In conversation with feminist photographer Petra Collins
The notion of all-female inclusivity is still pretty revolutionary, but earlier iterations of those ideas (ex. Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child) are now giving way to organic groupings of artists and work. That’s something we at HelloGiggles are all about, and why we’re so excited by Babe: An art book populated almost exclusively by women, curated by the explicitly feminist photographer Petra Collins.
For Collins, the curated, collaborative effort behind Babe was a very conscious choice. In a creative world that still prefers to worship singular, standout stars, that Collins would have her first major publication be the equivalent of a group show versus a headlining stint is just about revolutionary. With that in mind, we spoke to Collins about everything from #FreeTheNipple to what it means to sell out, and what it’s like being a feminist artist in a field that isn’t always friendly to both her art and what she says through it:
HelloGiggles (HG): Out of all the words you can call a woman or a girl, why Babe, which is sometimes used as a condescending moniker, as the name of this photo collection?
Petra Collins (PC): It’s funny because I already forgot that “babe” has negative connotations. Because “babe” is such a word that’s used on the Internet a lot by a lot of feminists, or by a lot of young women as a positive thing. It’s a cool word, and it really encompasses the people in the book. It’s a powerful, cool, talented person.
HG: Did you pick your collaborators’ entries or did you ask them to send in their interpretations of the title?
PC: It was actually both — I picked a lot of images that I liked from each artist, and then I would send it to them and ask them which ones they want in, or which ones would work. Then there were some artists I’d never worked with before, so I asked them, “Send me whatever you want, because I love your work.”
HG: This is almost a fanzine for yourself, and your favorite artists’ work.
PC: It was more like I just wanted to create a book that I really would want to keep. It was for me as it was for everyone else.
HG: It’s so interesting looking at a photo book where there’s basically nothing in black and white. Was that a conscious decision to keep everything in this candy-colored universe, or what’s the kind of thinking behind having a photo book that doesn’t adhere to that stodgy, coffee photo book feel?
PC: I didn’t even think about black and white, it was just the work that I like. I wanted to create a yearbook time capsule thing, to just have, and for a book like this, I wanted a cover that was clothbound. Something that’s going to get — mine’s already destroyed! — but to get better with age, something more personal.
I have a ton of photo books, and they always end up sort of on the wayside. I look at them once or twice and am like, “Mm, okay.” But I wanted this book to maybe be something where like, you could put stickers on the cover, or draw on the inside.
HG: You’ve mentioned being inspired by films before; what were your watershed films or film aesthetics?
PC: There are a lot of films I love, and a lot of film photographers that I love — my favorite movie is Paris, Texas — but I’m not necessarily inspired by those aesthetically to create my work.
I really look at taking photos as telling a story, and I’m capturing images of something that’s bigger. I love Lauren Greenfield and I love all of her photos and documentaries, she’s someone who always inspires me, but as for anything else . . .
HG: Sometimes I find that my biggest creative inspirations are across mediums. Like, I’m really inspired by music for my writing.
PC: Yeah! Music is a really big part of my life because I’m so attuned to film, whenever I’m driving or taking photos or whatever — I don’t drive, I’m a passenger — I have very specific soundtracks of music. Everything but imagery inspires me, then; I’m a very big believer in being multidisciplinary or just creating things that are outside of your medium. That always helps with what you’re doing, and you should be stimulated on all of the different senses.
HG: What kind of soundtrack would Babe have?
PC: I don’t know! It would be all over the place: Some really sad songs, some really hyper songs, party songs.
HG: When and why did you decide to focus on girlhood and womanhood as the basis of your work and as the foundation of your creative partnerships? (Like The Ardorous.)
PC: The reason why is because I am a woman, and I started creating work when I was 15 so it was about myself.
HG: How do you get comfortable with nakedness and nudity, both on a personal and as an image consumer level?
PC: For me, nudity is just nature. I don’t think of it as “a thing;” it’s nothing that shocks me.
One of the first times I modeled naked was for Ryan McGinley, and that experience was totally so unsexualized. We had to do the craziest things — we had to jump off buildings, or go down river rapids, and you’re using your body as a tool for survival. It was an amazing experience because I had to really connect with myself. My body was ripped to shreds!
HG: Especially in art, nudity can be divorced from sexuality in a way that media oftentimes doesn’t acknowledge. But even as feminist discourse around the Internet grows, especially regarding stuff as simple as #FreeTheNipple or pubic hair, the social networks that give birth to those kinds of discussions remain pretty closed off to women’s natural bodies. What changes do you think places like Instagram or Twitter could implement to be more understanding of feminist artists’ work?
PC: Instagram and Twitter and whatever, those are companies . . . What we need to address is how society views and treats people, and women specifically. For me, what happened with Instagram was special [a photograph she posted was censored for showing female pubic hair], because the rules on Instagram are “No nudity,” but what I had wasn’t nudity. What we need to be more careful about is the ability of peers to censor someone, because when my case happened, I wasn’t like, oh Instagram, or oh Facebook, because I know these are platforms that are companies and I can’t directly change them.
The issue really becomes about changing the mindset of censoring someone, or being negative about someone else’s body. I think that’s where the big problem is. The way my image was removed was because the public was able to just say no to my body. We are subscribing to these things and they do have rules, but it’s less about these platforms and more about the way that we treat each other.
HG: One of the coolest kinds of art that’s erupted out of social platforms is the selfie, which is oftentimes dismissed as something only girls or women do. What kinds of things are you thinking about when you’re composing a selfie, versus when you’re shooting someone else?
PC: The Internet has been so important in my career and in building all of these feminist communities with female and minority artists. The selfie is such an important thing because it’s a way of image-making that doesn’t rely on another person, and which reflects the self that you want to reflect.
There’s a thing that I’m seeing a lot on Instagram and from a lot of the artists in Babe, Alexandra Marzella, Madelyne Beckles, and the selfies that they do are just . . . They’re not airbrushed or censored: They’re images of their pimples, or any — I hate the word “imperfection,” but I don’t know how else to describe this— but anything that you wouldn’t normally show.
As for the act of taking a selfie versus another kind of shot, they’re totally different. When I take selfies and then photography, they’re also in two completely separate mediums — my phone versus film.
HG: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given for taking photos of yourself, and that you’d like to pass on?
PC: The self-timer app is key. I’m not that good at taking selfies! Or I usually use my computer, like Photo Booth, and then I’ll take the photo off of that.
HG: This makes me think about what makes a “good” selfie. I guess Kim Kardashian . . . ?
PC: Yeah, her, but also Arvida Byström, she’s in the book! She’s the queen, she’s so good.
HG: You’ve said before in interviews that you find selfies and self-focused feminist art to be empowering. “Empowering” has become one of those buzz words when it comes to talking about feminism. Do you think that kind of empowerment is possible when that work or that art is brought from personal statement into the commercial sphere?
PC: I think feminism should enter the commercial sphere. It shouldn’t be something that’s used haphazardly as a tool, but the more it enters every part of our world, even in ads, the better off we are. Companies are always gonna be around, we’re always gonna be sold things — that’s not gonna change. We’ll still have a consumer world, but the more that a positive energy enters it, the better. We’re always going to buy things and go to big stores; that’s how the Western world works, and that I’m living in it and you’re living in it. The more jobs that we give to women, or people who aren’t white men, the better!
I’m very lucky to get the jobs that I do get, so I can pay my rent, and I’d rather a big company hire someone like me than who they usually hire to make images. I’m very . . .
HG: . . . pro-“feminists getting money and getting paid.”
PC: Exactly! I have no qualms about it.
HG: What do you think having more women behind the lens or behind the scenes brings to female-targeted and dominated industries like the fashion industry or the beauty industry?
PC: It’s finally having a story being told by someone who knows it or has lived it. Whereas traditionally, almost every industry is just told from one viewpoint, but it’s important to have someone who knows your life to tell the story. It’s as basic as that. You can’t tell a story that you don’t know. That’s why anyone who’s not a white male in anything, that’s why their stories don’t make sense, and you get these one-dimensional characters.
HG: There’s a very real fear that other artists, in particular male ones, might co-opt feminist imagery or feminist action for their own art. (See: Audrey Wollen, Arabelle Sicardi.) How do you reconcile and navigate the still very male-centric capital-A Art world, and the associations that come from being a female photographer who often focuses on the unpolished, male gaze-averting female body?
PC: It’s all about creating a different world. That established art world isn’t for me, and it isn’t for a lot of people. Rather, it’s for one specific kind of person. I was asked a question once about why I usually work in groups and why I love collaborating, and after I thought about it, it’s really because minority artists, female artists, we don’t have the opportunity or the privilege to just create artwork and have it sold in a gallery and just solely do that. We are stronger in numbers and we have to do these things outside of the art world because we’re not part of it and it’s not for us. The way to navigate it is to create our own thing and deal in a different realm.
The traditional art world, as it were, is very one-note, and is where a lot of art has been lost. I think women artists show a bigger truth, and as the art world’s a lot more about money and gallery shows, that’s not what a lot of us are interested in. That’s where the Internet really comes into play too, because it’s created a place where we don’t have to go through galleries, we don’t have to go through these old systems to create our art or show it.
HG: One thing I noticed before in your portfolio is that you’ve made art before using Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” lyrics. (Fantastic song.) What about that song, and other forms of pop culture, are really speaking to you?
PC: I really love Rihanna, but I think her lyrics are really cool. She’s such a strong, sexually empowered woman, and it’s great to see that feeling in really popular lyrics next to like, One Direction lyrics that are so like, “You don’t know you’re beautiful / that’s what makes you beautiful,” and Rihanna’s like . . .
HG: She is who a lot of young feminists on the Internet aspire to be in the sense that, she’s doing whatever she wants, and she’s raking money in.
PC: Yeah, that’s the missing thought I had about the art world! There’s such an old-school thought of “selling out,” and it’s more like having the privilege to not worry about not making money, or not having to work. It’s not the world I’m in, and it’s really important that women get these jobs. It’s cool that Rihanna got a coconut water ad, and made millions of dollars off it. I’d rather see Rihanna in a Dior ad than whatever model. I’d rather see one of my peers or any one of the artists in my book on a billboard than anyone else.
HG: Do you think the proliferation of the “squad,” and carrying you and everyone in your group up together, will have a lasting impact on other artists industries and endeavors?
PC: Totally. That’s another thing that’s so important in my art world. I want to see everyone get jobs, I want to live in a world where everyone in that book is working at the same level as me, or shooting big campaigns, and we’re all living fruitfully and doing whatever we want. I think it’s a group mentality.
I also grew up with a bunch of sisters, so I’m very much a sibling person and I always want to help other people and be with other people. It’s not that I don’t like being alone, but the point of my life is to see other people happy, which makes me happier, and to see the people I love succeed. HG: You’ll be in the next season of Transparent; how’s that experience been, and will you be pursuing more acting projects in the future?
PC: It’s been so fun. I love Jill [Soloway], and the whole crew is so amazing! And, I get to do two things that I don’t get to do: I get to be in a band and I get to be an actress. Well, I’m not an actress and I’ll never pursue acting, but I’m lucky that I can just do it this one time.
HG: What advice do you have for young feminists looking to get into photography or any other visual art form?
PC: Really all I can say is just do it. You can’t even think too much about it. I just did it, and it wasn’t even something I thought two seconds about. It felt like I had to do it, and I wanted to do it, and it’s fun for me to do. Do it, and don’t be too hard on yourself because your mistakes just make you better. I came such a long way from when I started, and it’ll take a second.