While in Photobooks DINER Megutama in Tokyo, I came across a copy of Nan Goldin’s famous “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” photobook. To me, it is the one of the most powerful photo books of all-time, about gender, sexuality, and human relationships.


YouTube: Book Review – Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin


Lessons from Nan Goldin

Here are some personal lessons I’ve learned from Nan Goldin, based on her essay in the preface of “Ballad of Sexual Dependency”:

1. Photograph your personal relationships

“I don’t select people in order to photograph them; I photograph directly from my life. These pictures come out of relationships, not observation.”

2. Photograph to feel a deeper emotional connection with others in your life

“If it were possible, I’d want no mechanism between me or the moment of photographing. The camera is as much a part of my everyday life as talking or eating or sex. The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me.”

3. Photograph your own life story

“There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur; the last one invited to the party. But I’m not crashing, this is my party. This is my family, my history.”

4. Endow your subjects with strength and beauty

“My desire is to preserve the sense of peoples’ lives, to endow them with the strength and beauty I see in them. I want the people in my pictures to stare back. I want to show exactly what my world looks like, without glamorization, without glorification. This is not a bleak world but one in which there is an awareness of pain, a quality of introspection.”

5. Do you photograph to tell stories, or to record memories?

“Stories can be rewritten, memory can’t. If each picture is a story, then the accumulation of these pictures comes closer to the experience of memory, a story without end.”

6. Be fully-immersed in the experiences of your life.

“I want to be able to experience fully, without restraint. People who are obsessed with remembering their experiences usually impose strict self-disciplines. I want to be uncontrolled and controlled at the same time. The diary is a form of control over my life. It allows me to obsessively record every detail. It enables me to remember.”

7. Re-examining gender roles

“If men and women often seem unsuited to one another, maybe it’s because they have different emotional realities and speak a different emotional language. For many years, I found it hard to understand the feeling systems of men; I didn’t believe they were vulnerable and I empowered them in a way that didn’t acknowledge their fears and feelings. Men carry their own baggage, a legacy based on a fear of women, a need to categorize them, for instance, as mothers, whores, virgins, or spider women. The construction of gender roles if one of the major problems that individuals bring into a relationship.”

8. Don’t feel constrained to play out the clichés of gender distinction

“As children, we’re programmed into the limitations of gender distinction: little boys to be fighters, little girls to be pretty and nice. But as we grow older, there’s a self-awareness that sees gender as a decision, as something malleable. You can play with the traditional options — dressing up, cruising in cars, the tough posturing– or play against the roles, by displaying your tenderness or toughness to contradict stereotypes. When I was fifteen, the perfect world seemed a place of total androgyny, where you wouldn’t know a person’s gender until you were in bed with him or her. I’ve since realized that gender is much deeper than style. Rather than accept gender distinction, the point is to redefine it. Along with playing out the clichés, there is the decision to live out the alternatives, even to change one’s sex, which to me is the ultimate act of autonomy.”

9. Write your own history

“I don’t ever want to be susceptible to anyone else’s version of my history. I don’t ever want to lose the real memory of anyone again.”

10. We seek romance

“Sex itself is only one aspect of sexual dependency. Pleasure becomes the motivation, but the real satisfaction is romantic. Bed becomes a forum in which struggles in a relationship are defused or intensified. Sex isn’t about performance; it’s about a certain kind of communication founded on trust and exposure and vulnerability that can’t be expressed in any other way. Intense sexual bonds become consuming and self-perpetuating. You become dependent on the gratification. Sex becomes a microcosm of the relationship, the battleground, an exorcism.”


Spreads from Ballad of Sexual Dependency:


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Prague, 1968. Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos
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