Q&A | Photography: America’s Weirdest Laws with Olivia Locher
Considering the hyperventilated state America finds itself in right now, Olivia Locher’s photo project I Fought The Law might be the perfect representation of a constitution in crisis.
From a crackly phone line out at her studio in New York, she tells us casually how this all started, “A friend of mine randomly told me in conversation that it’s illegal to have an ice cream cone in your back pocket”. From that one Chinese whisper rose a desire to calculate and address some of the weirdest laws out in America, a project which took four years from start to finish.
From being unable to own two dildos in one house to disrobing in front of an artwork. Senators and legislators bow your heads in acknowledgment of your brazen weirdness. We chat with Olivia about her book I Fought The Law and the importance of this project.
In Delaware it’s illegal To serve perfume As liquor.
In Alabama, It Is Illegal To Have An Ice-Cream Cone In Your Back Pocket.
I think it’s a pertinent time to be doing a book like this considering how insane America is right now. Does it fit into a larger idea about the state of the country or is this just an anomaly?
Yeah, I have a long history of being political growing up in America, always trying to fight back against the system. I started making this project in 2013 and then as soon as the political climate started to get really interesting I re-evaluated the work and eliminated about 20 pictures and started shooting afresh.
“It’s interesting when a certain archaic law can affect the existence of everyday people.”
Apparently, some of the laws that you have based this on are fake. Was that to maximise impact?
They are. The first source material I found for the project was these two books published by Scholastic in the 1970s. They were basically lists of things that were illegal, but whenever I was working with my fact-checker, we discovered that a lot of the things presented in these books were outright lies. I thought it was really funny that a scholarly publisher would be printing lies for children essentially, which was the target audience.
Then when I started looking into it, finding the sources for any of these things became so convoluted, and I think that is also the situation in the media right now.
In Delaware it is illegal To Wear Pants That Are “form – Fitting” Around The Waist.
In Minnesota a Person May Not Cross State Lines With A Bird Atop His Head.
In Idaho, it’s illegal to be nude outdoors, even on private property.
Did you ever delve into the origination of some of these laws and why they were put in place?
I did, I worked with a fact-checker and we decoded every single one and what I found through this process is that mostly it is down to laziness – it takes a lot of effort to actually get something removed from a law book. It’s also an expensive process so America is more comfortable just letting it sit there, sort of un-enforced, but what often happens is that law enforcement can use them to target a certain group of people.
“It takes a lot of effort & money to actually get something removed from a law book”
Have you ever been to Nevada, for example, to put an American flag in a bar of soap in front of a police officer and see what happens?
You know what I haven’t but I would love to do that. There was actually one law in New York City that just got repealed, this really old cabaret law that targeted different racial communities. It stated that clubs needed to have a very expensive permit in order for groups of people to dance in their establishment. Police officers were shutting down a lot of DIY clubs, targeting the gay community. It’s interesting when a certain archaic law can affect the existence of everyday people.
You have received a lot of press coverage on the book, so has this ricocheted back to you in any way, for example have law enforcement agencies got in touch regarding the project?
Lawmakers have got in touch to confirm certain things in their states. My fact-checker and I were calling a lot of people who were able to dig deeper into their books, and it was interesting because people were surprisingly intrigued by it and really helpful.
In Iowa, it is illegal to sniff glue.
In North Carolina, it’s a misdemeanor to urinate on someone else’s property.
Do you have any favourites from these obscure laws that you discovered?
I like reimagining these laws. The California one was about not riding a bicycle in a swimming pool, and that was due to a history of young kids breaking into people’s properties to skateboard and BMX ride in empty swimming pools. So I got interested in the idea of the pool being full.
I also got interested in why the laws were created sometimes. One that is still in force, I believe in Alaska, is that it is illegal to be intoxicated in a bar, and having talked to some people we found out that bars will ask you to leave at a certain point there. The Hawaii one was about drug dealers putting coins in their ears to let people know they were carrying. So I quite like some of the stories behind these laws, even though I leave most of that ambiguous in the images.
“One that is still in force, I believe in Alaska, is that it is illegal to be intoxicated in a bar.”
It feels like the Atlas Obscura of the US judicial system.
Yes, I was definitely interested in stuff like that. I was referencing all stuff like that to do with weird American culture or history.
The imagery is very rich and beautiful – I know Andy Warhol was a big influence on you. It must have been fun to create such novel ways of interpreting these laws?
It’s funny because I sit with my ideas for so long that before the subject even comes along the idea is already fully premeditated. That allows for the subject to just walk into the frame and then it usually only takes about 5 minutes to get the shot.
What’s next for you?
I just finished the solo show for this project in New York, so now it’s at a nice resting place and I’m working on another long-term series called ‘How To’. It’s people acting out everyday things that perhaps are a little bit off – stuff like ‘How to breakdance’, but it’s a guy just breaking records while dancing, or ‘How to be a prick’ with a large cactus coming out of a guy’s pants.
I Fought the Law: Photographs by Olivia Locher of the Strangest Laws from Each of the 50 States