Interview: Milene Larsson
Valerie Phillips and Arvida Byström are probably the coolest girls I’ve met. They’re both photographers and they’ve both shot a bunch of stuff for VICE. We love them because they shoot girls in ways that are fun and not patronising.
Despite their many similarities, their work is very different. Valerie lives in London but grew up in Manhattan before the internet age. Arvida lives mainly in the cyber world, at her house on an idyllic island in the outskirts of Stockholm, but will soon move to London. I felt this strange need to introduce them to each other. A couple of emails later, Arvida was on a plane to London with a bag full of nipple tassels, washed out comics T-shirts, rainbow bracelets and a tonne of cat stickers, to be shot by Valerie in an empty East London house.
The result is the MEOW zine, which launches tonight at The Photocopy Club and which you can get here. And here’s a preview of it, along with a recent chat I had with Valerie and Arvida about porn, women’s mags, the internet and why guys should wear pink.
VICE: How come you two ended up working together?
Valerie Phillips: After you introduced us I checked out Arvida’s work and I loved it. Especially her Lick Fuck Luck self-portrait. I think it’s probably the best image anyone’s ever shot and I’m slightly annoyed that it’s probably better than the pictures I just shot of her for the MEOW zine. So I emailed Arvida and asked if I could fly her over to London to take pictures of her.
Arvida Byström: The first time we met was on Skype.
Valerie: I was like, “Show me a bunch of stuff you want to bring over.” I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect, ridiculous array of mix and match – stuff like nipple tassels and pink track bottoms. That’s all you need in life. A classic Yank meets Swede romance. How come you got into photography?
Valerie: I started taking photos because I knew what I wanted things to look like and be and no one was doing that. At least no one that I knew of. So I did it. I’m interested in people in a slightly obsessive way. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve seen people I’ve felt I need to know more about, and that might not have been possible if I didn’t have a camera.
Arvida, you’re both a photographer, usually the subject of your own photography, and also a model. Does combining those three different roles come naturally to you?
Arvida: [laughs] I don’t know. The reason why I started doing self-portraits was because I was scared to bring my camera out and have people telling me I was doing something wrong. So I started practising by taking pictures of myself. I used self-portraits to get out of eating disorders. Then it just developed. I remember your first shoot for VICE, named and themed after Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, which was a bunch of self-portraits and you had really short hair. Was that in the very beginning?
Arvida: I started taking pictures when I was 14 or something. I was 16 when I did that VICE shoot. Someone at VICE had seen my photo blog and asked me to shoot something. Was that the first time you got published?
Arvida: Yes! How old are you now?
VICE: How do you feel about the Shot by Kern episode you’re in that came out recently?
Arvida: It was pretty much how I had expected it to be. I found it really funny how the last girl’s opinions were the polar opposite to mine. Like how she said, “I don’t want this to be porn, because porn is porn and art is art.” I did it because I find that exact border between the two interesting – when does porn start? And why is porn more stigmatised than regular nude photos? Or why is porn considered to be worse than sex scenes in Hollywood movies? I think Hollywood movies probably create more norms than pornography, by pretending to reflect real life. But in Hollywood films, they just have super-boring missionary sex. If people think that’s normal they’re going to have such a boring life. Valerie, what did you find out about Arvida’s world when shooting her?
Valerie: I don’t know if I found out what it was like to be in her world. But I feel like I found out what it was like to spend time with her. It was very genuine, which I really loved. She just came in and she was Arvida and we had a fun time and made something cool.
VICE: Did either of you study photography?
Arvida: I went to a photography high school. It was a real slacker school, which suited me perfectly.
Valerie: I didn't, because I don't think you can really learn to be a photographer by attending photo courses and tutorials. I think it's more to do with what's in your head, your lived experiences, friendships, travels, books you've read, amazing things you've seen and what you want your pictures to look like and be about. If I wanted to be a psychotherapist, I'd go to college. What brought you both to photographing mainly girls doing “girlie things”?
Arvida: I seem to always come back to the colour pink. When I was little I was a Disney-princess-loving girlie girl. Everyone thought I was so cute but I was the worst girl ever. I’d probably hate my younger self if I met her. I’d be like, “What have the parents done to this girl.” When I was 13, I had a pink period again. I had pink and black hair and only wore pink clothes for three months. Now I have pink hair again.
Valerie: It seems like there’s more of a connection between what girls look like and what’s going on in their brains, which makes them more visually exciting. With guys I don’t feel like I get that as much. They’re more concerned about not showing their stupid goofy mistakes. And stupid goofy mistakes are what I like the most. That’s what makes people magical and fascinating to me.
VICE: I guess men in general don’t get away with being as playful without it affecting their manliness.
Valerie: There’s a real luxury in being female, in that you can actually act and dress like a total boy, while being a total girl. Guys don’t really get that opportunity. I’ve been a tomboy my whole life. I’ve always loved muscle cars, space toys and skateboarding, and I've never worn heels or a dress. I never liked girlie things so I think my work is quite tomboy. But, because I’m female, there’s always a certain girliness that seeps through everything I do, regardless.
Arvida: I’m actually about to shoot a story about that called Straight Guys. Because as soon as a guy wears anything feminine, people instantly think he’s gay.
Valerie: I think guys look really handsome in pink.
Arvida: There are tonnes of things guys can’t wear. Like nail polish. They can only get away with wearing it if it’s black and they’re emo or punk. That’s unfair. I love nail polish! Boys can’t do much with their hair, either. Do you think there’ll be a freedom movement for men, like how women revolted against gender norms in the 1960s?
Valerie: Guys get so ripped off. I always say to my boyfriend, “Aren’t you upset that you can’t wear your hair in braids and nail polish and things like that?” And he says, “No, why would I want to do that?” If I were a guy, I’d be so incensed by that.
VICE: What do you think of women’s mags?
Valerie: It would be very refreshing if magazines in general (women’s mags, fashion mags, etc) would stop trying to sanitise every image to within an inch of its life. To their prescribed notion of what the rest of the world is going to be able to deal with. I don’t like when things are dumbed down and put under one generic stamp of acceptability. It benefits nobody.I can’t believe it sometimes when I’m on the subway looking around at all the crap people are reading. Do they really care about who’s shaving and who is not?
Arvida: People do care about shaving. I’ve been working with this for two years and people are really going nuts over it. You wouldn’t believe how many magazines have interviewed me about being hairy!
Valerie: If I’d known it was that easy to get attention, I would’ve just grown a bunch of hair.
Arvida: I’m yet to meet a girl or boy who doesn’t want to sleep with me because I don’t shave, so I really can’t relate to all these people being upset about it. I mean, why should they be? It’s always guys who say, “Ew. I wouldn’t sleep with that girl,” and I’m like, “No, you don’t have to sleep with that girl, there are so many girls in the world, you won’t have time to sleep with all of them anyway”.
Valerie, you grew up pretty much offline, at a time when the internet was just considered a passing trend. And Arvida, you’re basically living in the cyber world. How do you think the internet has affected photography and how people interact with your work?
Arvida: Before the internet, you were forced to get books published or shoot for magazines and do exhibitions for people to notice you. These days, you can just post things online and get instant feedback. It’s a new way of working, and all the people who hate you will email you. In the olden days you’d just get a bad review. Wait, people send you hate emails?
Valerie: I think it’s great that people feel strongly about your work. I always love it when people say moronic things about my photos. It really entertains me.
Valerie, for you it’s been the other way around, you mainly publish your work in print and have a website mainly because you have to have one.
Valerie: I like to put physical stuff out into the world. I love small, independently-published books and zines. I think Arvida’s Tumblr is really amazing, though, and I can see why having something like that would be fun if you really put your own stamp on it and curated it with some thought and originality. Like she has.
Arvida: I like that all my work, even really old stuff, can be found online. I want people to see my flaws and how I’m changing. That’s what’s interesting. I haven’t always been like this and I won’t always be like this. You need to do a lot of bad stuff before you can start to get good. [Arvida’s mum comes in and we all say hi.] What does your mum think about your work?
Arvida: She doesn’t mind me doing art or nude photos, but when I started my blog, when I was 16, she thought it was the root of all evil. I skipped school a lot and she blamed it on my blog. But then I started getting published in VICE and getting more and more photo jobs, and she realised it wasn’t so bad.
Valerie: What did she think of that series of period photos that you did for VICE?
Arvida: Well… I borrowed her underwear for one of the photos, because I needed a white pair. She made me promise I wouldn’t stain or ruin them or anything like that. So, obviously, I tried to hide that shoot from her for weeks. She wasn’t too mad when she finally saw it, which was a relief.
Valerie: [Laughs] This is like the funniest thing I’ve ever heard!
VICE: What will you girls be doing this summer?
Valerie: I'll be working on a few different publishing projects. One of which is going to be a series of my photo sketchbooks, published by Pogo Books.
Arvida: I’m going to work night shifts delivering the morning paper for two months to save up money for moving to London. I’ll try to shoot some stuff daytime, but I won’t be partying. To see more of Valerie’s work click here and to get your daily dose of images of cats, teenage kisses, unicorns and the gorgeous miss Byström check out Arvida’s Tumblr. You might also feel like following Milène on Twitter. Go ahead and do it, don't fight it; She might send some pleasant distractions your way: @Milenelarsson