I first came across John whilst waiting at Heathrow airport to catch a flight to Phoenix, Arizona. I was scanning the writers platform Medium for something to read on my laptop and I came across an article written by him that outlined his recent capture and torture by a South American drug cartel. It came with a warning that read ‘Note: this telling of real events includes strong language and descriptions of torture including sexual assault.‘ The warning was needed. Like John the experience was intense and filled with danger. It pulled no punches and evidenced a spirit willing to take risks that many would consider to be beyond reasonable or safe. The first line read, “The cartilage connecting my ribs to my sternum is badly bruised after one of the men hit me in the chest with the butt of an AK-47.”
I reached out to John and we would occasionally talk online. He was filled with ideas and plans, he wanted my opinion, my input on what he was trying to do. His energy was evident in every word he spoke; he wanted to kick over the statues and do things differently. I asked him to contribute to the A Photographic Life Episode and he did for Episode 49.
Who was John? Well, he was a photographer, teacher and writer born in Miami who lived and worked within the underbelly of Mexico. A former correspondent for the Associated Press, and for EFE News, the official information agency of the Spanish government. A photographer who had declared in writing that “photography must die.” He praised the Spanish artist Goya and thought that literature should be the starting point of all art expressions. He explained why this was in an interview in 2018 with Ars.vox, “For reasons I don’t entirely understand, my father was putting cameras in my hands starting when I was three. He was a painter and sculptor. So in a sense, it wasn’t something I chose. That said, I picked it up again when I was 12 and later in my twenties. I did try to paint and was barely accepted to art school in Miami, but I didn’t go. I think I really dedicated myself to photography after seeing work in books by Diego Velázquez, Zurburán and Caravaggio to a lesser extent… Painting and literature. I confess that I pay very little attention to photographers. I admire many, Roy de Carava, Miguel Rio Branco, etc. But I’m moved by painting more than photography. The Abstract Expressionists are a huge influence along with colour field painting.”
John was always generous online in his support of other photographers, alongside his daily posting of his own work documenting the people and places he encountered whilst living amongst the very people who had led to his kidnapping. You can see examples of his passion for sharing, teaching, mentoring and making work on his website www.johnsevigny.org but it is his rapid fire enthusiasm in conversation that I will miss.
I learnt of John’s passing on social media which seems appropriate. He was part of that community. I have no details of what happened. How and why his life ended so prematurely. But given the life he lived I am not surprised.
John was a fan of The Clash and punk in general, ‘original punk’ not ‘fake punk’ that he riled against, and the words Neil Young sang about Johnny Rotten (Lydon) came to my my mind as I sat down to write this, “Hey hey, my my, Rock and roll can never die, There’s more to the picture, Than meets the eye, Hey hey, my my… Out of the blue and into the black, You pay for this, but they give you that, And once you’re gone, you can’t come back, When you’re out of the blue and into the black.”
In his memory I am posting the audio file he sent me for the podcast in which he describes what photography meant to him, so that you can hear that energy for yourself.
You can read the article in which John describes his kidnapping here:
Image: John Sevigny by Nelson Dueñas
© Grant Scott 2023