Dec 11 16 4:37 PM

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Photos from Inside Atlanta's Strip Clubs

May 25, 2016

Most photographers are not invited to take out their cameras at strip clubs, or to document casual hangs with the Bloods. But Ivar Wigan—perhaps due to his soft-spoken, Scottish charm—always seems to be invited to the party.

Wigan's photography series, The Gods, is a celebration of the culture and community around hip-hop in the American South. Shooting primarily in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Miami, Wigan's images are provocative and cinematic, showcasing street culture from a perspective that's intimate and admiring.

All photos by Ivar Wigan

Wigan was born in Scotland and raised in London. His voracious approach to documentation reminds me of a famous quote by Susan Sontag, from her bookOn Photography: "The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world 'picturesque.'"

The Gods shares common themes with Wigan's previous work, which includes explorations of tribal Africa, the Jamaican dancehall scene, and images from his extensive travels around the American South. Wigan's series is exhibiting at Little Big Man Gallery in Downtown Los Angeles through June 19.

VICE: Why is so much of The Gods shot inside strip clubs?
Ivan Wigan: The subjects of the series all pivot around the world of gangster rap, and strip clubs are the main meeting place within that culture—they're like the church, basically. A lot of the action unfolds in strip clubs. That's where everyone goes to hang out, where the rappers play their new records, where all the hottest DJs in hip-hop have residencies. And for some of the women in those communities, their greatest aspiration is to be able to dance in one of those clubs. For example, in Atlanta, if you're a Magic City dancer, people look up to you, they show you respect, because those girls are making more money than everyone else in their environment. They're often only twenty-one or twenty-two, but some are making $5,000 a night easily. They have flash cars, all that. So a lot of the young girls are literally waiting to hit nineteen, so they can get a dancer's license. And the guys want to date the star dancers, and to be seen with them.

That's refreshing to hear, given that even within the most sex-positive communities in cities like New York, there's still a lingering stigma about women taking their clothes off to make money—even if the women say that they enjoy their work.
Yeah, being a dancer is not regarded as even remotely negative in Atlanta, which of course is a very different attitude to other places in the world. I grew up in England, where a strip club is considered a really dirty place—somewhere old men go alone to get some kind of sterilized erotic experience. But in Atlanta, it's not remotely like this: Everyone goes to strip clubs—couples go, I met a pastor in there, you see groups of girls, people go to watch basketball or football games, they go for dinner—all the clubs serve food. But by the end of the night, it's heated and everyone starts dancing, and it turns into a bit of a club. So it's not just a place where men sit around a stage in a long coat looking sinister. It's really an upbeat, mixed environment where people go to interact. The dancers are beautiful young women who have positive aspirations. It's something that's quite unique to the South. Atlanta is at the center of it, but you have clubs like that in New Orleans, Jacksonville, Memphis, and a bit of it in Miami. There's more than sixty-five strip clubs in the metropolitan area of Atlanta.

The subjects of your work are represented as heroic—almost divine. Is this intentional? 
That's very much the case. I'm trying to raise street-corner characters to iconographic status. Another person could shoot all this same subject matter very differently—in negative or condescending light, or in a way that was highly politicized. But I'm trying to lift people up. My purpose is to make beautiful pictures that the subjects of the photos love.

Is this where the name The Gods comes from?
Actually, "Gods" is a slang term for veterans of the street—guys who have survived the prison system, veteran hustlers. So the younger boys will often call the older guys the Gods.

What drew you to this particular American community, rather than, say, shooting communities in your native Scotland?
I think a lot of artists place themselves into lifestyles or situations that are unconventional or exotic to them, in order to clean away the conventions they are born into, and to see the world or their subject in a fresh light.

It's not often that people are allowed to take out their cameras inside strip clubs, or while shadowing gangs. How did you get such intimate access?
I had to live in Atlanta for a long time. When I arrived, I didn't know anybody. I went there because I knew about the club scene, and when I landed, I just said to my cab driver, "Take me to a cheapest motel," and from then on, I learned the city, made friends, and embedded myself. I was there for more than a year, but I didn't take any photos for the first nine weeks—I didn't even take my camera out of the bag, I was just driving through the city and trying to understand it physically, the communities and the neighborhoods, and getting out and talking to people.

When I eventually found the clubs that I wanted to work in, I would go there every single night until I knew all the dancers and the security and the management. It's all about relationships. So I was part of the scene at the time. I'd always have my iPad and would show them my photos—the work breaks down the barrier, and they can see what I'm about.

For more on the culture of strip clubs in Atlanta, check out our video: 'Atlanta: Strip City':<iframe src="//embeds.vice.com/?playerId=YjMwNmI4YjU2MGM5ZWRjMzRmMjljMjc5&aid=vice.com/Fringes&vid=83amRuazqEL3liN3VIqN67vzK-m1Sm9m&embedCode=83amRuazqEL3liN3VIqN67vzK-m1Sm9m&cust_params=embdom%3Dhttps%3A%2F%2Fwww.vice.com%2Fvideo%2Fatlanta-strip-city%26topic%3Dtravel%26aid%3Datlanta-strip-city%26auth%3D%26keywords%3DAtlanta%3A+Strip+City%2Catlanta%2Cstrippers%2Cboobs%21%2Ctwerking%2CFringes%26ac%3Dno%26country%3Den_us%26contentId%3D83amRuazqEL3liN3VIqN67vzK-m1Sm9m&ad_rule=1&description_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.vice.com%2Fvideo%2Fatlanta-strip-city&share_url=https://www.vice.com/video/atlanta-strip-city&autoplay=0" width="640px" height="540px" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>

Would you say your work is portraiture? Documentary? Both? 
You know, I never really thought of it in those terms. There's definitely some portraiture in there. But then, when I met the Bloods... well, it's not like you get many chances to hang out with the Bloods, so you can't try to control that situation—you just shoot what you can. So from that point of view, it's a documentary project. But I'm not trying to document everything, warts and all. It's more like, "Here's my view of this world. Here's a slice of life that I've chosen to represent."

I was

"I would no more be a Master than a slave. It does not conform to my idea of Democracy." Abraham Lincoln 1856.

Last Edited By: UncleLewis Dec 11 16 4:40 PM. Edited 1 time