Olivia Arthur / Reimagine
September 2016 Interviewed by Anna McNay
For its seventh edition, Brighton Photo Biennial returns to examine the politics of identity and representation through the lens of fashion and style photography. Three major exhibitions include a European premiere of a show from the USA, alongside two new commissions: one on British youth style; the other exploring sexuality and identity in Mumbai and Brighton.
Olivia Arthur (b1980) is a London-based photographer, who has worked for many years on the East-West cultural divide. As one of the two artists involved in the latter collaborative project, commissioned by Photoworks and Focus Festival Mumbai, and together with Bharat Sikka, she spent time in India working with and photographing LGBTQ and women’s communities, in response to the politics of fashion photography.
Anna McNay spoke with Arthur via email to discuss her work in general and this recent collaboration in particular.
Anna McNay: You set out studying maths at Oxford but later studied photojournalism at the London College of Printing. What made you decide to follow this path?
Olivia Arthur: While I was studying at Oxford, I was also taking a lot of photos. I worked for the student newspaper as photographer and picture editor and I spent more of my time with that than the maths. Then, when my editor submitted my pictures for The Guardian Student Media Awards and I won, it made me think for the first time that I might actually be able to do something with the photography. Ultimately, I was more interested in the real world than the abstract world of mathematics.
AMc: Your work as a photojournalist has taken you around the world. Which of your projects has had the biggest effect on you in terms of personal development?
OA: I made a work called The Middle-Distance, which started out as a response to my time in India and the way women were treated in different cultures. This was the first time I had done something so broad and that wasn’t just a ‘story’. It opened my eyes to a way of making pictures that was more personal than anything I had done before.
AMc: Have there been any projects you found particularly challenging?
OA: Yes, working in Saudi Arabia and trying to make work about the lives of women there. Photography is almost totally banned and I often found myself in amazing situations, which I wasn’t able to photograph. It was frustrating but, ultimately, I persevered because I knew that the world I was seeing was unknown and intriguing to people who didn’t know it, and I also met many women who really wanted me to be able to show something of their world.
AMc: Where do you see the distinction between photojournalism and art photography? What would you consider your work to be now?
OA: I actually don’t like these distinctions at all, I would prefer just to think of myself as a photographer. Sometimes my work is put up on the walls of galleries and sometimes it is published in print. I don’t think the end place should define how I consider myself though. My favourite end place for my work is in a book.
AMc: You are a member of Magnum. What does this give you as a young photographer out in the field?
OA: Magnum has given me a lot. I was pretty unknown when I joined the agency and I have grown with it (I have spent more of my professional life inside Magnum than out). Magnum has given me the confidence to believe in what I am doing, as well as the criticism to question it. On a practical level, it has also given me an outlet for my work, a way to get it seen and funded.
AMc: You are the co-founder of Fishbar, a photography space and publisher in Hackney. What led to your setting this up? How has it helped you in terms of your being able to publish your own photobooks?
OA: Philipp and I started up Fishbar because we felt that there were not enough places for young photographers to show work. A lot of people complain about this but we wanted to take the initiative and do something about it. We also love making things, both exhibitions and books, and to be able to do that with complete freedom is very rewarding. In terms of our own books, it has also meant that we are able to put our work together in the way that we genuinely feel is right for it, without pressure from other parties. Fishbar is really a labour of love for us, we put a lot into it in terms of money and time, but we love all of the things that we have produced and that makes it worth it.
AMc: What role do the excerpts of text in your books play?
OA: Text has always been really important to me. I love writing and I think that used in the right way text can enhance photography and the experience of the reader. I like to think that the texts that I use in my books act in the same way as photographs, they are snippets, little anecdotes, and don’t describe the images at all, they are their own thing.
AMc: Tell me about the project you are working on for the Brighton Photo Biennial. Did you know Bharat Sikka, with whom you are collaborating, before the commission came about?
OA: No I didn’t know Bharat before this. I had heard his name because he is well known in India and I had lived there for a couple of years. We were given a brief that had a lot of things in it that they wanted us to cover, with an emphasis on the LGBTQ community. I had, for a long time, wanted to make work about sexuality in India and the ideas both of shame and of an opening up in being able to talk about these things. I spoke early on with Bharat about wanting to do this, possibly to do nudes, and we worked to together to make it happen.
AMc: How difficult was it to gain the trust of the LGBTQ and women’s communities you were working with?
OA: Actually not as difficult as we had thought it might be. Bharat knew a lot of people in Mumbai and I was also put in touch with a lot of women through a friend of mine there. When we told people what the project was about, and that is was going to be exhibited as part of a festival, they were quite positive and open with us.
AMc: What are the main differences you have noticed in the politics of gender and sexuality between Brighton and Mumbai?
OA: They are really opposites. In Mumbai, just to be able to talk about sexuality and to be openly photographed naked or with a partner is something very bold. In Brighton, gender and sexuality in all their different forms are really celebrated.
AMc: How will the photographs be displayed at the biennial?
OA: My work will be mainly focused on the images I made in Mumbai and Bharat will be exclusively showing his work from Brighton. So, although we worked together and often photographed the same people, ultimately our works will be shown separately. It is not about contrasts, but I suppose there will be something interesting in the different points of view. I actually wanted to show the works more integrated than this because I think it takes away a bit from the fact we collaborated. When we mixed the pictures up, however, we realised there is a very different atmosphere in our images and it became harder to look at.
AMc: How different has it been for you to work with someone on this commission?
OA: Quite different. It was great working with Bharat: we had a good dynamic and sometimes crossed over and sometimes worked alone. We always discussed everything we were doing, but we also gave each other space.
AMc: What will you be working on next?
OA: Actually, I don’t consider this finished yet, so I plan to continue it. Bharat too. We have discussed the possibility of doing something more with the work, maybe a pair of publications, but we will see.
Olivia Arthur was interviewed for Photomonitor by Anna McNay, September 2016
Reimagine will be on show at University of Brighton Galleries – Grand Parade from 1 – 30 October 2016 as part of Brighton Photo Biennial 2016.
For more information on Olivia Arthur’s work, please see: www.oliviaarthur.com