A sex worker with an ankle tag – Bruce LaBruce’s best photograph

‘I realised he was under house arrest, for breaking and entering. This was during my partying days – it was business as usual back then’

I met this hustler in the pre-Grindr era, around 2004, probably in one of the hustler bars in Los Angeles that no longer exist. A likely scenario is that I took him back to where I was staying, at my friend Billy’s place. That’s where the shot was taken. I’m pretty sure Billy was out of town.

When the hustler got there, I realised he had this ankle bracelet on to track him. He was under house arrest, I think, for breaking and entering. I don’t think he was supposed to come and see me. It was obviously in violation of his parole, but that didn’t seem to bother him.

I actually have another photo of this guy: my friend Terence Koh had filled the basement of a gallery with white powder that looked like cocaine and this same hustler stripped off and started doing snow angels in it. So I took a photo. There’s a thing with hustlers not wanting to be identified in photographs so you learn certain tricks: I’ve shot one with a shirt over his head, another with his back to the camera.

With this image, I like the way the foot is framed on the Louis Vuitton trunk. It’s a paradoxical juxtaposition. You think: “What could this be? What is the backstory?” The dirty toenails are interesting, too. The bruise on the foot adds another question. I also like the colours: the various browns of the skin, trunk and hardwood floor. It’s a weirdly warm image, even though it’s a harsh subject.

The flip phone on the trunk dates it to a particular era. I remember, back in the late 1990s, we all started carrying around these little Yashica T4 cameras. You would be at a party and four people would suddenly pull out a Yashica and take a picture. Whether it was somebody drunk, taking their clothes off or snorting cocaine off someone’s penis, it would be documented by four different cameras.

This was all before smartphones. The smartphone is not like a camera. It’s a flat screen, there’s no viewfinder and it also flips, which is probably one of the most horrible technological advances ever, because it ushered in the selfie. Essentially, it reversed the whole history of photography, because the camera now pointed back at you. I think aesthetics really suffered with the smartphone. There’s not as much attention to framing and composition. The photos in my new book are all from the era before smartphones and they definitely have a different quality to them.

Back in the 1990s, I made the movie Hustler White, about street hustlers on Santa Monica Boulevard and the end of that scene. I also did a lot of pornographic photoshoots for New York magazines in the late 90s and early 00s: I shot for Honcho, Playguy, Inches, Black Inches. I’ve always been kind of stuck in this weird netherworld between art and porn – where my work is too artistic for porn people and too pornographic for art people. But I think the distinction is moot, really.

I get labelled a provocateur and I think that’s pretty apt. I mean, it’s better than being called an ageing enfant terrible, which I also get. But I came out of the punk scene, so provocation was part of the strategy. With my movies, I became known for shocking scenes and I went through a phase of trying to constantly outdo myself. Sometimes I think I’ve gone too far – like, what am I doing? But the idea of shocking people out of their complacency is a radical proposition, as well as just kind of fun.

As for this particular image, well, maybe if you brought home a guy with an ankle tag on you would remember it better – but this was during my party days and it was just business as usual for me back then. In a way, that’s the point of all the images in my new book: they’re ephemeral. If it wasn’t for the photographic evidence, I’d never know some had even happened.

Bruce LaBruce’s CV

Bruce LaBruce.
Bruce LaBruce. Photograph: Ash Knotek/Shutterstock

Born: Southampton, Canada, 1964.
Trained: MA in Fine Arts from York University, Toronto.
Influences:Jerry Lewis, Agnès Varda, Mary Tyler Moore, Ulrike Meinhof, Pier Paolo Pasolini.”
High point: “My film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC in 2015.”
Low point: “Breaking my leg in Berlin.”
Top tip: “Be unique, be individualistic, be Freudian, and be free.”

• Bruce LaBruce’s Photo Ephemera is published by Baron Books


Interview by Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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