stef mitchell's intimate photos explore what it means to be a ‘girl’

As she opens her first show of photographs and drawings at Red Hook Labs in Brooklyn, we ask the i-D contributor for her best advice for young photographers, and what the word ‘girl’ means to her.

by i-D Staff, Emily Manning, and Charlotte Gush
14 July 2016, 2:45pm

Two sticky summers ago, Stef Mitchell hung around Marcy Playground in Brooklyn and shot black-and-white portraits of passersby for her first i-D assignment. These images of BMX boys, basketballers, and lifelong Bed-Stuy residents embody what make Stef's photographs so distinctive: her unique eye for off-beat characters, her earnest and playful attentiveness to their details, and her ability to elicit authentic emotions from them. The special ingredient in everything Stef makes is trust.

She's continued to contribute work to i-D over the years, recently combining her portraits and poetically crude drawings for our New Luxury Issue. Tonight, she opens Girl — her first solo show of these scribbles and snapshots — at Brooklyn's Red Hook Labs. The show will feature images of both girls and boys and will be accompanied by a zine we made together. Before she lets everyone else in on the fun, I caught up with Stef to discuss the importance of having a creative partner in crime, how she survived interning for Annie Leibovitz while living on dollar slices, and why she wants people to think critically about the girls in their lives.

You went to school for journalism back home in Australia, which I find hilarious because I cannot imagine you doing my job at all. Why did you switch to photography?
Honestly, I chose it because it was the closest thing I could do to photojournalism, which is what I actually wanted to do. And it got me into America, which was really the only worthwhile part about it.

Tell me about that time in your life — deciding you wanted to be here and trying to make it happen.
I came here to do a six-month internship for Annie Leibovitz. I didn't have anywhere to stay and I didn't actually know anyone; I think I had about $700. I was going to these huge Vogue shoots and staying in shitty hostels in Times Square, it was so bizarre. Eventually, one of the assistants had a friend with an open room, so I was saved. I lasted the six months somehow, then had to go home, get a visa, and come back to do it properly.

What kept you going?
I was enjoying the adventure of it. At the same time that I was living this insane life — doing random odd jobs to get by, like helping one of Annie's assistants clean his studio so he'd buy me lunch — I was seeing that you actually could become successful by being a photographer. Looking at everything Annie had was just like, "Holy shit." It inspired me.

This show is 100% you, but it's been cool to see how it's come together as a kind of team effort. One of your most important collaborators is definitely George, an amazing producer who's also your wife. How do you two work together? 
Even when I was interning, George was giving me advice about how to behave, what to wear, "don't shave half your head off" — little tips here and there. It's now evolved to the point where when I get given opportunities creatively, we talk about it straight away. It's definitely two people making something, talking things through, and getting more confident in the ideas with that planning. Having someone like that is invaluable.

How did you decide what was going to be included?
Jimmy Moffat [co-founder of Art + Commerce and owner of Red Hook Labs] played a huge role in it; it was his idea to do the show in the first place. He's such an incredible human with a huge amount of experience, I was mostly interested to see what his take was. Listening to him talk about my work was really an education in itself. When we were laying it all out, I was putting stuff next to each other to try and create a little narrative. He was just like, "Okay: you photograph faces, body parts, and situations. These are the faces, these are the body parts, these are the situations." He simplified everything so directly, in one second I could look at my own work differently. It was incredibly helpful, and insane.

Let's talk about the title. Why Girl?
I started by writing a list of phrases and words I found entertaining, and showed it to the people whose opinions I respect most: you, George, Spike [Jonze], and my friend Liz Scarf. It was interesting to see what everyone picked and why; I think it was Spike that went for Girl. His explanation was probably the most grown up out of all of us. He said it was the most specific, straight to the point, boiled down version of what I'm actually showing. I thought about it more and realized it's an interesting word for me to use in any context because it's not a simple word to me. Based on my name and appearance, other people often don't know if I'm a girl or a boy or what I am; maybe I've developed a different perspective on it than others. I'd like if this show inspires people to think about what that word means to them and why.

Tell me about some of the girls in the show.
It's definitely a mix of people that I love, people I'm really close to, and people I just met. There are pictures of my sister, Charlotte, at different ages. I've been compelled by her whole look and presence even when she was eight-years-old. It doesn't make you think "girl," it makes you think beyond that — it's more powerful than girl or boy, she's just this really strong person, such a strange little character.

You and I also made a zine together, which started out being completely independent from the exhibition; we only decided to launch it at the show because we'd have all of our friends in one place. But now that they've come together, I really do see the zine as existing within the show's universe.
I agree! We had the idea for a while; but what actually made us do it was just frustration with everyone and all the rules around us. It was just like "fuck this, we're gonna do this exactly how we want, we're gonna edit it exactly how we want, and we're gonna put it out exactly how we want." Hopefully the spirit of that is what's in the show.

I think that what brings everything together is that it's stuff we're obsessed with. What are some of your other obsessions in the show?
Recently, I've started noticing how many religious references are in my work. I don't do it on purpose and I'm not a religious person at all. I went to a Catholic girls' school and was taught by nuns. When I was 14, one was so angry with me that she pulled me out of class, screamed at me, spat on my face, and told me I was "the devil incarnate"! How epic is that? I was stuck in this fucking school for six years surrounded by these psychos. So I guess their religious shit did go into my head, it's just not coming out the way they wanted.

What do you hope people take from this show?
I hope that people feel something, even if they're a little uncomfortable. If they feel confronted, I'd like them to take a second and think about why. Maybe it will inspire some people, maybe it will piss some people off. There are no rules anymore.

'Stef Mitchell: Girl' is on view at Red Hook Labs through July 24, 2016. More information here. 


Text Emily Manning
Photography and illustrations Stef Mitchell

Red Hook Labs
stef mitchell