London-based photographer Olivia Rose explores black masculinity in a photo series and new film titled [Absence] Unity
For London-based photographer Olivia Rose, the subject of her portraits has made her acutely aware of the the landmine of connotations that come with being a middle class, white woman behind the lens. At university, she started photographing her gay male friends and later, taking the idea of documenting a specific demographic of people, decided to focus on primarily black and mixed-race men, which she has been doing for the past eight years for a body of work she’s titled “Boys”.
Rose’s work is about showing different sides to black masculinity – away from the stereotyped and fetishised cliches – and showing these men for who they really are. But it’s also about us, the viewer – specifically the white viewer – calling our own prejudices into question. For Rose, “Boys” has been a journey of unlearning and she invites the viewer to join her on that road to a more socially-conscious worldview.
Rose’s work has garnered the attention of publications including i-D and Clash, for whom she’s captured some of hip hop and grime’s most agenda-setting artists – from Drake and Ty Dollar Sign to Stormzy, Kano and other members of the BBK collective. In fact, she’s collaborated with music journalist and i-D music editor Hattie Collins on a book called This Is Grime, which is out in September. Here, Rose tells us more about her work and shares a new video she’s created as part of her “Boys” series.
Who are you?
Olivia Rose: I’m Olivia Rose, I would call myself a roaming sociologist before a photographer, but my photography focuses on portraiture and documentary and often male-dominated subcultures.
Where are you from?
Olivia Rose: London, born and bred, and very proud.
Can you tell me briefly about your journey as a photographer?
Olivia Rose: Yes, so I started at London College of Fashion learning fashion photography, which I hated, completely hated. It was a very small box ten years ago and I did not fit into that box. At the time I was shooting a portrait series of my gay friends on Polaroids and my tutor told me to stop trying to put myself into that box, and that I was shooting fashion, even though I didn’t realise it. And as soon as he said that, I sort of took that idea of creating bodies of work of different kinds of people and I ran with it. So, for the last ten years, I’ve been on a one-woman mission around the globe photographing different demographics and sub-cultures.
Could you tell me about your “Boys” project?
Olivia Rose: It all started with a boy called Jay who I met when I was living in Islington. Him and his brother showed up at my house to sell us a score of weed and they were just so beautiful that I asked them if we could do a portrait session. When we did it, I could tell Jay was really into the camera so on a whim, I asked him if he wanted to learn. He said yes and we ended up starting this amazing photographer-muse relationship. He was my first assistant for years after that. I’ve learned more from the boys I’ve met along the way than they could ever have learned from me – it was loving them, getting to know their families and being integrated into their lives, that made me question everything I knew about my white, middle-class world.
A lot of my photography indirectly deals with race, it’s something you can’t separate from my work. I was initially obsessed with simply the aesthetic of black and mixed-race boys – it never ran deeper than that. In essence, I started off by fetishising black masculinity – I have to hold my hands up and admit to that, no matter how negative or embarrassing – because it was being called out on my intentions with the “Boys” series that was the ultimate catalyst for me to check myself as a white woman, recognise my privilege and really take the time to understand the deeper meaning behind what I was doing.
Why do you choose to photograph black and mixed race men over other races?
Olivia Rose: With retrospect, a lot of soul searching and a long process of ‘unlearning,’ I now know that my work is about representing the unrepresented, especially within fashion – most of the time when I shoot fashion editorial I will use my street-cast boys rather than agency models. I feel like my work is as much about rejecting the white male face as it is about picturing the black male face – in doing that, I think my work opens a discussion, especially among white people, who often view my portraits with eyes already loaded with negative ideas or stereotypes.
Why would you reject the white male face?
Olivia Rose: Because I truly believe that straight white men are the undoing of this universe. (laughs) They rule everything: our whole education system, our whole social system, everything is geared toward them. If you are anything other to that, a person of colour, female, gay, anything other to that you are at a disadvantage. We are not all born at the same start of the race, we’re not. For that reason, I don’t feel any particular need to promote them – I’m just not drawn to that kind of face.
You obviously photograph the grime scene a lot too, how does that relate to all of this?
Olivia Rose: I mean grime is a male-dominated subculture, there’s no denying it. So when Hattie (Collins) asked me if I wanted to shoot This Is Grime with her, I sort of jumped on it. I didn’t really know what I was doing, I just said, “Yeah, why not, let’s shoot a genre in five months…” Shooting portraits of the grime scene very much ties into all of the rest of my work, this kind of dichotomy of me being an outsider, photographing somebody else’s world. So I would say that this time round, I’ve tried to be as respectful as I possibly can be from the get go and I think that shows in the imagery. Again, it’s about taking people for who they really are – even beyond the music – and respecting them before approaching them as a subject for your art.
“I feel like my work is as much about rejecting the white male face as it is about picturing the black male face” – Olivia Rose
Are there any dynamics that you’re aware of being a white woman photographing black men?
Olivia Rose: Well nowadays, I’m aware that I don’t want to fetishise them. It’s a really hard line to tow, because a certain degree of what you do as a photographer is essentially always going to be about the aesthetic appreciation of what you’re photographing. But for me it’s really about intention, being aware of what you’re doing and how your images are going to be shown. That’s why I’m so picky about my outlets – because I want the viewer to be somebody who can understand what I’m saying on a deeper level rather than “these are hot black men”.
So how do you avoid fetishising your subjects?
Olivia Rose: For a start, I genuinely care about the boys I shoot. It’s a very deep, very intimate interaction when you’ve got your camera up in someone’s life – Jay still affectionately calls me “Mama” to this day. If at all possible, I don’t just take a portrait and go home. I’m the crazy woman that sticks about in the hopes you’ll invite me up for a cuppa to meet mum at the end of the shoot. I’m just looking for a realness in every sitter – some people exude sexuality and if that’s what they’re giving to me, then that’s what I want to capture. But if you’re shy and you're sitting there quietly in the corner of the room, then that’s the image I want to take of you. I’m not trying to make you something you aren’t.
So this film, [Absence] Unity, what is it about?
Olivia Rose: The film, for me, is an exploration of boyhood, of what makes up a man. The day was so amazing, all these people that had inspired me, from all walks of life, coming together in a disused primary school one sunny afternoon. Everyone just got on, like they’d known each other forever – I walked outside at one point to find groups of guys that had never met playing basketball together, teaching each other calisthenics, MCing, smoking, laughing and what I was originally filming just took on a new level. The outcome is a montage of boys giving real genuine feeling, a raw look at the quiet moments in between the chaos of masculinity. Zak and Christie of YK&OP (a collective of South London producers and MCs) who feature in the film, played me their track “Honest Lies” and the simplicity of the music and the vulnerability in the lyrics seemed to match perfectly with the visuals. The title [Absence] Unity is taken from the answers of some questions I asked the guys on the day. What makes a man? Pharoah: “Absence. The absence” and What do you want to say that you think no-one else wants to hear? Snatch: “Unity! They don’t wanna hear unity, ya understand? Unity not just among a black race and a white race, unity among all things. We need more energy. And more unity I’d say.”