They say that age is nothing but a number – and Olivia Bee, a 20 year old photographer and director based in Brooklyn, New York (by way of Portland, Oregon), is definitely no exception.
Though her “big break” came at 15 years old when Converse “discovered” her via Flickr (and subsequently commissioned her to shoot an ad), this talented ladygal has spent the past half a decade working hard to establish herself in an industry that often regards age as a standard for success. Even though her client list is far-reaching, and her fan-base even moreso, she acknowledges that “older men are still confused as to how I have my job and why it’s not theirs.”
Despite the naysayers, it’s pretty unnecessary to dwell on Bee’s age; because at the end of the day, she is insanely passionate about her work – and she is doing it insanely well. Whether she’s shooting commercial campaigns or documenting her adventures/misadventures, her dreamy, nostalgia-inducing photographs tell intimate stories. And to that end, age is truly irrelevant.
Why do you do what you do? How did you start doing it?
I do what I do because I’m addicted to it. Or maybe I’m addicted to feelings. That’s what I take photos of — feelings.
I started taking photos because I took a class by accident in 6th grade. I worked in the darkroom and shot with my mom’s Pentax K1000 that she took with her to Israel and Lebanon when she lived there as a young adult. My first photos were so bad. And they made me so frustrated. But over time I just became addicted to making a moment last forever.
Who were the first photographers whose work really resonated with you? Do you feel that these early influences are still prevalent in your work today?
I mean in school you always learn about Man Ray and Ansel Adams. I liked their work because duh, it’s really good, but primarily, I drew a lot of inspiration from the internet community of Flickr, where I started posting stuff in 7th grade. When I was 14, my teacher recommended Francesca Woodman to me because she had seen my self portraits. This was the same year I found Ryan McGinley and the entire way I saw photography changed. I think you can definitely find traces of all these artists in my work; everything you see, hear, touch, or experience influences you, even if it’s deep in your subconscious.
Your friends make frequent appearances in your work – but if you could shoot anyone, who would it be?
Elvis? Michael Jackson? Bridget Bardot? Lana Del Rey? Audrey Hepburn? Diana Ross? There are so many. But my favorite people to shoot are my friends.
You worked with Converse when you were 15 years old. Was this the “aha” moment that made you realize that you could be self-sufficient as photographer? If it wasn’t, what was?
Yes, it was. At the time I was given a check I didn’t really know was possible. I didn’t know you could make money doing what you loved; people always say artists never make any money.
You currently reside in Brooklyn, New York, but are constantly on the move. Where’s your favourite place to visit? To shoot in?
I am always happy to be in Los Angeles. To visit, or to shoot. Just being in California and around wide open spaces and all of these things that make America. America feels so good to me.
What inspires you?
Everything. All of the things around me. But especially the people around me that I love, they inspire me the most, in terms of art and in terms of living.
You’ve worked hard and found success at a young age. Over the years, what has been the biggest challenge/most frustrating thing you’ve had to/still have to overcome?
I look like I’m about 14 so being 20 having a much older person’s job sometimes makes some confusion on set. I also have a lot of older men who don’t understand why I have my job and it’s not theirs.
What has been your favourite project that you’ve worked on thus far?
The TV/print campaign I shot for Cacharel was an amazing experience for me.
Aside from photography, how do you spend your time? And with a jam-packed schedule, how do you find time to do it?
I like to ride my bike and do yoga, decorate my house, work on projects, party with friends. My favorite thing is being in beautiful places with people I dig. I miss the west coast for that. Brooklyn isn’t exactly the most beautiful place in my book, haha. I do have a very packed schedule but I think it’s really important for my brain and well being and even my work to make time to be twenty years old.
In your TedX talk in Athens, you said “We document our lives through social media, but how much do we actually live?” Existing in a generation that glorifies the ‘instant’ (which is constantly overturned and updated), how do you create memorable and meaningful work?
I try not to think about it in that way; I take photos of people, places, things, events, experiences that I love and that keep life colorful; I do it because I care. And when you really care about what you do, it shows.
Does working with film make you relate to your subjects differently?
I don’t shoot with film 24/7, but I like that it’s tangible. And I don’t think I could ever shoot diary stuff with digital again; being able to craft the perfect shot and monitor if shot 1, 2, or 3 was better would get in the way of me just capturing a moment and moving on until I get my film back.
To what extent has the inherent virility of social media/the Internet played to help you get to where you are now?
I could never ever be doing what I’m doing even 10 years ago.
If you could build a cool girl army, who would be in it?
Elle Hardwick, Claire Christersen, Rebekah Campbell, Erica Joy, Tavi Gevinson, Petra Collins… we’re all kinda in a girl army anyway haha!
Finally, what’s your go-to girl power anthem?
“Girl” by Destiny’s Child.
All pictures by Olivia Bee.