Olivia Arthur Talk

Today I attended a very inspiring talk by Magnum photographer Olivia Arthur. It was fascinating to hear her talk about the development of her career, as well has the style and craft she uses in her photographic practice. We were taken on a journey from her earlier work she has done illustrating stories that others had written, to the stories she has done herself photographing women along the border of Asia and Europe.

Although Arthur enjoyed her earlier work she became frustrated by the process of the writing coming first followed by the images that had to be taken to fit along side the text, motivating her to tell her own story. When she started her work on the Asian/European borders she described it as having an ‘amazing amount of freedom’. From what I understand of this project she has photographed the women in these countries where the eastern culture meets the western culture, creating a large body of portraits that capture the varying cultures she encountered on her journeys. She talked about the way the series has been structured, not wanting to put the photographs in a chronological order, to avoid sectioning off women from different cultures. There are vast differences between the women shown in this body of work and for me by mixing the cultures up Arthur has created a topography of this region, and there is this strong distinction between each woman created by this constant flicking from one culture to the next.

Whilst she was talking about her exhibition she mentioned an interesting technique that I saw at the Dana Popa exhibition I visited recently, which was each person was accompanied with a booklet of text explaining the photographs on the wall. She felt strongly about the photographs being accompanied by text and thought that by providing the viewers of the exhibition with something physical to hold they would be more likely to read the text, than if it were on the wall. I thought this was an interesting technique that would completely alter the viewing of the images.

Arthur has recently published a book titled ‘Jeddah Diary’, which features women she photographed in Saudi Arabia. Hearing her talk about this project was quite intriguing as she was at times discouraged from taking photographs, it was strange to see the photographs of a place that did not want to photographed. From what I have read of online interviews she admits its a very confusing society and that “the more you understand, the more you realise you just don’t understand it at all.” It is interesting to see that the women in these portraits had a say in how they were portrayed, saying that they wanted there face to be blurred somehow. Arthur decided to do this by printing the photographs out and re-photographing it so that the flash glared on the face, completely distorting it making them unrecognisable. There was a great contradiction though in how they wanted to be seen, they did not want there face to visible yet wanted there eyes to be shown off to show their beauty.

Although there are many aspects of this talk I will take away with me there was something Arthur said about creating stories with your work, which was “you have to care about it”. Having heard her talk about her own career and the great success with the projects she has felt passionately about I can see how important this is.

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