21 minutes with Olivia Bee
& Mo Mfinanga
- Published February 8, 2017
- Portrait by Mo Mfinanga
Whether they slither past our view, or strike us with lighting, defining moments appear throughout our lives whether we know it or not. For Olivia Bee, a 22-year-old photographer and director, that defining moment was when Converse hired her to shoot a campaign at the age of 15. This opportunity snowballed Olivia’s career towards worldwide exhibitions and notable clients such as Hermès Paris and Vogue. With images spirited by exploration and fun, she creates a universe for spontaneity to exist within which, among other things, we talk about in our interview below.
Olivia: How's it going?
Mo: Good! Thanks for taking the time out to chat. You've been killing it lately with the Hermès video and everything.
Olivia: Thank you, I'm very lucky!
Mo: You seem like someone who doesn't give a fuck about what anyone says. It's really hard, not only by just being young, but as a girl in this industry.
Olivia: It's crazy. People talk to me completely differently than they would a 40-year-old man.
Mo: They probably think you're a PA.
Olivia: They think I'm the PA's daughter! I've been asked if I've been the PA's daughter or producers daughter. It's like, no I'm actually why you're here. [both laughing]
Mo: Did anyone warn you about things like that after you did the Converse shoot and everything?
Olivia: You know what, I think I thought about it less when I was younger, because it was so ridiculous that a 16-year-old was on set taking the campaign photos. I didn't know anything different—it was my every day—so I didn't pay attention to it much.
Mo: Was there anything that you were concerned about when you started off?
Olivia: Of course! I still have this thing where before I go onto set I'm like, "Oh my god, my talent's going to disappear!" Like, I'm not going to remember how to do this! [Mo laughing] But I've gotten better at reassuring myself that that's not going to happen. [laughing] But definitely my first time for shooting for somebody else I was like, "I'm going to forget how to do this," but then we did it, and it was a really powerful experience and I can't thank Converse enough. It was a mentoring kind of thing; there were kind of no expectations. They were like, "We really value your talent. We believe in you—you can definitely do this. This is a job you can have!"
Olivia: I didn't even know you could be a photographer for money. I mean, I guess I knew but I didn't really know that you could do that for a living; it was just my favourite thing in the world. But I knew that I was going to figure it out. I thought I needed to be a medical illustrator. I was like, "Everyone always needs doctors," so they're always going to need [chuckles] drawings of skeletons! There aren’t anymore medical illustrators, I think, because people just do it on the computer. But that was my loose plan. It was so silly—well not silly—but it was so out of the ordinary that a young kid was taking these pictures, so I don't think I thought much of it.
Mo: What happened three years after the Converse shoot?
Olivia: I shot a Nike lookbook in Hawaii and Colorado, and then I got signed to a photo ad agency.
Mo: With Emily, right?
Olivia: Yeah! But I'm not with them anymore. I'm currently signed to ICONOCLAST.
Mo: Funny enough, two years ago I met up with Emily and we were talking about setting up an interview with you.
Olivia: [laughing] That's crazy! So yeah, I got signed to Candace Gelman & Associates and then I shot the cover of The New York Times. I had a big interview in TIME magazine; there was definitely more press than work, but I still shot some work, too. I did the Fiat 500 campaign when it first came to the United States. That was my first huge campaign where we shot for two weeks on the road, which I did before I could drive.
Moving to New York
Mo: Coming from Portland, what gravitated you to New York?
Olivia: I guess I kind of thought that I needed to go there. I moved to Baltimore right after high school with my boyfriend and then that was really bad for the both of us. But we're really good friends now.
Mo: Was it a tough lesson?
Olivia: Yeah, absolutely! Don't move in with someone when you're really depressed at 18 and don't know how to take care of yourself, let alone another person. [both laughing] He had gotten into a really bad accident and was going through some PTSD and we really needed each other. It was an essential part of time.
Olivia: I wasn't going to school, but my boyfriend was going school, I had no money, and it was a really quiet time in my career. I think I had one job and I was shooting for myself, but I was so sad that I didn't even want to shoot all the time. I was struggling with an eating disorder and having a lot of shit going on in this relationship that I probably shouldn't have been in any longer. Baltimore is a really dangerous place, especially for a girl. We lived in an okay neighbourhood but you go one block over and you'd see people who do drugs on the street. I didn't feel comfortable doing things in the city so I was at home waiting for my boyfriend to get home from college while he had his own shit going on.
Olivia: So I then went home to Portland for Christmas and I was like, "I can never go back there again. I guess I'm moving to New York." I knew two people I'd known [from New York] on the internet there. I knew Mike Bailey-Gates and Allyssa Yohana. So, I was sleeping on my mums teacher-from-beauty-school's house and then I found this house to move into which was with eight kids in this Bushwick apartment. There was one bathroom and one of our roommates, Drew, was older and kind of the dad of the house. [both laughing]
Mo: How much was the rent?
Olivia: I lived in a 8x8 room with no windows that my boyfriend could barely stand up in. New York is not cheap! [laughing] I would eat garbanzo beans out of a can [both laughing]. But my roommates were lovely, and Drew, the dad of the house, made me comfortable in my new home. I was kind of working and then I fell in love with one of my roommates. I knew it was going to happen when I met him and I was like, "I'm fucked." And then we fell in love, me and my boyfriend broke up, and then I started hanging out in New York.
Mo: Was falling in a love a big reason why you stayed in the city?
Olivia: No, because I tried to avoid my feelings for him. I thought that this kid is probably going to be bad for me. We didn't talk about it at all until he became my next boyfriend that fall.
Mo: When you started out in New York, what were a few things that made you say I have to make this work? And during that period in your career, did you ever feel like you received a premature taste of success that made you hungry for more?
Olivia: I've just always been focused on the present, really. My parents taught me to be really independent and to be thankful for what you've got but to strive for more. So that's just what I did. But I don't know, I was just making my own stuff. I think it’s exciting and cool to be part of culture but my heart lies in personal work—work that I love and for people that I love. I was exploring a new city that I didn't really understand, and I still don't understand it even though I've been here for four years, on-and-off. [laughing]
Olivia: I also think a lot of people told me that I should go here. I feel like there's this—not stigma—but this thing in photo or fashion or whatever where they're like, "You can only exist in these two places." But nowhere is paradise unless you're good in your head, and I wasn't good in my head [at the time]. Now in New York, I can handle it, but it’s still not my favourite place to be.
Mo: What atmosphere do you gravitate to now?
Olivia: Place wise?
Olivia: In a car, on a road trip, somewhere in the west coast probably. I just love being on the road. I love experiencing and exploring the American landscape; that's my favourite thing. But also, I like inconsistency and exploring. And I think that's one of the reasons why I feel limited in New York, because there's not a lot of environmental exploration.
Mo: It feels so small here, to me, at least.
Olivia: Which is beautiful in its own way! I really appreciate that when that’s what I'm wanting, but I like wide-open spaces and I like being able to find a secret thing that's outside. I feel like you can do that in the Bronx and whatnot, but it’s not as easily accessible because you don't have a car.
Olivia: I do love commuting in New York, though. I love being on the train. But I'll still get on the wrong 6 train all the time. Like, wait, I'm uptown? How'd I do that? [laughing]
Mo: What has been the most exciting thing in 2016 so far for you?
Olivia: I shot a personal project this summer that'll blow people's minds, I think. [laughing] I'm really proud of it. I have one more picture to make and I'm doing it next week, and I'm so excited. It's a picture that I thought about for years—so stoked. It's somewhere in the western part of the United States. So that was really exciting. I released my first book this year; that was super, super exciting. I'm so thankful for that opportunity.
Mo: What was the most challenging thing in creating Kids in Love?
Olivia: I think fighting to make sure it wasn't a scrapbook. Though its my project, there were people there that helped me edit and design the book. It's a thing of having people's hands that are more equipped hands than you have in these different things. But there were some ideas about people wanting it to become more of a scrapbook—like a diary. And that was difficult because I was like, "These are real pictures!" Yes, some of them are snapshot-y but even though the composition doesn't seem intentional, it's intentional in my unintentional way. It was also the in-between moments that were my hero moments even though it doesn't seem like it to other people. People are always like, "I love how you capture the in-between moments," but I'm like, "Ah, that's my hero moment!"
Mo: It's hard to portray that in photography because there's isn't the beginning, middle, and end element that videos haves.
Olivia: But there can be! I understand narrative when there's a beginning, middle, and end, but I'm not the best at sequencing when it’s more vague, but I'm really good at making those pictures. I feel like I've got two parts of my brain that work really well that are trying to fuse. [laughing] But yeah, the biggest challenge with Kids in Love was making sure that they were real pictures. This isn't a work in progress because a scrapbook entails that it is a work in progress.
Mo: And comparatively, what was the biggest challenge in this upcoming project?
Olivia: I hiked up a fucking mountain 12 miles in the dark to shoot a picture in sunrise without sleeping the night before, and had to work the next day. [laughing] I have a producer who's one of my really good friends that I live with in LA, and I had an actor and assistant that went on that hike. It was so crazy. It was six miles up but with a 5,000-foot elevation gain, which is a lot. I was watching a wilderness show the other day on the airplane and it was like, "We're going 30 miles. Oh my god, there's a 3,000-foot elevation gain. That's a lot guys! Better have some oxygen!" I was like, "Dude, I did that!" [both laughing]
Mo: Elevation gains will fuck you up. I remember cycling for the first time in LA and after two minutes I stopped, laid my body out on someone's front curb, and felt my imminent death.
Olivia: Oh, shit. [laughing] It’s nice to be active.
Mo: Especially when you’re young.
Olivia: Yeah, like, playing and exploring your surroundings and running around are so important. I can't really find my optimism if I'm not doing my exercise routine.
Mo: What is it?
Olivia: I run every other day, I bike to a lot of places, and I do yoga at seven in the morning almost every day that I'm in New York, unless I'm partying the night before. [laughing]
Mo: Then it's yoga at 8:00 a.m.!
Olivia: I wish there was an 8:00 a.m. class! Sometimes I do it by myself, but I like to be around other people. I went this morning when I stumbled out of bed, and it feels like meditation and exercise.
Mo: Do you need coffee to wake up?
Olivia: No, I can't drink it because it makes me anxious in the afternoon. I drink a lot of black tea, though. I love coffee flavoured things like coffee ice cream.
Mo: I haven't had that before.
Olivia: Oh, you gotta do it dude!
Mo: New York is a horrible place for me when it comes to coffee because I'm drinking it every second. You see how many used sugar packets I have on the table? [Motions to the sugar packets] That's not even all of them.
Olivia: That's a lot of sugar!
Mo: Yep, and I'll be wired like it’s cocaine throughout the day. Apparently that scares people. [Olivia laughing]
Olivia: The one time I drink it is if there's a 3:00 a.m. call time. I love really love working, though.
Mo: So how long have you been in LA?
Olivia: On-and-off, I guess two years, but a lot more recently since I'm more accustomed to the west coasts wide-open landscapes.
Mo: Does the pacific timezone work for you?
Olivia: No, it sucks, because I work in Europe a lot, too, and then it's nine hours instead of six hours. That's one of the reasons why I'm in New York, so I can be in either LA or Europe's time zone.
Mo: At least you're not in Australia.
Olivia: But then you're ahead of everybody! If I'm in LA and I want to talk to someone in Paris before the day is over, I'll probably have to wake up at five to get on the phone at six.
Mo: When have you had a treatment evolve into something completely different than planned?
Olivia: I've had projects change, but I'm open to that in certain situations. But no one has done a 360 switch on me. It's always been, "We're working on this together." I'll get hired for a reason because I have a certain point of view and I make sure that they hired me for that reason. I'm never hired to be a button pusher.
Mo: Do you think it’s hard to sniff that out?
Olivia: I think maybe more when I was younger and when I didn't have the portfolio that I have now. But I can definitely tell when somebody wants me to be a button pusher but that doesn't happen to me very often anymore.
Mo: Other than youth and exploration, what satisfies you creatively?
Olivia: People say that it's about youth, but it’s not necessarily about youth. It's about my emotions. I just happen to be young. My work is about emotion and it’s about visceral feelings, love, lust, sensuality, exploration, America, and youth is in there, but I'm not trying to make work about youth.
Mo: Now that you're telling me that I can see what you're saying. I think for people outside, like me, it's easy to compartmentalise something.
Olivia: Oh, totally! It's the same thing as asking a musician to describe their music. No one wants to do that. [laughing] When people are like, "What kind of pictures do you take?" I'm just like, "I don't know!"
Mo: With your photography, do you try to create an environment for the type of photos you want to make or do you plan it very deliberately?
Olivia: It depends on how I'm working. When I do a narrative photo story like Viva Las Vegas, I have a plan of what I need. Some things are a little loose like, "This has to be a loving moment. And this has to be a moment where you see she's happy or whatever." But those are more planned. For the most part, I create a universe for spontaneity to exist within, but the universe has to be planned to some degree. But then I also photograph things as they're happening in my life.
Mo: What are you looking forward to the most in 2017?
Olivia: I don't really know what's happening next year. [laughing] I feel really calm in my head right now. I've been doing a lot of writing so I'm exciting to keep exploring that. I want to make movies and telling more narrative driven stories. I'm just very, very blessed to be able to go somewhere with this.
Mo: There's the Woody Allen quote where he says, "If you want to hear god laugh, tell him your plan." You can't have everything planned out.
Olivia: I like that! I get really attached to my schedule and plan all these things because I have a very up-and-down transient life. And then they all change.
Mo: It sounds like you have a healthy mindset towards not only your career, but just your life.
Olivia: But it's me convincing myself, too!
Mo: Totally. There's some really young, established photographers out there that are really controlled to the point where they don't know what's going on around them. It's refreshing to see people like you who don't seem to have cruise control on. [Olivia laughing]
Olivia: Thanks! I guess you control the things you can control. The things you can't control? Don't waste your time and energy. You can't control your feelings but you can accept them. You have to accept your feelings, feel your feelings, and make logical decision based upon those feelings.
Mo: One thing we talked about earlier that I'm curious about is you mentioning writing. What have you found from doing it?
Olivia: A wider universe. I think, really, a more robust and strong point of view. It's even more what I want to say when you combine pictures and words. The title itself can be a story. I just did this piece for i-D where I followed my friend Grace, who's a model, during fashion week, and I wrote [and shot] it. It was my first published article. So I've been writing poetry that goes along with my pictures. I have a couple of pictures that I'm going to put out soon with this documentary that's being made about me.
Mo: Are you ever concerned about diluting the images perception with words? Like, say you notice a photo on Instagram and your reaction to it changes significantly when you see the caption afterwards.
Olivia: I think that's a controlled thing. It's something that I've been struggling with a little bit because my pictures are kind of vague sometimes and they can be applicable to a lot of different people. Even when I photograph myself, a lot of the times it’s not really myself; it's something that someone else can paint themselves into. And that's why I gravitate to universal experiences. Not even universal, because I'm a white privileged person who lived in Oregon, but experiences that a lot of people have so that other people can paint themselves into.
Olivia: So, I think with words you're taking that away a little bit, but you're telling a more specific story that if someone can relate to it, they're going to relate even further, but you might cut down your audience a little bit—but each picture is different. That's kind of why you can't really see where my pictures have been taken. There's a tree there but you don't know where it is; there's a certain mystery to them. So when I write scripts—which I've done for years but I haven't written anything good enough to be produced—or start to write movies you have to be so specific, because if you're mysterious then it's intentional, but it's intentional to tell a wider story. So, when you're using words with pictures, you have to make sure that it's all intentional. You might speak to less people, but you'll speak to those people harder.
Mo: What do you find the purpose of your work to be?
Olivia: It's to process my emotions. I'm an artist because I'm a really sensitive person and I have to do it.
Mo: I don't want to nudge you about it, but I'm assuming that you didn't get the opportunity in Baltimore to process your feelings through photographs, yes?
Olivia: I did, but maybe not to the extent that I would process my emotions now. I was still shooting for myself but I think I was also shooting a kind of fantasy of what I wished was there.
Mo: Lastly, do you have any concerns about your position in the industry?
Olivia: Oh yeah. The industry is very biased. Women, people of colour, trans people, people with disabilities, non-cisgendered people, queers, gays, and lesbians have less opportunities than white-cisgendered men and women. Where there's not a space for you, you have to carve one. And when there's no space for those around you who are less privileged than you are, you must carve one.
Mo: And even when you carve one, people will make you feel like you're doing something bad.
Olivia: Yeah! As women, you're taught to be small. But you're not small! You're big! [laughing]
Mo: For those reading, Olivia is 6-foot-2, so she definitely isn't small. [both laughing]
Olivia: No, I'm like 5-foot-3!
Thanks for reading
- It was such a pleasure getting the chance to meet up with Olivia in Brooklyn a few months ago. She’s hilarious, endearing, and she’ll sometimes make you wonder if you’re not working hard enough.
Where can we follow you?
- Website, Instagram, and Flickr
Last thing you googled?
- Dr Dog “Little Bird”
In a car somewhere.
What gear do you like using?
Notebook, low ISO film, high ISO film, broken cameras, and fancy cameras. Black tea!
What've you been reading lately?
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch.
Most used app?
Stock iOS notes app.
Discover more conversations in the