a guide to love, trust and coming of age with photographer olivia bee
We ask the New York prodigy what it means to be a young female photographer in 2015.
Growing up, discovering who you are and falling in love is a whirlwind. Photographer Olivia Bee captures these crucial moments of chaos and clarity in her impressive body of work. Olivia's photographs document the lives of those around her as well as her own, offering an open and honest insight into what girlhood is really like in the 21st century. Her series Kids in Love intimately captures the highs and lows of searching for utopic love. We spoke to Olivia to find out more about love, photography and all the life in between.
What has your work helped you discover about love?
I learned about the ways that people touch each other, the ways that people look at each other tenderly. About what we do for each other and what it's like to see that light in someone. All my photos are also love letters to all the people in them. My work reeks of love! But I think the main thing I learned a lot about is trust.
How do you establish trust between yourself and your subjects? Do you feel comfortable documenting those situations?
I just take it. I don't say 'oh okay guys, make out right here and don't look at me'. The photos from my Kids in Love series are just things that happened when no one was really minding what was going on. You have to be a very gentle and quiet person as these are quiet, gentle, private moments and it's a real privilege that I get to document them. One of the couples in these photos, Paul and Anna, are some of my best friends and they've let me photograph them through everything -- their entire relationship. It's been really special.
Have there been any times when you've had the opportunity to take an image but something's held you back?
Sometimes for moral reasons there's something that tells you 'no, I can't photograph this' and that's something I had to learn the hard way. One of the great things about my pictures is they feel like secrets. They're very shrouded in their own world and I get to be an onlooker. I think if I was more of an asshole, I might have more pictures, but I don't think that they would be better photographs. There have been times when I wake up next to somebody I don't know very well and there's really beautiful light hitting them and I'm like oh, it's so tender in this moment and last night was great. But I can't because I don't know this person very well -- I don't think they'd be okay with it. I can't. That's when I take it in and write a poem about it or put it aside for a future project. I make sure that I document the moment in some way, but maybe it's not in photographic terms. The notion of 'taking someone's photograph is stealing their soul' is something I take seriously. It is a privilege that should not be abused.
What is love in 2015?
I think it's dangerous. On social media, you're able to control how much you can have of somebody. You can choose to text someone or look at their Instagram but control that amount of time and contact. This leads to fantasizing about an entire being that maybe isn't even true to that person. There's a lot of confusion. We're all playing a character online. I guess people will fall in love with that, but is it really you? I feel like everybody's Instagram is supposed to make them likeable and fuckable. That's kind of a weird thing. I know a lot of people in love and it's real, but I think it's been skewed with recent technology.
How did you find balancing being at school and working at the same time?
Time management helps. There were occasions when I'd tell my school 'okay I'm going to leave to shoot this five day car campaign' and they'd be like 'no you're not' and I'd say, 'well actually, yes I am'. Maybe I'd get a bad grade, but I'd make up for it later. It was a strange, weird and emotionally taxing way to grow up, but I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. I was a 16-year-old kid hanging out with people who were just having their first children and working for big creative agencies. That's a different world and I had to constantly prove myself even though I was fucking good and got the job done. Until you're Craig McDean or Quentin Tarantino, you have to prove yourself over and over again. One of the really cool things about making stuff when you're young is there's no pressure to succeed other than from inside yourself. You have the freedom to mess up if you want to.
I went to a talk with photographer Nadav Kander recently and he said something I found really interesting: you need to distance yourself from the initial time of a shoot because you have an emotional attachment to it. It's better to look over the work later on. Does that resonate with you at all? How much time do you give yourself from shooting to editing and sharing something?
Definitely. Kids in Love, my solo show, was a bunch of work from when I was around 15 or 16, but I'm only putting it out now. I needed that time to figure out what it meant and to edit it properly. I think you have to make work with sentimentality and extreme attention to what is going on at the time, but that's not how you edit it. You have to learn how to have an outside eye. I take photos because I love something or someone but I can't show a super blurry photo that's not aesthetically pleasing just because it's a boy I have a crush on. That doesn't hit anybody. I put so much pressure on myself with time because I've done everything so young. I got signed at 15, shot the cover of the New York Times when I was 17, everything I've done has a time stamp. That's something I'm really working on letting go of right now. You have to give yourself the space to make things because no one will give that to you besides yourself.
Have your thoughts on nudity always been really open? Why do you choose to photograph nudes? Do you think there's a line between representation and exploitation?
I'd say my thoughts on nudity have always been pretty open, even when I was 15 I was taking pictures of myself nearly naked. People often say 'that's so vain' but none of it's to make people look at me in a sexual way, it's a natural state. I think that's part of the reason I'm comfortable photographing other people nude, too. I love fashion and styling but I think that can be a distraction from the emotion you're trying to get across. If you're nude you have this kind of emotion on your face or in your body language, it's much easier to read than if you're in a bunch of clothes. Naturally, photographing and using people in your art feels like exploitation because you're using them for your work. But if you want the best for them and it's done with love, I don't think it's an issue.
Why do you think you take pictures of yourself?
All of my self-portraits from when I was 14 or 15 were just because I was with myself all the time and I could execute my vision without having to tell somebody what to do. Then it turned into this self-discovery and documentation of my own progress and how I was growing up, all of my feelings. I kind of live like I'm writing my own book and I like playing that character.
Is there anything you wish someone had said to you when you were starting out?
I think you should photograph and show the world things you have access to. Show people things you know and like, that only you have the key to. If that's a door, there's a lot to be opened. I would love to see more kids in suburbs making magic, I think that's so interesting. I'm sick of New York street style, who wants to see anymore of that? You do not have to live in a big city to make amazing work. Work hard and don't be shy about your vision. You see something special that no one else does.
Text Lula Ososki
Photography Olivia Bee