Colin Roberson’s ongoing art project is titled Taxi Dance, a nod to the early 20th century practice of renting dance partners for an allotted amount of time. The exchange of intimacy for money is a theme in his work, both the luster and loneliness of his experiences in New Orleans’ sex economy captured in black-and-white photographs. During this interview, we talked about excess, family, and the joy of shooting film. Afterwards, Roberson made sure to clarify something about the establishment where many of his pictures are taken. “It’s not a strip club,” he explained. “It’s a bar where boys dance on the bar.”
You grew up in New Orleans, right?
In Metairie. I went to high school at Jesuit and NOCCA. I studied musical theater, which is where I first became comfortable performing.
Then you moved to Baton Rouge?
Yes, for LSU. I started with environmental engineering, then I was in a pre-med track. At the same time, graphic design was appealing, because it seemed like something you could make money from, but I very quickly realized I hated it. Then I saw grad students in photo who were just working on what they love and thought “OK. Maybe this is what I need to do.”
How has growing up and living in New Orleans informed your work?
The places that I’m photographing are the first bars I went to when I started sneaking out at 16. I’m still having similar problems today as I did then. I have dear friendships that are complicated by issues of substances that allow us to have a good time… and substances that are taken to excess and then make friendship hard or make human behavior hard. And it’s all happening in the same venue.
Can you elaborate on how being in bars, and specifically being around excess, informs your work?
I feel like living here, it’s always one thing that nobody’s ever going to stop doing: self-medicating with booze or, you know, other things. But with booze, very few people are ever going to stop you from having a drink, and most people are going to encourage you. For this project, I’ve needed to be on the same level as other people. I drink when I walk around because it’s nighttime and everyone is drinking and I’d probably be super annoyed and go home if I also wasn’t a little bit drunk.
What brought you from sneaking into these bars as a kid to growing up and shooting pictures inside of them?
The reason I started doing this was because I had a lover, a boyfriend, who went away to Provincetown and came back with all these stories, like the experience of a rentboy. To me, all I could call it was prostitution. You got some money; you had intimacy with men. And that shocked me. I wasn’t ready for that, especially from somebody I cared about. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I couldn’t get all his stories out of my head. I wanted to deal with it in some way, so I went to the bars where I knew I could find the exchange of sex for money… It was fascinating, and scary, and wrong. You know, I went to a Catholic school so that was wrong. That was a thing you don’t do. I get really angry when I talk to friends who grew up and went to public school, and for the hour that I was learning the bible or going to church, they were in a dark room or taking an art class. And I was sitting there learning shit that now I do not respect or believe in.
Is that something that’s in your work? Or something you try to remove?
I ignore it. I only had Catholic guilt around masturbation because at the all-boys school they drove that in really hard: you’re spilling your seed, your chance to create new life. It’s selfish, it’s lonely. So I had guilt about that, but I wanted to be with a man so much that when it finally happened I was just thankful. I didn’t care anymore. And I think that really helped. Like, the church doesn’t accept this thing that’s really important to me? Then I don’t need it. I don’t think it’s in my work. When I was showing at Zeitgeist, somebody came by who taught me at Jesuit. I don’t think they recognized me but I definitely watched them walk by the images. I forget; I’m ensconced downtown where people don’t really bat their eyes at what I’m making. I forget that there’s dissenting or differing viewpoints that might be horrified by this work. But there, I saw a teacher from this Catholic high school where I went (where there were many, many rules) and I was like “Oh shit, what do you feel about this?” It is important for me to consider what they think about the work. I want them to take more from it then just shock. I want to explain and engage with them. use it.” Nobody can ever use that stuff. But then I think it’s also the thing that’s pushing it enough to bring attention to the work, but it’s also the thing that gets left behind and not addressed. So for me, it’s really important to show people the work one-on-one so then I can have those conversations. They haven’t ever really come up in a larger way with the general public because people don’t see that as much.
It gets left out.
Yeah. And there are ways that you can look at my work and it would look pretty heteronormative. There are some images that can fit into a romantic view of New Orleans, so it does bother me when they pick the thing that’s easy to like.
Do you ever leave those images out?
I did at the Zeitgeist show. It was a really, really specific edit. It was a homosexual edit, because that’s what the work is.
How do the images of Black women fit into Taxi Dance?
Taxi Dance is about my participation in the sex economy of the French Quarter. The trans-women that work on the streets are a really big, visible part of that. They were the first people who I was actually able to photograph. We have something in common. I think I present in more a trans way just because I have long hair and there are mannerisms about me that are feminine. Growing up, I would walk the street all the time and I never had people honking and pulling over. When I started doing this project, it was flattering but terrifying how many cars would slow down and drive alongside me. I’d never really been able to understand women talking about feeling threatened when walking out their door, but I started to be able to glimpse that. And one night, this guy followed me for an hour. I tried to lose him. I was biking. He was in the car, driving the wrong way on one-ways. I would disappear, think he was gone, and then there would be lights behind me, I’d turn around, and it’d be him. And he’d flick on the light in his car and show his dick. I made the mistake of laughing first, but he followed me all the way home and into the house. It’s weird, but I can identify with the women and I really just think it’s the hair. Like, it’s this immediate thing that we can start talking about and laughing about. And I always have felt much more comfortable, like I have more in common with them than some of the boys I work with. Also, our city is more than half Black, so to leave out the Black population from this work that takes place in the French Quarter where we all mix and mingle would be blind. I’m documenting what’s here.
You write about your father as part of Taxi Dance. I’m curious about how your family has responded to your work.
The very first show I had, my mother and my step-father came. I wasn’t there. I had been installing all day and had gone home to rest. There was some auto-fellatio, but also a self-portrait and they said they liked that. They will help me, give me a ride to a framer to pick up the work. And they’ll say “Oh, can I see?” And I’ll say “You don’t want to, but I’ll show you.” And then they’ll say “Oh, I don’t like that.” The most recent show I had, two aunts and my mother came. Afterwards I got a text that said like “We love you so very much.” But nothing addressing the content. Maybe it’s weird Southern repression. If it’s too much, they’re just going to look the other way even if it’s right in front of them.
But they’re still supportive?
They still came, yeah, because they care. My relationship with my dad is different. Like I asked him about this guy who had all these connections, and he was kind of cool, but I knew what he wanted. I could tell. And I can ask my dad “Should I just do it?” And he can be like “What, are you going to just keep doing that? When’s it going to stop? No. You need to do something that’s real.” I like that he can listen to me basically ask him “Dad, should I be a ho for self-advancement?” and he can give me a good answer. I really appreciate that. And he’s not Catholic. He’s agnostic.
What draws your attention or helps you decide what to photograph?
Well, my heart got broke. So when I walk the streets, I look for either really tender moments between people that I wish I had, which sometimes amplifies my loneliness, or I look for the discordant things, the moments when people took too much or are trying to hang on to one another. Or the person who just looks amazing and knows it. But a lot of it has to do with that broken heart and that feeling of loneliness. I think that’s what drives a lot of people to pay for sex, to purchase intimacy. Paying for connection. A lack of genuine connection, that’s the loneliness that everybody has. It’s easy to get along in New Orleans, but whether or not you’re actually getting through is harder to detect. Shooting at night and this loneliness that I can’t shake skews the work to be a little bit darker, grittier.
Why do you shoot portraits?
I make portraits because I think they’re the only new photograph you can make. Everything else has been photographed before, but with people you can pull a moment, an expression, a reality out of them that maybe nobody else could. That’s what I can offer with portraits. That’s why I carry a camera. I photographed me and my ex-partner for a while. Through doing that, I made him the subject, then I made us the subject. I decided I didn’t want to put anyone in front of the lens unless I would also get in front. Unless I was them, in some way. When I started Taxi Dance, I danced at the bar because I wanted to bring to life a world I’d previously only imagined. Since I was 16, I’d seen people who did it. I thought about what it means to be on that stage and have that attention, all the glamour. Putting on a show for someone. And they’re giving you money right there, in the moment, and they’re saying “You are beautiful.” All this adulation. I didn’t want to just decide I was interested in something and takefrom it. I wanted to participate, to perform, so that I’m a dancer that photographs, not a photographer who dances.
You’re capturing these very intimate moments, so how do you open your subjects up to being comfortable in front of the camera?
I guess I establish a relationship before I ever introduce the camera. And then I’m really serious about it and I think people can tell that I really care. Even though some of the pictures don’t necessarily play into the person’s vanity, when I’m taking the picture I’m doing it because I honestly think that the moment is beautiful and the person I’m shooting is absolutely beautiful. I think that comes across and eases any anxiety, and we can just take a picture together because I’m really jazzed about it and they’re flattered.
Where does the fascination with the human form come from?
I think I’m just a little dumb and perpetually distracted by humans. You know, I think they’re really beautiful. And it’s the easiest thing. It’s very biological. I think it has to do with natural selection. You know, mating and all this shit. I feel like other people who can stare at the crook of a tree limb and find beauty are probably using more brain power.
You prefer to take pictures rather than be photographed, right?
Definitely. I’ve taken a lot of self-portraits that I’ve tried to include in this project, but more and more I think that my role is to write about the experiences that I’ve had and to perform. The reason why they’re such intimate photographs is because I’ve spent two years getting to know people at this bar and working beside them. Some nights I don’t walk home with a picture. I walk home with 20 bucks and way too drunk and a raw, chapped mouth from all the kisses.
Why do you choose to shoot film?
I like the process. The thing that drew me to photography was watching that first reel get unfurled in front of me. That was magic. It’s beautiful and enchanting. I like the meditative aspect of being in the dark with the water running. I hate sitting at a computer. I don’t want to see the image right away. I don’t want you to ask to see the image right away and for me be able to show you. I love that I have a lot of hope and excitement that will last for however long it takes me to process the film. A week, a day, a month, where this thing happened and it was really big, it was amazing, and I really want to share it. I like the anticipation, the slow. I like that you just have to hope it all works out. Also, another reason I shoot film is because there’s a printshop here and I can do everything myself.
How big of a role does the New Orleans Community Printshop play in your decision to shoot film?
It’s everything. It’s the only reason I can. And I love being able to do every single thing myself. I can make little, tiny prints and give them to people, and that means so much more than seeing something on a phone. People don’t get that experience as much anymore. It’s also helped a lot to have that community to talk to, other people who have an eye and have an opinion I trust.
Can you talk about your research process?
I take a pilgrimage up to Tulane Library once or twice a week. I get a good, long bike ride. I clear my head. And then I sit there and they have every art book, every photo book, every text written on sex work. I get to go ask the librarian to help me find Young Men in the Street: Help-seeking Behavior of Young Male Prostitutes. There’s also a romanticism about the work that I like to pull from old authors and try to think about the way this stuff has lived before me. David Wojnarowicz was really important to this project. He was a hustler. He grew up in New York. He died in ’92 of AIDS. He was of that generation where all of a sudden this thing came out of nowhere. He was a really great visual artist and writer. I originally called this project Close to the Knives. That was something that he wrote. It was a lot about the pre-invented existence, the idea that we’re in this world that we didn’t have any say in, being asked to fit into this world that we didn’t help create. He had a lot rage towards this box he’d been set inside of, forced to stay even though he could see outside of it.
Where do you see the work going?
Right now I have the access I do because of my age and who I am, which is going to change. It’s definitely going to change a lot in the next few years. If I’m still dancing, I’ll be the seasoned dancer. More of the patriarch, maybe, in a way. Or I won’t be able to, that won’t be the role that I play in this world and I’ll have to be more like the customer. I think the work is going to tell me. It will change as I change. It has to.
For more info on Taxi Dance and Colin Roberson’s work, go to colinroberson.com