[S]cot Sothern is a 67-year-old photographer making no apologies. His images of sex workers, scuzz and curbside adrenalin rushes are part the portrait of a lifestyle, part brutal documentary refusing to flinch at the side of life unseen by many. The captions in his books LOWLIFE and STREETWALKERS are as uncompromising and unsettling as the images themselves.
Ultimately, though, the images reflect what’s on either side of the camera: Drifters, hustlers, humans. See some of Scot’s work and read about his experiences in the interview below. Some images are NSFW.
Hi Scot, what kind of people do you like to photograph?
I started out in the 60s and 70s as a portrait photographer for hire, photographing children and babies and high school yearbook pictures. I graduated from that to portraits of families and business people and then artists and musicians. It was in the 70s that I started photographing people on the street. This was the first work I did making pictures that weren’t paid assignments and that gave me much more freedom with the kind of images and the way I could represent my subjects. I was no longer required to make flattering likenesses, but could in fact bring more of the real person to the printed image. From there my work got darker in tone and by the second half of the 80s I was photographing the street prostitutes and I guess that is probably the work and the kind of people I like to photograph best.
What initially drew you to shooting sex workers for Lowlife?
I wasn’t a stranger to prostitution. I’d gone to small-town whore houses in my youth and massage parlors between marriages and girlfriends. In the late sixties, I sold myself a couple of times when I needed money. In the mid 1980s I picked up a curbside prostitute on a whim and it occurred to me I should be taking her picture. After that I was hooked on the adrenalin kick and I knew I was making powerful images. I’d found a cause that seemed close to home.
What misconceptions do people have about your photography and the people you shoot?
I think there are people who feel that I’m a sleaze-bag and the sex workers on the street are criminals without morals. That said, people who don’t like my work don’t really spend any time looking at it. Most of the people I’ve met through exhibits or the books and the columns I did for VICE are on my side. I admit the pictures are at times exploitive but I have always attempted to respect my subjects and not judge them. I’m no more deserving than they, I’m just luckier in life.
Public outrage seems inevitable with controversial projects, but what about the reactions of people closer to you? Do you ever have to justify your work to anyone?
Not really, most all the people close to me know who I am and have always been. I do have a younger brother in Missouri who read CURB SERVICE and then told me he thinks I’m a degenerate but you know, why did he have to read a book to figure that out? It’s not like I’ve ever kept my proclivities a dark secret. I’m 67 years old, I’m not going to justify what I do for anyone. If they don’t like it, fuck them.
You’ve explored the ‘darker’ or ‘seedier’ side of the USA in a way that few artists have. What’s your most vivid memory?
I don’t know if this is the most vivid memory I have but it’s one of the saddest. This is a very short story about a woman who told me her name was Starlight, from the STREETWALKERS book.
“I take pictures of Starlight in the back seat but I’m concerned she is going to nod off. I don’t really want a passed-out whore in the car, so I wrap up the photo session and drive her back to where I found her. Before she gets out I dip into my backpack and take out a threesome of condoms.
“Here, you go,” I say. “Take these with you. Protect yourself.”
She looks at me like I’m way out of focus. She takes the chain of rubbers, climbs out of the car and as she staggers off into the shadows she flings them to the curb like a spent cigarette.”
Do you think that taking a photograph is ultimately a compassionate act? Or can it be something more sinister?
A photograph can be an infinite number of things, for me the compassion and the darkness and scuzzier aspects don’t really occur to when I’m making a photograph. I’m looking at the composition, exposure, focus. I’m not going deep into thought when I’m behind the camera. It’s always later when I’m looking at the images that I see the meaning and feel the compassion or on occasion the prurient buzz in my dick. What I do and who I am informs every image. It’s not something I’m creating, it’s just there.
Find out more about Scot and his work on his website.