Settling down to reconnect with long-time favourites in the BBG universe, photographers Chloe Aftel, Elizabeth Weinberg, Wanda Martin, Daria Kobayashi Ritch, and Bec Lorrimer, we learnt that it's possible to adapt, grow, and turn lemons into lemonade with your trusty camera in hand. Spanning across three different continents, these are the women who used lockdown to create change, capture, and make positive impact.
You said of your 2020 recap that you "found the magic where you could". What were the hidden moments that took you by surprise?
It was an opportunity for me to see how the mind of my 7-year-old son works. Getting to know him better, in a way. It forced me to be far more creative about how we spend our time. He's a very aware person - like eerily aware - but it's been a fun experiment in making sure he doesn't feel like this is a big scary time: trying to breathe a little bit of normalcy into things. As a freelancer, you're hustling from one thing to the next and it's very stressful, but that forced removal of stress was kind of eye-opening. He fell in love with the beach. We made our own little rituals and trips there every day.
In what ways has the pandemic experience shaped you as a photographer?
I think it really has profoundly affected how I work, because I wasn't working. It made me think, what do I really even want to be shooting?. Maybe I've lost the plot a little bit, and maybe I just want to shoot what I shoot - and not worry about how it's going to get me future jobs. There's a lot of that with Instagram and social media: thinking about what you show and how much of it is personal work. I reached a point where I was like, 'well, all of it should be personal work!'. I loosened up how I post things - stuff that isn't necessarily a big celebrity for a magazine but it's a really cool picture.
It's forced me to slow down. And go back to just shooting pictures how I used to shoot, which was just walking around the neighbourhood and not worry about monetizing. Everything doesn't have to be a game plan. 2020 was pretty transformative. It was panic mode in March, but slowly I started to take pictures of Oscar, and I think I really took some of my favourite pictures in years, last year. It feels crazy to say that during such a traumatic time, but there was a freedom that came with it. When I started getting assignments again last summer, I applied that to everything that I was shooting.
In fact, the Charlie Carver shoot day actually was one of my favourites of the whole year. We were at the beach; it was beautiful; I was playing with my drone, and it was just felt like everything dialled in for me.
Tell us about your new art/community space, Secret Beach?
I used to share studio space, but after moving house I thought I'd be able to use the barn that's at the back of the house - which is actually where we shot Why Don't We. I tried to use that as my studio, but I realised that I had no motivation to work back there, because I was so stuck at home. I came across this space literally two blocks from my house here in Atwater Village, LA and I just felt like I needed to take it. There was something bringing me to it, even though financially didn't make any sense. I don't usually do that kind of thing, but lately I've been using this phrase: "I'm going to invest in the optimism of 2021". I wanted a space where we could have events and art shows. I'm such a social person - I used to go to a bar just to read so I could be around other people! - so I went for it in the hope this space can be used for socialising and community. During the weeks, Oscar would do his school there whilst I was working at this little table. We were like little co-workers.
Over 2020 you pursued a personal project of photographing young models in their childhood bedrooms, exploring how the fashion industry constructs appearances. What discoveries did you make during this process? How as a photographer are you able to capture that delicate balance between authenticity and 'fashion' briefs?
I am used to keeping busy so during Covid I was constantly thinking up personal projects that I could work on. As I normally photograph people, it was difficult to think of new projects as contact with others was at a minimum. The idea for the portraits of models in their homes began simply as a way for me to be able to take portraits when I knew that I couldn’t set up a bigger editorial, and photographing someone in their home was the only option at that time!
However once I found myself at the homes of young models, I really saw how they lived and how different that was to their persona and image in the fashion world. Many models were still living at home with their parents, surrounded by their favourite toys and their school sports trophies. I realised that there was a bigger story to tell here and decided to base the project around showing the contrast between their constructed image and the one of them that I was seeing in their home environment. In general, I strive to keep my images as authentic as possible, as I feel that a connection between the subject and the viewer is paramount. Of course, there is always an element of a constructed reality in a fashion image, so this balance is one I’m constantly juggling. I do feel that I was able to really show this discord between the two worlds that these girls are living in and I feel this is one of my most meaningful projects. I’m currently working on another portrait project around Neighbours however once that project is complete, I plan to continue photographing this contrast between fashion and reality.
What is one positive lesson or challenge you have overcome during the chaos that has been covid?
Initially, the hardest thing for as a creative freelancer was to have faith that work would pick up again in the future and that we would have an industry to go back to. Time has now shown that there is work after Covid. It’s exciting to see how clients have had to adapt to working remotely and are commissioning work in other cities and countries. I feel very fortunate that this is my current experience and I know it’s much more difficult for many others.
How have you been able to translate this growth into your work?
I am probably a little less stressed about work these days, knowing I’ve had to go through a period without any. I have definitely started coming up with new ways of working that have come about because of Covid. For instance working on portraits where I don’t use any lighting or a team, just myself and a camera. I don’t usually work in such a pared-down way, however I have been enjoying the creative freedom that releasing myself from those constraints has offered. In some ways, it helps me to take the pressure off myself as well.
Daria Kobayashi Ritch
When BLM came to light, you launched a fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union. Why is this organisation in particular important to you?
It just really aligns with my beliefs, a lot of ACLU's current positions on social issues - opposing the death penalty, LGBTQ rights, women's rights, birth control. At the time with BLM, they were really honing in on the racial justice issues and unfair targeting of people of colour in the criminal justice system. That was something that I wanted to help support. I do a lot of research on organisations and where that money goes because a lot of the time you don't know; but ACLU have a really good reputation of utilising most of the donations towards the programmes that they talk about, rather than the overhead of fundraising and management and those kinds of things.
You also contributed prints to the Reframing the Future initiative which raised funds for the Marsha P Johnson Institute and National Bailout. How did this collaboration come about?
It was a group of organisers from different companies and magazines that I had known through work. It was really great seeing people utilising their network, and then the artists using their work to go towards social causes.
Do you see yourself continuing in this vein with your art at all?
I'm very open to people reaching out to me and seeing what sticks with me. I don't really sell my work or do print sales to begin with, so I think that it's cool when there are moments where I can use my prints for something positive. Overall, I think what I really liked about this was this grassroots movement of people coming together. Even to for my own print sale, the lab that I use for all my scans printed all the prints for free, so that I could use all the money that I received to go straight to ACLU. Seeing people so generous, and so willing to help with no direct benefit to them was amazing.
I hope it’s a sentiment that sticks.
It's definitely not something we should work on only when it's all going to shit! I really am hoping this year that people do stick with the things that they've learned. It's hard. Humans are just so difficult sometimes. I learned a lot about people this past year; a lot of really devastating realizations. But with loss came new people and new experiences which then lead to a better understanding of myself and what’s important to me. I found/re-found people who were growing in the same way I was (and still am).
When the world shut down, you were able to create positive change by offering your work in "a year of giving back", including working free of charge for a number of organisations like Goodwill. Was there a single moment or experience that inspired you to pursue this?
I always wanted to do more reportage - because I fucking love reportage but the pay is terrible. But there was literally nothing else going on. So I was like, I'm going to pitch every story I ever wanted to: the trans community and Covid, the homeless community and Covid, getting into the hospital wards.
With the pro bono work, I was like, 'who have I always wanted to work for?'. Goodwill is really about helping people who've been on drugs, formerly incarcerated, have very little economic means, very little education, etc. It's really about helping the people who the majority of the population, for lack of a better word, either forget or ignore. But I was like, their visuals need some fucking help! There's nothing going on that makes you understand that when you donate a coat to them, they sell it for 20 bucks, that 20 bucks goes back into literally teaching these people basic computer skills, so they can go and get a job, so they can become an IT tech. These are tangible, irrefutable skills. I was like, 'let's take their branding to a point where, A, it tells the story, but, B, it also gives a face to what's going on, because they employ over 500 people. And what was super fucked up is when PPP came out, they didn't get any support so their stores closed. Their sales were down 70%, and they had all these people they can't employ. We ended up doing three shoots, all pro bono. But what was really wonderful is they paid my team, my assistant. It was it was one person, but they paid him. And that was huge. My assistant got a living wage to do his job during a time when that wasn't happening.
Is this something you hope to continue in any shape or form once we return to a 'new normal'?
Of course. I always had a rule every year that I would give away one shoot for free. But this year, because I have more time and also because access was so limited, I've been doing so much more. Part of what this is hoping to facilitate is that, in my ad work, for the last three years, I have consistently pitched that we do a give-back with every job. Meaning whatever the company is, we will do a pro bono shoot for any nonprofit or NGO that they have a relationship with. I will tell you this, no one has ever taken me up on it. Ever. Sure, if you want to do it in an expensive location, you're going to have to pay for the location because that is a cost we cannot absorb, but I wanted to show people: look, I did this shoot with my assistant and some rentals for just like $1,000 - nothing relative to a normal job. Give me $1,000 and tell me the women's shelter that you love, or the LGBTQ youth hotline, or whatever thing it is that matters to you. Let's talk about it. And let's do it in a way that's not virtue signaling, but rather saying "This is a part of who we are. This is what we value".
Speaking of virtue signaling, is that something that you are acutely aware of when you've been doing this kind of thing? Especially, in the climate that has been 2020-2021?
Oh yes. Everything I do, I do, because I love it. It matters to me. And I would have done it regardless, it's just been a lucky confluence of things. I think the issue is that there's a lack of offering and a lack of creative thinking. I think, at least for me, virtue signaling is difficult because what one wants is real change. It's one thing to just sort of give willy nilly, but I think it's another to do the homework and say, "Yes, I stand behind these values. I stand behind this representation, I stand behind the people creating this thing." Rather than just plastering whatever it is that seems like the token thing of the day, talk about business practices. Talk about supply chain. That to me is harder, and there's more education that you have to do with it but that's what's really worthwhile.
On a side note, I'm creating a start-up, which is part of why I'm so insane about all this. It's called Common Wealth Home, and it provides basic home goods, all from minority-owned companies that have either neutral or positive environmental impacts. The most power we have is where we spend our money - it's a capitalist society - so what makes the real difference is long-term sustainable economic change.
Was this idea conceived during lockdown?
Yes, it was because I was like, 'I'm not buying from Amazon, I'm fucking done'. Then I thought, why does nothing exist that doesn't limit me to who I want to support? If I want to support LGBTQ, or women, or trans, or black, or Latino or hybrid of all these different things? And also, where does their money then go? Do they donate to their community? Are they made in the US? We have a laundry detergent on the platform that's made in Atlanta; it creates jobs in Atlanta, and it's sustainably packaged. I realised advertising inherently has problematic ethics. But I do think there is a way to do it that is better than what we've done for the last 100 years.
Tell me about your beautiful self-portrait lockdown project, Songs of Innocence and Experience. How was it to turn your 'every day' medium - the camera - on yourself?
I actually started out as a photographer at 16-17 with self-portraits; I used to be a very shy teenager and didn't really know how to reach out to people and ask them to model for me - so I started taking pictures of myself! So it felt refreshing to revisit my roots. I'm also a Canon Ambassador, and did an early lockdown collaboration with the designer Charles Jeffrey, who both encouraged me to take self-portraits as part of commissions. But at the same time as all of this, I was actually going through a breakup, which was not easy during a pandemic! I started talking to a therapist and began to recognise some patterns in my dating habits. I had just turned 30, and realised that I had to start working on myself, basically. So whilst the project started as a commission, it became sort of like art therapy, taking hundreds and hundreds of pictures of myself almost every day for months.
The subject of love and sexual identity has always been close to my heart. I was able to rediscover an old project from my Masters's degree called LOVERS, which was a scrapbook/visual diary about my own relationships. I used old photos and fragments of texts from ex-boyfriends, girlfriends, and lovers to create a collage which I've also included in this series. The clashing of these things was a painful process, but healing.
It's been a year now since I started the project. It's been a great way of self-reflection and self-acceptance as well. I think most people struggle with accepting their bodies, but through this I've started accepting what I look like, my body, my face, the fact I’m not a skinny young teenage girl anymore. I feel like I've come out stronger.
How have people responded to the series?
I was really surprised because I got a lot of great feedback. I got a lot of messages from girls who had had the same experiences. Someone even said, "Why does no one talk about this kind of thing? How basically tragic postmodern love is?". And it is sad - or tragic - in a way.
How do you visualise falling in love?
I'm one of those people who can get really enthusiastic about someone within a second. But when I start falling for them, it's not necessarily what I would call 'real' love. I started to realise that in this 'post-modern searching-for-love-era', everyone has become sort of replaceable. People don't really fight for the other person, because it's just so easy to go on Tinder again and swipe left or swipe right and find someone new.