Last month a book arrived on my desk for review. Working at VICE, lots of publishers tend to funnel any book with key words like "drugs", "sex", "music" and sometimes even just "vice" in the title, towards me. Scot Sothern's Lowlife was one of those, a photo book about prostitutes in LA that the author had slept with and photographed. I was so struck by the brutal photographs, and even more so by their incredibly explicit captions, that I got in touch with Sothern to ask how and why you would document your use of sex workers. You should really try to find the book. I think it'd be right up your street – look, here's one of the captions:
"I bring the Nikon to my eye, She makes a sudden jump, presses herself back in the seat and starts kicking me. 'That's a gun,' she screams. 'Don't shoot me! I be good for my daddy. Looky my titties. You wanna feel my titties, here, feel my titties.' She is gasping air, flailing her limbs."
Yep, it's a regular lulzfest. Buy Lowlife here, read the interview below.
VICE: Hey Scot. So your book hit me pretty hard. How do you feel about the world you were documenting now, looking back? Is there any fondness for it? Nostalgia? Regret?
Scot Sothern: Well, no regrets at all, I’d do it again, and in fact I am doing it again with a new photo series that I’m working on. I don’t think I could say I look back with nostalgia, though I guess I do look back at the rush and thrills I got putting myself out there, never knowing what would happen next, surrendering control. I look back with fondness and a bit of awe, that I actually did what I did, you know? Sometimes I think it was the most important thing I’ve done in my life. I hope people do find it shocking and brutal and I think the hardcore aspects of the book make it a bit more visceral. I hope the book makes the viewer pause and think about the implications of the work; the fucked-up-ness people are living through on curbs and gutters not all that far from where we live.
When you were taking these photos, did you ever foresee a time when you might publish them like this? If not, was the taking of the photos a part of the erotic experience for you?
I always planned on exhibiting and publishing the photos, though at the time I didn’t think it would take 20 years to find the right publisher and gallery. I’m sure that to some degree I used that as an excuse for thrill-ride sex and my undisciplined hedonistic nature and yeah, sure the photos were part of the overall experience. That said, I think I made the pictures because I was angry and I’d been angry all my life; I came from an angry generation and I kind of wanted to tell the world to go fuck itself and take notice of me. It just seemed that a lot of things in this country were very wrong and nobody gave a shit. I guess if I think about it long enough I can find a lot of reasons why I’ve done the things I’ve done all my life, but really all the things that happened just happened.
Did you have any worries, legal or otherwise, about publishing these photos now?
I think enough time has passed that I don’t worry about someone appearing from the dark past and saying, “Hey, that fucked-up woman in the picture is me.” I think the time of model releases is behind us; thousands upon thousands of pictures are being made every day and published and posted online and nobody can really keep track of who and what they are putting out there. And if someone walked into one of the galleries where Lowlife was showing and knew the subject and objected to the picture I’d take it down, and I would yank it from the next edition of the book. The whole idea of the pictures in the first place is that many of these sex workers were already doomed for the gallows and wouldn’t be around in 20 years time.
Did you ever worry about your friends and relatives seeing the book, finding out you'd slept with these women?
That’s a good question. I don’t think anyone who's ever known me has been surprised by anything I’ve done. I’ve always been pretty matter-of-fact about my life and I’ve always had a taste for the dark and tawdry. Family is all good. Things I did in the past have no ill effects on my wife. I’ve never kept anything from my son and he’s fine with who I am. My father was a photographer with a portrait and wedding studio in Springfield, Missouri, where I was groomed from a young age to take over the family business. That didn’t work out so well. Weddings and baby photos and small town anywhere made me crazy, and I had to get out early.
My dad didn’t really understand what I did with a camera and my life but we remained close. I showed him a couple of the Lowlife pictures back in the 1980s when I was making them and he complemented the composition, lighting and print quality. That was nice. I never wanted my mother to read my stories or look at the pictures. I didn’t want her to know the details of my Lowlife foibles and exploits, but she does know and she has seen the work and she loves me anyway. She’s always full of encouragement. Everyone who matters to me, friends and family, still like me so no, no issues here.
Do you feel, on balance – if you are able to remove yourself from the book – that it has one, overarching effect on people who see it? Do you think it humanises people forced to sell sex? Was that an aim of yours?
When I first started the photographs I think it was mostly because it was a cool thing to do and it fit my character. I wanted to make a book and exhibit the prints and I wanted a cult following and a return on my investment. But then, after the first couple of serious encounters, I found a cause and a calling, you know? I was ready to slap on a "Save The Whores" bumper sticker. Every whore I ever photographed was a very human person and every one of them understood hurt and I hope that the photographs convey that hurt to everyone who sees them.
Your written captions to some of the photos are incredibly direct. I suspect a lot of people in your situation might have tried to tone down some of the more upsetting parts. One piece that comes to mind is the prostitute who becomes afraid and thinks that you're going to hurt her. Were you never tempted to play down the brutal details?
I just wrote the stories and the details came out the way they came out. It’s not something I played up or down – well no, that’s not really true: I like the harsh stuff and I write it because I like it. I think the photos work with or without the text. However, I do think they work a little bit better with the text. I think the writing pulls you deeper into the photograph. I think I can safely say I was never tempted to tone anything down. It’s not like I’m trying to sell a screenplay and willing to make daily changes. Lowlife is pretty much exactly what I wanted it to be.
Finally – have you had any adverse reactions from people since the book came out?
So far I haven’t, but I’m ever-hopeful. I’d like to trigger an array of reactions. That’s what it’s all about.
Here's hoping. Thanks Scot!