image to the series is The Gods. I took the picture in an Atlanta club named Queen City, but I revisited last month to find it has closed down. The large girl in the front is a dancer called Juicy. On slow nights, normally Tuesday or Wednesday, the strip clubs of Atlanta have 'amateur' contests where anyone can take the stage and compete for prize money. Popular amateurs can graduate to become dancers at the clubs. I saw Juicy dance a few times and decided I had to include her in my series. We chatted and soon became friends. Although the image in the club is so somber, she is actually full of jokes and giggles. A real cool chick.
What draws you to document the realities of urban poverty?
It never really occurred to me that this was an area of poverty. The girls who dance in the clubs mostly start young and do it by choice. They make extraordinary money on good nights and are respected in their communities, so there is really no stigma attached. In a city like Atlanta, the clubs are so accepted, it's considered cool to be a dancer. The guys who choose to go into ganglife generally don't do so well. When I was in Atlanta last month, I revisited all the spots where I had made friends, and taken pictures, a lot of the guys have vanished, maybe to prison. None of them were in poverty when I knew them, though--all of them knew how to get money. That is not to say that cities like New Orleans and Atlanta aren't home to terrible poverty, but I wouldn't say that the stars of this exhibition are victims of it.
How immersed into these worlds do you get?
I only shoot when I'm welcomed to, so you really have to get to know everybody first. When I arrived in Atlanta the camera stayed in my suitcase for the first eight weeks. Photography is prohibited in strip clubs, so I had to get to know all the managers and security first. The dancers knew I was a photographer and they are all proud of their performance - so once I was cool with the security they were delighted to be photographed. Last week I was in Miami to shoot a couple of parties and ran into the boys in the picture named "Python". They love the picture and are excited to be part of the show. We drank tequila on a wall and partied all night in the street. I made a lot of good friends shooting this series.
How are these communities viewed by the outside world?
There are a lot of misconceptions about poverty and violence. I was saying earlier, girls dancing in a club aren't necessarily poor, men with tattoos and muscles aren't necessarily aggressive. For me, travels in America have been a positive experience. These neighborhoods on the fringes can be dangerous places to grow up in, but as a visitor, I was never threatened. There is of course conflict. People talk a lot about gang war and such, but from my experience, most of the shooting is either at or from the police. I had to hit the deck when the guns started popping on a couple of occasions but no one was shooting at me.
Do you ever worry about crossing the line between documenting and exploiting?
No. If you look at the compositions of the images this is a very full frontal series. Mostly I shoot very intimately - you can see how close I am to my subjects. However spontaneous the pictures feel, all the subjects were conscious of being photographed. All of them are responding in some way to me and to the camera. Most people featured in the series looked at the shots and received them either by email or as 6x4 prints. With the big group images like Pool Party and Venice, I didn't get to share the final image with everyone but they were all conscious that I was there taking pictures. To take these kind of pictures, you have to be completely accepted. When I'm shooting there is mutual respect.
How do you feel about comparisons between your work and Nan Goldin's?
It was after seeing her work at Frieze that I knew I would spend my life making pictures. Compositionally, coloristically and thematically I don't see any connection, but the impetus to photograph did come from looking at Nan's work. There is something very dark in Nan, which I probably don't have. While we both point in the direction of lesser documented lifestyles, I look more for positive or at least poignant moments. For Nan's subjects, one can't help feeling there might be no way out. I only photograph where I see strength and beauty whereas she is quite comfortable with wounds and despair. She generally uses a natural desaturated palette and available light where possible. I prefer to make my pictures pop with color and contrast. I want it to feel slightly dreamlike, slightly like a heightened reality.
What are you working on next?
The Gods was shot in conjunction with a series on the West Indies and a series on tribal Africa, so look forward to seeing those soon.
The Gods runs from June 12 - July 31 at London's PM/AM Gallery
Text Felicity Kinsella
Photography Ivar Wigan