ARTIST OF THE WEEK: EMMA PHILLIPSMarch 30, 2017
Based in Vancouver, photographer and traveller Emma Phillips speaks with us about how her interest in photography evolved, spontaneity being key to her creative process and her upcoming plans to travel around America.
UO: Have you always been interested in photography? Or is it an interest that has developed over time?
My interest in photography began on a holiday in Sri Lanka, when I was around 14. My dad had bought a new Canon, and I remember using it to take a photo of a girl staring out of a train window. I frustratingly can’t find that photo now.
I properly started taking photos around sixth form; I didn’t take particularly great photos. I just took my camera everywhere and documented the typical teenage lifestyle. I used it as a means to remember. I’ve always preferred shooting in film.
UO: You have a specific style and photographic eye: how do you describe your aesthetic?
That surprises me; I actually wouldn’t say that about my work! I guess I would say I shoot similar subjects- travel or documentary- I love portraits!
But I am still very much searching for a style, and I find this very difficult because I am constantly inspired by so many different things. I love the minimalistic, white and clean travel photography of Cereal Mag’s Rich Stapleton but then I also like gritty film photography or studio work. I haven’t yet decided what style to go for, but I want to find something of my own. You could say my work is pretty eclectic.
UO: Can you share more specifically what you were drawn to shooting for your India series: any specific stories or examples you can reference about what struck you as you were shooting?
Interestingly I didn’t particularly enjoy my India trip. I went by myself at 18 and joined a group tour- I just didn’t click with anyone on it. The tour was stupidly fast, every night it was either sleeping on a hard bunk in a train or waking up at 5 am. We were rushed from monument to monument. I hated that, I just wanted to wander around the markets and take photos. I used photography as a kind of solace. Being lonely gave me the time to focus on my photography far more than any other trip has done, and it gave me a kind of purpose.
Everyone told me India was overwhelming and I didn’t know what that word meant till I got there. I arrived in Kolkata by myself, and the population is around 14 million- I was blown away. I got a taxi from the airport, and there were no proper roads, it was just mud with these strange empty high-rise shells.
My favourite picture from that series is the beggar girl. That was taken in Jodhpur, among the blue houses; she was so hauntingly beautiful.
UO: How is living in Vancouver influencing and inspiring your creative process?
The landscape here is next-to-none- I’ve never experienced anything like it. The first photographic series I took here was a camping trip to Lake Cheakamus. There was around 20 of us, but we were somewhere so untouched and remote. We hiked 3km from the car park with a stupid amount of food, water, and gear and camped on tiny beaches by the water. I woke up at 8 am and the sun was shining over the mountains, there was a thin mist, and the water was unbelievably blue. We cooked with the lake water- I’ve never done anything like that before!
The mist, the mountains, the forests and the beaches are inspiring- even the rain! Also on Instagram, I’ve discovered a HUGE community of amazing photographers who photograph The Pacific Northwest. They’ve definitely influenced my work.
UO: Who are some of your favourite photographers and artists?
Oh, so many! Regarding travel, there is the obvious Steve McCurry. But my favourite photographer at the moment is Kevin Faingnaert. More recently I’ve discovered Meg Griffiths. ‘This is Paper’ Magazine is a constant source of inspiration, they have the perfect aesthetic.
Regarding other types of photography- Maya Fuhr was the first one to introduce me to the ‘internet scene’. Currently, I love Laurence Philomene and her friend Hobbes Ginsberg. I love Laurence’s non-binary series and her use of colour.
Artist: My favourite is Darby Milbrath, hands down. She deserves a far stronger following. I spend way too much time on Instagram!
UO: Can you tell us about your creative process, from initial idea to final piece?
Spontaneity is really important to my creative process; none of my photographs are staged or planned. I pick the places I want to visit and then take photographs of the things I like.
I have never gone on a trip simply to take photographs; it’s always come second. I am always traveling with my friends or partner.
I’d love to go on a trip just to take photographs; I always feel that when I am with friends, I don’t want to hold them up, annoy them, or embarrass them by getting in a potential subject’s face. Also, it’s nice to just enjoy your experiences instead of thinking of them in terms of a photograph. I’d like to separate the two.
In her book, ‘On Photography,’ Susan Sontag talks about photography being an act of violence. I often take photographs of people without asking. I would prefer to interact with my subjects and discuss how they would like their portrait should go. However, I do think there is a great beauty in the randomness of documentary photography.
UO: How have you seen your work develop over the past few years?
Photography has always been a hobby, this year I’ve started to take it more seriously. As with everything, practice and time make perfect. I am a self-taught photographer, so this resonates with me!
UO: Where is a place you would love to go and photograph for a series?
Different places always suit different styles. I have just jumped from the Pacific Northwest to tropical Cuba; the transition isn’t very fluid. I think going to Iceland would be the dream.
There’s also been a lot of amazing photographs popping up of Fogo Island recently- with its bleakness and strange-beautiful architecture. I like bleak and rain!
UO: What’s been the most rewarding shot or series you’ve captured and why?
India definitely- because it was the first series I ever took time over and the people out there are just so incredible to photograph. I would like to go back and do it properly.
I also loved shooting at Meadows in the Mountain Festival for The Commission Magazine. That was just such a beautiful experience. They have a sunrise stage, and you’re there dancing at 8 am watching the sun rise- you’re on the top of a mountain surrounded by pink mist.
UO: Can you tell us about any future photography series you are working on?
I’m about to depart on a big America’s trip: Guatemala and then the western USA. I am particularly excited about photographing the desert: Utah and Joshua National Tree Park. I am worried about the heat- our car doesn’t have air-con!
See more of Emma Phillips’ work here