“The Gods,” a series of photographs made by the Scottish photographer Ivar Wigan, takes its title from a nickname given in Atlanta to those who survive street life long enough to look back, each now a veteran of a hard-fought life. Wigan spent over eight weeks researching, meeting, befriending, and, ultimately, photographing the people of Atlanta, staying late at its strip clubs, where dancers perform without stigma, and at parties that collapsed into the morning.
As an outsider far removed from the culture’s intricacies, there was a risk of projecting bias or ignorance. Wigan refrained from photographing until he was sure he had permission. “It’s not possible to make this kind of work without developing relationships,” he told me. “To make this kind of work the artist needs to be working from within the scene he is representing.”
Wigan spoke to us over email last month.
Let’s start with a few questions about your thoughts on photography. Are you comfortable with photography?
If I was born a hundred years ago I would have been a painter but with the speed at which contemporary culture changes photo is the perfect medium for now.
How did you get your start in photography? How would you describe your work?
Initially, I wanted to be a movie director and I worked on film sets at Shepperton Studios, but I moved over to assist advertising photographers and learned about photography when I realised that I really had to work alone in order to express myself.
Did you ever feel like giving up? Were you ever unsure of your talents?
From the day I first made a good piece of work I felt this was something worth pursuing so I’ve been plugging on since then.
You didn’t shoot anything for eight weeks. You made connections first.
Yeah, I actually began in Miami in 2010. When I went back to the USA the following year to capture the strip club life, I had to integrate deeper into that world, so it was on this second trip that I put the cameras aside for 8 weeks and just concentrated on making friends and understanding the inner workings of that scene.
If you hadn’t done this, how do you think your photographs would turn out? What would be missing, exactly?
It’s not possible to strip club photos without developing relationships. The series is built out of crowd scenes, portraits, and group portraits. To make this kind of work the artist needs to be working from within the scene he is representing.
What does it say about photography that you were required to begin this series without shooting? What do you think it says about representation and truth-telling?
All photographers have different aims and methods. I am an artist and I consider my work to be collaborative. It’s a collaboration between me and whoever is in front of me. Truth telling is irrelevant to me. A camera is a selective tool and photographic edits are an expression of an artist’s tastes and ideas, so the truth is largely sidelined for self-expression.
This is one of my favorites. Could you explain how it was made from start to finish? What’s the story behind it?
I called this picture ‘The 305’ because the man in the red hat and shorts has 305 tattooed across his chest. 305 is the phone area code for Miami. The arrangement and atmosphere of the figures makes me happy. This is a serene scene.
How about this one? What compelled to you to capture this moment?
This picture was made on a late night in Miami. The fella pulled up to a stoplight with his girlfriend on the back. She was a well known dancer from Miami named Black Cherry. I was hanging on the corner with some people in the street and when the bike pulled up all the dudes stepped into the road to take pictures of her ass. It was funny for a moment but fifteen minutes later the police tried to stop and search a low rider, and the boy inside pulled a gun on them. The police killed the boy and the night turned into a tragedy.
What have you learned about yourself from shooting photography? Any epiphanies?
I’ve learnt to keep moving and developing. Try not to make the same statement twice. Keep an eye out for a door and a keen eye out for the exit too!
All images © Ivar Wigan. See more of Wigan’s strip club photos here.