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

 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. 
 My art is the way I perceive and define life. It is sacred work, since what I make are my prayers. These works are the measure of my character, the transfiguration of love and desire, and, finally, the quality of my soul. 
 In order to know if I were truly alive, I’d make the invisible visible! Photography would be the means to bring God down to earth—to exist for me in the photographic images I would create. I believe that all my photographs are incarnations, representing the form and substance of what my mind sees and attempts to understand. 
 At the moment of photography I act instantaneously and instinctively. At the moment of printing I take time for esthetic decisions for which I didn’t have time with the camera, I re-design the image into something more powerful, more mysterious. 
 Sometimes I say to myself that the work is smarter than I am. 
 We’re here, we’re living, because we’re not completely clear, we have to become clear. The darkness within us sometimes is so dark that for me it becomes very fascinating. What I really want is this really humble, individual connection, not with a religious institution, but with the living Christ. Whatever it takes in a positive way to get there, I’ll get there. The best means, it seems, of getting there is the aesthetic means of photography. 
 I had met these people the night before at the S and M club, and had convinced them to be photographed. When all was ready, this one said “Mr. Witkin, I don’t want to show my thing. Is there any way we can make it be there without showing it?” I just shouted, “Get the fuck on the set”—so he acted submissive and kind of liked it. But the guy who was to put the blade into his cock started complaining: “I can’t reach this.” So I screamed, “You just have to.” I was kind of nervous. I’d been working all night to set everything up. 
 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. 
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