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Andres Serrano’s best photograph: a white man with black skin

This is my friend Aaron. He begged me to take his picture. I couldn’t do it – everyone knew him in the art world – but I wondered if I could turn him into something else. He said: “OK, turn me into a woman.” He wouldn’t make a good woman. But Aaron was desperate to get in the show, and so three weeks before the deadline he called me up and said: “I’ve got another idea: why don’t you turn me into a black slave?”

I said, I don’t know about a slave, but I’ll turn you black, and I’ll call the picture White Nigger. He said: “That’s perfect – as a teenager I hung around black friends, and that was my nickname.” There’s no post-production or digital changes in this image, it’s all the work of a makeup artist. But I made sure you would see there was a white man under this black skin, because prejudice is only skin deep.

When I did a photo series in a morgue there was a black woman whose skin was deteriorating, and she had white skin underneath. I pointed this out to the morgue manager, who replied that when he was a student in medical school, his teacher took a very thin piece of skin off a corpse, and said: “This is the thickness of racism.”

This is from a series called The Interpretation of Dreams, named after Freud’s book. I was intrigued by Sigmund Freud at a very early age, after my mother had a series of psychotic episodes. She would not only be in another world psychologically, but very different physically – her face was sallow, she was sweaty, and she’d be hearing voices. I was frustrated I couldn’t pull her back, and that her love for me wasn’t enough to keep her from going into that state. So around 10 or 11, I started to read Freud as much as I could, just to work out what was going on in her head. What I got from it was that the mind is a very mysterious place, and you can’t question things on a rational basis, because the subconscious is irrational. I’ve learned not to judge anyone’s craziness – who’s to say who is crazy?

There was also a photograph of a masturbating nun in this series, and one of a cardinal squatting as if he’s going to go to the bathroom, called The Cardinal Poos, He’s Only Human. It’s all fantasy, my own creative reality. The best way to describe it is in terms of Superman. In Superman’s world there’s another universe known as Bizarro World, where everything is opposite: Superman is not good, he’s ugly, it’s all backwards. Bizarro World is a place I need to go to sometimes. We have to think outside the box. I’m thinking partly about the Trump administration here – there’s going to be a hot period of art, as opposed to the cool postmodernist period, where people made art about art, or nothing, or theory. There’s going to be a shift towards a more politically and socially engaged art.

Andres Serrano. Photograph: Irina Movmyga

Andres Serrano’s CV

Born: New York City, 1950.

Studied: Brooklyn Museum Art school.

Influences: As an artist, Marcel Duchamp. My life coach is Bob Dylan.

High point: Being a completely unknown artist denounced in Congress. It was great for my career, but difficult for me as a human being.

Low point: In 2008, I left the Paula Cooper Gallery – I got mad and said some very unkind things. I was very stupid. For a New York artist to not have a gallery in New York, it’s the kiss of death.

Top tip: There’s a lot of rejection. Persevere.

Andres Serrano: Selected Works 1984-2015 is at The School, Jack Shainman Gallery, Kinderhook, New York, to May 13