Ivar Wigan, the photojournalist known for exploring indigenous tribes and forgotten youth culture, shoots an Instagram-cast editorial on the streets of Hackney.
A rust-hued image shows a woman walking down a destroyed New Orleans street. On her way to a local strip bar, she weaves through Hurricane Katrina debris: a smashed TV monitor; an upended coach; crumpled bicycle tyres. Despite many people’s assumptions of the shot, the scantily clad girl isn’t a prostitute or a stripper, but a student nurse. Taken as part of a 2013 project called The Gods which explores hip-hop communities in the Deep South, photojournalist Ivar Wigan aimed to show the contained energy and effusive optimism of these often-stigmatised gangs. The series was named after the Olympian deities of ancient Rome, and is the street term for veterans of America’s localised gang cultures.
Recently, Ivar teamed up with stylist Matthew Josephs to shoot a fashion story on the bile and fruit juice-stained streets of east London. Like the rest of the photographer’s stories, subjects were selected because they seemed extraordinary in some way, entirely celebratory of their mixed roots and their London culture. The pair was careful to select the characters in private, via Instagram – away from the discretion of busy agents and fashion editors.
Ivar has spent much of his adult life hiding in plain sight. Just as Larry Clark had done in the build-up to his controversial Tulsa project, before photographing a particular street scene or indigenous tribe, Ivar makes himself a key player in it. He’s lived as an Atlantan gangster, with an Ethiopian tribe, has been in the firing line of Bloods vs Crips shoot-outs and has hustled the blocks of small-town Florida. For The Gods, it was two months before Ivar even took a photograph, splitting his time between hooded street corners and downtown dive bars.
Another still from the project shows a crowd gathered around a woman on a moped. It was taken moments before one of the revellers was shot dead by a Miami PD. The point of Ivar’s work is not to document the violence of a culture, but to capture an energy unique to it. Often, this means that the shadier stills he collects end up on the scrap heap. “I look for scenes of strength and beauty,” he tells me. “I don’t really aim to portray any of that stuff, like guns and violence, because that’s just one small negative aspect of these environments.”
“When people say they’re going clubbing in Atlanta they really mean a strip club,” he continues. “It’s not really a sexual experience, it’s not an all-male scene at all. It’s very integrated, so you get big groups of girls, couples going on dates.” Many of the street parties in the series happened at the tail-end of funeral marches through the centre of town. Often, jazz bands would follow a hearse and continue their set through the night. “All the rappers [mutant hip-hop luminaries like Young Thug, Future and Lil Yachty are from Atlanta] get tables in the strip bars, date the top dancers and drop their records.” Atlanta’s big, bass-drenched trap tunes are debuted in the joints months before they hit the mainstream.
For another series, Ghosts, Ivar travelled south to the Horn of Africa to live with a pastoralist ethnic group known as the Mursi Tribe. Later, he’d spend a month with the nomadic Suris of south Sudan as they performed scarring and stick fighting rituals with rival villages. Like The Gods, Ivar was keen to dispel shared perceptions of the tribes as violent and blood-letting Neanderthals. Instead, Ghosts is a loving dispatch of 200-year-old traditions carried out along the banks of the Nile. One frame shows a group of face-painted males glaring through the smokey swills of a village bonfire.
Before Ghosts, The Gods and the strip bars, Ivar studied ancient history at the university of Edinburgh. In the early 2000s, he moved to London to graft on the sound stage of Shepperton film complex, Britain’s answer to Universal Studios. Wigan worked on the first of the Angelina Jolie-helmed Tomb Raider saga before assisting a handful of celebrity photographers. His favourite filmmakers Nicolas Roeg and Roman Polanski both had photographer’s eyes: the only way into the movie-making game, he thought, was to become a world class image-maker first. “I realised that you can plug away for half a century before you get anywhere [in the film industry],” he says. “It was fairly mundane, but I just loved the whole studio system. I worked in all the big studios in London and learnt how to use lighting and all the different cameras. You could always tell Kubrick was a photographer.”
When we spoke, Ivar had spent the best part of a year living in the slums of Jamaica’s north coast: Montego Bay; Ocho Rios and St Anne’s. Presently, youth unemployment rates in Jamaica are at a 29% high, and most citizens don’t own a passport. “I’ve been going to Jamaica for about ten years, and it’s quite a rough place when you’re out in the inner city communities,” he says. “But I go up to people who have really got something, and show them samples of my work on my phone.” Once they’ve seen the love in his work, he tells me, they almost always want to get involved. “People really understand when they see the pictures. They know what I’m about. People at their strongest… I want to capture people with strength.”