10 Magazine Meets Petra Collins – Artist And Feminist
I’m Skype-ing Petra Collins. And I’m excited about the fact. I’m an admirer of Petra and her work – both her photography and The Arduous, her collective of female photographers. Both are a breath of fresh, feminist air in the male-dominated sausage fest that is the art world. Petra’s got a new book out, which is an extension of The Arduous, bringing together work from that collective. Titled ‘Babe’, it documents female life and explores female sexuality, constructing, as Tavi Gevinson describes in her foreword, “a non-judgmental, Sharpie’d-over, vaguely smelly high school bathroom.” The book doesn’t airbrush its subjects but rather shows it warts – periods and pubic hair – and all. Anyway, I Skype Petra and get her to tell me more:
So I’ve got your book here, which looks great.
“Oh! I haven’t seen it.”
Oh, you haven’t seen it?
“Cool, I’m so excited to see it.”
It looks amazing. So how did you start working on it?
“Um, I mean it’s kind of not specifically the book, it’s something I’ve been kind of doing for a while – I’ve been curating, collecting works that I really love. And I guess a year or two ago, Prestel approached me about doing it and I was like, “Great because I’ve already made this book, it’s on the internet.” It was really fun, starting to do it. I just contacted everyone. The artists gave me newer work and it was really cool and I’m so excited to see it.”
So it’s linked to The Arduous, your online network of female artists. Tell me about the connection between that and your book.
“It’s an extension of The Arduous. It’s something I created because I was looking for a platform to showcase my work and I wanted to give that opportunity to others, so this is another extension of that, where it’s going into book form and even another space, where I can publish works of people who haven’t been published, artists who I really think the world should see.”
How has your friendship with Tavi [Gevinson] affected your work?
“We’ve always said this to each other – she’s the voice and I’m the image. She can speak the words that I create in photos. And that’s what was really exciting when we met each other – we just clicked. It’s always great when those creative relationships happen. And that’s the kind of relationship i have with most of my friends. Creating art, making art is what I love doing and that’s what I love doing with my friends.”
The book has got a real sense of female camaraderie and a sense of sisterhood, how did that sisterhood form?
“Yeah, totally. I mean I think it’s sort of a natural thing and something which was going on on the internet at the time. All these girls are all like-minded, we all have the same ideas and we all just wanted to help each other. I don’t know, we all just kind of found each other online.”
In your introduction you talk about the internet as a means of connecting like-minded people, how has the internet and social media affected this book and more broadly your work?
“The internet is an amazing tool and a really big part of my career and what I’ve been able to do. Because, not only has it created a space for me to make something but it’s also a space where I can connect with so many people. There’s so many people from so many places around the world, it’s cool that it’s all on one place. It’s really allowed us to have easy communication with each other.”
How do you think it’s affected teenage life for girls?
“I think I just love it because it’s the first time that girls have ownership over media outlets, whereas before we just had TV or whatever, now girls can have their own YouTube channels or their own Instagram, their own personas. They have agency of that which I think is new and important and exciting. You don’t have to go through a system to become an artist and make a book like this, I just did it on my own and I think a lot of girls are doing that which is cool.”
I just want to rewind a little bit and ask you about your journey into photography. So you started when you were at high school, is that right?
“Yes. Well film was one of my first loves and I’ve always loved movies and it was always something I wanted to do but it’s something that is very hard to do when you’re young, when you have no budget and no time. So photography was an easy way to do that, it was an easy way to tell a story and to tell a story I wanted to tell. So I guess I picked it up at high school, at a time where I really wanted to see and created a world that I felt was missing and I felt I was seeing.”
So what was that world?
“I guess, when I was growing up I had magazines like Seventeen or CosmoGirl and there wasn’t really a truthful depiction of teenage life or what it’s like to be a young girl. So that’s what I started off doing. I struggled a lot with issues with my body or self-esteem issues and what I was seeing wasn’t helping and I just really wanted to create something that showed that struggle.”
And obviously you and your work are unapologetically feminist, what or who shaped your thinking or your approach to photography? Were there any writers or photographers who have influenced you?
“There weren’t specific photographers but my favourite photographer and filmmaker is Lauren Greenfield who did that series called Girl Culture. She did a really beautiful photo-essay called Girl Culture and she also did this really cool movie called Thin which was about eating disorders. And they’re just shockingly real and beautiful and she was one of my favourites. I guess it was less photographers who shaped the way I started taking photos, it was more me just wanting to get out as much as I could from my head. That kinda sounds crazy but it’s something that I needed to do. I mean, there was a lot of photographers and filmmakers that I love but that was the main driving thing behind it.”
You talk in your forward about artwork – looking at it, creating it, sharing it – as something that keeps you alive and sane, and you talk about it as something that kept you going through a difficult time in your life.
“I mean from a really young age, from middle school or whatever, I always really struggled with reading and writing and I just didn’t know what to do with school, I just didn’t feel that I was smart or intelligent in any shape or form. And creating, making artwork, and I used to dance too and dancing was a way for me to express myself, and feel like I had a call for something and let me get things out. So I guess it’s something I’ve always done because I had to and because I loved doing it. And that went on to photography when I was at high school because that was a period of time that I was going through puberty and I was just really confused about where I stood as a young woman so photography was another manifestation of that, or another grove, of all the different things I was making.”
During that period when you were starting out in photography, were there specific photographs that you took that, looking back, you see as quite pivotal images?
“Yeah definitely, there’s this one photo that made me realise that that’s what I want to do and made me see what I could capture, it was in my room or my sisters room and three of my sister and her friends were sitting on her bed and we’re all talking and talking about boys and kind of dark subjects or not nice subjects and the room was really bright at the time, it was bright and sunny. But when I got the photos back I was like wow, you can really feel in the photo what I was feeling and what the girls were feeling and that came across instead of what it was actually like in real life and so that kind of pushed me to start taking more photos like that and start documenting. Because it’s really interesting what kind of images you can get. That’s why, I do like doing fashion shoots, when it’s creative and on my terms, but for me, documenting people is way more interesting because something. Whatever mood or feeling that’s going on always comes out in the photo, rather than someone’s pose or whatever.”
If you had to categorise your work, would you call it documentary, or realist? Or would you rather not put a label on it?
“Yeah, I mean it’s half making photos and half taking photos. Because nothing is really documentary but yeah, it’s a document of the way I’m feeling or my subjects are feeling.”
And a lot of it is about girls exploring sexuality, exploring female sexuality. How do you walk the line between exploring sexuality through images and not reinscribing patriarchal codes of representation or the ‘male gaze’.
“It’s all about trial and error and it’s all about who’s behind the camera, the context and the subject. I guess it’s hard for me to explain it verbally.”
So it’s instinctive?
“Yeah. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.”
Tavi talks about you not constructing a utopia. These images are very real, almost uncomfortably so. What are you trying to say through them?
“I mean it’s more just, with all the images in the book, my favourite quote ever, and I still don’t know who it’s by, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” I think a lot of the images in the book are images that aren’t necessarily what’s shown.”
If there’s one message that you were trying to say through this book, what would it be?
“Equality. That would be cool. As simple as that.”
Out May 1, 2015.
By Ted Stansfield