THE ARCHIVES: Joel Peter-Witkin
Andrea Blanch: Your photos are hauntingly potent and morbid. Why the focus on social outcasts, people with unusual physical capabilities or deformities, and mutilated corpses and amputated body parts from the dead?
Joel Peter-Witkin: OK, well, my photographs are not “morbid.” Morbid means unhealthy and deformed. I photograph social outcasts because I want to celebrate their singularity and the strength it takes for them to engage life. An example is a photograph called “Un Santo Oscuro,” a man born in Canada because his mother took thalidomide, which was banned in the United States under the Kennedy administration. He’s born without skin, and without arms or legs. He’s in pain from the moment he was born. As a child, he was a sideshow freak. I had a friend in L.A. who saw him begging on the sidewalk. My friend was overwhelmed. He told me about him on the phone. I got on a plane to L.A., to convince this man to be photographed. I was very struck and emotionally engaged in photographing him. It’s titled “Un Santo Oscuro,” or “The Obscure Saint.” Again, what I want to say is: I don’t work in the world. I work from what the world gives me as far as ideas and emotions.
AB: Why do you choose social outcasts to portray religious, erotic, and perverse themes?
JPW: I don’t photograph “perverse” things, people, objects, because that means the celebration of perverted intentions. Instead, I celebrate the courage to live, especially the courage to live through the struggles we’ve been given in life. There’s always the negative connotation when people see my work. They think that I’m taking advantage of situations. They think I’m taking advantage of people who are a certain way, and may live lives that they are frightened of if they had to live those lives. There’s a lot of mixed baggage out there as far as how my photographs are perceived. That’s normal and natural in the history of art, especially with photography where the power of photography is the fact that it’s closer to the reality we all can see and understand. What I want to do is make photographs that are made like no other photographs. That’s the criteria of all art regardless of medium.
AB: I think you’ve succeeded, by the way.
JPW: I’ve been doing this for over 40 years. I have to turn myself inside-out every day. That’s what a “giver” does. I prefer to say “giver,” rather than “artist.” We’re like light meters, in a way. We want to measure what our capacities are to evoke and to emote ideas, which are very powerful and can change lives and heal and share in what we’ve discovered in our love of things. I make all my photographs for myself. I don’t make them for anyone else. My work bounces around different subject matter, especially now in my later age. I’m almost 76. I want to share what I love, and I don’t share it to make money. I have been able to live off my work, but I don’t compromise. I make work sometimes that I don’t even send out to shows, because they will never be sold. I make the work for myself, for my own sense of purpose and meaning and love.
Read the full article from our past issue Controversy here