Ten Meets Photographer Amanda Charchian
Well, we say photographer. But that’s a bit of a lie. Because although photography has become Los Angeles-born Amanda Charchian’s main discipline, she is also, or at least has been, at one point or another – a sculptor, painter, filmmaker and, well, witch. But we’ll get to that. So can we call her a multi-hyphenate? Interdisciplinary? Nah. She’s so much better than those words sound. Hence why, when I found myself in Oslo with her, where we were both attending the Uncontaminated Oslo Fashion Art Festival, I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent talking to her. She was there to show work from her book Pheremone Hotbox as part of The Collective, an exhibition of emerging artists on the final night of the 3-day festival. In it, she photographs female artists, mostly nude, in vast natural landscapes around the word. The result is something both intimate and distant – magical and real. She’s proper good, basically.
Jack Moss: You said you’ve always seen yourself as an artist. At what point did photography become your main discipline?
Amanda Charchian: I would say that for at least the last few years it’s been by main discipline but – have I said I’ve always been an artist?
JM: Yea. I think I read it somewhere.
AC: I mean, I guess I’ve always been making stuff since I was a child and I never really stopped. I guess it’s true I never really thought about – I never entertained the idea of a different kind of profession, that never crossed my mind. And photography has always been in my life – I remember when I was in middle school I would use like my lunch money to buy like the disposable cameras and go to CVS every weekend and get the pictures developed and I remember that excitement being a huge part of my life, but I didn’t know it was art at all. Even when I went to art school and I was studying painting and sculpture, I still didn’t think of it as art. You know…
JM: Were you looking at other photographers at that point or was it just purely your own intuition? Did finding those influences come later?
AC: Now, just as you’re talking, I remember being obsessed with getting European fashion magazines when I was a teenager. I really loved Dazed and i-D, I remember really seeking those out and I remember collaging images from them and thinking that fashion photography was really amazing but I didn’t think it was ever something that I was gonna do, you know? I always thought I was just going to do like the gallery route and that was gonna be my life. I also really wanted to be a music video director – I really loved Spike Jonze and I really loved Busta Rhyme’s videos – but then when I started making music videos I realized that that wasn’t really for me either because I felt like it was really hard to manage being true to what the artist’s song’s about and their ego and their vision with mine. But I still love that world – I feel like music is more my inspiration than other photographers.
JM: What kinds of musicians influence you? Or generally… what other artists, cultural figures?
AC: I would say that Yoko Ono is a huge inspiration in my life – the way that she so easily goes from making conceptual art to music to performance. I think she really helped open my mind in seeing that you could do all these different things but you were still just Yoko Ono and you didn’t have to call yourself one thing. I think that this generation with my friends are more like that than ever you know? Like everyone is a slashy whatever. You know?
AC: Yea. Which is like a high-art way of saying it. I don’t know. I think that because everything is so accessible and you don’t have to – nobody cares if you went to school at all, that like if you’ve just done it then you’re that thing. Like when people call me a filmmaker I’m very shocked because like I’ve made a couple of videos, but like I’m nowhere near a real filmmaker at all. You know?
JM: You studied painting and sculpture. Were you still taking photographs during that time?
AC: Yea, absolutely. I was taking so many photographs and I would do this thing where I would hire these models and style them and make these very intricate installations – I was really obsessed with the aesthetics of pharmacology and pharmaceuticals and it was all based on that. I think that if Instagram was around that the time I would have been more aware that there were younger people doing that too, but in my mind it was like and ‘adult’ thing that you did, you know? But being in LA you’re kind of isolated from that world of fashion pretty seriously. So then I would take these pictures and then I would get these huge slabs of marble and paint the pictures onto the slabs of marble, which is like… basically combining photography, painting and sculpture all together. Then I took one photography class and the teacher was like ‘I don’t think you get it, like, you’re a photographer, you are doing all this extra stuff to like make it art in your mind but, it already is and you don’t need to like, do all this other stuff”
JM: So when did you start shooting fashion?
AC: December of 2012. My friend um, had had a clothing line. She was like: do you want come to England and come take pictures of these girls wearing my new line? And I was like ‘alright’.
JM: Yea, why not?
AC: And then I was like ‘wow, like this is so fun, this is the funnest thing ever.’
JM: How do you think that art photography works alongside fashion photography? Do you consider them different?
AC: No, I think with some of my fashion pictures like, I just went to the Isle of Skye for a fashion shoot and I was thinking like ‘this is exactly the way I made the book’. Like I just ran around with this actress and we were talking about so many different things and were really connecting on a really deep level and that’s exactly how I approach my other work. Except there’s a stylist that keeps putting on clothes, you know? Nut now I’m starting to think about what my next art projects are and I do wanna move away from fashion a little bit. But then some of the art stuff could easily fit into a magazine. It is blurring in my mind. But I do want to start making stuff that I want to…
JM: How much of your work is planned or is it more intuitive than that?
AC: There’s always like a mood that I want to express. But then, I always leave a little room for spontaneity because you never know what that person’s gonna give you.
JM: How important is that relationship between subject and photographer?
AC: It’s everything.
JM: Is it different working with models compared to the women in you book, which you found in a more organic way?
AC: I think that making that book definitely taught me more how to connect with the subject, but I think that’s the most interesting part of fashion for me is meeting these new people. It’s nice to get out of models something that they haven’t really expressed. I always try to make it collaborative. Like with Suki (Waterhouse) we were buddies and very like “us girls”. You know, that’s really fun for me – it just makes me feel more like I can see more parts of them that I can try to open up.
JM: And you primarily shoot women. What is it about photographing women that excites you? Is there a greater intimacy?
AC: There’s that groupie band that I always think of from the sixties or seventies called ‘Girls Together Outrageously’ that Frank Zappa put together. And I’ve always loved that as a slogan because I do think that sometimes when you are just with a girlfriend its just this wildness that comes out, you know? You trust each other but you want to be a little mischievous too. For me it was never about men and it wasn’t arousing men – I think that that’s just a part of you’re relationship to other women is really interesting and for me it’s a great creative energy. So that’s what I was basically trying to explore in the book.
JM: Do you want to talk a bit about the book and the artwork that you’re showing tonight?
AC: Yea, it’s all images from a book called Pheremone Hotbox and it’s about thirty women and they’re all from different parts of the world in different artistic disciplines, so we have painters, poets, filmmakers, actresses, performance artists, sculptors. So I created this kind of set a kind of formula to make the pictures – one was if they were a female artist and the second was that they would be from a different place that we were shooting or she would be. So an example that I gave is a Sri Lankan actress in Cuba or a Serbian furniture designer-slash-photographer in Costa Rica. Then the fourth would be that we were in a pretty vast landscape shooting these. When you create these sets of principals basically anything can happen – I was very sure to not to make any plans so that I could test my own reactionary impulse. I’m definitely not the kind of person that like, kind of draws it on paper first… you know? I’ve basically made an excuse to have to have a really good time for a few years…
JM: How did you find the women? Were they people that you knew?
AC: It was a mix. Like sometimes it would be someone’s work that I would admire and then I would ask them. Or one time I was going to New Mexico and I needed to get people that were close-ish just for financial constraints. I found some people on the internet. Or sometimes it was that a fashion brand wanted me to do a campaign and I said like ‘I’ll do it if we do it at this place and I can shoot this girl.’
JM: You shoot on film. What does that give your photographs?
AC: I think that the main principal for me is that film is a physical object – the grain of those photographs I equate to the ether and the sort of air we live in – the kind of cosmic soup. It’s a more honest medium, because in a negative there’s the same amount of information everywhere in the black and in the white. There’s no pixels, there’s just grain. I think there also has to be some sense of trust in yourself and some sense of intuition. I like to look into the lens and not see it right away.
JM: So the work is being displayed tonight in Oslo at the festival. Is it nice to see your work in a different context?
AC: It’s really interesting to be here. I always just have a really interesting experience looking at my pictures and then coming out into this environment because it’s all organic shapes and then everything here is like a constructed environment. There is literally nothing, except maybe for that water right there, that is an organic shape. And um, I really felt that in my body all the sudden, where I was like ‘woah’, there’s so many straight lines everywhere, you know what I mean?
JM: Yea, just look out this window…
AC: Yea, like a million straight lines. I think that it’s affected me a little bit. Tanya  said something interesting in the talk about how like we don’t spend enough time in nature. And I think that that book was almost a way to exercise spending more time in that kind of landscape, you know?
JM: I’ve read you are interested in the occult and spirituality in some form…
AC: For a long time was part of a group of students that studied occult magic.
AC: Yea! It’s kind of weird to talk about it because I don’t think people really know what that is but it’s basically like ancient esoteric knowledge that’s underneath every religion. It’s basically the same whether it’s Christianity or Kabbalah or Islam. That’s always been a huge fascination for me. I’m just basically a witch I guess. You know and it’s not like very fashionable and it’s not something I normally talk about but it definitely comes out in the work, you know and um, I used to be a little bit more shy about it but, its also I can’t live in a world where we just talk about what we can see, like there’s so much more.
JM: Yea. I agree. People are easy to dismiss that kind of thing but if you look at like all of those ancient religions, they were so based in things like the moon cycle – things that still effect the world today but we just have chosen to speak about it in a different way…
AC: Yea, I think it’s been demeaned a lot. Like it’s fine to talk about mercury retrograde when your computer’s fucked up but like you won’t acknowledge that like there’s all these planets moving around and there’s all this stuff happening in the sky. I take that stuff pretty seriously and I do a lot of like moon rituals. When there’s a full moon I try to like look back at the last month and then when there’s a new moon I try to think about what I want to do. It’s really helpful you know?
JM: Yea. It’s so easy for people to dismiss.
AC: I think it’s easy to dismiss because it’s not something you can buy. I think that’s what part of being an artist is, is like trying to fill your time with something that you are driven by internally or connects you to something bigger. I think that at this point in my life it’s about maintaining some level of happiness because like I’m not prone to happiness you know, so what can I do to like, try to get to that super zen place. Maybe I should be a monk or something.
JM: And is artwork a way to get to that?
AC: Yea. For me it’s like a coping mechanism – it’s a way to live in the world with some level of higher aspiration. I truly think that my best ideas have come when my brain was the most still you know, so… during acupuncture or meditating or just driving my car or just like – washing dishes, you know? I don’t think its spirituality – I don’t call it that in my mind, it’s just that there’s like half of things you can see and the other half is the things you can’t see. That’s just how I think about it instead of it being like “spirituality” – especially because I live in LA it’s such a fucking annoying word.
JM: But your work is still connected to the real world and you talk about your work being political. You’ve talked about women’s rights in Iran and how that can be seen as a counterpoint to your work maybe?
AC: I think that’s a really nice way of saying it – that it’s a counterpoint and I think that once I become maybe more advanced or evolved as a human being I’ll be able to actually effect change. That’s my ultimate goal but I don’t really know how to do that yet. I grew up hearing that Iran was bad, you know, and so my parents want nothing to do with it. Because like, the revolution was meant to make them more free but in actuality it became much more oppressive because it became really religious and they country was becoming more western and then people were like ‘we don’t want to be more western.’
JM: And thinking about public spaces – in Pheremone Hotbox the women are mostly nude – that would be completely illegal in Iran. It seems like that’s a reaction?
AC: Well, for example, when I did the shots in Morocco we were in the south western beach area called and all of the women wearing burkinis – and not that I have anything against that but it was like, I was trying to show something that was the opposite of that so we had to turn the corner and do our photos as to not disrespect them. But now if I post a picture from that period people post things in Arabic and when I translate it there about like me disrespecting Muhammad, you know?
JM: Oh really?
AC: Yea and they’re like ‘how could you have done that like you disrespected our country.’ You know what I mean? And that’s something to deal with – am I disrespecting their country because their country is ruled by one religion? For me its like this is our earth you know, and these are arches that I think are beautiful that I wanted to experience and is a nude body that offensive to you?
JM: And if you look at the images it’s like, why is this photograph of a woman in one country different to one in a different place?
AC: Exactly! That’s basically it. They’re just people in places.
JM: Thanks so much for talking to me. Was there anything else?
AC: No, no – just that I love 10 Magazine (laughing).