Nan one month after being battered, 1984. Copyright Nan Goldin.
Jordan Ashley, founder of Souljourn Yoga, on Nan Goldin’s work, Nan one month after being battered.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
JA I’ve always really resonated with Nan Goldin’s work. I was first exposed to it when I was in high school when I took a photography class. I remember that the images seemed strangely portentous, especially because I had dreams of moving to New York for college and I was seeing whole the underbelly of New York city and life through the lens of someone who’d had a similar upbringing and background (Jewish, loss of a sibling). I think this picture is really beautiful is because it’s not traditionally beautiful, it’s extremely raw and unedited. You can see the black and blue marks around her face, one month after her traumatic incident, but there’s still an effort there to return to normalcy. She has her hair done and her lipstick on, but nonetheless, she’s not trying to hide what happened to her. I think so often we end up trying to cover up our present and our truth and it’s empowering to see a work of art that’s so up front.
GB This is from the series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Is this the most beautiful in the series to you, or is it the most powerful? Is there a difference?
JA I think there is a difference and this is the most powerful one to me. She has other ones that are perhaps more traditionally beautiful in terms of how the light is used and the subjects are photographed, but this one is the most powerful which makes it in its own right, the most beautiful.
GB She says that what she wanted to achieve with her pictures was complete honesty. But they’re also pictures of what she describes as “fabulous people” in 1980s New York, so are they in danger if becoming more romanticized with every year that passes?
JA I think trauma can very easily become glamourised and exploited in terms of not just the person who’s experienced it, but the whole idea of the trauma itself.
GB Nan Goldin hates selfie culture and the way Instagram is so shallow and aspirant. She wishes people would be a bit more courageous and explore experiences honestly on social media. Do you agree with that?
JA Sometimes you’ll see a post by someone saying they’ve had a bad day or tear-stained face, but it’s never as bold as this image. She’s not trying to evoke empathy or sympathy even, it’s just her honesty. It’s a raw portrayal of what she experienced. I do wish people could speak more openly about what’s happened to them. I speak from my own experience of being a survivor of abuse and when you do talk about it, you’re met with so much blame and questions about why you didn’t leave. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency goes into detail on this and you’re connecting with someone on a really visceral, almost tumultuous level. To have that kind of romantic entanglement despite the cost of it seems to be a story that’s more common than we’d like to think.
GB She describes really well the emotional seesaw between wanting that dependency and intimacy but still wanting autonomy within the relationship – and how the two sides can never really be resolved.
JA It’s a push and a pull. Whoever you’re with in that situation ends up breaking down your sense of self. You leave or try to act autonomously and suddenly they’re on their best behaviour. There’s this constant back and forth, this building up and literal smashing down, which becomes more and more painful. When I did leave, I had to start the process of regaining my sense of self and am still very much on that journey
GB When you’re in an abusive relationship, so much of the damage is psychological. When you’ve suffered a lot of emotional abuse a bruise can almost be a relief because it’s an undeniable sign that whatever is happening is wrong.
JA Yes, you have physical proof of what’s happened. She decided not to cover it up and not to put foundation on it and in documenting that moment you can see her attempt to move forward with her life. But I do still think that when there’s physical evidence it’s unfortunately not always an indicator of the fact that it’s time to leave. In the US it takes the average woman in an abusive relationship nine times to exit it, unless she dies first trying. I would imagine that this is the culmination of many incidents.
GB She says she took the picture so no one could ever revise the incident. Have you ever taken a picture of a bruise for that reason?
JA I have. I had a bite mark on my arm and I took a photo of it as proof and I sent it to friends who were still very much siding with him.
GB How did they respond?
JA To cut a long story short, they’re no longer my friends.
GB So what do you think when you see the famous picture from this series of her in bed with Brian? He’s naked and smoking a cigarette.
JA It’s one of those shots of pure intimacy. And intimacy isn’t always romantic and it isn’t always kind. It’s not always ugly and abusive either though, so even now I can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that despite everything, I did have a connection to my ex. Something created that tether and I think the photograph of Nan and Brian shows that connection.
GB This is a picture of a woman fighting back. Not just against her abusive boyfriend but against a world dominated by male photographers who were obsessed with technique and creating beautiful black and white images. Nan Goldin took these raw pictures in saturated colour.
JA It’s the antithesis of anything Helmut Newton ever produced. I think some people will still find this beautiful but other people will find it sad or disgusting, or will think that she shouldn’t be showing this, that she should be ashamed. But I think empathy doesn’t necessarily develop through joy or happiness or fun, it’s through going through the ringer and shared experiences. I think deeper human connections come from that kind of loss and vulnerability which is why this photo is so powerful. It exudes that vulnerability but she’s still there with her lipstick and her hair and moving forward with her life.
GB In the 80s it felt like there were people pushing boundaries like Nan Goldin, so the world would end up being more open-minded. But now it feels like we have a label for everything but no greater understanding of what it means to be one of those labelled minorities. Do you think we live in conservative times?
JA I think when there’s a conservative regime, the counterculture always pushes back. So, in spite of the Trump administration, you do have the Women’s March, Me Too and Time’s Up. If there is a silver lining in Hillary not winning, it’s that I don’t think these movements would have come to light had she won. I think in a way it gives us more room and more fire to give voice to the issues that resonate with us.
GB Nan is an activist now, going to battle with the Sackler family – and with great success. Museums are now refusing to take money from the family who make OxyContin. But do you think contemporary art has lost its power? That direct action has to be the way forward?
JA I think art and activism have always gone hand in hand, but I do think that art can easily shift into activism and activism can easily shift into art. Keith Haring is a great example of an artist who shifted into activism. When Nan went with her fellow demonstrators to the Metropolitan Museum and dumped hundreds of pill bottles in the moat around the Egyptian Temple in the Sackler Wing, that is now her art.
GB You’ve filled your life with beauty, using your passion for yoga to do good in the world. How did that come about?
JA The original definition of yoga is from a Sanskrit word that means ‘union’. I used yoga practice to really heal and mend myself, to explore that within the safe perimeter of the mat, to get connected back to my body again. It was in the height of my abusive relationship that I stopped practising yoga. I was doing my teacher training and felt under his thumb for the whole time. I should have been happy about putting years of practice into action and finding my voice, but I would cry every day and I couldn’t figure out why. I started Souljourn Yoga for girls all over the world who don’t have family support or education to fall back on, who could end up in child marriage or being trafficked. I wanted to take the yoga off the mat to countries that are post-conflict like Rwanda and Cambodia who have experienced genocide and the very worst side of humanity. I wanted to create a union between me and these women, to start a global community.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
JA Honest, raw and true. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder so it’s up to the individual to decide what is honest and raw and true for them.