Talking with photographer Ivar Wigan about his extensive portraiture inside strip clubs, and of hip hop and street culture in the American South. By Karley Sciortino
Most photographers are not invited to take out their cameras at strip clubs, or to document casual hangs with the Bloods. But Ivar Wigan—perhaps due to his soft-spoken, Scottish charm—always seems to be invited to the party.
Wigan’s photography series, The Gods, is a celebration of the culture and community around hip-hop in the American South. Shooting primarily in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Miami, Wigan’s images are provocative and cinematic, showcasing street culture from a perspective that’s intimate and admiring.
All photos by Ivar Wigan
Wigan was born in Scotland and raised in London. His voracious approach to documentation reminds me of a famous quote by Susan Sontag, from her book On Photography: “The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.'”
The Gods shares common themes with Wigan’s previous work, which includes explorations of tribal Africa, the Jamaican dancehall scene, and images from his extensive travels around the American South. I talked to Wigan about strip club culture, race, and Nan Goldin.
Karley: Why is so much of The Gods shot inside strip clubs?
Ivar Wigan: The subjects of the series all pivot around the world of gangster rap, and strip clubs are the main meeting place within that culture—they’re like the church, basically. A lot of the action unfolds in strip clubs. That’s where everyone goes to hang out, where the rappers play their new records, where all the hottest DJs in hip-hop have residencies. And for some of the women in those communities, their greatest aspiration is to be able to dance in one of those clubs. For example, in Atlanta, if you’re a Magic City dancer, people look up to you, they show you respect, because those girls are making more money than everyone else in their environment. They’re often only twenty-one or twenty-two, but some are making $5,000 a night easily. They have flash cars, all that. So a lot of the young girls are literally waiting to hit nineteen, so they can get a dancer’s license. And the guys want to date the star dancers, and to be seen with them.
That’s refreshing to hear, given that even within the most sex-positive communities in cities like New York, there’s still a lingering stigma about women taking their clothes off to make money—even if the women say that they enjoy their work.
Yeah, being a dancer is not regarded as even remotely negative in Atlanta, which of course is a very different attitude to other places in the world. I grew up in England, where a strip club is considered a really dirty place—somewhere old men go alone to get some kind of sterilized erotic experience. But in Atlanta, it’s not remotely like this: Everyone goes to strip clubs—couples go, I met a pastor in there, you see groups of girls, people go to watch basketball or football games, they go for dinner—all the clubs serve food. But by the end of the night, it’s heated and everyone starts dancing, and it turns into a bit of a club. So it’s not just a place where men sit around a stage in a long coat looking sinister. It’s really an upbeat, mixed environment where people go to interact. The dancers are beautiful young women who have positive aspirations. It’s something that’s quite unique to the South. Atlanta is at the center of it, but you have clubs like that in New Orleans, Jacksonville, Memphis, and a bit of it in Miami. There’s more than sixty-five strip clubs in the metropolitan area of Atlanta.
The subjects of your work are represented as heroic—almost divine. Is this intentional?
That’s very much the case. I’m trying to raise street-corner characters to iconographic status. Another person could shoot all this same subject matter very differently—in negative or condescending light, or in a way that was highly politicized. But I’m trying to lift people up. My purpose is to make beautiful pictures that the subjects of the photos love.
Is this where the name The Gods comes from?
Actually, “Gods” is a slang term for veterans of the street—guys who have survived the prison system, veteran hustlers. So the younger boys will often call the older guys the Gods.
What drew you to this particular American community, rather than, say, shooting communities in your native Scotland?
I think a lot of artists place themselves into lifestyles or situations that are unconventional or exotic to them, in order to clean away the conventions they are born into, and to see the world or their subject in a fresh light.
It’s not often that people are allowed to take out their cameras inside strip clubs, or while shadowing gangs. How did you get such intimate access?
I had to live in Atlanta for a long time. When I arrived, I didn’t know anybody. I went there because I knew about the club scene, and when I landed, I just said to my cab driver, “Take me to a cheapest motel,” and from then on, I learned the city, made friends, and embedded myself. I was there for more than a year, but I didn’t take any photos for the first nine weeks—I didn’t even take my camera out of the bag, I was just driving through the city and trying to understand it physically, the communities and the neighborhoods, and getting out and talking to people.
When I eventually found the clubs that I wanted to work in, I would go there every single night until I knew all the dancers and the security and the management. It’s all about relationships. So I was part of the scene at the time. I’d always have my iPad and would show them my photos—the work breaks down the barrier, and they can see what I’m about.
Would you say your work is portraiture? Documentary? Both?
You know, I never really thought of it in those terms. There’s definitely some portraiture in there. But then, when I met the Bloods… well, it’s not like you get many chances to hang out with the Bloods, so you can’t try to control that situation—you just shoot what you can. So from that point of view, it’s a documentary project. But I’m not trying to document everything, warts and all. It’s more like, “Here’s my view of this world. Here’s a slice of life that I’ve chosen to represent.”
I was very much looking for moments of light in the storm. Because it’s a dramatic world. Really, it’s more akin to wedding photography—I’m trying to enter this world and be very much part of the party, to live within it, get to know everyone there, and to give back something that the subjects love and want to keep. I give the people I shoot prints whenever I can. There’s a couple of shots in the series—the bigger group shots—where I didn’t get to give a photo to every single person, but for the most part, everyone loved and was given their photographs.
Do you feel like white audiences are more receptive to a white photographer representing black culture?
I would say no. In Britain, we don’t categorize artists by their ethnicity, so I find this question a bit odd as it’s intrinsically divisive. The subject of race is a tricky one for me because Britain is very different in this regard, and much more integrated. There’s been many events and parties where I’ve shot side-by-side with NYC-based photographer Wayne Lawrence, who was born in the Caribbean. We are friends and frequently share feedback on each other’s work. He is probably the highest-profile photographer of African descent working in America. Wayne is a far more successful photographer with countless accolades and awards, so I’m very much still in the shadow of many artists who have come before me. On his Instagram, he just describes himself as “a human.” That’s how I see myself, too. I don’t think the question of the reception of our pictures by the public is in any way related to our complexion.
What does it mean to be a white person creating imagery of a group of people who don’t usually get control of the way they are represented?
With social media playing an increasing role, I think everyone has a stronger degree of control over their images.
How do you navigate the lines between admiration and fetishization? Documentation and exploitation? How much of a concern is this for you and your work?
Fetishization implies some sort of erotic content that I don’t really see in this series at all. I don’t feel photography to be an exploitative process if the intention is to produce a positive result of lasting beauty. What better gift can you give a person than to portray and display their image, caught looking their finest, in the prime of life?
People often compare your work to Nan Goldin, although her work feels much darker than yours.
I like Nan’s work very much. I met her in Paris the year I started doing this, and I bought a print from her at the time, which I live with, above my bed. She’s always been an inspiration to me, but she shoots from a very dark place—she has concentrated on a lot of very dark and turbulent subject matter, and while my pictures might have an edge, I don’t see darkness in them. I see them as positive, more of a celebration. So that’s really the difference. For example, one of Nan’s most famous images is of the hand of a final-stages AIDS victim, holding the hand of his boyfriend. It’s a very powerful image, and I respect it very much, but I would never take that photo, because that’s just not my purpose as an artist. My purpose is to find things to celebrate.
This was originally written for Vice.com.