Scot Sothern is a Los Angeles–based photographer and a big prostitute fan. He has been interacting with and photographing hookers since the 1960s, and his images have been widely exhibited in galleries in the US, Canada, and Europe. Scot's pictures evoke such a visceral reaction in the viewer and raise so many questions, we decided to give Scot a regular column aimed at getting the story behind the photo. The idea is simple: we feature an image from Scot’s archive along with his explanation of just exactly what the fuck was going on when he took it. Welcome to Nocturnal Submissions.
She has a sand and cast-iron voice. Last night, she tells me, a big mean son of a b almost raped her. She knew she shouldn’t get into his car, she could feel his bad vibrations like she could smell his bad breath. But it’s hard to walk away from the money, “‘cause if you’re living down here, Brother, you need the money.” She switches gears and tells me she doesn’t know why I want to take pictures of her, she’s just an ugly-ass meth whore.
“Yeah, well, I’ve seen a lot of ugly and you don’t qualify.”
“If you say so.”
We’re downtown driving around looking for a background. I ask her how long she’s been here.
“I’ve been here about a hundred years, you know. I was homeless for a while. Los Angeles is my favorite place. It hardly ever rains and if you have a sleeping bag you can always find a place to hide. I used to climb fire escapes or sneak into buildings and get up to the roof—that’s a good place to sleep that people don’t know about. Except don’t forget where you are and walk over the edge in the middle of the night.”
Her name is Cathy. “Just one more Cathy, like a hundred thousand others. I guess if I’m from someplace, I’m from Minot, North Dakota. It’s cold up there, Brother.” She has a hotel room a couple of blocks back, with a bath and a bed. “But that means I gotta go out every night to make the rent, and sometimes the Johns ignore my skanky ass and I walk around nowhere all night long for freaking nothing.” But still, she tells me, it’s better than freezing your buns in Minot, North Dakota.
We’re coming up to the Sixth Street bridge and I cut across the street to a road tucked into the underpass and she says, “Whoa, whoa. That’s a one-way street, Brother. You can’t go that way.”
“Yeah, well. It’s all right. I have a special permit to go the wrong way.” I take a left then another left, admiring the scenery. A couple more blocks and we drive by three cops out of their cars, a couple of hapless young drug dealers facing a wall, hands cuffed behind their backs. Protecting you and me, brother, from the sin of a lousy high.
“Last night a big son of a b tried to rape me.”
“Yeah, so you said.”
“He pulled his car next to a phone pole so I couldn’t open the door and get out. A lot of a-holes just like to bully girls like me, like we ain’t already had enough s-h-i-t. He pulled on my hair like he was gonna pull it out.”
“Wow, I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t do nothing.”
I turn a quiet corner and I see an emotional wall of graffiti. “Let’s take pictures here.” Out of the car I give her $20—a ten and two fives. I get my camera and I direct Cathy up against the wall like a refrigerator magnet. It’s dark and I can’t see her in the viewfinder but I know where she is. She flashes her tits like a girl gone wild, grins like her face might explode and I make an exposure. I tell her to look at me and give me a pretty smile. She smiles like a broken-hearted homecoming queen and I convert the image into pixels.
Back in the car, both doors open, Cathy asks me if it’s all right if she smokes and I tell her I don’t mind. She’s got a crumpled pack of Kools, my old brand. She lights up and blows a plume of fume. I smoked for 40 years and now I don’t. “Hey, uh, Cathy. Can I have a drag?”
“I got a couple more in the pack. You want one?”
“No, just a drag.”
She hands me the Kool and I take a hit and then give it back. I get pleasurably dizzy and blow a smoke ring.
Cathy says, “You know how it feels when someone holds your head underwater and you can’t breathe? Guy last night kinda did that, didn’t pay me nothing, neither. Ripped me off.”
“That’s fucked up. You want me to take you back where you were?”
“No. I got enough money now, you know where McDonald’s is, over by the bus station? I gotta get something to eat.”
“Yeah, I can find it. They’re open all night?”
“Just the drive-through part.”
At McDonald’s I offer to drive her through but she says no, thanks anyway, she’s OK. I’d kind of like to go through and get a chicken sandwich and a Coke, but my time with Cathy is up so I go home and have a bowl of cereal.
Previously - East of the Promised Land
Scot's new show, A New Low, runs through August 31 at dkrm Gallery in Los Angeles. His first book, Lowlife, was released last year and his memoir, Curb Service, is out now. You can find more information on his website.