Olivia Martin, Freetown

A: You have a connection with the subjects, the way you approach the subject for a portrait is very interactive.

O: I think the whole idea of taking a photo, especially when its a portrait I think you have to be, I understand with some people they don’t, like with your work, you don’t really engage with the person in it, but for me, I feel there’s nothing to hide behind with taking a portrait, you have to make that connection with the people. Look at the pictures I’ve posted upon the wall around us, professional photographers that we like, they’re all just straight up portraits...especially Avedon

A: and you have some Eggleston portraits over there


O: Egglestons the don though isn’t he really.

A: He was very interesting in the way he approached his portraits because they were very staged, different from his other work. Do you feel there’s an element of that in your work?

O: I think because I have the camera between me and the person there’s always going to be an element of that, you’ve got that piece of mechanical equipment there between you and the subject, going through this complicated process of having their picture taken. In terms of setting up lighting and keeping the same background. I wanted the person to inhabit their own space quite naturally. Not like they have just been plonked there by me, which you get a lot in photographs. So it was as you saw them. Yeah yeah, I’d approach them, in their little area where they were and only have a couple of options of how to shoot them. I wanted them to feel as comfortable as possible. It was nice to be able to give them back a polaroid after the shoot too.

A: (You mentioned you were trying to project a positive image, there’s a lot of negative images that come from that region)
What were people’s reaction when you gave them a little portrait like that?

O: They loved it. It’s very different there, a lot of the people might not have a picture of themselves. It’s hard out there, it’s hard to make money and things like that are expensive for them. Being able to give them something back was really really nice. At first they looked so confused and then as the picture started to appear, the look on their faces, it was mint. I liked that part more than taking the photos...

(Phone rings)
Oh its my Mum. "Hey Mum, yeah I’m just in the middle of an interview right now. Ooh I know...."
 
(Phone call continues)

(Chatting between everyone present)

O: Right we better get on with this interview.

A: This is a bit of an obvious one but did you have any initial influences that made you want to shoot the way you did?

O: Hmm I dunno. I’ve always wanted to shoot large format. It’s kind of a cliched thing but through the years at Newport the tutors keep pushing you to get bigger and bigger. In first year it’s 35mm, in 2nd year it’s medium format. I felt like it was a natural progression to move onto large. Go big or go home. It’s your last project, you might as well do it the best you can. If you don’t spunk a ridiculous amount of money on film and equipment now then when are you going to do it...Ok Ok...Also all the photographers I like shoot large format...well not all of them but most do.

A: Who would that be roughly?

O: It’s an eclectic mix...I like the word eclectic...It’s such a great word. I really like Rineke Dijkstra, yeah yeah.

A: Going back to the process of shooting and the format you used. When you're photographing with a camera to your face people react differently. I think that’s a big advantage of working with large. You can detach yourself from it...

O: Yeah yeah. People hide behind it. Behind the camera. That’s a big thing, people react differently when you have a big camera up in front of your face. You can see it in street photography. I’m not very good at street photography. Every photographer’s got something they’re good at. For me it’s more terrifying stealing a bit of someones day and intruding on them in that way than asking them politely if they would like to have their photo taken. I feel like they are braver in away. They’re stealing these moments away from people whereas I ask them for moments. Yeah yeah, plus if you go around snapping people you might be taking a bit of their day that they don’t want to be seen...Exactly. As much as I try to get an unguarded moment from them, they know I’m taking their picture. They will automatically put a front on. They will do. If they’re unaware it’s a totally different image that’s created

A: Why did you chose to photograph in Sierra Leone? What was your background there?

O: It’s pretty self indulgent really...Th..that’s alright...Nah I’m not going to apologise for it. Fuck it. Well, I went when I was 16 years old, I saw these two people sat down at the airport, they had these huge boxes with them full of equipment. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew that they were photographers. A man and a woman, I knew they’d just come back from taking pictures and I was like, you know what, one day I’m going to come back and I’m going to do this. And I did.

A: Is that what has driven you?

O: It’s the whole reason I did Documentary. Yeah, there’s a plethora of other reasons I wanted to shoot there too. I wanted to explore where I’m from, where my Dad’s from. Plus I thought there were some really nice photos I could make over there too.

A: And you mentioned you wanted to do some more work out there?

O: Yeah I’m planning on going back out there in January to do some more with this group of motorcycle riders called the Ocarda.

A: That’s going to be interesting...a-and a lot of the people you met didn’t speak English?

O: Nooo, they spoke Krio. I don’t understand them. They don’t understand me.

A: So your interaction was more gesture based than language based with the subjects?

O: ...Oh yeah...

A: So how did you contact people to photograph?

O: Well, I was with my Uncle Abdul, he was like my unofficial fixer, he’d give me a call about 9 o’clock in the morning and say, ‘Alright Liv, what do you wanna do today?’ and we’d head out. We’d travel around and I would point someone out and say I wanted to take a photo of them and my uncle Ab’s would sort it all out. He’d go over and smile and explain it to them, then I’d go over and take my picture and give them a little polaroid.

A: How did that affect the work.How would it have been if he wasn’t there?

O: I sometimes wonder if it’s easier shooting in a country where you don’t know the language. There isn’t that same awkwardness. Like you know if you're doing a shoot somewhere in England there could be silence between you and you know you should try and fill it, whereas out there you can’t.

A: What do you think the portrait achieves?

O: (Big intake of breath) What do I think it achieves...ooo...I’m a nosey person, I love looking at people, but people get freaked out if they see you looking at them but if I take a picture I can stare at that person all I want. I don’t get the question, like, ‘What you lookin' at?’. You know that saying, ‘take a picture it’ll last longer’. It really fucking does. Look at that picture on the wall behind you, that's been there for about 2 years, I don’t know anything about that guy but I just love looking at him. People, are just, I know this is going to sound bad to all you landscape people out there but people are just more interesting.

A: Is there any final things you want to share with us...that sounded really formal haha

O: If you’re into something that you really like, don’t let anyone convince you that you’re wrong for liking it. I probably could have phrased that more clearly but I think people, especially in photography and art, are really judgmental and yeah, sometimes you need to be told that works a bit shit to make it better but if you like something you should never be made to feel that your inferior, like you don’t know what you’re talking about. You go to a gallery and you meet those people that make you feel like utter shite, and they’re talking about things you have no fucking clue about just laugh at them. If they look down their nose at you. Laugh at them. I hate people that make people feel small. That seems to happen a lot in the art world.