Dana Lixenberg is a photographer who focuses on the individuals and communities on the margins of society. <em>Mossless</em> magazine talks with her about capitalism, inequity, and the fragility of life.
Photo by Dana Lixenberg: Tabatha Joy O'Riley, Jeffersonville, Indiana, 2013
Mossless in America is a column featuring interviews with documentary photographers. The series is produced in partnership with Mossless magazine, an experimental photography publication run by Romke Hoogwaerts and Grace Leigh. Romke started Mossless in 2009, as a blog in which he interviewed a different photographer every two days; since 2012 the magazine has produced two print issues, each dealing with a different type of photography. Mossless was featured prominently in the landmark 2012 exhibition Millennium Magazine at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; it is supported by Printed Matter, Inc. Its third issue, a major photographic volume on American documentary photography from the last ten years, titled The United States (2003–2013), will be published this spring.
From the series No Place Like Nome
Dana Lixenberg is a photographer who focuses on the individuals and communities on the margins of society. Although she shoots editorial jobs for a variety of magazines including the New Yorker, Vibe, and Time, she maintainins a rigorously sensitive personal practice of documentary photography. These series include photographs of a South Central LA housing project called Imperial Courts, begun in 1993, pictures of a center for homeless families in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and documents of a disappearing culture in Nome, Alaska. Throughout all her work, Lixenberg draws out the humanity of her subjects and ultimately photographs the fragility of human life.
Mossless: You are Dutch, but you have taken a great interest in photographing and documenting in the United States, like the hardships of industries that are slowly falling by the wayside as time goes on. What has drawn you to this subject matter?
Dana Lixenberg: My work is partly about the inevitable downside and consequences of capitalism which can result in a sense of alienation.
I don’t think I’ve necessarily photographed in areas where there was huge industry in the first place. Maybe for a while there was more production going on in the US, so it must be the consequence of that, but there was devastating poverty when there was a lot of industry going on, and now there’s still devastating poverty.
You photograph some of the most extreme examples of the economic changes.
Yeah, and actually I am part of it, and even people I photograph are part of this system and keep it going. I think [capitalism] has become a given because you can see how former and current communist countries are going the same way. I'm really aware of that, and want to face the realities and the downsides of that system that I find also attractive. And I find it interesting that I have gotten to photograph so many celebrities.
Puff Daddy, Los Angeles
It's interesting to look at your pictures of celebrities next to some of your other subjects.
It really brings it close to home. I find it very interesting that I have had the chance to set foot in all these different often contrasting worlds. Entertainment culture, sports, all different parts and layers of society. I’ve never taken a different approach between photographing celebrities and un-known individuals, The fragility of life is experienced by all.
When shooting people who have had a lot of media exposure I’m not interested in reinforcing their public image. I try to really see the person that’s in front of me, the way they are at that particular moment stripped from all the surrounding distractions like their entourage and to slowly bring them to a place where they don’t present a persona basically where they don’t try to hard.
Even if I’ve always enjoyed that part of my practice, I’m clearly not going to spend my own money pursuing projects on celebrities. It is ultimately more limiting, more fleeting than doing the kind of work I make for my personal projects. I find that the [documentary] portraits and landscapes are really about slowing down, cutting out all the noise and really taking time to contemplate the world around me every time with new eyes. The plain and the everyday is often very exciting to me. It can reveal a lot about life. I’m really inspired by details and I am usually more inspired by non-dramatic settings. Some of my images may seem boring, where there is nothing obvious going on, but I like playing with that, being on the fringes of boring.
My project Jeffersonville, Indiana, takes place in a town that is very bland. It’s a place you kind of pass through, nothing about it really stands out. You know, there’s such an amazing history of photographers that explored Americana. I try to add my own voice to that. I am very interested in social injustice. While I have no expectation that I can influence social change or that I can ever make a concrete impact with the photographs, I do feel it’s kind of empowering to give the people you photograph a timeless presence in the larger world.
From the series No Place Like Nome
They certainly have an impact. I can’t stop thinking about those communities like on island of Shishmaref, Alaska, seeing their own settlements slowly wear away. What’s the mood up there?
Just before I first visited Shishmaref, I was about to move. For many years I had lived at a place on Broadway, and it was sort of hanging over my head that I had to leave at some point. But that is nothing compared to losing your community, where your ancestors have lived for 2,000 years. I think the Inupiaq are also slowly losing their culture and their history. It is slipping away. The kids are becoming a little bit more Americanized, and that makes sense. They are going to be receptive to different influences like we all are.
They have a subsistence lifestyle—they still have to hunt for food, because it is very expensive to buy food from the store. There are high depression rates in Alaska. People are isolated so there is a lot of freedom, but in the winter they don’t get light, there is a pretty high suicide rate, especially among the Inupiaq youth. I did feel a sort of heaviness over there, and I do see people might feel a little bit stuck, where it is hard to move away to another place to pursue work opportunities because this is their community.
DJ, 1993, from the series Imperial Courts
Imperial Courts was one of the first series you photographed in America. It documented the residents of a housing project in California in 1993, and you are currently revisiting this series after many years. Was it your intention to come back from the beginning?
No, it was never my intention. The series began at a pivotal time in their history, after the [Rodney King] riots and during the retrial of the four officers, so there was a lot of the media attention on South Central LA, specifically Imperial Courts, Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs, the three oldest housing projects in Watts. With the series I found my language as a photographer. I started working with a 4x5” field camera, the same one I still use for all my work. I showed the work to Vibe, a new magazine about to be launched back then. They published a portfolio of the work and they started hiring me for commissions, so all of my [photographic] work in America indirectly or directly came from this series.
I stayed in touch with the community. In 1999 I visited Imperial Courts with a Dutch camera crew because they were filming me for a documentary about my work for Dutch television. They filmed people looking through the old contact sheets and already quite a few people had died, including Tony Bogaert, the leader of the PJ Watts Crips who had become a community leader paving the way to a peace accord with the Bloods. He had first brought me into the Imperial Courts in ’93 and basically gave his approval. He was killed in 1994. The photographs had become an important document for the people there. Initially I really felt that series worked as it was, but then more and more time passed and more people that I photographed had ended up in jail or had died
Then Katrina happened, and people were shocked by the response to these [poorer] communities, where people were really left in the cold and basically treated quite inhumanely. I always thought, Yeah, it’s no surprise. Like many of these communities in the US, they somehow don’t count, they live in a state of neglect. In this case of course, a lot of these boys are—and girls as well, but more boys—spend a lot of time in prison, and basically a whole segment of the community is wiped out by the prison system.
Also in time the response to the old images became more charged and more intense in Imperial Courts, and they started asking me, "Are you going to be coming back for more pictures?" I became interested in the challenge.
In '93 I focused mostly on individual portraits, to capture the charisma of these very strong individuals, partly in reaction to the extremely one dimensional portrayal by the media at the time. When I started shooting again in 2008 I re-photographed many of the same people and their children but, as my connection to the community grew more personal, I started expanding my scope. I started recording sound and filming and shooting more still-lives and landscapes and doing more group portraits because I’m now more aware of all of the family relations and all these connections.
To make a long story short, I continued until now. I did my last visit in November. It’s been 20 years, so I’m on the third generation.
Jennifer Kinter, from the series Jeffersonville, Indiana
You mentioned that they were relatively unseen people in our society, I think the same could be said for your subjects from Jeffersonville, Indiana, who were homeless at the time you photographed them.
I was first sent there on a commission for Jane magazine in 1997, and I was very struck by the place. At first sight [it seemed] sort of bland and Bible Belt. Then the people I met completely defied the stereotypical image of homelessness. A lot of them were women with children, or families. The husband or wife loses their job or goes into debt—you know these stories of how easy it is to fall through the cracks. I really wanted to come back, and so every year I would spend a week or two in Jeffersonville and hang out at the shelter. I didn’t really want to photograph people in the shelter sitting on the beds, I didn’t want people to be defined by these (often) temporary circumstances.
You didn't want to denigrate them; you want to embrace them as people.
I want to make the issue more easily identifiable, because I think there’s been so many series already done on [being] down and out and these people are not down and out, these people are just...
It’s frightening for people to not have a home. Having a home is a very fundamental need.
And in some ways they are even more vulnerable than the people in Imperial Courts because they are without a community.
Mike Bath, from the series Jeffersonville, Indiana
How do you choose your subjects?
It's hard to describe. I’m drawn to people who are photogenic to me, which is very personal. Being photogenic has nothing to do with looks; it is what someone exudes, a certain emotion, a particular body language, something that moves and intrigues me that I can relate to.
Dana Lixenberg is a Dutch photographer. She studied photography at the London College of Printing, and at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, has published multiple monographs of her work, and shows her pictures internationally.
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