Jim Goldberg is an American artist and photographer, whose work reflects long-term, in-depth collaborations with neglected, ignored, or otherwise outside-the-mainstream population. Here, Goldberg is interviewed on the occasion of his collaborative collection with VANS, dropping at Patta this week.
Jim, it's been 25 years since Raised By Wolves was first published — for those that aren't already familiar, how would you describe this body of work?
Raised By Wolves combines ten years of photographs, texts, films, and installations, into a book and traveling exhibition that documented the lives of runaway teenagers in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Utilizing my own form of visual language crafted from home movie stills, snapshots, drawings, diary entries, audio, and discarded belongings, the work stands at the intersection of the documentary tradition, Californian conceptual art movements of the 1970s, and the emerging subjective storytelling of the 1980s. Raised by Wolves tells profoundly human stories, looking at the beauty and complexity that persist in fragile lives despite pervasive forms of social and spiritual poverty.
How do you see this photographic content relevant to today, in terms of both the subjects + subject matter?
I wish I could say the issues in Raised By Wolves were irrelevant today, unfortunately homelessness, social alienation, and poverty [struggling class dynamics?] are more prevalent in youth culture than ever before.
I think the issues we face regarding climate change, a sense of faltering democracy, [etc.], affect the kids the most. The world looks different to every generation but there’s a greater sense of peril now that manifests itself in the way children act out or reject societal ‘norms.’ In a way, it’s freeing to see young people living the lives they want; free from the restraints or expectations of previous generations in the same way the subjects in Raised By Wolves did before it was socially acceptable to do so. The difference now is that we are giving more opportunities and platforms to youth to help shape what our society will look like as we head into uncertain times. We need their input now more than ever.
What do you want this collaboration with Vans to represent, and how do you hope this will resonate with consumers?
On one level, I want to celebrate the fashion, the style, and the innovation of these kids. Against all odds, they stayed true to themselves through the little clothing they had–hand sewing details onto shoes or painting over their jackets. Their sense of style gave them identity and voice during the times they felt most unseen or neglected. Self-expression through fashion became a survival tactic for some. It’s a fine line, because you would never want people to think homelessness or the other problems these kids endured were costumes that can be put on and taken off. But I see the creation of the line as something different: as a recognition of the kids’ brilliance and determination.
I hope the collaboration resonates with people on a personal level to call attention to the seemingly never-ending story of homelessness in the U.S. – a story that’s getting more desperate in California all the time. At the very least, I hope we can initiate conversations on these tough topics and maybe imagine a safer, more hospitable future for everyone
How would you personally describe the following in current times, and considering current events: class, happiness + power?
I think my outrage about the desperation of the poor and the dissatisfaction of the rich stemmed in part from my belief that they represented derogation from the path of capitalism, a veering off course that had to be rooted out and documented. I’ve felt this way since I began photographing and have only become more interested (and somewhat disheartened) by the seemingly inextricable ties between class, happiness, and power in our country.
I’m not an economist but I’d like to think that my work asks compelling questions about how discussions of wealth and poverty are framed, the language that’s used to describe them, and who benefits from this language. Economics in the broad sense is descriptive; it comes from the outside. When I was working on Rich and Poor (1975-1985) and Raised By Wolves (1985-1995), I wanted to allow people to describe their experiences in their own words, from the inside, with pictures that sometimes supported and sometimes undercut what they had to say. I wanted to open up the picture, open up the discussion, to a more complicated and sometimes contradictory discussion that economics or traditional photojournalism may not allow. Not that I don’t value those things, but they are not the only point of view from which to look at a situation.
Why do you think it's important for artists to collaborate with brands?
I’m not sure it is important for artists to collaborate with brands. But Vans is making a contribution to the LGBTQ+ Center in Los Angeles, where I met many of the subjects of Raised by Wolves bank in the 80s and 90s (in LA, not at the Center), and that’s important. Subverting the power and visibility of big brands to give back to our communities is a major plus. Also, I’ve been wearing Vans forever so working with them to imagine a wearable line has been incredibly rewarding for me and also just pretty cool.
Your combination of images with supporting text deepens the storytelling component when viewing one of your photographs — why has it been so important to have your subject matter almost help deliver and guide the narrative?
When I was in graduate school I began to develop a technique that involved people writing on photographs as another way of telling their story. This became integral to my practice for 40+ years. At the time I developed it, I wasn’t thinking it would have such a lasting impact on the way I work. I simply saw something that I needed to try to make sense of and by adding text to photographs I felt like I was creating a more in-depth understanding of people and their situations. In turn, they became participants in the telling of their stories, which created closer connections, empathy, and intimacy with viewers.
It’s not naïve to think that artists can strive to help create a language, a language that allows people to express their stories, dreams, aspirations, and values in new and honest ways. Hopefully in the end each small contribution from a subject adds up to a substantial change in the way we view each other.
The VANS x Jim Goldberg Collection is now available online and in-store at Patta Amsterdam.