Joel-Peter Witkin
[Photographer, b. 1939, Brooklyn, New York, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.]

 I have consecrated my life to changing matter into spirit with the hope of one day seeing it all. Seeing in its total form, while wearing the mask, from the distance of death. And there, in the eternal destiny, to seek the face I had before the world was made. 
 My first conscious recollection was when I was 6 years old. It happened on a Sunday when my mother was escorting my twin brother and me down the steps of the tenement where we lived. We were going to church. While walking through the hallway to the entrance of the building, we heard an incredible crash mixed with screaming and cries for help. The accident had involved three cars, all with families in them. Somehow, in the confusion, I was no longer holding my mother’s hand. At the place where I stood at the curb, I could see something rolling from one of the overturned cars. It stopped at the curb where I stood. It was the head of a little girl. I bent down to touch the face, to ask it—but before I could touch it—someone carried me away. 
 People who hate what I make hate me, too. They must think I am a demon or some kind of evil sorcerer. Those who understand what I do appreciate the determination, love, and courage it takes to find wonder and beauty in people who are considered by society to be damaged, unclean, dysfunctional, or wretched. 
 I never photograph anything I don’t believe in. If I love working with death, it's because even in death I find this power of reality, that no sculptor or painter could recreate, not even a Michelangelo or a Da Vinci. The Pieta or the Virgin of the Rocks are but inventions of the mind, however wonderful—while in the real human flesh, whether alive or dead, there is a power that is god-given. This is what keeps me in photography. 
 I think that what makes a photograph so powerful is the fact that, as opposed to other forms, like video or motion pictures, it is about stillness. I think the reason a person becomes a photographer is because they want to take it all and compress it into one particular stillness. When you really want to say something to someone, you grab them, you hold them, you embrace them. That's what happens in this still form. 
 When I’m working with a severed head, I’m engaged in a very direct spiritual dialogue. This person really had a life. His body is in a coffin somewhere, and part of his brain was taken out for medical research. My job, given the opportunity, is to put flowers into the remainder of his brain, as if it were the well of my existence. I’m trying to make a totally humbling image. It’s a very crazy and profound experience. 
 I work alone during printing and begin by communicating with my equipment and chemistry, thanking them in advance. I place a negative in the enlarger and the darkroom becomes a kind of holy house... 
 Sometimes I say to myself that the work is smarter than I am. 
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