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Ivar Wigan "The 305" 2013 Dazed
"The 305", 2013Photography by Ivar Wigan

The guns, girls and good times of America’s Dirty South

Photographer Ivar Wigan found himself in the middle of a world rarely open to outsiders

“The media projects a warped perception of sidelined communities. We are led to believe that the people who live in South Central LA or downtown Miami are all murderers and thieves,” says London-based photographer Ivar Wigan. “Only bad stories make strong, shocking and saleable headlines.” He’s talking about his latest show, The Gods, for which he travelled to Miami, Atlanta and New Orleans to witness the guys, the girls and the good times of America's Deep South. Inspired by a single shot he captured at a pool party in Miami, Wigan's images are raw, candid and, at times, seedy and seductive – offering a rare glimpse into communities not often open to outsiders. Below, we speak with the Scottish-born photographer about strip clubs, getting shot at and life in the Dirty South.

What drew you to the Miami, Atlanta and New Orleans scene?

Ivar Wigan: Photographers often, at some stage, end up shooting nudes. It’s exciting for the image-maker and the image-viewer to see the subject as themselves, with all the bullshit stripped away. In a sense, it’s only when all the clothing and branding that we cover ourselves with is dropped that you see a person for what they really are. I’d heard about the famous strip clubs of Atlanta but had mixed feelings about going. Strip clubs in Europe are notoriously horrible and I would never choose to go, but in America in the deep south it's a very different thing. When people talk about going to the club in Atlanta, they mean strip club. Men and women go, couples, groups of girls, celebrities, rappers, basketball players. They all go. They go for dinner, or to watch sport games on the telly. They go to dance. It’s a totally normal, acceptable place to hang out.

“To make a living they hustle, in the street in the day or in the club at night. Money is made fast and once that is out of the way, life is dedicated to looking good, love affairs and the occasional ruckus” – Ivar Wigan

I flew to Atlanta specifically to photograph this aspect of the culture. Taking photographs in a strip club is not allowed, so I had to really become part of the furniture. The dancers were actually keen to do pictures but it’s forbidden by the clubs. I spent eight weeks making friends with the managers and security before I took the camera out of the bag. Those strip club shots in Atlanta were the hardest ones in the series. I love Atlanta but the most exciting city in the South is New Orleans. Much of the culture springs from there. Much of the street slang, fashion, tattoo culture and music.

Why did you choose to name the show The Gods?

Ivar Wigan: The stars of this show do not have jobs in the conventional sense. To make a living they hustle, in the street in the day or in the club at night. Money is made fast and once that is out of the way, life is dedicated to looking good, love affairs and the occasional ruckus. The first parallel lifestyle that occurred to me was that of the Olympian gods of ancient Rome. The term 'Gods' is also a slang used to describe veteran street hustlers who've survived the street life.

Was there one moment in particular that stood out for you?

Ivar Wigan: There were some bad moments in Miami when I had to hit the deck. I was never threatened directly in the making of the series but when people start shooting at each other you don’t want to be standing in between. I only ever received love but sometimes you have to step back and get out of the way if things are popping off. The truth is that these were the most warm and welcoming places. Anyone can go there and be accepted if you go with an open heart and positive intention.

Could you tell us some of the stories behind the images?

Ivar Wigan: Every work in the series has a great story behind it. The picture titled “Princess” is a portrait of a young dancer that I met in Atlanta. She had come to the city from a country town in Georgia to make it as a dancer in a strip club. In Georgia the strippers have to be over 18 and carry a ‘dancers licence’ from the state. I met her at an amateur strip contest in a club named Queen City. She had come to see the show and study the dancers but she couldn’t afford to get a state licence so she couldn’t perform. I showed her my photography at the bar and she asked me to come and photograph her with her baby son. When we next met she had her licence and was already dancing at a club named The Blue Flame. I took her baby pictures under a tree outside her housing block and then she asked me in for dinner and I took the picture named “Princess”. Her son Jacob is looking fierce by her side. You can tell he’s going to look after his mama.

The picture titled “Pink Panther” was taken in New Orleans. The picture shows my friend Star’s home and his car. His grandmother was a brothel keeper in the house where he now lives. He was working as a fruit picker in California when she died and he inherited the bordello. 25 years ago Star drove from California to New Orleans in that powder blue Cadillac.The girl is called Angel. My mother and I had been to Mardi Gras and we met her in a strip bar in the old French Quarter in New Orleans. We had all been to dinner and she was heading off. I was across the road getting into my car when I saw the cat chasing after her and I took the picture.

The Gods is on show from 12 June – 31 July at London's PM/AM Gallery