PHOTOGRAPHER ANDREW VOLK
Interview by April Keller-MacLeod
Photos by Andrew Volk
A former "gay for pay" go-go dancer and cam porn actor amid New York's Club Kids, Canadian photographer Andrew Volk, a core player in the revolution of Vancouver's underground party scene, has quite a few stories to share. He speaks with direct, unabashed honesty about his work and life experiences. His photographs are raw, engrossing, real. Take a moment to check out Andrew Volk.
Tell me about growing up in Kelowna, Canada.
It was the '90s…I went to shows a lot, would drive around with friends and break stuff sometimes.
What kinds of shows?
Punk or indie rock.
What was the punk scene like?
It was small, but it got a lot bigger in the late '90s, when hardcore started to kick in. To be a punk, you just had to not dress like a jock, so everyone could be a punk. You could wear bell bottoms and be a punk.
Was it political?
It was always political. There was a punk mayor once. The punk scene was all about being political. People are too well educated to have it any other way. There was no gutter punk scene, where people are ignorant – not to say that gutter punks aren’t educated. It was all straight edge hardcore...suddenly everyone was vegan.
You don’t drink – why is that?
When I was growing up, my stepfather and my dad were losers when they would drink, and I thought to myself at the time that I didn’t want to be anything like that. They were just un-cool. My stepfather was so lame. He would make terrible jokes, and I thought it was so unacceptable. Just from a taste perspective, it made me never want to do it. Partying, some of the people I saw drinking would act like such losers that I never wanted to drink.
When did you start partying?
In 1997, I went to a bunch of raves in Richmond. I went to clubs a lot – they were all electronic…drum and bass one day, breakbeat another day. There were all these dudes that would wear the shittiest fat pants. I went back to Kelowna that same year and started doing parties there.
Then, I went to Japan and Taiwan for a few years to teach English, and when I came back to Vancouver in 2001, it was so fucking boring. The nightlife was still hanging onto the '90s – everyone was stuck in it. It was the wackiest pile of shit. Older people were running it, and not that older people are boring, but the ones that stop having a difficult life are the ones who make it so pussy. I was really into electroclash when I got back. I choreographed and scripted a dance movie with groups of friends. We were a gang, and I choreographed the dance for the rival gang to do. It was me and four other guys – Terence Koh was in it. Back then, it wasn’t as tacky and lame as it would be now. It was a boring ass nightlife though. I went to New York for two months, and they were doing a party there. It was a dollar to get in, and they were playing hits, but such good hits, like jukebox style. I took that back here and started a night with Jeremy Shaw and Konrad Black, and it was such a fucking success. Now every club in the city does that, holy shit. But that’s how we reinvented the nightlife in Vancouver and created an indie scene, which continued to create splinter scenes. There was nothing cool going on in the clubs and eventually our party template blew up.
You seem to stay around younger people...
They’re more exciting and more fun. People my age are so boring or they’re not living here. Most of my friends from when I was younger moved away. Konrad Black, Jeremy Shaw, Terence Koh, I hung out with all of them. Terence Koh moved to New York, Jeremy and Konrad moved to Berlin, and they’re all really successful. The people I meet that are cool are younger, because they’re coming up or they haven’t had a chance to leave yet.
Why have you stayed in Vancouver?
Good question. I’ve never had anywhere else to go. I went to New York for a few months, and I go-go danced, and it was fun, but I had no reason to be there, so I came back. And then, I began to throw parties and became successful. It’s easy to live here. I made a good living doing that, and I still do. But it’s so boring here now. I’ve been here for so long, because I had a job and because it was fun and just easy.
Tell me about go-go dancing in New York.
I needed a job when I got to New York, and my friend Tyler Udall, who I met through Jeremy Shaw hooked me up with Sophia Lamar, who hooked me up with The Cock. And I was at another party, and Amanda Lepore was at that one…this was the '90s and the Club Kids were still around. Sophia looks amazing still! So skinny, perfect tits, perfect face. Jesus, I thought it was a big deal that I got this job, but really it wasn’t, cause my dick’s pretty big, and I have a juicy ass, so it was pretty easy, but I thought I was pretty lucky. I had to stand on a bar, and the ceiling wasn’t high enough, so I had to bend my head down the whole time. This was at a time when you couldn’t show your dick in the bars, so I would jerk off under the skimpiest underwear…like, so see-through. They would get so dirty with the men touching me with their filthy hands. Some filthy man would touch my dick and give me a dollar. The first night working was a weekday, and I was working alone, and I was dancing like crazy on the bar, and I only made $13 – it was bullshit. But they liked my energy and hired me for the weekend, and when I went in, the other dancers weren’t dancing like that – they were all just standing on the bar. I learned to find a sugar daddy; you find a guy who wants to tip you $5, and you stand next to him and jerk off and stay like that, and I’d make $300 a night. I’d jerk off on them too, which was hard cause I wasn’t gay, so it was a lot of visualisation. Fuck, I remember this one guy thanking me so profusely for letting him have my cum on him. He was just so grateful. Like, you’re welcome, scum. It’s crazy that I could do that, some Zen concentration.
You also made money doing cam porn…
Yes, I only did it for three months. It wasn’t as lucrative as I thought it was going to be though. I didn’t try very hard. I did manage to sell one pair of underwear with cum on it, and I cut some pubic hair and put that in there as well. I went out and bought this multi-pack of cheap underwear from Walmart thinking that I was going to sell a bunch, but I just sold that one. My friend and I had a bachelor room with a cardboard wall separating it, and we would both do it at the same time, and I could hear him jerking off. We had to film each other, because we had to make a video for each of us for our cam sites. We did a lot of shit together. It was intimate. It was fun. I just fucked around.
How do you define your sexuality?
There was a dude I was into, and we hooked up, but it still didn’t feel good. I tried with a bunch of different dudes, but it was difficult to maintain an erection with someone of the same sex. It was pretty much gay for pay – that’s all it ever really was.
How did you get into photography?
I started with party photography.
How has it changed into what you produce now?
With my party photos, I never wanted it to look regular. I didn’t want it to be pretty. I would sneak up on people and take their photo. Steven Audia does the same; he doesn’t try to meet the norm, so he shoots interesting shit. I learned everything through photography, through doing that. Shooting at parties with a digital camera, I was constantly checking the photos, and I learned about composition, using flash, moving the camera, changing position. It’s instantaneous with digital, so you check to see if it works. When I started with film, I had practiced so much that I knew what I wanted. I started doing multiple exposure right away…it was interesting to me at the time.
Portraits that I take, I try to have them look candid, off the cuff. I like to get that from every person. The photographer Joel Sternfeld carried around a full frame camera, and he gets people to look normal. I think, it’s because he had this huge camera, so people took him seriously when he asked them to act natural. While mine looks like this junky thing. I don’t hesitate. I try to capture the specific moment when they’re just looking. I do it street photo style – I don’t ask permission. If you ask, they can say no. If you take it, you always get it.
You photograph Downtown Eastside frequently – what’s your perspective on it?
It’s the most interesting part of the city, and I’ve always been happy to live in it. I like going to East Hastings all the time. When I first moved here, they didn’t have a Sunday market, and you would pace around and get the dopest shit. There’s so much fucking life! People wanna do business, cut their teeth, and get some action. There’s no life or death anywhere else in the city. I love it. It energizes me, and it’s the only thing that makes living in Vancouver bearable.