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Petra Collins: “I know what it’s like to be there”


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Petra Collins
Photo by Jody Rogac
Short Profile

Name: Petra Collins
DOB: 21 December 1992
Place of birth: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Occupation: Photographer, filmmaker

Petra Collins' new short film, a reinterpretation of the work of artist Georgia O'Keefe, is at the Tate Modern until 30 October 2016.

Petra, your photography captures not only the beauty of its teenaged subjects, but also their struggles with identity and coming of age. Do you remember your first identity crisis?

You know, I didn’t really have an identity crisis because I really, really knew who I always wanted to be… But I definitely had a lot of problems with my body. I was very skinny and I guess my body was sort of pre-pubescent but when I grew hips and thighs, I just didn’t know where I was in the world. It was weird… We have this weird beauty standard where women like shouldn’t grow: what we think is feminine is often what is also pre-pubescent. So it’s just a strange in-between that you live in you’re like, “Oh I’m a woman but I’m also supposed to look like what I did when I was 12…”

Unfortunately those anxieties never really go away, even as we get older.

It’s something that I continue to struggle with. Most girls, I think, are sharing these problems, which is so sad. I read a really good quote that says, “Women learn to exhibit their bodies, not inhabit them,” which I thought was so correct. (Laughs)

“To show your body off is fine, but you don’t really learn how to be in it. And that’s sort of what I’m just starting to figure out now.”

Is that why you choose to shed light on the female body in particular?

Women are inherently told their bodies are objects, so that’s how we treat them. The naked female body is totally different from the naked male body, I think, in the way that we view it. It’s never not sexual. To show your body off is fine, but you don’t really learn how to be in it. And that’s sort of what I’m just starting to figure out now, that’s what I hope my photography helps teach other girls. But like you said, these are issues that unfortunately don’t really go away.

Do you think your photos would look different if you could shake those anxieties about body image?

Maybe a little, yeah, because a lot of my photos represent how I feel internally… But I’m not sure actually. It’s an interesting question, I’ve never thought of that. I think I try to teach stuff by being really open about my own problems, and talking about them as much as I can. I feel like it’s so important for young people to see someone who is a role model being honest about what they struggle with so that then they can see themselves in those role models.

Is it perhaps just as important for you to see a bit of yourself in the people you photograph?

Yeah, totally, I mean, I really started taking photos because I needed something to relate to and I wanted to create a world that I could look at. So, I really, really identify with my subjects, they’re like my super close friends. It was something that was simply the most accessible to me as a teenager. (Laughs) I didn’t find it edgy or anything at all because I was literally taking photos of my peers. But it’s funny, when I shoot something these days, I feel like more of a voyeur now.

Because you’ve gotten older while your subjects haven’t aged?

Exactly. It’s fun now, I guess, seeing it from the other side. I can really tell what I’ve dealt with, what I’ve done in life and what I’m feeling… I think these days I just really know what it’s like to be there, to study it and just be there. You’re in such turmoil. All the years are so dramatic because everything means so much. It’s your first time in the world as an adult, or a semi-adult, and you’re dealing with adult problems, but you’re still a child in your mind. It’s very intense. Young people are discredited just for their age, when they’re the ones who are living and experiencing the current day, they’re the ones using technology. I just think it’s crazy that we don’t think that the youth are valid. They’re the ones who really know what’s going on.

Do people still discredit you for your age?

I’m constantly being told that I shouldn’t do stuff because of my age… But I still do it. (Laughs) It’s so funny because in the art world, people are usually like, “You’re too young,” “You’re a woman,” or “You haven’t had enough experience.” I’m so used to it. It sucks when your ideas are treated like they’re not valid. I recently had the craziest battle with the producers of a project I was working on mainly because of my age. It was exhausting. The whole entire time I was being told I didn’t know what I was doing, and that what I envisioned wasn’t going to make sense to an audience.

Even you have almost a decade of photography experience.

Yeah, I’ve been shooting for like nine to 10 years at this point! I usually do have more experience than a lot of people I work with, which is crazy because it’s still so hard to get them to treat you like that. I’m not thrilled that I had to have these experiences but I definitely feel stronger because of them… It’s crazy to me that I had to go through such a horrible situation where I was honestly crying everyday… I feel like being a young person can be really horrible sometimes.

So you’re not nostalgic for your teenage years then?

It’s funny and I always talk about my nostalgia not really being for the past, but being for a sort of life that I never had, for a teenage life that I didn’t have. Any images that I create, I’m sort of creating this world that I wish was accepted in, or that I wish that I lived in. So I’m more nostalgic for that, which is like a weird thing.

“It really completes me. I just don’t even know how I could live without it.”

How do you go about creating that world through photography?

I don’t know! I actually don’t know. I mean for me it came so early on, but it’s just something that’s so internal. It’s like a secret potion or formula or mixture… I have no idea. I don’t even realize the different things that I do, I just let my emotions just really come through in the camera. Photography is really the only way I can express myself. When I was in elementary school, I was really dyslexic and I really struggled reading and writing, so the way that I could get all that out and express myself was through art.

You once said that it’s most exciting to meet someone who is making art because they would die if they didn’t. Do feel that way about art yourself?

(Laughs) It really completes me. I just don’t even know how I could live without it. I’ve always been creating art, I started at a really young age and this was just something that I like needed to do so I continued doing that into adulthood… If I didn’t do it, I have no idea what else I’d do.