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Photographs from Egypt, South Sudan, Yemen and Vatican City.

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Olivia Bee

Converse, 2009

At 11, Olivia Bolles started shooting when she was enrolled in a photography class by accident. Now 17, the precocious Portland-based photographer’s portraits of teen life have appeared in campaigns for Nike and Converse, as well as American Photo magazine. Bolles—who goes by Olivia Bee professionally—spoke to fellow teen, Style Rookie fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, to talk about her images and inspirations.

TG: Who are your influences?

OB: For the most part, my muse is everyday life. It’s kind of like enjoying where you’re at and appreciating what’s going on around you. Photographically, Ryan McGinley is my favorite. [Also,] Annie Leibovitz, Nan Goldin.

TG: Something about your photos I really like is [that] they feel really intimate. You feel like you’re getting to learn about this person and her life, but at the same time, a lot of them capture more universal experiences about everyday life as a teenager. Do you think about whether a photo [will be] more diary-like or more about being a teenager in general?

OB: I think it’s both. My photos are my diary. But a lot of the things I photograph I’m sure happen to other people too. That specific moment happened in my life, but other moments like it happened in other people’s lives. So it’s a diary but it’s kind of relatable, and that’s what I want to be doing with my work.

TG: Yeah, and I think that’s one thing I like most about your work—that you’re independent and unedited.

OB: Yeah, it’s all honest, you know? That’s the important part for me, being honest about everything.

TG: It can be so mind-blowing seeing someone’s earlier work, or freshman year versus senior year. Do you ever feel embarrassed?

OB: (Laughs.) Totally. There are some things where I’m like, “Oh my god, what the hell was I thinking?” I look back at my old Flickr, and that’s the stuff that gets on Tumblr like every day. I’m like, “I hate this picture. Why are people hyping over this?” But then I think this is a fortunate thing. I hate it now, but it had to happen to get where I am now.

TG: How do you think that being in Portland affects they way you think about your work or what you end up photographing?

OB: I definitely think it affects me a lot, because in Portland it rains all the time. So everybody plays an instrument, and is in a band and working on a project. Being in a creative atmosphere 24/7 just encourages me to make something every day. And my friends are my muses. Being in Portland is awesome (laughs). It’s such a warm, friendly atmosphere, but it’s really real.

TG: Are there any movies that inspire you?

OB: I’m like every other girl, and I like The Virgin Suicides. There’s this movie Wonderwall. George Harrison did the soundtrack to it. It’s like a really bad 60’s movie, but it’s really beautiful visually. Anything ’60s or ’70s—The Partridge Family. But Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also a gorgeous movie.

TG: Who are the other young photographers you like?

OB: I love El Hardwick, Francesca Allen … There’s so many people on Flickr, it’s ridiculous. Chrissie White, Maggie Lochtenberg. Oh, and Lauren Poor. And Mike Bailey Gates, obviously, Erica Segovia.

TG: It’s great that with the Internet, there has come this sense of creative independence. Having your stuff online—some people think of it as gimmicky, but in a way, it’s one of the most pure forms of having your work judged.

OB: Because so many people can see it, you know? It’s the only thing that makes sense in 2011. You can have shows or whatever, but that’s going to be seen by like 50 people, or a hundred or a thousand or whatever. But if you put your stuff on the Internet, millions of people can see it.

TG: Do you ever want to balance out this public content? Do you keep anything just for yourself, or just for a show?

OB: There are a lot of photos that are so intimate to me that I don’t want to show other people. Someday when I make a book, I’ll put in all these pictures that I’ve kept secret. And some of them are my favorite photos, but I just don’t think they should be public, because they’re so special to me.

TG: Can you fill in your readers on some of that commercial work you’ve done?

OB: I just finished shooting the Fiat 500 campaign in April. And then I did some Degrassi stuff for TeenNick—production stills. I shot Nike and Converse, Zeit Magazin, which is like the German New York Times. Yeah, that was cool. I got to shoot the cover for that. And then I did the FOAM International Photography Museum magazine; I just did their cover and a feature. I have a really big editorial coming up, but I obviously can’t talk about it in this. 2011 has been a good year to me.

TG: Do you find that when you’re with a crew of people, that your age seems to factor into how they work with you, or talk to you?

OB: When I’ve shot alongside other photographers, sometimes people really look down on me…Sometimes people will be like “What the hell is she doing on this set?” But when you get to know people, [they] kind of become my mentors. It all depends on how long I’ve worked with someone. But it’s still weird (laughs); I’m still 17.

TG: I could definitely see being shot by you as the foray a Dakota Fanning-type would take to being, like, a cool teenager. If you could put together a photo shoot that wasn’t just the things you see every day, what would your dream setting be?

OB: It’d be on the moon cause that’d be so amazing! But I don’t know who my models would be. I like shooting anybody, so the models wouldn’t really be specific. But if it was on, like, the moon—that would be killer.

TG: Where would you like to go with your skills?

OB: Honestly, I just don’t want to stop. I’ve been happy with the kind of commercial stuff I’m doing. I don’t want to stop making personal work. I’m just going to photograph my life all the time, because that’s what I really like doing. As I grow older, I’m sure my pictures will change, but that’s basically what I want to keep doing. I’d love to shoot AnnaSophia Robb; I think she’s just gorgeous. And I’d like to shoot Dakota Fanning or Kate Moss, or someone like that—that’d be fun. Or shoot bands. If I got to shoot The Strokes, I’d basically die.

Seventeen-year-old Olivia Bolles, who goes by the name Olivia Bee, lives in Portland, Oregon and has worked for clients including Nike, Converse, Fiat, and TeenNick, among others. She is represented by Candace Gelman. More of her work can be seen here.

Fifteen-year-old Tavi Gevinson lives in the Chicago, Illinois area and has run the fashion blog The Style Rookie since 2008.

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For some Auslanders who are struggling to adopt to the elite German lifestyle, the day might arrive to pack up and say goodbye. Could be you were asked by your boss to move to another city, and you, being the brain dead, anti-intellectual, zero-creative-potential corporate automaton you always were, blindly obeyed.

Regardless of whatever reason has come up in your life that makes it necessary to leave Berlin, it positively means you have failed miserably at blending in wiz ze Germans — because if you had succeeded, you simply would have no life, and certainly no exciting things happening in it that necessitate moving away. Berlin would have been that “final solution” to all your ambitions and dreams, as it is for most elite German people, and you would spend your life irately defending its alleged coolness on sad internet comment threads.

Yet, since you gave up on blending in wiz ze Germans, at the very least, you need to confirm to a few basic guidelines and rules on how to quit ruleless, nonconformist Berlin in the universally accepted way. The timespan between the day of your announcement and your actual departure marks a phase of high emotional involvement for your elite German acquaintances. No, not because they are sad to lose a friend, but because it challenges that precious, set-in-stone consensus they once reached with themselves about Berlin being the cultural pinnacle of humankind, which nobody interesting, important, or perpetually adolescent would ever want to abandon.

You will soon learn that there is an easy way, and a hard way to leave Berlin. What’s that about, you ask? It is a distinction made on the place you move to next. Time to share a little secret:  Elite Germans are at all times painfully aware Berlin is actually not the most interesting place in the world.  Shhh! You’ve got to keep that voice down, Auslander! You are not supposed to know about the fundamental hurt from which the never ending, passive-aggressive pissing contest better known to its purveyors as “cool young Berlin” has arisen. Elite German people would rather drink a Müller Milch than ever admit this to anybody, including themselves. 

The easy way to leave Berlin is to move to any one of the three places the elite German population of Berlin has sound reason to feel superior to, which are: Wiedenborstel, Kleinbockedra, and Bebra. If you happen to move to one of these three, you can stop reading after this paragraph. Simply tell your friends you’re moving to a rural shithole, and enjoy the many beer-spilling dive bar binges you will get invited to out of pity.

However, it is more likely that you won’t be allowed to leave Berlin the easy way, because you just had to act like a total dick again and choose one of the many cities which make elite German people twitch nervously with population envy.

Just a passing mention of a city with 10 million people will involuntarily trigger a built-in, natural defence mechanism, quite similar to that Malaysian ant which, when attacked, explodes into a venomous fountain of guts: They will explode in a sudden rage at the fact you finally managed to rise above them in that devious little hierarchy they so desperately deny to exist.

Do you even realise what you impose on them? While you are getting ready to leave it all behind, enjoying your last few days in Berlin, wasting not a single electron of brain activity on organising the transport of 15000 rare Detroit-techno vinyls, because, like, you knew better than to get into that sad, phlegmatic hobby of collecting records, they are forced into another episode of DIY trauma therapy, brooding in dimly lit rooms to come up with a line of reasoning that will re-inject sense back into that fragile inner microcosm of unwarranted superiority your announcement so viciously shattered.

Once the cat is out the jute bag about your impending departure, elite German people, even those you barely ever met, are allowed to stop you on the street for a session of authoritative questioning. Your emigration interrogation will always start with an encouraging “I heard you’ll be leaving us...that’s so greeeeat for you”, which is meant to make them appear well-meaning and “on your side”, like psychologically trained detectives questioning a suspect in another lame episode of Tatort. 

Never take them at face value. Because they love little more than gossip, they probably already know the answer to their next question: “Where are you going?”. Answer by stating your destination in a calm and non-threatening way, like so: “I am going to New York”.

Now, let’s take a close look what this sentence triggers in an elite German person. Because this really is a life-or-social-death situation for their self-image, their brain, in the split of a millisecond, switches into survival mode. They are now in a state of elevated cognitive abilities. Their breath quickens. Their rhetorical skills slightly improve. Their memory backlog is extended by at least one decade. It’s like that overdose of Ketamine back in 2008 never happened. An elaborate program, like a piece of software code, is set in motion. 

The objective of this program is to neutralise as much as possible of the agonising grandeur that, in their spoiled minds, is awarded to anyone leaving Berlin for a bigger city. A grandeur whose existence you weren’t aware of, and never meant to exude, but is very real and very challenging to every elite German person. It is driving them mad with furious envy, which of course they can’t admit to in public, so they try their hardest to candy-coat it with pushy, dishonest empathy.

“Ohh, Neeeew Yooork...!” they’ll say, “we have a lot of friends there!” Don’t be surprised by this. No matter what city you go to, you can count on your elite German acquaintances to already have an extensive network of uberinteresting people in place. The subtext of course being that they are absolutely unimpressed by you moving there as well, and that any claim of individuality enhancement on your part (which you were never going to make) would be absolutely ridiculous to them. Never ask for details about those friends they are talking about. They’ll lecture you anyway. Better prepare for their next move:

“So, where exactly in New York will you be living?” Because you are probably 8000% less sentimental than the average elite German person about what neighbourhood and type of building you live in, you probably don’t know yet or can’t care enough to remember. Elite German people feel tremendous pressure to cover their conventional upbringing with a fabricated cosmopolitan veneer, and therefore maintain a roughly ten-years-obsolete concept about the cool neighbourhoods of the world’s cities. 

This is their chance to catch you off-guard. If you don’t want to open a shallow side argument about what parts of what cities are cool today, just think back 10 years and say “Williamsburg.”

“Ohh, Williamsbuuurg...!” they’ll say, “didn’t Finn, Leni, and Hartmut recently move there, too? We should totally give you their number, so they can show the new guy around.” Likely, a major part of your motivation for going abroad is to get away from elite Germans as far as possible, so you should answer in a non-committing way, like “oh, I will be very busy in my new job so I probably won’t have any free time in the next few...years”

Sensing that they won’t gain much ground in their struggle to make you feel small by pointing out how mainstream your oh-so-special destination really is, they’ll quickly change their focus to the nature of your new occupation:

“A new job? That’s soo great for you! What is it?” If you’re a straightforward person who’s thinking along the lines of “a job is just a job”, “it pays the bills”, “can’t be choosy in this economy”, you might be just naïve enough to say truth, for example “I’ll work at an internet company.”

Notice how your interrogators are becoming more excited now,   sensing a chance to gain the upper hand: “An internet company! Good for you! Well, I guess you won’t click with Hartmut, Leni, and Finn then, because they all work in creative professions!”

For old times sake, you could just engage in one last round of elite German combative communication, and say “Well, my job could be characterised as creative as well, it has to do with photography...”

“Photography! What a coincidence! Leni, Finn, and Hartmut are  photographers! In fact, they are assistants to Ellen von Unwerth, where they meet really exciting and famous people every day! I guess having a connection to Hartmut would be quite exciting for your little, what was it again, web design company? Jürgen, can we give out Hartmuts private number? We just have to bring you two together so he can show you all the cool places in New York, you know!”

At which point you might just stop caring and start to fuck around with them: “Oh, did I say web design company? Sorry, must be the tough weekend in Berghain. Actually, I meant to say I will be the new Director of Art Buying at MoMA, with a side job as Terry Richardson’s new muse, in the case I ever get some time off my frequent mid-day outdoor threesomes with my two new girlfriends Zooey Deschanel and Chloë Sevigny, of course...”, which will make your elite German stare at you in disbelief and finally say in a notably less excited tone: “That’s so...great for you...”

P.S. It is an unwritten, yet absolute certainty that if you ever run into Hartmut, Leni, Finn, or any other elite German person who was described to you as a hip expat god breaking new ground abroad, in the bleak light of day-to-day reality, things look a little less glorious. They might just have planned to go, but never actually left home, or they might have visited the city on vacation, but never lived there, or they did in fact live there for a few months, but only found bar jobs and ran out of money, or they actually were photography interns, but not for Ellen von Unwerth, but Ellen Krapszinsky, alcoholic wedding photographer. Don’t bother to report back to Germany about such tiny, irrelevant particularities, though — you´d look awfully nit-picky and uptight.


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