The More of Us There Are, The More of Us There Are

An interview with Nan Goldin

All photographs by Brandon English and Nan Goldin.

On the evening of November 16, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) hosted its annual International Press Freedom Awards in New York City, chaired by New York Times CEO Meredith Kopit Levien. Writers Bloc—a group of cultural workers opposed to Israel’s current siege of Gaza as well as Western media’s ongoing complicity with Israel’s genocide of Palestinians—deemed her presence at the ceremony to be as shameful as it was shameless: Levien’s own newspaper’s Editorial Board had only two weeks prior explicitly argued against an immediate, unconditional ceasefire, claiming that it “would accomplish little at this point.” The Times published that op-ed in early November. Since then, Israel’s military has killed thousands—including at least 25 Palestinian and Lebanese journalists, per CPJ’s own reporting.

In response, Writers Bloc staged a demonstration on the sidewalk outside the Hell’s Kitchen venue where CPJ held its ceremony. Inspired by ACT UP and Gran Fury’s use of agitprop and direct confrontation to disrupt business as usual on the cultural front, we billed the protest as an “after-party” and wore black-tie attire to highlight the jarring spectacle of a celebratory gala in wartime. Most of the attendees, whom we greeted with chants (“From the river to the sea! No IDF! No NYT!”), weren’t happy to see us. Some shouted insults or physically confronted our photographers. One man, inexplicably, started singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We held aloft posters bearing the names and faces of journalists slain by Israel, some in targeted airstrikes on their homes and family members, as well as the latest issue of the New York War Crimes, a mock newspaper inspired by ACT UP’s famed New York Crimes. It carried our top headline of the week, “As Deaths Mount, Still No Ceasefire,” along with the names of thousands of Palestinian martyrs.

“If you do not course-correct, if you do not atone for your complicity with this genocide, your legacy will forever be drenched in blood and shame,” said Palestinian writer Mohammed el-Kurd in a speech, after which the hundred-or-so protesters interjected with cries of “Shame!” “We are not asking you for anything beyond doing your job. Tell the truth! Do your job!”

The photographer Nan Goldin was also in our numbers, photographing the protest alongside collaborator Brandon English. Some of those photographs, published for the first time, are below. In the days following the action, I spoke with Nan about her recent decision to boycott the Times, the professional consequences she has suffered for speaking out in solidarity with Palestinians, her teenage awakening to anti-Zionist politics, and more.

—Harron Walker

Harron Walker: Hi, Nan. Let’s begin with your decision, this past November, to pull out of a cover shooting for the New York Times Magazine. On Instagram, you cited the newspaper’s “complicity with Israel” and its anti-Palestinian bias, “how they question the veracity of anything Palestinians say.” What prompted you to make that decision? 

Nan Goldin: I’ve been aware that the New York Times had a Zionist bent for a long time, that they’ve had their biases. I was really looking forward to the job—shooting a musician I admire—but I could not support their biased reporting on Israel and Palestine. When the Times was covering protests by my group, PAIN, they had a way of whitewashing what the Sacklers had done during the opioid crisis while undermining our credibility. I find Times reporting on Palestine to be slanted so when I realized I was about to do a shoot with them, I canceled. Then, on that same day, I found out that Writers Bloc was planning to protest in their lobby, so I decided to join them.

But I did not make my decision as a part of any larger group’s agenda. It was personal. So much of what I’ve done regarding Palestine has been personal. I have always refused any invitation to go to Israel to give talks or teach classes. I refused to let my film—

HW: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed?

NG: Yes. I refused to let it be distributed in Israel. When I was 17—this was in the ’70s—an older boyfriend showed me a booklet, very cheaply made, that had pictures of refugee camps in Palestine, and I decided never to go to Israel. Personally, I’ve been on a cultural boycott of Israel for my whole life. I turned down speaking, teaching, and exhibition opportunities, including refusing to let my current retrospective go to Israel. In 2018, I pulled my work from a show at the Zabludowicz Collection because its owners are Israeli arms dealers. A group of artists boycotted them in 2021, but I wasn’t in touch with them. Today, they announced their museum in London is closing as a result of the artists’ boycott. And then on the other side, I boycotted an award that was attached to a gallery showing Leni Riefenstahl because she was a Nazi propagandist. I grew up in a liberal Jewish home at a time when going off to work on a kibbutz was expected.

HW: Was that similar to a Birthright trip?

NG: What is that?

HW: Oh, it’s a program where Israel basically pays for young people in the Jewish diaspora to go on this very controlled trip to Israel. Friends who’ve gone on it have told me they were fed nonstop propaganda about the occupation and the IDF.

NG: It sounds like it served a similar purpose. I never went—I left home when I was 14—but my older brother had gone to work on a kibbutz for a year when I was younger so I heard a lot about it through him. By the time I was his age, I was living with the queens in Boston.

HW: Right. I remember that from your film. There was this one line of yours I loved about going from the queens in Boston to the lesbians in Provincetown, something like, “It was all tea and flannel, and I was coming from quaaludes and taffeta.”

NG: [Laughs] But yes, it was very similar to that Birthright mentality. As a young child—I’m talking about the ’60s now—that was kind of expected of young Jewish people, that we’d eventually go work on a kibbutz. Palestine was not discussed in my house growing up, nor was it discussed in the art world for the most part—the Western art world, I mean. Palestinian artists have been, of course, as well as others in solidarity, and they have been punished for doing so. I’ve known people who were in the BDS movement over the years, but I’ve never seen public discussions in the art world about Israel or its occupation and genocide of Palestinians until the past couple months. It moved me: seeing thousands of artists signing their names to that first open letter to the art community that Artforum published in October, and being one of them; seeing thousands of writers including myself signing onto Writers Against the War on Gaza’s letter. I could not have imagined, even in September, that this many people would sign those statements. Palestine is in the public discussion. A lot of people have been educated about Palestine through this. It’s been a huge revelation for so many. I’ve never seen anything like that in the Western art world.

HW: Have you yourself been punished for supporting the cause of Palestinian liberation?

NG: Listen, right after I signed that Artforum letter, I was told that many of my collectors and art advisors were not going to work with me anymore. I had sales that were canceled. Somebody returned a work of mine. I got a call from someone telling me to pull my name from the letter, or put out a written statement and apologize because the letter didn’t explicitly condemn Hamas. Of course we condemn Hamas’s brutality that day but the letter was basically a demand for a ceasefire. It was written that we opposed civilians being killed on both sides. I was very surprised that I got such pushback from collectors and art advisors. My career has already suffered from this. It’s not like I’m immune from the effects of this.

HW: Did that have a chilling effect, even for a moment?

NG: Of course it was chilling. Making money off my work, that’s how I live. The most important thing to me is my studio and being able to support the eight people who work there. Protesting in support of Palestine has been conflated with antisemitism. So it affects my income, and that’s real. But it hasn’t stopped me, and it won’t stop me. New York Times reporters have actually reached out to me asking me to give statements, even after I declared that I was boycotting the Times. But I’ve refused to talk to them, full stop.

HW: Tell me about the Writers Bloc protest outside the CPJ awards that you participated in and photographed. For readers who weren’t there, what was it like?

NG: It was beautifully organized. Two groups of us came together in front of the gala venue, where the glass-fronted elevator lobby opened out onto the sidewalk. It was the main entrance—or was it the exit? There must have been some back door that some of the attendees were sneaking out of.

HW: Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, we didn’t come face to face with the Times CEO who chaired the event, whose involvement was central to our protest.

NG: We surrounded that main door. Everyone protesting was dressed to the nines, which I thought was really beautiful—and, of course, better photographically. The fact that we were dressed up put us on the same level with the people at the gala, in a sense.

HW: I also thought it underlined how jarring it was to hold a black-tie spectacle in the name of protecting journalists when the chair of that event runs a newspaper that had explicitly advocated against a ceasefire in the beginning of November, since which time Israel has killed at least 59 journalists.

NG: Yes, we pretty much matched. They had to go through us to get out. We had copies of the second edition of The New York War Crimes—the first edition being the one from the earlier New York Times lobby protest, which listed the Palestinian dead starting at age 0. Just pages and pages of babies who had only just been named when they were killed. This second edition, like the first, listed the names of Palestinian journalists who’d been killed, and a member of our group read those out loud. We held up the newspapers and held up images of the people—the journalists—who’d been killed, while chanting “Shame on you!”

HW: Other chants I remember were “From the river to the sea, no IDF! No NYT!” and “Do your job! Tell the truth!”

NG: The people exiting the gala, they all had to go through us. It was a little confusing who were the journalists who’d been feted and who were the rich people—

HW: Until we saw how they reacted to us.

NG: I met a really fine man—a photographer who had just come back from Gaza and meaningfully engaged with us—who completely agreed with us. He told me he’s had trouble getting the New York Times and other outlets to publish his work. But a lot of the journalists were arrogant, as arrogant as the other attendees. There were some people yelling at us, and there were some actual skirmishes; someone lunged at one of the women in our group with a camera. Some people tried to mock us, but they had a hard time.

HW: I was standing by the glass and spent most of the protest holding a copy of the New York War Crimes against the window so attendees inside could read it. Its headline said “As Deaths Mount, Still No Ceasefire.” Many people came up close to the glass to read it, and I had some meaningful, wordless exchanges with a few of the people who did. One woman, though, read it then looked at me and rolled her eyes and mouthed the word, “Really?” As if I should feel embarrassed or something. It was so infuriating but then so cathartic to watch her try to pull the same act with the rest of the protesters when she finally came out. She did another dramatic eyeroll and tried to mock us but got shouted down with “Shame!”

NG: The action was too strong, too grounded, and too beautiful. We were hard to ignore, even harder to refute, and I think the photographs show that.

HW: Compared to still portraiture, what’s it like to photograph a protest where you can’t control anything that’s happening in front of you? I guess I’m curious because I don’t have that photographer’s eye you have. How do you know when to take a picture in a constantly moving scene?

NG: I have no idea when to hit the button. I just react emotionally to what’s in front of me. It’s not my first time doing quote-unquote “photojournalism,” of my own actions or other people’s through the years. It gives me a sense of purpose. It felt really good to have a role. In spite of my support of Palestinian liberation all these years, I’d never worked directly with a group before. The other side is stronger than us, but I think that’s changing. It’s the first time I ever thought that could change, that we could become stronger than those fighting against change.

HW: What makes you think that’s possible?

NG: I mean, look how many people are out in the streets protesting all over the world. Solidarity is the answer. The more of us there are, the more of us there are. And the more of us there are, the safer we are in regards to the pushback. The more of us there are, the harder it gets to obscure the ongoing massacre through intellectual discussion. How can anyone support what Israel is doing to Palestine now? I feel a deep, tactile pain. The more of us there are, the more vocal we all are, the more difficult it becomes for them to justify this genocide.

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