This was based on Théodore Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa, which recorded a great tragedy in French history. Géricault depicted the aftermath of a terrible act of cowardice by the Medusa’s captain and his officers. They ran the ship aground off the coast of what is now Mauritania in 1816. When they couldn’t set the frigate free, they took all of the small boats and left more than 140 passengers to fend for themselves on a raft. Only 15 survived, having resorted to cannibalism.

When I saw the painting in the Louvre, I noticed a correlation between that tragedy and the eight years of George W Bush’s administration. I think Bush would have been a wonderful president of the Baseball Association. But he had no talent for the job of president of my country.
The photograph took a month to put together. It’s a tableau, based on a series of my drawings. I believe in building photographs. I don’t like the unpredictable – I have a clear idea of what I want long before I click the shutter.
First I needed a double for Bush. I contacted an agency for famous lookalikes in Los Angeles. They had a bunch, but the rates were enormous. This one chap, who looked and sounded exactly like Bush, wanted $20,000. Another guy, who worked in Malibu zoo, only charged $1,000. I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, so had to fly him in. My Barbara Bush – George’s mother, who can be seen above him – was a retired nurse. She caught the same flight, though they’d never met before, and I put them both up in a hotel.
I spent a long time looking at the original painting, but decided to add something: a crown of lights on Bush’s head, to represent his little thoughts. And I had his hand fondling the breast of someone who I thought might be Condoleezza Rice, his secretary of state.
The other people were all locals. The day before the shoot, I had them gather in my studio. I showed them a reproduction of Géricault’s painting, reiterated my reasons for making the photograph, then told them to try out their places. The next day, I took the photograph with a Linhof 4x5 camera. I printed it myself because that, for me, is the decisive moment: you can change the meaning of a photograph by how you print it. I have to be part of that process.
I’ve been making photographs since I was 11. When I was 16, the New York Museum of Modern Art chose one of my photographs for its permanent exhibition. From that point on, I knew what I wanted to do. I finished high school, worked in photography studios, then joined the army as a photographer.
I remember we put brownish makeup on the Rice model and wax on her nostrils, to make her look more like her real-life counterpart, who was always a mysterious figure. Rice was obviously very smart, but a Republican. To me, anyone who is a Republican – it’s a spiritual problem rather than a mental one.

Joel-Peter Witkin’s self-portrait.
 Joel-Peter Witkin’s self-portrait

Joel-Peter Witkin’s CV

Born: New York City, 1939.
Studied: MA and MFA at the University of New Mexico.
Influences: The highs and lows of western civilisation, Albrecht Dürer, German expressionism, August Sander and Diane Arbus.
High point: Realising I was a photographer at 16.
Low point: The sad state of art today, especially photography.
Top tip: See with your soul, not with you eyes.

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