The Photographic Journal

Olivia Bee at the Vans Vision Walk

Interview 065 • May 7th 2018

Foreword

We were recently given the opportunity to join the Vans Vision Walk in New Orleans, which was being hosted by Akasha Rabut (whose interview we’ll be posting later in the week), and had, as special guest, Vans brand ambassador Olivia Bee. We spoke with Olivia after the vision walk, and, as was the case in our first interview with her, found a photographer who was thoughtful in their practice and inspirational in their self-awareness.

Interview

How’s work been lately?

It’s been good. I just shot two projects for two of my favorite artists right now, so I’m super-excited about that. And they were both very nitty gritty, like we’re going to get in a car and just go; I’m going to  produce it, we’re going to go shoot in these places, really small crews, making each other food.

Ryan McGinley style.

Yeah! Haha!

Ha!

Because they didn’t have a crew! I’m sure it was just the two of them.


 

Last time we talk-talked…

Mhmm.

When we interviewed you last, it felt like you’d figured out balance.

Yeah, I don’t know, it’s always finding that balance again. Right now…I want to be in the woods, I want to be in my car, I want to be driving in California and Oregon, and I want to be riding. I really just want to be riding horses all the time. I want to be riding, but also writing, giving myself the space to write when it feels right, and riding when it feels right, too.

Yeah.

Or imbalance, because I had…when was that interview, I don’t remember.

2015.

2015, yeah, I was at a good balance then. Last year, I barely worked, I had three really important commissions, and the rest, I was not working, I was working on personal work, I was making a life for myself, which I had never done, and this year I’m already working a lot, and I think I’m feeling that, it just felt black and white.


Yeah.

So I need to find some those moments again. I felt overwhelmed, there’s been a lot of travel, too, which I used to be like, “yeah, I’ll go there for three days, I’ll go there for four days!” But now I don’t know if I want to do that all the time. I’m always happy to do it, I’m very happy for the opportunities, but I’m feeling a little burnt out right now.

It doesn’t come across at all!

Not at all, not at all.

Does this Vans Vision Walk feel more like a vacation to you, or is it still like working?

It feels like a little bit of work, but also I’m having really awesome conversations. Sometimes that’s what I really lack when I’m on the road shooting for work.  But I feel like I’m with my people here, and having really awesome conversations about things I care about, work that I care about, meeting some people I’ve really wanted to meet, spending time with people I really love spending time with. It’s kind of a cross between both, it kind of feels like a workshop that’s really fun, with people that I really want to be around. It made me feel so at home with myself and this community.

What do you feel you get from hanging out with other photographers?

Reassurance that I’m not crazy, and the way I think is not crazy.

Ha!

The things I want are not insane. I also think, just talking about personal work with other people is really important; what are they working on personally, what am I working on personally, and how we can…how sometimes there’s a conversation between those two things, like mine might correlate with somebody else’s. And yeah, people being like, “cool, we can pull over and take pictures” – that didn’t happen today, but that kind of mentality.

Yeah, let’s stop the walk so we can take this picture.

Yeah, like, “oh yeah dude, do your thing, that’s fine.” I have been taking more pictures with my family. It was always really hard for me to photograph my parents, and I started photographing my mother.

Why was it hard?

I don’t know, it was just hard. It felt uncomfortable, or it wasn’t my place. I was putting them in a weird position, I don’t know, but I’ve started photographing my parents and it’s been really cool.

It’s always been hard for me to photograph my mom because I know how she wants to be perceived.

Sure, yeah also that.

Like, she’s not going to think this is reflective of her.

Yeah yeah yeah, definitely. I think that also comes with photographing people not hot young 20-somethings.

Right. My mom doesn’t want to look old, so it will be like, “oh it looks good, she looks like a 66-year-old woman, she won’t like that.”

Yeah. My mom is okay with her age, which is really cool to watch.

My mom’s okay with her age until you take a picture of her.

Yeah, true true, maybe, we’ll see. I sent her the picture I took of us and she really liked it, so that was nice.

What do you take away from being a Vans brand ambassador for art and photography? With Vans’ huge audience, how do you approach getting speak to so many young people/artists?

One of my favorite things about Vans as a brand is their commitment to provide amazing opportunities — be it spaces, events, jobs, shoes — to young artists. And I always am amazed at how much they GIVE and how much is free of charge — House of Vans in Brooklyn — where every show is free and all the food is free and it’s always all ages — and them making that a priority — that is a real commitment to young people. It is an honor to be a part of that story. I hope that I am able to encourage young artists to follow their intuition and their heart and to not doubt their creativity. 

Is there anything in particular you look for in brands you partner up with?

I only partner with brands I really believe in.

Going back to your personal work…do you have an idea for the kind of personal work you want to do?

I mean, I never really have an idea, it’s more I take some pictures that feel right and they make sense in a broader sense when I look at them all together. But I’ve been taking more landscapes, a lot of landscapes, pictures of my mom, not a lot but there will be more pictures of my mom, pictures of myself. I always come back to self-portraiture, I’ll take breaks and then come back to it. I’m coming back right now.

Would you consider the Viva Las Vegas series personal work?

Oh yeah definitely, yeah that’s definitely personal work.

Because that feels like very…conceived/designed/produced…

Yeah, no it is, it is. But the idea came from an experience I had, so I had the experience and then the idea, I don’t know, it just kind of came, and then I built something out of it.



That seems kind of unique among your whole…body of work, that it’s this personal series but there’s a bit of a narrative, it’s not just casual self-portraiture that just happens to be really good…

Yeah, yeah. I’ve done more of that in the last few years, just nothing has been published, because it’s not ready to be in the world yet, so I feel like people often think that I don’t do that, or that that was that one time thing, but I actually do it, have done it a lot, it’s just not public yet.

What makes it ready to be public?

When the book is done!

Ha!

When the book is designed, and the deal is signed!

When the money is in the bank account!

Well, no, just when someone is like yes I will publish this, yeah, it’s in the process.

Well, last time we spoke, you talked about wanting to get into filmmaking; is that still something you’re interested in?

Yeah,I’ve done a couple music videos and fashion films since then, and then I made a short film this year that’s not out yet, and I’m writing another one to be made. And then I wrote a movie last year, but I just read it like a week ago and I’m like, “this sucks!” But in certain exchanges, certain scenes, certain character traits, I feel the story, and it’s there, it’s just buried right now.

How was making a short film?

It was amazing! It was really amazing and such a learning experience, it was the first time I was shooting dialogue, first time I was working with real actors, and I had just taken an acting class a  few months before, to prep me on how to talk to actors. Well, yeah, that’s what it was supposed to help me do, which it did, but also acting myself was really cool. That helped a lot, and yeah, just putting together something that’s pretty concrete, but then finding the spontaneity within those concrete parameters is cool. When it happens, it’s really cool and transcendent and visceral, but when it’s not happening, everything sucks.

Did you find that you stuck to the script? Or did you encourage them to operate outside of those boundaries?

We tried some things outside of the script dialogue-wise and I didn’t end up liking any of it, I liked the dialogue that I wrote. But we tried some, some of the actions were a little bit more unscripted, we were kind of figuring it out there.

How do you feel that influenced your photography afterwards?

I just want to tell bigger stories, and I feel like I’m looking at so much more photojournalism and documentary photography now. I worked with an art director recently and we had a lot of the same taste in photography, and she showed me, I don’t know, her references for the shoot we were doing were so documentarian, and I thought it was so amazing, and I’ve started shooting a lot wider and I’ve started shooting a lot of black and white, but still making it me and weird and a little messy. But that’s been really fun, and I think it all just goes into telling more of the full story, which has been my goal for a while, but I think it’s still a goal.

Yeah, it’s still something you’re working towards.

Yeah, totally. And I mean, it’s coming, it’s there a lot of the time, but it’s just something I’m thinking about.


I used to think I need to shoot particular subjects to get somewhere, or I don’t know, the agenda was really clear in my mind, and now I’m like, fuck that agenda, I don’t really buy it anymore.

What was that agenda?

Being a successful photographer, making…being seen, I guess. I don’t really care anymore…

Ha!

I mean, I’ve gone through phases where I don’t care, but I really just don’t care now, and I feel like I just need to start saying no a lot more. I’m just feeling very imbalanced and I was blaming it on a quarter-life crisis, but I think it’s both!


The quarter-life crisis, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, actually, mid-life crisis is when what you’re doing isn’t satisfying.

Yeah.

And that’s what you’re saying, that what you’re doing isn’t satisfying. That’s why you have that crisis, that’s why we have these crises, because what we’re doing…

Isn’t doing it anymore, yeah. And I feel it when it does do it, I feel it, and it’s so real, it’s like this Transcendent Yes, I’ve been trying to think about the Transcendent Yes more. It’s like when I just feel my body say YES! Then I  do something, or if an opportunity that arises from that thing is also a Transcendent Yes, then I’ll say yes. It’s a new thing I’m implementing, I haven’t said no or yes to any jobs yet!


When I’m shooting, and I get that kind of high, it’s very similar to that runner’s high.

Yeah, it is pretty similar to a runner’s high, and we’re both runners, so yeah. No, it’s real, it’s very real.

Yeah, like it hasn’t happened to me shooting in a long time.

Yeah, and once you get that, it makes all the times you don’t get that really bummed.

Right.

But then the times that you get reminded that it’s possible, it’s like addicting again, and I think I need to be reminded, I was reminded the other day that it’s possible, because I was feeling a little bit, like, “do I want to be a photographer right now?”

Ohhh!

Like, is this what I want, am I living my dream, am I sure? And I was kind of like, “I don’t fucking know,” and then I had…it was like as soon as I asked that question I was able to be honest with myself by saying that out loud. I had a shoot where so many of those moments came up, and I was like, “holy shit I feel the transcendent yes, this moment is so important, I feel that high, I’m making an image that I know it will be at least very important to me, but I think people will remember for a really long time, and it just says what I want it to say, and it makes you think.” It says things about people in general about being human, it’s vulnerable, but strong, it’s honest, and all of those things were present, and I was like, “okay, I DO want to be a photographer, I just need that more.”

They call it, there’s a scientific term for it, like the runner’s high is called a state of flow.

Hmm.

You hit it when you run, you hit it when you surf, every time you pop up you hit it. You can do it in any kind of sports, art.

That happens with horseback riding, for sure.

Where all of a sudden, what was difficult and challenging, oh, your body clicks, it all clicks.

It’s when you stop thinking.

Yeah!

It’s just when you’re feeling your body, it’s open-eyed meditation.

An ego-less moment.

Yeah, I feel that riding, a lot, it’s always an adjustment getting back in and trying to feel the horse, but thinking too much about feeling it, and then something will happen and you’ll just forget and then you’re just moving together, your body knows what to do.

Yeah, yeah. I get that same feeling from surfing.

Yeah, exactly, exactly. And it’s hard to find those things, and a lot of people don’t have those things.

I feel like photography is a hard way to achieve that feeling.

It is.

Because you have to get so much “right.”

Yeah, no that’s true. But once you’re there, and you’re present in that moment.

It’s sublime.

It’s unreal, it’s ecstasy. It’s amazing.


So is it really a matter of now that you know, that’s what you need to chase.

Yeah, that’s what I need to chase, or allow it to happen.

Right.

It’s a combination of the two.

But it’s like, if I want to feel that, I’ve got to go surfing.

Yeah.

If you want to feel that with shooting, you have to shoot certain kinds of things.

Yeah, certain kinds of things, and have all the right ingredients and let there be room for spontaneity and magic.

Whatever your recipe is to get you there. You know what the recipe is.

Mhmm. But you don’t want the recipe to be the same, forever, you’ve got to change every…

It’s not a recipe as in, I need them to do this at this time, as much as, for you, I need spontaneity and feeling; they’re vague enough…

Okay, now I understand.

It’s a frame that you can play around in and create.

Yeah.

As opposed to, I want you to wear this color, you know.

Yeah, oh man, it’s funny, my body just reacted so differently to those two things that you said,
like once you said I want you to wear this, and then, ha!

Yeah, that kind of rigidity…

Yeah.

Isn’t going to get you what you, in that space.

No, not at all.

But you know the elements you need to get that, “ah, this is the right, this is what I need” feeling.

It’s true, it’s true. I’ve recently been thinking, do I want to be a photo journalist, I don’t think I do, but I still don’t think…I’m not comfortable enough photographing stories that aren’t mine. But I could be, maybe if I worked at it, I don’t know, I don’t think I want to do that, but I’ve thought about it.

I mean, your career’s almost over, so you should probably decide fast.

Yeah, maybe I should decide fast, well that’s how I feel, that’s the thing.

Haha!

Everything is very urgent.

I feel like, you go where your curiosity goes.

Yeah, yeah, I do, I’m pretty confident about that. I never feel bad about that.

Yeah. If you follow that, you can’t go wrong, because there’s no failure. It’s like, I was curious about the thing, I’m not curious anymore, I figured it out. Move onto something else.

Yeah.

You can’t lose.

Mhmm. It’s true.

Aaaand I think that does it!

Whoa! That was a great conversation!

Thank you!

That gave me some life.