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Strip Clubs, Cadillacs and Pool Parties – Photographing America's Deep South

by Ivar Wigan, Words: Daisy Jones
22 May 2015, 3:30pm

For the past four years, photographer Ivar Wigan has been documenting the lives of people in the Deep South, who – according to him – live like high-rolling celebrities despite being typically raised in poor neighbourhoods. His subjects spend their days shooting hoops, restoring lowriders and partying.

This day-to-day existence is something Wigan calls the "high life" – a way of living he perceives as comparable to that of the Old Greek Gods, and why he chose to name the series "The Gods".

Wigan himself was born in Scotland, where grey meets green and where misted hills roll into each other, so it's little wonder he became entranced by the dry, flat land and heavy sunshine of America's South. I had a chat with him about his series of photographs and why he's bored of the UK.

VICE: Hi Ivan. So, tell me about this series.
Ivar Wigan: It's an urban series that focuses on the Deep South. I took a trip to Miami where I went to this West Indian Carnival and that's when I took my first photo of a pool party. But when I left, I knew I had to go back and fill in the missing gaps. I wanted to document the whole lifestyle. They were taken over four years, during which time I was travelling around as much as I could afford.

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Four years is a long time to be running around taking photos. What did you take away from the experience?
I'd never been in those kinds of clubs before because we don't have that in the UK, but down there it's a big part of their culture. In London, for instance, strip clubs are for businessmen and stag dos, but in the South, groups of girls will go there, as well as people on dates or those who want to watch basket ball games. It's a completely different world to what I was used to. When a rapper cuts a new single they'll take it to the strip club and try and make it work there. If a tune goes down well in the strip clubs it gets a lot of heat and interest.

A lot of young girls that I met really want to be dancers – the dancers in the club make a fortune. I saw a girl filling bin liners full of money night after night. From hanging out with the girls, I know they can take $5000 on a good night after a star performance.

When you take photos of the girls, does the idea that you might be objectifying them come into your mind?
Well the photos are documenting, so it's neither objectifying nor empowering as it's just showing them as they are. But they take great pride in what they do and love being photographed, too. I'm just showing them at their best, while they're doing what they love to do.

Some of the dancers might be college girls who are going to Georgia Tech, but some of them are from poorer neighbourhoods and they see it as a way of moving up. They use it as a way to network and as a career and it's very much performance-based as well. It's not a place where they just come and lap dance on men. There is that aspect to it, and there are places that are more like that.

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Why do you think the areas you shoot in make for good photos?
I think a lot of these areas are slightly deprived and on the fringes of "big city" American life and I think that, sometimes, intense creativity is born out of that struggle. It's not just in the music – it's also in the expression, the fashion and the body art.

People have this dedication to these old school lowriders which they'll restore from old car dumps and spend every penny to bringing back to life. It's all about the tactile quality of the vehicle, the smell of the leather. There's one photo where they're all crowded round a Cherry Red lowrider and that passion extends to body art, body building, girls... Everyone wants to be a street corner celebrity, in a way, and it's a world where you can be a neighbourhood star in the way you present yourself.

Did you forge close friendships with a lot of your subjects?
Absolutely. There's one picture of a big lady, a dancer called Juicy, who I met in a club. She was a famous local performer – everyone knew her in that community and they all went there to see her. In the picture she has a very sombre expression, but for the most part she was full of jokes and giggles and I got to know her quite well. She asked me to come to her neighbourhood and photo her family, so I gave them a set of prints and stayed in touch with her. I stayed in touch with most people that I photographed, apart from those in the big group photos.

Why did you call the series 'The Gods'?
I was trying to think of some kind of comparable lifestyle to this, because the way they live is not comparable to my own group of friends from England. It's a very different lifestyle and if you look at that series, I'd say that most people in the shots don't have conventional jobs but they kind of hustle. The only comparable lifestyle that first came into my head was the classical, old world of Greece and Rome. The Romans seem to have lived this eternal life of good looks and fine dining and love affairs. That's how they lived. In this culture, there's a big emphasis on living well, living the high life and living like a celebrity.

Thanks Ivar.