The kids that you were photographing for Fast Forward were probably not very used to having somebody take their picture. But now everybody’s taking pictures of each other constantly—we’re all taking pictures of ourselves constantly. Has that shift affected how you’ve conceived of your projects, and how your subjects respond to your presence?
One of the themes of Fast Forward was how kids were looking to make a name for themselves and looking for some kind of fame or attention. And that was before reality TV and before everybody had a Facebook account and before kids were actively involved with marketing themselves with social media. I definitely think that interest in getting that kind of attention helps me get access now. When the Fast Forward pictures first came out in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, they were very controversial. People were very upset at how they were portrayed. They were like, “We lead meaningful lives, you’re making us look excessive and materialistic.” By the time I did kids + money, which was going back to that same subject 10 years later, reality shows had proliferated and Paris Hilton was famous and the Kardashians were around. The parents of the kids I was shooting were very involved in that project. I remember one mother saying proudly, “Our kids are just like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.” At that point, in 2007, people had a completely different attitude about exposing themselves—all of the things that they were sensitive about in the ’90s had kind of gone away, and they felt they could be unabashedly materialistic or, you know, very honest about their shopping habits without any concern for what people were going think when they saw it.
How does your focus on gender and the objectification of the female body in Girl Culture and Thin fit in to your examination of wealth and privilege in America?
I’m engaged in this question about what has currency, what has status, and what has value. I think girls learn at an early age that their power as a woman comes from their body, and that it has value and currency. In Jackie’s story, for example, the fact that she’s an engineer that decided she could—and did—get further in life by becoming a beauty queen and a model is a really interesting and important reflection of the culture.
Are you more interested in female protagonists and subjects?
For a while I was kind of “the gender photographer,” and I don’t feel like that now. In The Queen of Versailles, I was as interested in David’s story as I was Jackie’s. I think as a woman myself, it’s a little easier for me to connect and create intimacy with subjects who are women, because I know that language a little bit better. But I’m interested in boys and men too. I have two sons, and they are always asking me, “When are you gonna do Boy Culture?” [Laughs]. What I see happening in boy culture is that instead of [body-image pressure] getting better for girls, it’s getting more challenging for boys, and I think that’s an important story, too.
To put it in hyper-theoretical terms, the body is a site of conflict where all the battles of the marketplace are played out.
Right. I am the daughter of ’70s feminists, and when I was growing up there was a lot of blame on men and the establishment, but what I’ve come to believe now is that it’s more about commercial culture, which is not some kind of monolithic force or conspiracy to bring down women or girls, but it’s just so pervasive. As advertising and marketing got more and more aggressive, it hit girls and women much harder. There’s a part in Beauty CULTure where one of the interviewees says, “Every part of the body is good to sell to.” There are now facials for your vulva!
In a lot of your work you’re going into really intimate spaces with people—their bedrooms and bathrooms. How do you establish that much trust with a subject?
I think the more work you do, the more people understand who you are and what you’re trying to do. I’ve always been very much a purist in terms of the way I document—nothing is set up, nothing is manipulated. It’s very different from the process we see in reality TV today. And it’s one that’s always required a lot of time. I spent almost three years on The Queen of Versailles, five on Fast Forward and maybe seven on Girl Culture. I don’t rush it.
Getting access is such a hard thing to describe. Every time I do a lecture or Q&A I get asked about it. It’s so hard to imagine getting it, and when you do, it feels so natural that you take it for granted.
Like falling in love.
Yeah, like, how do you tell your kid how to make a friend? And it’s also so fickle, like you could lose it at any moment, and it was just miraculous that I was able to keep the trust with David and Jackie and their family through all the hard times. It wasn’t like doing a TV show with an actor where they have a contract and have to stay involved—they could have stopped it at any moment. I always said to the crew, “Shoot like it’s your last shoot, because you never know if you’re going to be invited back.”
And then after the movie was done, David sued you!
He did, and then Jackie continued to promote the movie. I chose to end the movie on an incredibly painful moment for David, and he hates that part of it.