CD: John, many thanks for agreeing to a part of the FuseVisual Project.I’ve been looking forward to this one for quite a while. I’ve followed your work and writing for a few years. Lets start with your history and backstory a bit. Tell us about your journey to photography and where it all began.
Also, I love the tag line: Paparazzi to the Iconic Unknown. How did the tagline come about and is it the guiding principle to your work?
John Sevigny: Being born right after the Summer of Love/Drugs and before Altamonte, I was exposed to all the social upheaval and counter-culture stuff of that time. Of course, I was a child. But between idealism inherited from the hippies, and the DIY punk ethic that prevailed when I was a teenager, I always had a sense that you could do anything. In my case, it became a mandate that you had to do something, anything, because it was clear that it would not be that way for long. Doors started closing with Jimmy Carter's loss, the stupidest, collective decision Americans have ever made. Then we had the triumvirate of Reagan, Thatcher and Pinochet, who fucked everything for everyone all over the world, for decades if not a century or more. In any case, I started taking pictures before things went to shit. Photography was the best way for me to "speak." It still is.
Regarding Paprazzi to the Iconic Unknown, It describes a lot of what I do, but not all of it. It's not a mission statement. I have also been called (by myself) a One-Man Photographic Groove Machine. I believe we are here to have fun. These little things are partly true, partly false, but mostly make me laugh.
CD: You are known for your work in Central America. What is it about the culture that drives you to shoot there. Are there long term goals or projects you are working on that you would like to share?
John Sevigny: I don't know if I'm known for work in Central America. Latin America maybe. Mexico more than the isthmus itself. Besides the fact that I like it here, it seems to me that in the post war, post Guatemalan genocide era, there are very few photographers working here. And in San Salvador, like NY, there are a thousand stories in the naked city. But my interests are not confined to one place.
I used to work in terms of projects with singular themes. Now I'm thinking a little bit differently and just shooting a lot and putting the pictures away to age or grow or something. I have a pretty big collection of new photographs from this area that I expect to be exhibiting in 2015 in the States.
CD: Who were your influences: First as a young photographer and as now.
John Sevigny: Muhammad Ali, Bob Griese, and Evel Knievel. That's who we talked about in the school yard at Ludlum Elementary in South Miami, anyway. I think I learned "float like a butterfly sting like a bee" before I learned the Pledge of Allegiance. I also learned to make spit-balls about the same time, so take that for what it's worth.
That said, there's no getting around the fact that my father and most of my parents' friends made art, some of it good, some of it hippie trash. The first photographs I remember seeing were by Matthew Brady. And when I was a kid I spent huge amounts of time at the downtown library in Miami looking at big coffee table books about Spanish Baroque painters, and later, Willem de Kooning and Richard Diebenkorn. But Diego Velazquez is the painter who is responsible for me being a photographer.
Recently I've wanted to make pictures with the simple emotion of say, a Lightnin' Hopkins song.
CD: Looking back over your career, what are the most important lessons you have learned from each path you’ve chosen?
John Sevigny: This is complicated. I am a political animal from an extremely politically astute, and sometimes very active family. Politics are inherent in everything, but I have learned that it's best for me to stay away from parties and institutions because it complicates art-making and angers me. So I go against my political instincts and work from within, which makes me more of an Expressionist than a documentary photographer.
CD: Your images are brutally honest and unflinching. How did this style of shooting come to you or was it a natural sense of how you shoot and compose? Also, has teaching made you a better photographer?
John Sevigny: I have always worked very close to the things I photograph, and it's a point of pride for me that I get closer and closer. Not just in terms of framing a picture but in the sense that I get to know people, places, the texture of skin, the way a market wall looks at dusk. It's nothing I ever sat down and planned. It's just the way I work.
Teaching makes you a better photographer and photographing makes you a better teacher. I love teaching as much as I love taking photographs.
CD: What advice would you give to a young professional about to embark into this career?
John Sevigny: I subscribe to the punk rock philosophy that the spirit in which you do something is more important than technique. So as I tell my students, the most important thing is to get out and take pictures. The other stuff will come with time. Everyone gets better. As far as careers go, I'm not sure I'd advise anyone to choose this field. It's a very long haul, with very long odds, and no guarantees. You have to do it because you love it and try not to think about "making it," whatever that term means. Success and failure are equally cruel mistresses..