Q&A with Eva O'Leary
Questions by Emily Burns
Can you walk us through the stages of planning and making a photograph? How often are your projects pre-planned versus spontaneous shots?
Honestly, I don’t have a great way to answer this. Most projects have a phase where they simmer in the back of my head for a while—a persistent feeling that won’t go away. When an idea bugs me enough, and when I’ve been thinking about it long enough, I eventually see how it might take shape. I become obsessive and that’s when the pictures happen. Hard to say where or when or how, but this is usually the case. I always have a few ideas on rotation that are connected, a few projects I’m writing and thinking about; sometimes one overtakes the others when it feels like it has more significance. Right now I have three I’m trying to work through. Two are starting to feel really urgent and unavoidable and I can kind of imagine them in my head. That’s the best feeling; it’s really exciting. Most shoots are pretty involved physically and emotionally, and they require a lot of energy. When I’m really excited about something, my energy (which is usually all over the place) becomes focused and pretty intense. I crave that feeling and like to chase after it.
How often do you shoot in the studio versus out and about in the world?
I’m starting to figure out how to shoot in the studio more, I actually never shoot in my studio in NYC. For my last project, I shot in a semi-studio environment, but it was inside a barn in Pennsylvania…
For pre-planned shoots, how do you go about finding models? What is your relationship with models and subjects, depending upon the situation?
It all depends—this is a project by project thing. For Spitting Image, I contacted a middle school in my home town, and Skyped with students. I invited anyone who identified as a girl and who was interested in the idea of the project to come to the barn and participate.
I like the idea of control, it helps to quiet my anxiety, but for my work I like to keep certain parts open, more room for chance—“to let the world in.” A lot of the time it will be word of mouth between subjects.
You grew up in State College, PA, a.k.a. “Happy Valley” which has become a prominent subject for you. What aspects of the culture of this place do you find most ripe for further investigation? How much of your time do you spend shooting in the area?
Growing up in this environment, adolescence was an especially intense time period (as it is for everyone), for me in this town, it was really problematic. As a young girl, my models for adulthood were essentially Penn State students. They were the “adults,” examples for what it meant to be a ‘woman’ or ‘man.’ At that time, I believe it was the number one party school in the country… walking down the main street on a Friday night, you'd see crowds of young women in mini skirts (in sub-zero weather), all walking towards frat houses. The behavior and power dynamics in this town were (are) incredibly problematic. So, when I was 14, this was the model I was fed, became familiar with, and wanted (unconsciously perhaps, or maybe consciously), to emulate.
I’ve been looking at Britney Spears a lot lately—as this pop phenomenon we all grew up with. I’ve been studying her transformation: from innocent jail bait who preached abstinence, to basically a glossy porn star, and then, her very public self implosion and mental breakdown. This is something I can kind of relate to (although less public and I never preached abstinence)… many women who grew up with these images and icons and expectations can relate to this, I think. Everyone I knew eventually had a psychological breakdown of some sort, whether that was addiction, extreme emotional or physical abuse in a relationship (or a combination of the two). I think what made it more complicated, was being told we were living in a post feminist world, and that we had already ‘dealt with that,’ while the media was feeding us some of the most sexist images ever.
So, back to Happy Valley. Britney looked like the a lot of the young women partying on campus. I’m not judging or blaming them at all, this was the culture at large, and it was feeding us all. The expectations were so problematic. So up until that age, I had been going back and forth to Ireland every summer and switching identities. Then I hit adolescence and came back to PA. My friends had opinions about how we should behave. I was kind of sucked in, and I believed it all. Or I believed this was how you needed to act in order to succeed, to gain power—to be accepted—and I guess the sad thing is—at the time I was kind of right.
I was academic and ambitious and I had this desire to be accepted, probably from being an outsider and a foreigner my entire childhood. I wanted to be “normal” so badly, but didn't know that American “normalcy” was a toxic lie, fed to the masses to keep everyone dulled down and ignorant. I became aware of this after internalizing these lies (and from the punishments and assaults that unfortunately were/are very “normal”). The lies are covering up something really toxic, and incredibly dangerous. They are everywhere and difficult to see, fluid and changing, and very smart—hard to pin down. This is still happening to girls growing up now, and though I’m not experiencing this first hand, these deceptions are definitely there (shape shifters). This applies to each age. I’m bracing myself as I move towards my 30’s as a woman, and I’m terrified about middle age. Trying to identify the forces that shape my ideas of normalcy and behavior is a thread that runs through all my work, it’s very personal and rooted in my own fears and expectations.
I return to Happy Valley a lot, and I get most of my ideas from observing the culture there. Every time I go home there’s this strange thing that happens where I return to a previous headspace. I feel the pressures and internalize them in a different way now. When I’m in NYC it’s pretty liberal and I’ve developed a different identity here. When I go home, I am reminded of why I make the work. I feel the pressure of a certain kind of American normalcy again and it hurts. But it’s also a reminder of why the work feels so urgent.
What is a typical day like for you?
A typical day (at least this month): I wake up at 6:30, I don't let myself look at my cell phone for the first hour and a half. I drink two cups of coffee while reading essays I usually can’t focus on (related to the work I’m making), write (or in today’s case, write this), check emails and make a to-do list. Finally, I check my phone (and try to deal with the inevitable anxiety that comes with that activity). I attempt to clear my head, and then go to the studio.
At the studio there are two kinds of days, one is spent researching or working on art related tasks, planning shoots, trying to get my head around ideas I want to pursue in the work, the other is centered around being a broke artist trying to figure out where money will come from. This year I’ve been financially supporting myself with editorial work, so some days are spent editing pictures for these jobs, or arranging meeting with editors.
Other days, I travel, shoot, pick up negatives, run errands, etc. So it all depends, but my mornings are precious and I have been guarding this daily ritual—it’s keeping me sane and centered.
You have contributed to The New Yorker and The New York Times as a photographer. How do these shoots differ from your own work? How much freedom or creative expression do you have?
I’ve been shooting for magazines since leaving graduate school and I really enjoy it. It has given me an incredible amount of freedom (I spend most days in the studio) and I’ve seen some crazy things on assignment. There’s a stigma in the fine art photo community, a snobbery against artists who shoot editorially. I think this is so stupid.
My main priority is my work. I don’t come from money, and don’t want to think about art in terms of what is sellable. Especially since most of it pushes back against decorative images of women and girls- against images that depict them as objects that are easily consumed. My experiences aren’t easily digestible and I don’t want my work to be. I’m making photographs of girls and women that go against traditional notions of beauty, I don’t expect these images to sell and I don’t want this to be in the back of my head when I’m working on new projects.
I’m very aware of the power that images possess in this culture and their ability to persuade consumers. I think as a photographer, you understand how to manipulate ideas and convey meaning, and it’s your responsibility to use this knowledge ethically. Especially when you are creating images that are for mainstream/ public consumption. Editorial work gives me a way to slip my images into pop culture, and I find this exciting. Lately I’ve been wanting to shoot for teen and women’s magazines-- the media that shaped my opinions about the world. At this point, I have a lot of control; the editors I work with understand my work and where I’m coming from. I work with a lot of female editors who are incredible and so supportive. A lot of the jobs relate back to my work and my ideas, and this is ideal. The shoots let me experience things that feed the work-- it’s another way of doing research. Shooting for magazines involves a lot of travel and dipping in and out of worlds. And you get paid for it, which sometimes seems insane.
You have written “No matter how much I object politically or artistically to the rhetoric of commercial photography, I am seduced by its tricks—the ways it sweetens the body and the landscape, masks the unpleasant, and transforms beauty and desire into myth. (…) It’s an experience common to many women; we are shaped by ideologies of domination and control within contemporary commerce; projecting fantasies onto our bodies that are not our own.” How would you describe the way this effect manifests in your work?
I grew up looking at magazines. Both my parents are painters, and while I was surrounded by art as a child, I found pictures in magazines more seductive. They drew me in. I remember looking at advertising images, in Seventeen Magazine, and being totally enraptured. In my memory I remember they looked like CGI, better than life. I took photography classes in high school and I remember wondering how you made a photograph look like that. It seemed like magic.
As an image-maker, I acknowledge this influence in my work. If I’m going to make images that push back in this culture, I need to know how to use that tool—advertising imagery captured my attention as a child and controlled my emotions. When I was younger, I wanted to know how to make photographs that were psychologically as powerful. It wasn’t always an active thought—I was just attracted to these types of images, and I wanted my own work to hold up and push back in the same powerful way.
What is your relationship with social media?
This is a good question—my relationship with the internet is in constant flux. I try to pay attention when I feel manipulated. I pay particular attention to forces shaping my behavior, and social media is a massive force. I spend a lot of time thinking about vulnerability, self censoring, and constructions of normalcy. I think instagram is a fascinating tool to identify social patterns and study human behavior.
A few months ago, I started to feel stunted, like I was dulling myself online out of fear of judgement or rejection. I started a secret instagram account, to test my comfort and see what I would post if I was just sharing with a select group of people (who have seen me at my worst). Also known as a finsta… I wanted to use it to study my behavior and my fears.
I was wondering how free I could be online, how far I could go in the opposite direction of self censoring. Switching back and forth between these two accounts, my “real” one and my “fake” one, I began to notice when I was holding back, the anxieties that would pop into my head. I used it as a tool to study my impulses, and it was crazy how I started to see things differently. In the last month, I took a break from the internet for a few weeks, this was incredibly helpful, and harder than I imagined. I began to see how my thinking was being controlled, my attention was stunted. A young photographer I work with also took a break, she said she noticed how she was “thinking in captions,” and I think this is really true.
I think social media is a massive force in our culture right now and I don’t believe in escapism. I think the idea is elitist. If you are an artist making work about contemporary culture, you kind of need to study it, and in order to really understand—you need to participate (to some degree). I think it’s important to recognize how our identities are being shaped, how our behavior is being controlled. It’s a very powerful system and it’s scary how easily you can get sucked in without realizing it.
Have you experimented with other media in the past or has photography always been your primary focus?Yes—video, drawing, painting, writing.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
…. the internet (supports and destroys in equal measure).
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
The book Reality Hunger (by David Shields) really changed the way I thought about what could be considered research. It talks about our cultural craving for something that feels “real” when we are surrounded by so much fake-ness. Think fake news, news that is made for entertainment, social media, etc. Our desire for something real is so strong, because we are surrounded by so much fiction, constructions, illusions pretending to be real.
I feel that vulnerability breaks though this illusion. The odds are, if you are feeling something (especially if it’s hard to acknowledge, if it’s embarrassing, if it feels “too much,” or if it seems others will judge you for feeling something), many others are probably feeling the same way and are equally ashamed and frightened. As an artist, we illuminate the things that terrify others, we show them parts of ourselves that others are horrified or terrified to acknowledge. In doing this, we liberate ourselves from that shame, and liberate others who might be feeling isolated and alone.
There is so much fakeness right now, so much that is covered up; so many of our experiences are glossy and amped up via social media (I think this is especially toxic for young girls, where image has a particular power). To not be ‘normal’ is social suicide, and I don't mean “not normal” as in quirky or unusual—that is commended on social media. But, looking more critically, what are the things that are taboo, what are we not allowed to do in our social circles, what behavior is punished? These fears are not isolated, it’s not just you; it’s something we are all feeling and all being controlled by. I think it’s difficult to be vulnerable in this environment, but I think there are many ways to go about it. And I think it’s incredibly important, especially right now.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced as an artist so far in your career?
In the last few weeks I’ve started working on a book, and part of this process has been a huge amount of self reflection. I think a few years ago I was incredibly insecure—I wasn’t sure how to articulate the ideas that drove the work. I was kind of lying to myself, making up excuses (to teachers and in institutions) to make the things I wanted to make. In my journals and diaries (I’m going through them now), it’s painfully clear where my head was. I was feeling so much anger and frustration at the lack of representation that my experiences were given in the culture at large. I wanted to understand this more deeply and fight back. Years ago, an older artist warned me against photographing women, being categorized as “one of those kinds of artists.” These kinds of comments, from powerful and more successful individuals who seemed to know what they were talking about, were terrifying.
Back then, I felt the urge to make particular kinds of images that were deeply personal, and luckily trusted those urges. Recently, the culture has shifted and my subject matter is starting to be acknowledged as something that has consequence. I feel like I can be way more honest now. It’s always been a way to study my life, an excuse to analyze and reconsider my own experiences, as confusing and contradictory as they can seem. For a long time I felt this pressure to theorize and abstract that urge, to turn it into something more “academic,” to appease a male audience who didn't consider anything to be “at stake” in my life experience- something trivial not worth studying or considering. But my feelings about these experiences were huge. This was a major struggle. Even two years ago, I had artists telling me I had to move away from autobiography, find different ways of talking about my work. Stop talking about Happy Valley, and that culture, I should embrace more art speak and theory. However, I consider reality TV research, and am not interested in art speak. I’d rather speak openly and honestly about my experiences, and make the work I need to make. I want to be accepted as an artist the way that I am. Not prettier, slicker, or dressed up in clothes that make me feel uncomfortable in order to imitate some idea of what a woman artist should look like. I’ve been a shape shifter so many times in my life, I refuse to do that again, especially in the art world—a place that supposedly champions alternative views and pushes back against mainstream society. But women artists are still supposed to be hot… and young women artists are usually depicted as ‘sexy/fuckable.’ And where do the middle-aged women artists go? They disappear and come back when they are elderly and safely non-sexual. It’s a pattern and it’s depressing.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
Believe that your experiences have value and urgency.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!
To find out more about Eva and her work, check out her website.