You’ve probably seen Mark Laita’s commercial photography – the cherry red Mini Cooper, glossy iPad, and ever so drinkable bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue – but you might not guess the same photographer is behind Created Equal, a provocative series of diptychs portraying Americans from all walks of life.
Brett Myers: This work seems so different from all your other photography, both commercial and personal. How did this project come about and why did you want to work on it?
Mark Laita: Created Equal is different from my other work in that it’s not politically correct. Perhaps it’s a reaction to all the years of working for advertising clients, producing work that was pleasing to look at. Almost all commercial work has a committee or focus group making certain that the end result is “nice.” I felt the need to produce something that was raw and real, as life truly is, not just what we aspire to.
The more shocking to our sense of what’s “right,” the better. That’s why I sought out the worst pedophile I could find (with a list of the most horrible convictions you can imagine) and a beautiful and innocent little girl (photographed with her mother’s consent of the pairing of images). If the viewer cringes from the pairing that’s great. I think a lot of us don’t think what you see in Created Equal exists in our city, but take a look at your neighborhood’s Megan’s list website sometime and tell me how “nice” your town is. Every city in the U.S. has sex offenders, prostitutes, drug addicts along with wonderful humanitarians, philanthropists and leaders. I aimed to depict our country as it is, not as we would like to think it is.
BAM: How do you choose which images to pair, and are there times when you have trouble deciding between multiple different pairings, all of which might completely change the meaning of the photograph?
ML: Absolutely. There were many diptychs that were switched several times, which of course changes what the viewer sees and thinks. They’re almost all interchangeable.
BAM: My first thought was that this work reminds me a bit of August Sanders’ photographs documenting different types of people (e.g. The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, etc). Obviously there are also many differences between your work and his — probably the biggest one being the amount of judgment you place on your subjects. Can you tell me about the kinds of negotiations you have, either with your subjects, or your own conscience about the types of comparisons you draw and the context you place on the people who sit for you?
ML: As I see people I’m amazed at how circumstances, fate or our environment directs us into whom we have become. I am fascinated at how, in America, one young girl grows up to be a catholic nun and another grows up to be a prostitute. What kind of things happened to her as a child? Is she happy? Is she a contributing member of society? These are my concerns. What judgment am I making by showing these two images together? Does this not actually happen in our country? Created Equal simply shows real examples of these ironic twists of fate. I find people fascinating and these diptychs help to get your mind turning.
As for my conscience about my role in these pairings, I know I have depicted each person as they were on that day. They stood for my camera knowing that image might appear in a book. The fact that an African-American Baptist churchgoer appears next to a white supremacist doesn’t change who she is or what she stands for. I believe in fact it reinforces it. The same goes for the white supremacist. While I know many of my subjects would have declined had they known up front what I had planned to do with their portrait, I have shown the pairings to several of the most “uncomfortable” ones and the subjects ultimately loved it.
BAM: When I saw your Bull Rider/Rock Musician diptych, I chuckled because I’ve never drawn comparisons between those two professions before. Yet beyond the obvious, leather pants, there’s a hyper-masculinity and even a certain ideal of what it means to be a cowboy or a rock star, which can sometimes look a bit like a costume. I like that you force people to think about what it is you’re suggesting, but sometimes I am really uncomfortable with your suggestions. For instance Woman in Bar/Gold Prospector. Are there any pieces which in retrospect, make you uncomfortable?
ML: Yes, of course! That’s the whole idea. If life doesn’t make you uncomfortable you’re not aware of what’s going on around you. Reality is harsh and these images aim to show that. So much photography we see now is heavily retouched and beautified to the extent that it’s no longer photography. It’s some sort of marketing monster we’ve spawned. Created Equal’s portraits are not always beautiful, but they’re real and honest, which is what I aimed for.
Each of these pairings means something different to each viewer. As for the two examples you’ve cited, the Bullrider/Rock Musician was, for me, about young men proving themselves in the world — two “dragon slayers” looking to make their mark in ways that are drastically different, due to their different cultures. While some of these pairings are very heavy and dark, many are stupid and fun. The Woman in Bar/Gold Prospector is about what people will do for money. A gold digger is a gold digger. Life can be painful and funny at the same time.