Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Interview by
AA Bronson
Photography by
Paul Mpagi Sepuya


I first visited Paul’s web site,, on February 24, 2005. I know the date, because I emailed him immediately, and I still have his response. We began selling his little zine, SHOOT, at our art book store Printed Matter in New York City and, not long after, selling his photos too. Someone asked me recently, ‘Have you noticed that there is never a shadow in any of Paul’s photos?’ Well, of course there isn’t, because he always shoots with an umbrella that eliminates every last little shadow. But one could make more of it than that. The desire to eliminate shadows is a very particular one. Paul is a guy with no shadow. He is always up-tempo, perky, positive, charming, but also, ultimately, professional. His photos are somehow enticing in the same way. They are all portraits, all shot against the same blank whiteness that is his bedroom wall. There is something about the exchange between photographer and sitter that draws one in, that captures a kind of delicacy about the sitter that we might not otherwise have noticed. He has only had sex with one of his sitters, he confides to me, and I wonder if the other sitters realized that they would not be able to consummate this opportunity. I suspect that they expected more, and in their eyes, often slightly sad or distant, I see a reflection of rejection. This is all conjecture on my part of course, if only to capture the mood of those difficult-to-describe yet apparently simple photos.

AA: Do you have a nice butt?
Paul: I’ve been told I have a nice butt. Do you want me to show it to you?
I think I have a really boring butt. (Paul shows his butt to me.)
Well, you do have a nice butt.
I think I have a developed butt and legs from cycling. On a regular day, if I bicycle to work and back, I bicycle about ten miles…at least ten miles. I like to race all the other bikers over the bridge to Manhattan. You start to see the same cyclers all the time, and the other day I saw this guy and I was like…I’m going to beat him. And I did! The next day I totally killed my legs. I didn’t know what I was doing.
Are you a top or a bottom?
Well, I’ve mostly been a top, but it always depends on who the guy is. And I really love aggressive, fun, versatile guys. The best are guys who are up for anything, you know? It keeps things exciting when each time you go at it you never know who’s gonna come out on top! I had probably the best sex I’ve ever had with a guy I was seeing briefly in the spring, and he is really great, but I totally fucked things up by not being honest about being involved with someone else at the same time… But anyways, he was a fantastic bottom, really got into it and could go for what seemed like hours, lots of rough and tumble. It was great though when he topped me, he had so much fun!
My feeling is that you’d really like to be dominated. The interesting thing about being behind the camera is that it puts you in control. So when you’re not behind the camera, it’s only fair that you get fucked in return.
It’s not the first time that this has been suggested. I actually don’t feel a dominance/submission dynamic when I’m behind the camera. I think anyone who’s ever sat for a portrait with me, even in sexual situations, would probably laugh at the idea of me as a big bad wolf. I always end up feeling more vulnerable in the end.
You don’t have to physically touch someone to be in control. Even telling them to smile, or not smile, is a kind of control. Have you ever been in a sexual situation that you wished you could get out of but had to follow through with?
Well, besides a few really bad hookups where I just lay there and thought, ‘Well, I got myself into this, I gotta go through,’ there aren’t many crazy things I’ve found myself in. Once I wanted to see what it would be like to be with a dominant guy who wanted me pretty much on my knees, gagging on his cock. He was hot, but right away I was like, ‘Nah, not so much for me.’ And I actually got up and left. I’m really more into just being fun and playful with sex. Not working out crazy issues and shit in my head. I do enough of that by myself and in all my work.

BUTT - 2
Nico, who has great foreskin, on Paul's studio wall

Do you ever have sex with the guys you photograph, in the context of the photo sessions?
I did for the first time a few months ago, and I think it was because I was frustrated. I knew it was going to happen, and of course nothing ever happens accidentally. I knew he was attracted to me, because he had written me a long letter after seeing my portrait in the BUTT BOOK. I get lots of random emails from people, like, ‘Take my picture,’ or this or that. Anyway, we hung out and became friends. I took some portraits of him, and then I was, like, it would be fun to get laid, so…it was really fun and hot. He has nice balls. So that was the first time I did that, but I have done portraits of people that I dated later on. Then this winter I did portraits of these two guys who were at the time in a relationship, but one was in New York and the other one was in Vienna. I knew them both, but I didn’t know they were still together. So I ended up getting fucked by the one who was here, and then later on I went to Vienna for a project, and the other guy put the moves on and I said, ‘That’s fine, you might as well!’ It was really great because the day I was leaving Vienna — I had been staying at his place — we screwed around in the morning and I had to go straight to the airport, and then the New York guy called me as soon as I got back and we screwed around too. It was like on the same day with both of them. But the funny thing is: I’ve never had a threesome.
No. My life is actually very boring, I’m probably one of the least sexually interesting people who’ve ever been in BUTT magazine.
Oh, I wouldn’t count on that!
You’re someone who makes things happen. How did you come to do your own zine SHOOT?
With all the portrait projects I had started up till then, I would shoot a lot, like maybe 60 to 100 images and I was always trying to edit it down to one or two. Once while I was looking at contact sheets, I started feeling sort of frustrated, and I thought, ‘I want to find a way that I can play around with narrative, with sequencing, with different formats for a portrait…’ So then I came up with the idea of making a zine. I had just shot this guy Nico. It was just before Easter and I was going to go visit my mom, so I had nothing to do for a week. I took all the stuff with me and I made a bunch of Xeroxes and stuff and made a layout. I came back a week later and made the first issue and that was it. I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be.
Well, it’s pretty specific. I mean it’s photos of one person. It’s conceptually very tight. It’s not as most zines tend to be: everything and the kitchen sink. Plus, Nico has a fabulous foreskin and so you put the two together and you’ve got a winner!
(laughs) The first issue is all about Nico being an exhibitionist and I think the portraits of him and maybe my friend Darren are the only sets of portraits that are sexually explicit. And really they are pretty tame.
They are more sexually suggestive.
Right. And so that was the first issue of SHOOT and they just sort of went from there. But I don’t know if I’m going to be doing any more. I can never make up my mind. I’ll leave it open ended.
Right, it was probably a pain to produce, too, since you probably sold way more copies than you ever expected to.
Yes, yes. At the time I didn’t have a job, and so I would just watch the Cosby Show in the afternoon and fold and staple and punch, but with working full time now, I just don’t have the time to do it anymore. It’s funny though, because after that first SHOOT came out, I got several emails from people saying they stumbled across it accidentally because they would be looking for Nico, the singer, and if you Google ‘Nico’, one of the first things that shows up are my pictures of Nico. (laughs)
Tell me about your job.
Well, I’m working for the Joan Mitchell Foundation, which is one of only two big artists’ estate programs that actually give anything back to individual artists, which is great. I’ve learned a lot from working with other artists over the past few years, and it’s always nice to be on the saying-‘yes’ side of artist support and grant-making, not the hearing-‘no’ side.
Where did you grow up?
Oh, Southern California, about an hour east of L.A.. A pretty boring place. It used to be really beautiful. We had a house up on a hill and there were acres and acres of orange groves, and then down the hill there was a Buddhist temple with peacocks… By the late 80s it was just another subdivision with little McMansion houses.
How many siblings do you have?
One brother and two half-sisters. I have quite a large family though. My mother has four brothers and four sisters, and I think I have something like 27 first cousins on that side. On my father’s side I have a bunch of uncles and aunts and other people, and we’re all sort of split up across Africa, Europe and America.

BUTT - 3
Cute, cute, cute. Repetition is one of Paul's artistic devices...

Wow, that’s a broad territory.
Yes, (laughs) it’s been interesting because we’ve all been just recently getting back in touch. My father comes from a very religious family, like, Church of England all the way. My mom was raised Methodist, so we settled on the Episcopal Church. I grew up in the small church that had split off from the big church and you could bring your cat to get blessed. They had Joan Baez sing-alongs. It was never the kind of religion that discouraged you from asking questions. So I don’t have any bad feelings towards what religion can be. My grandfather was a pastor and the leader of a really large church in Louisiana during the Civil Rights movement, and as you know the Civil Rights movement really went hand in hand with liberal social attitudes. I know a lot of really great liberal people of many different religions. It is a very important thing where I come from. I get mad when I see some asshole religious people.
Coming from a very religious family, didn’t you have any inclination to study in a seminary or anything?
No. My mother secretly hopes that one day I will be confirmed, but sorry I can’t do that. Not that I’m anti-religion — culturally I think it’s really interesting — but I’m just not into it. The gay thing has never been a problem with my family though.
When did you know you were gay?
I got into the Internet thing really early, when I was maybe twelve or thirteen. I was a big computer nerd and I think I had figured out the gay thing by then, I definitely knew what pictures I wanted to download while everyone was asleep! Around that age I started with chat rooms and CompuServe. There was actually an older guy in England — I don’t know if he ever told me his real name, but he called himself Albert… And we would chat and share stuff. He was definitely a pedophile because I remember once he told me about how he had had this 16-year-old over, and he was 42 and I’m like maybe 13 at the time, and I thought 16 was already pretty grown up. He didn’t really say anything explicit, but it was like he had this kid over and they were lying on his bed and he had massaged him and he told me he felt really bad about this but that he couldn’t help it. Thirteen-year-olds aren’t thinking about what pedophiles are. If you’re 13 and you’re straight and the teacher is hot and wearing high heels, you want the teacher. And it’s the same thing for gay boys. I went to this conservative Catholic high school and I was apparently the first student ever to come out, and everyone was, like, ‘NO! You’re not gay!’
How old were you then?
Fifteen. When everybody found out I was gay, that’s when I made friends, because until then I was really shy but then everyone was, like, ‘So, Paul, he’s the gay one. What’s it like?’
What year were you fifteen? It’s not so long ago — how old are you now? 17? (laughs)
It was, eh, 1995. Later on our principal was outed on 60 Minutes for sending pornographic letters and pictures to seminary students. It wasn’t an underage-kids thing, they were full adults, but it was him and another guy like getting wasted at local gay bars and trying to bring out the seminary students and just being completely….
Right, leather bars are always full of priests.
Totally. He would go to Gay Day at Disneyland with other priests. So at that point they couldn’t do anything to me.
Too late!
I had a good time.
The more I look at your photos, the more I am tempted to say that they are a kind of religious or at least devotional photography.
My friends can tell you that I’m really Catholic-obsessed. Dead saints and incense and gold — the whole thing. It’s completely devotional and about remembering, reenacting and revisiting these stories. I feel a bit the same way about the people in my portraits as an old Catholic grandma probably does about the saints in her little altar.Yes, exactly. Your pictures seem quite ritualized to me. They always have exactly the same format: a person sitting on your bed…
I have worked out a ritual, a kind of repetitive process that sometimes might become meditative, if you know what I mean. If you set up a set of rules and steps to follow — at that point you can really stop thinking and you’re freed up to explore everything else. In that repetition I sort of stop thinking about making photos in the same way that when you go over a rosary for the millionth time you’re not thinking about the beads but something beyond…
Often I wonder why someone is interested in my work…
Well, why do you think that is? Are there particular types of interests?
There’s all types of interests. I have people who write saying, ‘Oh, I have to have this picture, I think so and so is fucking hot,’ and then I think, ‘That’s great but how sustained will this interest be?’ Then, some time ago, I had this collector who wrote saying one of the portraits that I did reminded him of his partner who had recently died… I don’t know, it’s really hard to know what to think. I almost feel like I’ve been put in this awkward place of meaning more to him than I can. It can be tough sometimes, because I don’t know what other people see when they look at my work, because there’s a lot of empty space to fill in.
Right, I think you are creating the sort of work that people can project onto, like it’s some kind of mirror in which they see their own relationships.
And then I also wonder what it means to the people in my life who become the subjects of this, because they are put out there in the world. My friend Todd went to Buenos Aires, and the day he got there he was in a cafe and he saw this guy that he thought was really hot and this guy comes over and says, ‘Hey, I’ve seen your portrait.’ They became friends, and ended up collaborating together, as artists. There are a lot of these stories. I mean, if the idea is that I’m trying to figure out these friendships and relationships with people, then it definitively leads to others, yeah.
Do you have any future plans or projects?
My sister and I were talking about doing a documentary on our father, which might turn into something really interesting. We have different mothers — she was born and raised in Denmark and Toronto and then moved back to Copenhagen after her mom and my dad got divorced. She hadn’t talked to our father for the past 16 years because he just kind of blew her off, which is just another entire interview. But anyway, they reconnected and she was staying with him out in California for like two weeks and he was telling her this stuff about how he just inherited everything of our family side in Uganda. He inherited this huge piece of land and this huge mansion on the shore of Lake Victoria and he wants us all to go there. Our new stepmother is a Russian bride. (laughs) My roommate’s dad just got a Russian bride, too, but my dad has been married to Tatiana for 14 years now. So there’s a lot of stuff there and I was thinking about doing a self-portrait series of my father, because we look exactly identical…Except that he’s 68.
So he had you quite late in life…
Yeah, he was 43. I’m not having a kid at 43.
(laughs) And I’m definitely not having a kid at 43!

Originally published in BUTT 22