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Joshua Gordon’s Diary Part I
Photography Joshua Gordon

Photographing the world’s true outsiders

Joshua Gordon’s unconventional debut book is a breakout document of life on the edges

Joshua Gordon is a photographer who excavates difference and outsiderness both intimately and intuitively, with a raw style that feels humane and all heart. The young Dubliner’s zealous curiosity and lust for life burst from the pages of his first book; a loose diary of the past five years featuring sex workers in Thailand, dominatrixes in London, strangers he befriended in Berlin and his girlfriend, sitting side-by-side. These often jarring juxtapositions only act to reveal the great human leveller of his camera’s viewpoint.

I’ve been emailing Gordon for a while now, as a fan. There is a visceral sensitivity and empathetic live fast approach that underlies his style. And he comes across as someone who lives fully, hungrily and with an obvious will and determination. Beneath the underbelly of home-made pistols, opium-laced weed, graffiti, brothels and his bedroom that all feature, there is an intrigue first and foremost in people and in giving them space to reveal themselves.

While a family tree of influence could be drawn to include Mary Ellen Mark, Daido Moriyama, Larry Clark and their candid social documentary, Gordon also presents a transgressive sexual fascination and hard breathing gusto and appreciation of his subjects and situations. In fact, it’s weirdly the ambient shots of his environments that pull me the most, and perhaps this is less surprising when you realise how heavily he is inspired by cinema and the works of Alan Clarke, Wong Kar Wai, and Harmony Korine.

Ahead of the launch of his book today, I sent Gordon another email to talk about how his first book came about, how he ended up hanging out with Thai sex workers and why you don’t always need to explain.

“These people are strong, wonderful characters in an often difficult situation, and they’re the people I want to photograph and spend time with, working with them” – Joshua Gordon

How did it all start?

Joshua Gordon: Photography’s been part of my life as long as I remember. I'd take pictures of girls I was too scared to speak to in school with a disposable camera, and film my neighbours through the curtains with a VHS camera. It all went downhill from there.

What were you doing in Thailand? You seemed to be hanging around a lot of brothels – how did that come about?

Joshua Gordon: I went to see my dad who I hadn't seen in 12 years. My dad introduced me to this weird old American guy who owned a brothel in Chiang Mai, they were close friends so he let me come and shoot the girls who worked there for an evening. It was difficult and not what I'd expected at all. I remember emailing Ross McDonnell (a photographer who I really look up to) at 3am saying I wanted to give up and he just told me to keep at it.

I went to Bangkok a few days later and completely by chance ended up meeting someone who owned one of the largest brothels in the city. I remember sitting in the office and chain-smoking cigarettes as my anxiety was spiralling out of control. Meanwhile, the owner and his Russian friends were eating peanuts and talking about their plans to move into nuclear energy. I began to build a bit of a relationship with the sex workers before we spent time together taking pictures. I spent two months in Bangkok taking pictures in brothels and short time hotels and went back a year later to make my first film. 

The interest in photographing sex workers initially came from watching Venus Xtravaganza in Paris Is Burning, she had a natural grace, power, and beauty like none I'd seen before. These people are strong, wonderful characters in an often difficult situation, and they're the people I want to photograph and spend time with, working with them. I’d find out what they wanted to do and how they wanted to be perceived. 

How did you put all the photos together? Was there a common thread or a point to the contrast for you or is it just a diary?

Joshua Gordon: I'm not interested in doing conventional documentary projects or reportage and when I started doing this sort of work I knew I wanted to present it in a different way than a standard, very factual project. I read a quote from Wong Kar Wai's cinematographer Christopher Doyle while in Thailand and it really resonated with me, he was speaking about how the Western audience always needs a beginning, a middle and an end, but for the Asian audience it's not important, not everything has to be explained and dissected, it's more about the journey and the mood, it flows more loosely. It's looser, a lot of the time the narrative isn't at all structured and I love that. To me it's a way more interesting way to tell a story, fragments of different situations as opposed to a traditional timeline.

Diary Part I launches tonight at Dalston’s Oh Gosh. For more information on Gordon’s work, click here