Thursday, 11 February 2010

Interview #6 - Ellie Harvey

Approaching Velocity is proud to introduce our first photographer of 2010, and our sixth photographer so far, Ellie Harvey, a photographer who grabbed our attention with a desire to explore and challenge both herself and other’s perceptions.
Please stay tuned over the coming weeks and months for more interviews, plus articles and some exciting new announcements from Approaching Velocity.

Ellie, what is your background to photography?

I started to get into photography a few years ago - I’d been in hospital for a long time and my doctor suggested I made a scrapbook of photos of my friends. It gave me something to focus on, and I found I wanted to take more and more photographs to have a visual record of good times. After that I did my A-levels, one of which was photography. By the end of the course I was pretty obsessed with it and was the only thing I wanted to do. I applied at a few places to do a BA and decided to go to the London College of Communication as I’d heard it had a good reputation for photography. I’m now in my final year of the course.

The subject matter of your photography is rather broad; your projects 'Labels', 'Twins' and 'Kids and toys' are very different to your fashion and music-based photography. Why the split approach to photography? Do they feed off each other, or are they the result of quite different approaches?

The projects came out of having a very tight time frame in which to make a body of work at college. If you have only eight weeks to produce a reasonably cohesive set of images I found it is a lot easier to have a really tight focus on a subject - with anything too abstract or experimental I found you lose track of what you are doing when you only have that very short space of time to make the work.

I don’t really perceive it as a split approach, I think a lot of photographers work in many different areas (and sometimes different mediums), it just happens that they become best known for one over the other. I’m also easily bored by just doing one thing; I enjoy fashion photography for the element of escapism and kind of building this fantasy world, but I couldn’t imagine only ever doing that. I also don’t know whether fashion photography really has the scope to be meaningful or communicate anything important - I think it has the potential to, for example, Nick Knight’s work really pushes the boundaries of what a fashion photograph is and can do. But I’d never want to end up spending every day shooting look books and beauty adverts. I like researching a subject and really getting involved in the area I’m working in, so separate projects are best suited to that, because essentially you are free to communicate whatever you want to say.

The music stuff is what I started off with when I started my A levels. I do very little of it now; I don’t think I’m really cut out for that kind of photography – I’m too short to see the stage half the time! I do still enjoy it, and of course it’s a great way to get to see lots of live music. But I kind of get frustrated that I can’t control the lighting etc.

You've stated that your projects aim to explore (and presumably challenge) 'contemporary photography culture' and society. How much do you feel you've succeeded? Do you feel art can truly challenge society? Where do you wish your explorations to go in the future?

I do want to make work that challenges existing assumptions, visual representations etc. I think it is important – such as with the ‘Labels’ project; people with mental health problems are generally portrayed really badly in the media, which just adds to the stigma that already exists. I wanted to make portraits that normalized this, showing that people didn’t look ‘crazy’ or any different from anyone else. Of course, success in challenging anything relies on how the work is disseminated. I haven’t shown the work at all outside of college or online (the project was going to be included in a group exhibition about various health issues, but unfortunately I couldn’t get funding in time). So in that sense, no, it hasn’t succeeded in challenging anything at all.  But it’s definitely something I want to build on and do more with in the future.

More and more this is the direction I’d like my work to take – to try and alter or challenge existing portrayals of marginalized social groups, or perhaps just try and get across some understanding and help to enable people to have a voice.

As to whether art or photography can truly challenge society; again, it really depends on how, where and by whom the work is actually seen. Art is never going to change the world, but maybe it can play a small part in engaging people with particular issues. I’d love to think that photography had the power to change things, to empower people, to make the world more equal, but realistically it doesn’t really have that power.

The ‘twins’ project was in response to a brief on ‘contemporary photographic culture’ (or something long those lines), and I’d say it is probably my weakest project, simply because it’s not really something I am particularly passionate about or engaged with. In the 'twins'  project, I guess it kind of commented upon issues relating to identity in a digital/virtual environment, but I certainly wouldn’t say it challenged it.

Your presentation of people, in both your projects and fashion, is, to me, particularly intimate and presents them as rather vulnerable; they seem the sum of their environment and their possessions, and rather overwhelmed - the distance you are from the subject extenuates this. How much of this is a conscious decision? Why do you photograph people?

It is very deliberate. I guess I’m always looking for vulnerability in people as I’m generally (albeit usually unconsciously) looking for something of myself in other people. That being said, I don’t go out of my way to make people look miserable. I like shoots to be fun for people, especially if I’m working with children – I’ll just let them be themselves and get used to the camera for a while, then ask if they mind looking in a certain direction or something. I pretty much always say to people only to smile if it comes naturally, I don’t like forced smiles. People don’t naturally go around with a fixed grin on their face, but people still often find it disconcerting if someone isn’t smiling in a portrait, we’re just so used to it as culture.

I don’t really know why I photograph people. It’s just what I’m drawn to. It’s kind of odd really as I’m pretty shy - it would make more sense if I avoided photographing people altogether. I suppose what interests me relates to sociological and psychological issues, which generally involves people. And I guess it’s also a challenge personally; I used to be terrified directing people in front of the camera but now it’s become almost second nature.

The Internet has transformed the way people create, disseminate and consume art. How has this affected your photography?

If money were no object, the internet would be my least preferred medium for showing work, but as it is, it’s a cheap way to get your work seen by people who’d never see it otherwise. It’s also good for networking - meeting other creatives and so on. But I don’t really ever go out of my way to force my work on a lot of people; I know quite a lot of young photographers who do, and have a profile on numerous sites and have probably have got some work or at least recognition out of it. It’s just not how I like to spend my time, once I’ve edited photos and answered emails I’ve had enough of being behind a screen.

I’m not overly keen on Flickr etc; I use it mainly because it’s a lot quicker to update new work than on my website, so if I need to send a link to someone I can quickly show them new photos there. I’m sure there’s a lot of good work on there, but there also seems to be a lot of work on those kind of sites that is really derivative, people blatantly copying their peers because it happens to be popular.

Does your photography speak for you, or say anything about you?

It probably says a lot about me, more than I’d necessarily want it to. I try to avoid it being too personal as I’m not comfortable with that, but I guess there are a lot of subtle aspects. And most of the time I like to be really involved with a particular subject matter, otherwise I don’t really see the point. I think that’s the same for a lot of people; if it were just a job then everyone would shoot weddings. When I’m shooting fashion or a portrait it generally has a lot of my personal style in it visually, but equally aspects of the subject’s style or personality.

What influences your photography?

So many things. As you mentioned, the areas I work in are quite broad, so it really depends. Often, it’s just something I think, or something I’ve read. It’s generally just a really big mix of all different things, thoughts, ideas, visual references, so it’s quite hard to pinpoint. Again, as I mentioned, if I’m shooting a portrait (i.e. specifically of a person as opposed to within a series) then I try to make it as influenced by the person as possible.

What do you like most/least about photography?

I guess I often have too many ideas and I just don’t know where to start, so that’d be what I like least. And I sometimes find it frustrating trying to find a way to make photographs communicate what I want to say - although of course you can’t force someone to read an image in a particular way. I also don’t like being told something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ technically/aesthetically. I don’t mind critique at all, I just don’t understand the idea that photography is governed by specific technical rules, I’d prefer to experiment and see what works.

What I like most… I suppose that it allows you to ‘see’ things, places, etc that you’d never get to see, and that you can ‘see’ things how someone else sees them.

In a universe that centered around you, if there was anything you could shoot, regardless of resources and physics, what would you choose to photograph?

I have no idea. Traveling the world would be nice, without having to worry about finance and the logistics of it. I don’t know what I’d shoot though, I’d want it to have some purpose.

What do you hope to do in the future?

I think it’s important not to be too idealistic as it’s a very competitive industry, but ideally I’d like to shoot portraits and fashion for magazines and work on personal projects as and when time permits. I’m also keen to get more into moving image work. I recently worked on some fashion films which I really enjoyed; I’d love to do music videos eventually. In the long term, I’d love to run a creative therapies service for children and young people with art, dance, drama and music therapy; I don’t think enough of these kind of services exist and for a lot of young people having a creative outlet could be really beneficial as a means of expressing themselves.

Do you have a favourite photograph or photographer?

There are so many it’s impossible to pick one favourite. I like many different people for many different reasons. Richard Avedon, Guy Bourdin, Nan Goldin, Sarah Moon,  Mary Ellen Mark are a few favourites among the most well known artists. Floria Sigismondi, Taryn Simon, Ellen Von Unwerth, Loretta Lux, Philip Lorca diCorcia… I don’t know, I like a lot and a pretty diverse range, and it changes all the time.

I guess my favourite photographs would be my own personal snapshots. I can’t think of a particular photograph by an artist that I like more than any other. I do like the Tim Walker photo of the pastel coloured cats though.

Do you have any advice for other young photographers as to how to approach the art?
Um… just to experiment really. Work on your own ideas and work out how to communicate what is important to you. There are too many photographers in the world to just do whatever happens to be the ‘in’ style of the moment.

Louie Banks, Approaching Velocity's last photographer asks: Who would you most like to photograph, and why?

If they don’t have to be living, then Marilyn Monroe. She is one of the most photographed people of the twentieth century, but I just feel I’d like to try and bring out a different side to her, beneath the glamorous facade. I feel as if I could relate to her.

Living people, I have quite a long list, but the top three would be Bjork, Vivienne Westwood and David Bowie, basically because they are people I admire and have amazing style.

And lastly, what would you like to ask/know about the next photographer interviewee?

Why photography over any other medium?

Thank-you Ellie.