NW: Even if you weren’t optimistic about your own work being a catalyst for change, did you have any confidence that things were improving and perhaps this would document the process?
CO: I actually wasn’t confident that we would have equality in my lifetime.
NW: Wow. But it’s always two steps forward and one step back. I think for things to change permanently, there has to be a process. There has to be something tangible, and maybe that’s what photography does—enable us to look back and see the steps along the way.
A singer, songwriter and pianist known as the “High Priestess of Soul,” Nina Simone recorded over 40 albums and played a prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? retraces her life and rise to success as a musician and activist.
CO: Well, it’s so fascinating. But I’m interested in ideas of memory. You know, recently I watched the Nina Simone documentary, which is just brilliant. I hadn’t known just how tied she was to the Civil Rights Movement and how her voice was kind of left out in recent histories.
NW: Do you think that’s because she was a woman?
CO: I think so.
NW: Sorry, that’s another story.
CO: With what’s been happening in terms of Black Lives Matter in the United States, this incredible police presence that we live under and the inequality that’s happening within the African American community—you look back at those Civil Rights images and realize that things haven’t changed enough.
NW: I think those of us who are affluent, white and living in our liberal bubbles can be easily fooled into thinking we’ve politically evolved. But then you travel outside or listen to the news. You realize that it’s a much slower process, and we need to work much harder.
CO: It’s a very slow process. Looking at those photographs triggers my own childhood memory of watching the nightly news and the Chicago riots and kind of going through that period of time. I was born in ’61. The TV and the nightly news were prevalent in American culture. When I go back and look at images of Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, I remember how far we’ve come. Yet we haven’t really even scratched the surface. I think that without people going out and making the work, the potential to remember an idea as it was is no longer there.
I did a body of work in and around West Adams with polaroids of the nightly news. Recently, with the anniversary of Katrina, the image that kept being shown on the news was the kids on the roof holding up “Help Us.” That was one of the polaroids I made, so it’s interesting what gets recycled in that way.
“It was about hanging on to this moment in our
lives in which all of us were incredibly
vulnerable from the decimation of our community
through AIDS and experiencing extreme hatred.”
— CATHERINE OPIE
NW: It’s almost like you’re an archivist or documentarian.
A San Francisco-based writer, editor and publisher, Dave Eggers is known for his best-selling memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Eggers is co-founder of the nonprofit literacy program 826 Valencia, and founder of both ScholarMatch, which helps pay for college, and the publishing house McSweeney’s. His 2013 dystopian novel The Circle raises questions about privacy, democracy, human knowledge and the effects of the internet.
CO: I’m a huge [Dave] Eggers fan. I had my students read Eggers last quarter when I was teaching my undergrad class, “Selfie/Self Portraiture/#WTF.” They had to read his book The Circle about social media. It’s interesting how social media is used in relationship to activism now. So much of what we can talk about and understand about police brutality is because somebody was there with a cellphone. Has that literally replaced the common conception of journalism? Have we become a society in which self-imposed documentarians are taking on the world?
NW: Yes! Tell me about what you did with ACT UP.
CO: Protests. Hit the streets. New York and LA. I started by going to meetings in New York and then continued to be a part of ACT UP, but primarily Queer Nation in LA until it all folded. I did some needle exchange work.
NW: Are there any organizations you’re still involved with?
CO: Not really. Mainly my philanthropy is giving to AIDS organizations. In terms of an activist role, no.
NW: Would you like to be more involved on that level again?
CO: If I had the time. But you know, that was when I was alone. It’s harder when you’re a full-time professor, parent, on boards and a full-time artist. It’s harder to kind of just get up and go to meetings like you did. But I don’t think that there’s the same kind of activism in the country today.
NW: I think that my generation and younger lacks a sense that we can make an impact and are very apathetic. It’s dangerous. Do you try to inspire your students to have that same sense of energy to elicit change in whatever way they can?
NW: You are still actively involved then, as a teacher.
CO: I totally get involved. Read the news. Watch it. Understand what’s happening in the world. So many people don’t even read the paper.
NW: A photograph that you took as part of the 700 Nimes Road series at Elizabeth Taylor’s home raised $275,000 at The Elton John AIDS Foundation benefit recently. Was it a revelation to you when you first realized you could raise huge amounts of money for worthwhile causes by donating your work?
CO: Not really because I know the value of the work and that people desire it. What’s harder for me is that now everybody’s using art for philanthropy, and we can only donate so much because we also need to make a living. I think everybody coming to you for art all the time is really difficult. It makes you feel really bad having to say no.