"In a way you do have to turn off your higher faculties to engage with a baby—who has intense use for your creativity and resourcefulness and problem-solving skills, but who is not interested in what interests you intellectually." —Julie Phillips (Milk Art Journal)
A New Low
American photographer Scot Sothern (b. 1949) began photographing prostitutes on the streets of LA in the ’80s. In explicit, gritty, sometimes hard to stomach images of people trying to get by, one trick at a time, Sothern confronts our comfortably distant notions of working women. By upturning clichés like ‘the prostitute with a heart of gold’ and sometimes playing on the caricatures of vulgar ugliness we expect, the images leave us all accused. (See the images from A New Low.) He speaks here with Katherine Oktober Matthews about being angry, taking pictures to kick people in the nuts, and beautiful women that go to new lows.
How did you get started with this kind of photography, and which came first – being a patron to the prostitutes or photographing them?
In the ’80s, I was out on my own again, freshly divorced, and being kind of crazy, and I had a tryst with a prostitute and I thought, you know, if I’m going to do this, I should be taking pictures, and that’s how it got started. Then I quit taking the pictures in 1990 and I didn’t actually start doing it again until just a couple years ago. For 20 years, I really wasn’t doing it at all.
As to which came first… I grew up in a small town in Missouri in the Ozarks and, at the young age of 14 and 15, went to two dollar whorehouses. So, I’ve been a patron more or less all my life, though not really a lot in my adult life.
Were you already carrying your camera around with you most of the time at that point?
Yes. I’ve been a photographer all my life and I always had cameras around. My father was a portrait and wedding photographer, and I was groomed to take over his photography studio in Springfield, Missouri, but it just really wasn’t for me. I’m a Baby Boomer — getting out of high school in 1967 – and there was just way too much going on to stay in this town in the Ozarks and take pictures of babies and weddings. I wanted to run wild and take LSD and fuck a lot. But, at that point, the only thing I knew how to do to make a living was take pictures, so I just automatically always had a camera and always took pictures to make a living, though it was sometimes meagre.
The images of the working women, both the ’80s series Lowlife and the modern series A New Low, are incredibly arresting – and perhaps inevitably controversial. Maybe we can get right to the crux of what many people must be thinking when they see these images – what’s wrong with you?!
(laughs) I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me, other than being a left-wing liberal. Once again, I’m a Baby Boomer, I grew up pissed off. I grew up after World War II, when everything was absolutely fucked up. Our parents at the time, who later were coined ‘the greatest generation’… they really weren’t all that great, because if they had been, their kids wouldn’t have been so fucked up. I was angry, and I was doing the things that kids did. Going to prostitutes was not something at that time that was embarrassing, or all that unique or unusual.
For all the years I’ve done this, and met people and talked about it, I have yet to meet a single person who has ever admitted to going to a prostitute. I’ve met a few people who have admitted to being prostitutes, but for some reason, that seems easier to admit than being a patron. There’s this weird stigma about it.
In terms of being controversial… sure, the first time somebody looks at my pictures, there’s a good chance they’re going to get pissed off, and that’s fine with me. I kinda want ’em to.
The prostitutes appear in really dire straits – as you acknowledge, saying that your intention is to show the depravity that people sink to in order to survive from one day to the next. Since photos work also as a portrait of the artist, what do you suppose you have in common with these women?
I always thought of myself, even when I was young, as a scofflaw. I don’t like cops. I think I’ve always been an outsider. It sounds so cliché to say that though – ooh, I’m an outsider, I’m hip and groovy and understand what people are going through! No, I don’t want to say that, I think that sounds kind of stupid. But, when I was young, I had double vision and I was cross-eyed and I had learning disabilities in school, and that sort of stuff made me an outsider.
I hooked into things at a fairly young age that made me feel very much like an outsider, and as a hippie in the late ’60s, I ended up living in a little shack I made out of orange crates behind a car wash in Los Angeles where I washed cars for a dollar fifty an hour. So I spent a lot of time out there and I don’t think I’m any better than they are. I don’t think I’m above anyone who’s on the street. And that’s the thing that pisses me off the most, is that these are the people that nobody else even sees. Everybody just kind of assumes that they’re not human.
This may seem like a silly example, but in WWII, in fighting the Japanese, the Americans called them ‘japs’ and then during Vietnam, they had ‘gooks’. They made these enemies almost cartoonish like they weren’t real people, so that way, you can go out and kill ’em and not feel bad about it. And I think that’s how people look at the prostitutes and the people living on the street – as though they don’t really feel as much as we feel, they don’t think as well as we think, and somehow we’re better than they are. And I don’t think I am any better than they are. However, I do think I’m a little bit better than a lot of the people that think that.
In what way do think the desperation shown by the women in the series reflects your own desperation?
I could’ve easily enough photographed women fully dressed in front of a backdrop, but I think the fact that I put ’em in these situations, I think it shows – if anything – my anger. I’ve always wanted the pictures to really kick people in the nuts and I think the best way of doing that is to not only expose them fully, but kind of fully expose myself as well. And, I should say that, during the ’80s when I was doing this, there were times when I had sex as well as taking the pictures… and I’ve written about that. However, since starting again a couple years ago, I no longer do that. I’m only making the photographs.
Quite honestly, they show – oh god, should I say my integrity?! Yeah, that’s about it: they show that I am who they are.
With stained clothes, seedy backdrops and occasionally demeaning poses, they’re certainly not portrayed to look beautiful or glamorous. What is it that you see when you look at them, both the women themselves and the pictures of the women – and is there a difference between the two?
You know, it’s funny – if I walk into a gallery and the exhibit is of nude women, there’s a very good chance I’m going to turn around and walk back out, because I don’t like it. I find it tacky and exploitive. Yet, what I do seems to go way beyond those bounds, so I guess there’s some kind of double-standard going on there.
But I see the women and I see how easy it is for them to do absolutely anything, without giving it a thought, just to get that twenty dollars that’s going to get ’em through the night, or get ’em high for an hour, or anything to make their life a little bit easier for just a little while. And, you know, they’re like all the rest of us, except all the rest of us haven’t had that brick to the side of the head since we were born.
Oddly enough, I sometimes find them quite beautiful. I had a new story go up on VICE yesterday, and I had two pictures of a woman. When I was taking her picture, she said, ‘why would you want a picture of me, I’m just an ugly-ass crack-whore?’. And I disagreed! I took two photographs. In the first one, she smiled rather crazily and that’s the one they published with the article, but then for the second, I asked her to just look at me and smile. She gave me kind of a Mona Lisa smile, and she’s really very attractive. But, I don’t think people see that most of the time. A lot of the grittiness of what they do and how they pose, so much of that is ingrained in them. That’s what they think I want to see, that’s what they think everyone wants to see, because they can’t imagine anyone would pay them money for anything else.
In your memoir, you talk about learning the family trade of portrait photography from your father, and you write, “I didn’t know how to go about making a living if I was making paying customers look like assholes.” Do you think it’s the nature of portrait photography to make someone look like an asshole?
It’s a hard way to make a living, taking pictures of people who want to look better than they really look. I always had trouble doing that. It was more important to me to find out what that person really did look like. When you look in a mirror, you automatically adjust your face and you see yourself the way you see yourself, but not the way anybody else ever sees you. Not to mention the fact that you see yourself in reverse.
When you get a picture taken, you hope it makes you look even better. And I can do that, but if I’m going to the trouble to take a picture of a person, I want there to be something there worth more than just a flat image that says nothing other than maybe they’re kind of pretty.
Part of your book’s dedication goes out to “all the hard-luck whores”, and you also describe a scene from Tijuana where “beautiful sad-eyed women hawked souls and holes from dark doorways.” What’s the range that you encounter with the women working the streets – is there such thing as a happy prostitute?
Yes. Yes. There are not a lot of them. A happy prostitute is a prostitute that doesn’t have a pimp. There are probably very happy prostitutes that are high-end. They’re not on the street, I don’t know them. I haven’t photographed them. I’ve never really wanted to, nor could I afford it, had I wanted to.
I think some of them make fairly good money and go home and have an okay time, I don’t think they’re all horribly sad. But I think that anybody in that financial range, anyone living that close to the street, really can’t be happy, because nobody really wants to do that. Nobody chooses to live that life. Nobody chooses to be unemployed or unemployable. Or drug addicted. You know, we don’t say, ‘I think I’m gonna become a heroin addict, that’ll be fun’. That’s not really how it happens. In that sense, no, I don’t think there’s very many happy prostitutes.
I have had experiences, especially in the ’80s, and a couple times now, just driving around and goofing around with some of them, where I’ve had a pretty good time. And I like to think, quite honestly, that the time they spend with me is possibly the best part of their day.
In the project statement, you say that, in exchange for the photographs, “I give them money for drugs and I tell them they’re beautiful”. Do you think it’s a fair trade at the end of the day?
It’s a good question. No. No, I think I’m getting the better deal. I’m not doing anything to change their lives, not really. I’m giving them an hour or two of respite, I’m making their life a little more bearable for a while, but my life is definitely better because of these pictures – otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to a magazine in Amsterdam. You know? So, no, it’s not a fair trade. I’m getting the better deal. As an overall thing, not for them individually but for the women on the street in America overall, I think I’m doing something to make things better for them. But still, if anybody’s profiting at this point, it’s me.
Now that the photos are getting quite a lot of exposure, how do you feel about the fact that the images of these women are no longer a ‘personal project’ but are being put on display?
When I took the pictures in the ’80s, I didn’t know if they were ever really going to go anywhere or not. When I had my first show at drkrm (2010), I had already given up, I really didn’t think those stories or the pictures were ever going to be shown anywhere.
The pictures are everywhere now, they’re all over the internet. And I do worry, but my god, there are so many of those women that I photographed in the ’80s, I absolutely do not believe they’re still around. You know? I just can’t believe they would’ve lived that much longer, to tell you the truth, which is pretty fucking sad.
Of course I have a certain amount of guilt for what I’ve done with these pictures and the way I’ve thrown ’em around and splattered these poor women in front of everybody, and sometimes I think I’m wrong and then I sometimes think I’m right, and that’s what I live with, you know? When people look at them, a lot of times I think, maybe they’re going to get upset, maybe create a dialogue, and maybe that’s gonna mean that they realize that these are real people out there.
Then again, I think, the only people that are gonna look at them and think what I want them to think are the people who think that already anyway! So, I don’t know sometimes if I’m doing a good thing or a bad thing. At this point, I’m just doing it.
And, actually I’m just about done. I kinda want to quit, I’m ready to go on to other things. I’ve gone on to other things over the years, in a lot of different directions, and these are the only things that have really been widely recognized, so that’s why I’ve stuck with it. But, I’ve reached the point now where I’m just going to go and do other things, and if it doesn’t get recognized, well that’s fine. I’ll just always be the guy who shot whores.
This interview with Scot Sothern was published on GUP Magazine. We talked about being angry, taking pictures to kick people in the nuts, and beautiful women that go to new lows.