Photographer John Sevigny/Stranger than Reality

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La Banda





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Yellow Ribbons

A good photographer captures the picture inside of the picture and John Sevigny does this brilliantly. His photographs are gritty, human, and ultraviolet.-

Ara: When did you first visit El Salvador?

John: In 2010 I had a book presentation in San Salvador. I think it was a three or four day stay during a tour that included Mexico and Guatemala. Sometime later I came back to give a month-long photography class, that conveniently, was Saturdays only. I spent the other six days of the week taking pictures. It was a very productive, interesting time.

Ara: What spoke to you about the people in that city?

John: Everyone travels to Mexico, Costa Rica, or anywhere else in Latin America or the Caribbean and says, “The people are so friendly.” That’s mostly because Americans and Europeans are so cold, closed and reserved. But in El Salvador the people really are extremely open, outgoing, talkative and warm. That makes it easier to take pictures, of course, but also makes daily life more pleasant, than say, in New York or Miami.

Ara: The people of El Salvador have to have a certain amount of respect and trust for you. Some of the photographs are from inside of prisons. Did this trust happen over time? After several trips to the region?

John: That’s an interesting question because it’s quite the opposite. When I first started making pictures in the rougher parts of downtown El Salvador, being a foreigner I was something of a novelty. People wanted to hang out with me, ask questions about the States, and buy me drinks. In some quarters, and over time, that slowly turned into a very deep, very ugly suspicion about my motives. Who is this guy, why does he spend so much time here, and what is he going to do with all the pictures he takes? The concept of fine art photography that is also about “the real world” is difficult for curators and museum people to understand and perhaps doubly so for people with no interest in art. At some point, somebody “decided” I must be an undercover cop of some kind, and a group of people put a plan in place to hurt or kill me – something I learned about much later. It turns out I survived because of a series of small, seemingly insignificant factors that changed my destiny, fate or whatever word fits in with this obviously uncomfortable story. In good news, people whose business is killing do not live very long, and the men and women who were involved in this stupid, uninformed, plot are all either dead or in prison. I don’t worry about my safety in El Salvador but I do have some psychological scars.

Ara: What begs to be photographed?

John: Oh, everything. The way light hits a certain tin roof in a certain neighborhood on a certain day. A bent nail in a wall. A woman’s shadow on a brick street. Kids on bikes. Palm trees, jukeboxes, flowers and rough men and women getting drunk in corner bars at 10 am Sunday morning.

Ara: You capture both vulnerability and strength in your photographs. How do you photograph sensitive subjects like prostitution and gangs yet capture only the person?

John: When I have taken pictures of prostitutes or gang members I have, wisely or not, always opened myself up and found people tend to respond in kind (with the obvious exceptions in which they start sharpening their knives and looking at my neck). Empathy drives me. I don’t think of people as addicts, prostitutes or members of gangs. I just think about them as human beings. I look at them with a horizontal gaze. I’m not the functional, white, urban, Western male glancing at other people’s lives from somewhere on high saying, “well isn’t that tragic?” It may very well be tragic but I am innocent enough to believe that tragedy is a shared, social sentiment and has been at least since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Tragedy is a defining element of the human condition and you can’t escape it through drugs, wealth, or membership in a street gang or a yacht club. Shakespeare and Mark Rothko knew that very well. Of course tragedy is not the only thing in the world and it’s not the only thing in my photographs. But it’s probably what connects me to the people I photograph.

The prison photographs were not really part of a plan. Through a series of accidents I was given extreme access to two different prisons. In fact, when I went to El Salvador I remember thinking that the last thing I wanted to do was take pictures of people with tattoos on their faces. It had been done so often, so well, and by so many people. That said, I did it my way, and I think it turned out well.

Ara: What was the most difficult photograph that you’ve ever taken?

John: It seems to me that once you’ve really learned the techical side of this, that it becomes, to a great extent, about luck. I take a lot of pictures, put them away for a while, and later on, figure out which ones can stand on their own two feet. It’s less like a chess game and more like putting a coin in a slot machine. You pull the lever and you’re either going to hit it, or you’re not. Of course it’s not so simple. You bring all your experience with you and know, instinctively, what is NOT going to work. But some of the best photographs are accidents and some of the worst photographs are the ones into which you put the most effort. This is part of the beauty of the medium.

Ara: Does traveling to a city like El Salvador give you more appreciation for America or does it illuminate the excess in this country?

John: Both. I love many things about the United States. We have a wonderful history and a deep, beautifully hybrid culture, particularly in cities such as Miami and New Orleans. I do miss that when I’m away because El Salvador is not a diverse place in any sense of the word. But Americans have no idea how good they have it. Even the Great Recession wasn’t enough to teach us the lessons we so badly needed to learn. I remember returning to the States in 2009 after a very long time away and seeing dozens of people in Manhattan buying seven-dollar cups of coffee at Starbucks and putting them on their credit cards. This was probably the worst moment during the financial crisis and people had not even considered changing the habits that had hurt the country so badly. I get the impression most Americans don’t even realize how excessively materialistic their lives are. They bitch about Obamacare and call it Communism. Meanwhile, there’s a 60-year-old woman in San Salvador selling fruit out of an old wheelbarrow, 12 hours a day, every day, and she lives in a shack made of corrugated aluminum. She’s never seen a doctor and never will. Not that there isn’t dire poverty in America. But culturally, spending money is a religion for us and our poverty doesn’t even begin to approach the severity of poverty in other parts of the world.

Ara: Some of your photographs are very sad. Did spending so much time in those surroundings affect you?

John: It did and does, but I would add that many of my pictures are also funny, ironic, frightening, or happy. If it’s the sad ones that get the most attention (and it is), it’s because people relate most to that emotion. After I gave a talk recently, someone said, “My God. Seeing the pictures you take, I never thought you’d be such a funny, talkative, happy person.” And I am those things. But my experiences taking pictures – experiences I admittedly seek out – take their toll. I would like to walk around like everyone else, watching people do whatever they do when they’re out and about, buying snacks for their kids, holding hands, throwing coins in fountains, shopping for socks or whatever. But increasingly, I see people as cadavers, maybe because so many people I’ve photographed have died violently. I realize it’s a completely illogical distortion of reality, but that doesn’t make it go away. When I think about the gang members I’ve known who lose friends every week, I can’t even imagine how they stay sane.

Ara: Where do you still want to travel?

John: I confess that I am still attracted by edgy, dangerous places (San Pedro Sula, Honduras comes to mind) but the older I get, the more I realize that you can only prance across the battlefield with a camera so many times before something bad happens to you. It’s not about nerve. It’s about probabilities, common sense and not wanting to have my friends and family have to figure out what to write on my tombstone. My interests, as always, are changing and I don’t think “place” is as important to my work as it once was. If I had to name cities, I’d say I want to return to Quebec, spend some time in Panama City, and spend more time in Granada, Nicaragua. But to badly paraphrase Robert Frank, no place is boring if you bring a camera.

Ara: Your favorite photograph and why?

John: Right now it’s one from 2014 called Yellow Ribbons. It’s not really a picture of anything specific. Nor is it abstract. But it has that sudden and unexpected something that I’ve spent a lifetime chasing.

For insightful, authentic articles and photographs by John Sevigny visit


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