The car did not have a license, so they took the plates from another vehicle. But they were out of gas. I gave them a dollar to get it started and they ended up going around the neighborhood greeting people in total triumph for the rest of the day. They were only about fifteen.
It is an extremely moving image. The dog looks hurt, the child looks hurt, he is physically dirty and the car won’t start. But he’s not like the kids in Dorothea Lange’s job – you don’t want to rush in and help him out. I never liked these photos. It is not an image with a social message. It is not a call to buy soap for this child or an advertisement that “poor whites need help too”. It’s just painful. The child looks hurt and the viewer feels it.
I was on fire when this photo was taken. I started in 1962 and over the next seven years I did everything I’m known for. I shot marches of the civil rights movement in The Movement, I documented life inside the Texas prison system in Conversations with the Dead, and life at the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club in The Bikeriders.
I have always liked foreigners. Rebellion has always been one of America’s finest features. And I count the insurgency we see across the country today as part of that story.
People would ask me why I was drawn to the periphery of a society. But what was I supposed to photograph in the suburbs? I find it incredibly boring. When I was growing up, it was all the businessmen in drab flannel suits and fedoras who only cared about making money.
What has always interested me is emotion, and the first thing that happens when you get into business class is you hide your emotions. I read Max Weber, the German sociologist. He understands very well how people who are “inside” a society operate. The first generation of business people accumulate wealth, but the people who come after them become like automatons, repeating the same processes forever. I find something loathsome in this world.
I was amazed to read 15 years ago that civilization was in danger from fossil fuels. How can you explain to anyone why we continue as we are? But the answer is always greed. Things will work this way until life on Earth is destroyed.
Even today, I feel like a foreigner and I am proud of it. I am the lesser known photographer, as someone once called me. I still work, make films and photograph, but not at the pace of my youth. Photography is powerful – it’s practically an international language in the Instagram age, but I still think it’s distinct from other art forms.
Many years after taking the photo, I gave a talk in New York with some of my work projected onto a screen behind me. When this image appeared, I gasped. Without thinking, I said, “I could never take a photo like this today. I took this picture 53 years ago, and I think the person who took the picture felt abandoned. I don’t know why – I had parents, a girlfriend, a house, so that doesn’t make sense. But I think that feeling was essential to this image.
Painters can change and rework their designs, but good photography is something you find. You are looking for a vision. This is why I was so excited when I watched Agee’s boulder in 1967. With predatory instinct, I knew I had found something worth documenting.
Danny Lyon’s CV
Née: Brooklyn, New York, 1942.
Studied: New York Public School; history, University of Chicago.
The influences: “James Agee; curator Hugh Edwards who discovered me; and my father, who was a wonderful photographer.
High point: ” Right now, because I’m still alive at 78. ”
Low point: ” It will be the day before I die.
Superior council: “I don’t think I have any advice. ”
• Danny Lyon’s work is on his website and on Instagram: dannylyonphotos.