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Celebrating Female Sexuality: Inside Lina Scheynius’ Raw, Personal New Book

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Lina Scheynius’ latest publication, My Photo Books, represents a document of contemporary womanhood – here, the Swedish photographer opens up about her work and the varying ways it has been perceived

The only interesting thing about Lina Scheynius’ raw, personal photographs is that they were taken by a woman. An influential man working in photography, who will remain nameless, told her this when she was starting out. “Such a horrific comment,” she says, and one that she tried to forget. Because what really makes her photographs interesting is that, in fact, they could only be taken by a woman. One who, over the course of her career, has been cast as both gender traitor and feminist outrider depending on which way the portrayal of women’s stories was leaning at the time. 

Rising star of Tumblr and Flickr in the mid 2000s, the Swedish photographer’s introspective style renders intimate and messy moments beautiful. She started self-publishing books after building interest online, and the licence it gave her to show whatever she wants feels more relevant than ever with digital platforms becoming restricted. Now, the 11 books that Scheynius made between 2008 and 2019 have been organised into a unique document of contemporary womanhood titled My Photo Books.

11My Photo Books by Lina Scheynius

“Your work either fits the current political trend, or it doesn’t,” she tells AnOther over the phone from her London home. “To many, showing women naked was anti-feminist when I worked with ZEIT Magazine in 2012. Then people started talking about the female gaze and it was feminist again.” The way she produces her books has also evolved, graduating from InDesign to editing prints on her walls. Revisiting them with her publishing house, Jean Boîte Éditions, was a chance to address early mistakes. “Some I made big changes to, others I didn’t touch, but seeing them together for the first time was still strange. They were familiar, but so new.”

One constant theme is using herself and people around her to seize a moment. “I got my first camera when I was ten and was already taking photos of myself in the mirror,” says Scheynius. “Even in those early rolls of film there were pictures of my best friend on the toilet.” This unflinching approach creates an almost physical sense of proximity, engulfing the viewer in private rituals and mundane acts, like a haircut in the bath, brushing your teeth, adjusting your underwear, and having sex. Natural light illuminating life at its most vulnerable and poetic.

“I knew I was breaking taboos using nudity, but when I started sharing pictures online it wasn’t a problem.” One image, showing refracted light describe a vertical rainbow down the front of her cotton briefs, sums up this change (and featured on posters for the launch at Tenderbooks in Covent Garden). Explicit in a metaphorical rather than graphic sense, its divisive power is reflected in how often Instagram removes it. “I’m really struggling to reach people with the work I care about most,” she says, before half-jokingly comparing it to Gustave Courbet’s ultra-realistic painting of the female genitals, L’Origine du Monde, being censored under Facebook’s community rules on nudity in art.

Lina Scheynius My Photo Books 2020 photography female nude
Lina Scheynius, My Photo Books, 2020 Photography by Lina Scheynius

Candid rather than voyeuristic, her photos celebrate female sexuality, never objectify it; Scheynius and her subjects remain in control. “The people I’ve photographed have been generous,” says the ex-model. “Nobody ever told me to take anything down, even after relationships ended.” Although, these intimate images of friends and exes being seen by a larger audience soon made it harder to take her camera out. “I became cautious, and it confused things. Some people didn’t want me shooting them, others begged me to, and I found myself editing the pictures before I’d even taken them,” she says.

Looking back, the photographer explains that 10 was the hardest to make because she mixed passages from her private journal with pictures to tell the story of a relationship from beginning to end. “It was a powerful time, so reliving it was hard,” she says. “And my words just added another dimension of vulnerability.” Sharing herself in this way ramped up the emotional truth in her work, and a lot of people recognised themselves in what was written, but she has no plans to reread it anytime soon.

Scheynius works regularly with Jil Sander on quiet campaigns in which product feels secondary to storytelling. “I’m usually cautious about commercial projects but enjoy this because they let me do my thing.” This point matters because the importance of being free to do as she wants is what drives My Photo Books. The photographer only had to stick to an enforced schedule once, shooting her friend give birth for 11, but that is as pre-planned as Scheynius’ work gets. In that context, any reservations about commissioned jobs make perfect sense. “When I did more of them, I would wake up in the morning and be like, oh no, where’s my sun?!” she says. “Now if there’s no sun, I just don’t take a picture that day.”

My Photo Books by Lina Scheynius is out now.

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Artist Sophie Varin transforms her dreams into miniature paintings

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For each issue, YY! art showcases the French artistic scene’s most promising young talents. Today, focus on painter Sophie Varin, whose miniature paintings inhabited by hazy characters invite viewers into a dreamlike world.

Portraits by Charlotte Krieger
Styling by Samuel François
Text by Matthieu Jacquet

Sophie Varin wears a wool and silk jacket and a cotton poplin shirt, GUCCI.

28-year-old French painter Sophie Varin likes to describe her canvases as what you see immediately on waking from a dream, when reality is distorted in your barely opened eyes. In her atmospheric work, the effect is achieved through the vivid greens, oranges and purples of incandes- cent meadows, celestial pools and magical doors, oneiric situations peopled with blue and violet silhouettes haloed with bright light. The worlds she depicts are vast, yet it is the miniature that she has chosen as her medium, her post- card works as pocket-sized as a smartphone.

Sophie Varin, “Minor Drama” (2020). Oil on cotton canvas. 8 x 10 cm. © Sophie Varin, 2020

Initially attracted to video and sculpture, Varin turned to painting at the end of her studies in Rotterdam, imagining for her diploma a short detective novel that encouraged her to develop a more narrative practice. But it would be wrong to read her paintings as a silent storyboard for a linear script, since each scenario in a series has neither beginning nor end and is only related to its fellows by the author’s state of mind at the moment she made it. Working rapidly, almost impatiently, in a sort of frenzied spontaneity, Varin lays down her scenes in a single coat of oil which she dilutes on a non-stretched canvas. Wet, porous and applied with large brushes, the paint shuns all sharpness of line, haloing its subjects with diffused light. At once humble and greedy, Varin saturates her canvases in paint, which covers the sides and part of the back once they have been stretched onto the chassis.

Sophie Varin wears a lycra top, a wool and silk skirt and a riding hat, GUCCI.

Today based in Brussels, Varin continues to refine her pic- torial rhetoric of imprecision. While her substantial image bank is ever expanding, she never lets it take over her point of view, always drawing inspiration from the hazy imprint such images leave in her memory. Her meadows are devoid of flowers, her paths and mountains lose their angularity as though drawn with the rounded strokes of a child, while her interiors are pared down to the essential, vibrating to the accidents of approximate perspective. As for the little figures that people her scenes, they have become almost spectral: gender melts away in a process of disembodiment that produces a neutral silhouette, vague and mechanical gestures, and faces frozen into grimacing masks.

In an era that celebrates the individual identity, Varin swims against the tide, towards the universal, an ideal that as a child she found in folktales. Drawn into her world, the viewer is caught up in the web of work whose subject and emotion can be neither identified nor authenticated, trapped as it is in un- certainty, an ambiguity that was nicely encapsulated in the title of her first solo exhibition in Paris: Ni Bien Ni Mal (Neither Good Nor Bad)… Instead she haunts the in-between, where art is at its most fertile.

Sophie Varin is represented by the Sultana Gallery in Paris.

Sophie Varin, “Convoité” (2020). Oil on cotton canvas. 8 x 10 cm. © Sophie Varin, 2020

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Singapore-based illustrator Kezia Gabriella’s works are chaotic but “in a good way”

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The illustrator combines distorted shapes, a combination of patterns, giant hands and an unusual perspective in her colourful work.

Singapore-based art director and illustrator Kezia Gabriella’s work is inspired by the beauty of the everyday, “like a conversation that I had with my partner, things that my neighbours said, an article that I read, food that I had for lunch, and so on,” she tells us. Despite this, Kezia’s works are anything but pedestrian, instead, they are filled with vibrancy thanks to a bold colour palette, a combination of digital brushes, and unique compositions and characters.

Currently, Kezia works as a freelance illustrator alongside running a creative collective called Antinormal with her partner Nicholas Oh. A career within her chosen medium wasn’t always the plan, however. “During my childhood, I used to draw on any surface I could find — school textbooks, walls, invoices in my parents’ office — I was borderline obsessed with it. However, I used to think of drawing as a hobby and did not really consider it as a career choice,” she recalls. This all changed after Kezia completed her degree and started working full-time – as illustration became a way to unwind from her hectic 9-6 day job in the advertising industry.

She started off by “illustrating hilarious office stories or things that I overheard from my friends,” she recalls and, soon after, quit advertising to purse a career in illustration. Today, Kezia primarily produces editorial projects and brand illustrations, each complete with her oddly-shaped human or animal characters as the focal point. “Usually their poses and proportions don’t really make sense, and I use body gesture, a lot of stretch and squash, and dead-panned expression to showcase the emotions,” she describes. These distinctive figures are based on objects that Kezia finds around her home “like bottles, lamps, and food packaging,” which she then slaps “a face, arms and legs” on to.

While the colours and characters of Kezia’s work change, one thing that remains the same is their energy, something which seems to stem from her restlessness and need to experiment. “The way I approach my works is ever-changing. I don’t think I will ever be satisfied with just one way of doing things,” she remarks on why she constantly flips between techniques and media. This also applies to the kinds of projects she likes to work on. “I get excited when there is an open-brief that challenges me to work with a medium that I’m not familiar with,” she says. “There’s a beauty in not knowing how your work will turn out.”

This means that Kezia’s portfolio is full to the brim with exciting work, both for clients but also with self-initiated projects. Recently, she completed a piece for a column in Medium called My Therapist Says. While editorial often requires you to be literal, Kezia was able to introduce abstract patterns into this piece “as visual cues to portray self-interests in a conversation.” In another project, she created illustrations for the packing of an artisanal beer brand. “The brief was to create an artwork that visualises the flavour profile of the brews,” she explains. “I played with vibrant colours and loose outlines for my characters, creating a scene that brings the flavour to life.”

In a more personal project, Kezia’s been producing works that are inspired by Henri Matisse. The series consists of artworks depicting modern life, “like being a coach potato, doing chores and being occupied with our phones – all painted in his colour palette.” While these pieces are inspired by the famous artist, they very much bear the hallmarks of Kezia’s work: distorted shapes, a combination of patterns, giant hands and an unusual perspective. “I like drawing crowds, clothes, and people interacting with each other because there are a lot of things going on,” she says. “A lot of people say that they don’t know what to look at when they see my work. I want to emphasise freedom and randomness as the core of my works. It’s almost chaotic, I think, but hopefully in a good way.”

Ultimately, it’s this element of chaos that means Kezia’s work portrays what she loves about illustration so much: “There’s no so-called ‘right’ way of doing things because there are many ways to visualise the message that you want to convey.” This means it’s a medium which “encourages everyone, artists or non-artists, to create and voice their opinions,” she concludes, astutely.

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Oli Hillyer-Riley documents a close knit, and under-threat, surfing community in Nigeria

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Oli met the young community while in Nigeria working on a job for Vans, and was immediately taken by the love and passion they had for each other and the sport.

Born and raised in Bournemouth and now based in London, photographer Oli Hillyer-Riley uses his camera to capture “the emotions, reactions, experiences and friendships of whom I’m with,” he tells us. Borne from his fascination with people, Oli’s practice also stems from his love of extreme sports growing up. “As a teenager, I would hoard hundreds of sports magazines, Thrasher, Carve, Ride Bmx were amongst my favourites. I remember being inspired by the individuals who were pushing the boundaries to get the shots. I aspired to be in that position.”

Oli, therefore, relishes any shoot where he’s pushed physically or mentally, “whether it’s treading water in 20-foot waves (more elegant than getting out the water with flippers) or being in a studio for a highly demanding commercial job,” he adds, “anything to get my adrenaline going excites me.”

Recently, Oli was commissioned by Vans to head to Nigeria and photograph some of their professional surfers. And it was in Lagos that the photographer discovered more than he was bargaining for, in the form of the Tarkwa Bay surf club. “The community, which is primarily made up of children and teenagers, don’t have a lot, but the ocean and the connection between the two is unparalleled, something that I hugely admired,” Oli explains. This admiration prompted him to, not only carry out his commission for Vans while in Nigeria, but also to produce another body of work titled No Wahala. Now published as a book of the same name, the series documents this young surfing community, and the process of them getting to know each other.

“It was the love and passion these surfers (using broken boards) had for each other and the sport which made me spend a week side by side with them,” Oli explains. “I wanted to know everything, what made certain individuals tick, what made them laugh and what pissed them off.”

Coming into a community for a short while and photographing it, only to then leave, often presents photographers with a moral dilemma. And Oli was keenly aware of it. While he was meticulous in making sure he documented enough to create a strong body of work, “I would only photograph when necessary” with the majority of his time spent simply enjoying his newfound company. It’s an approach he often takes when working, and before picking up his camera, he will “read and observe those I am photographing,” he tells us, “[if] I see a situation or behaviour that evokes emotion and reality, then I make it my aim capture it.”

GalleryOli Hillyer-Riley: No Wahala

In turn, the images in No Wahala possess an effortless joy to them, feeling more like an album of photos from a holiday with friends than a standardised documentary photography project. To achieve this look, Oli worked with what was around him – natural light. “We made certain aesthetic decisions partly due to the light, as the children would only hang around in two spots. You’d have dusk at one location which created a hazy ‘golden hour’ look and the other location creating a blue cool hue,” he explains. “From this, certain portraits and action shots were captured in one or the other location, but personalities also had a big part to play. You’d have some individuals who were real live wires, full of energy and the golden hour haze really matched this, in comparison some older teenagers were timid but kind and caring, and as a result, the blue cool hue location felt akin to them.”

Initially, the goal was for the profits of the book to go to NGO worker John Michelletti who oversees the progression and development of the surfers through the Tarkwa Bay surf club. This money would be used to buy new surfboards, swimwear and even subsidise travel to nearby countries for surf competitions. But, on Tuesday 21 January 2020, this peaceful beachside community was violently evicted by the Nigerian Navy during an operation to stop oil theft from pipelines that run across the island. Hundreds of innocent families were left destitute – their homes and personal belongings destroyed. “Right now, our main priority is taking care of the kids and their families,” says John. “We’re using any funds that the club had saved to provide food, aid and assist with rebuilding homes, or relocating affected families where this is not possible.”

The profits from No Wahala will now go to helping the community of Tarkwa Bay in any way possible and is available to purchase on Oli’s website.

Oli’s next project will also focus on a community of young adults, this time in and around London, he tells us. Having been several years in the making, it looks at teenagers who have found a passion in their specialised bicycles as a means of escaping gang life. “At the moment my interests lie in telling the stories of youth culture no matter where in the world or what the background,” he says, concluding, “I find them to be surprising, diverse and full of personality worth showcasing.”

GalleryOli Hillyer-Riley: No Wahala

oli-hillyer-riley-no-wahala-photography-itsnicethat-13.jpg

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