Goldin was born in 1953 into a middle-class family; her father worked as an economist. When Goldin was 11 years old, her older sister committed suicide. This cataclysmic event has often been linked to Goldin’s obsessive desire to document her personal history.
The first photographs she took were empathetic portrayals of drag queens, their daily lives and their social circles. After studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Goldin moved to the Lower East Side, where she continued to use her camera to chronicle the intimate lives of her friends.
These photographs were made into slideshows which Goldin would present in nightclubs, accompanied by a live soundtrack. Later, in 1986, she published them in a book called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. It was a personal contemplation of the nature of sexual relationships, male social isolation, domestic violence and substance abuse and was shockingly frank.
By the early 1990s, Goldin’s photographs had gained international acclaim. Her 20-year record of her friends’ lives, in which the impact of HIV and AIDS, drug addiction and rehabilitation were registered, offered audiences a profound engagement with social issues.
Now considered one of the most influential figures of the confessional photography genre, in 2007 Goldin was presented with the Hasselblad Award for photography. In 2012, she published The Devil’s Playground, a major collection of her photographs interspersed with text, poems and lyrics by writers including Nick Cave and Cookie Mueller.
In recent years, Goldin has become a leading campaigner for victims of America’s opioid epidemic. A recovering OxyContin addict herself, in 2017 she founded the advocacy group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). She is an outspoken critic of the Sackler family for their involvement in Purdue Pharma, and staged ‘die-in’ protests in Sackler-funded rooms of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Guggenheim Museum and other major institutes. A 2022 documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, chronicles her life, career and activism.
Joana with Valerie and Reine in the Mirror, L'Hotel des Beaux Arts, Paris, 1999