I went in-conversation with Petra Collins for the Girls Rule issue of Dazed. You can now read the full article below.
If you’ve ever been on the internet, you’re probably familiar with the artist Petra Collins. I’ve also written about her on this blog many times, and she and I have since made a couple of short films together, both of which (quite serendipitously) are about murderous girl gangs. We also both made T-shirts with vaginas on them, except hers was bleeding.
For those of you who don’t know: Petra made her name creating beautifully nostalgic images of youth in her hometown of Toronto, Canada. Still just 21, Petra’s career started in her mid teens. She’s the founder and curator of The Ardorous, an online platform for girls to show their artwork, and she’s also a staff photographer at Rookie, Tavi Gevinson’s awesome mag for teenage girls. This year Petra made the move to NYC, and has since curated an all-female art show titled Gynolandscape, become a muse to Ryan McGinley, and has started making music videos for artists like Sky Ferreira and Blood Orange. Through her cinematic lens, Petra has become an expert at using the female body as a tool to both seduce and provoke, and never fails to find the humor in both.
Karley Sciortino: We’ve worked together a bunch of times, but I’m only just realising that I’ve never asked you when or why you started taking photographs..
Petra Collins: Well, I hate saying this because it sounds sort of pretentious, but since I was very little I’ve always made art, in some form or another. It wasn’t a career choice; I was just doing it because I needed to, because it made me feel whole. Then, when I was 15 I took this photo of my younger sister’s three girlfriends sitting on my bed, and one of them was smoking, and when I got the image back it really surprised me – it was really interesting in a way that I didn’t expect, with a strange sadness and beauty to it. After that I decided to keep documenting those girls, and so for the past five years I’ve been taking photos of my younger sister and her friends. That was unconsciously my first photo project, and what started everything. It’s really crazy because now all the girls have graduated and are going to university.
Karley Sciortino: I’ve seen some of those photos. Some that stand out in my mind are of them at prom.
Petra Collins: Yeah, I shot them at prom, at parties that they went to, in their high school, them taking selfies…
Karley Sciortino: The other day I tweeted that a better name for our generation than “Millennials” would be “Generation Selfie.”
Petra Collins: Seriously. I think the selfie is really interesting because there’s so many levels to it. In a way, it’s an image that doesn’t hold that much truth, but rather is a representation of how someone wants people to perceive them. It’s supposedly a personal image, but it’s always taken with a second party in mind. It’s part of how we all curate our lives online, through Facebook or whatever.
Karley Sciortino: Yeah, so in a way the selfie is the purest representation of how we want the world to perceive us. I recently wrote an article about how social media has turned everyone into their own brand, and suggested that the people who don’t un-tag unflattering photos of themselves are actually just bad at doing their own PR.
Petra Collins: Lol.
Karley Sciortino: I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but when I first saw your work and then found out you were so young I thought, “She must have famous parents.” I didn’t think someone could be so cool while still so young without some assistance. But then when I met you I realized you’d actually just taught yourself to be cool on the internet.
Petra Collins: Ha, it’s true. The school of Tumblr!
Karley Sciortino: Yeah, it’s crazy how much of a game-changer that is – to grow up with a catalogue of everything that was ever cool or influential or relevant since the dawn of time. I just missed that, because I didn’t have internet at home until I was 13, and even then we just had like AOL chat and other similar non-cool-making resources, and then people like you and Tavi come along, and are intimidatingly cool at age 15, and that makes me hate you, honestly.
Petra Collins: Uh… thank you? So, when you started Slutever, did you set out to create a feminist blog?
Karley Sciortino: Honestly, that wasn’t my intention. I was just writing about what interested me, and I ended up writing a lot about sex and sexuality, I suppose just because I’ve always been a very sexual person, but it wasn’t until my blog started getting popular, and other people and press began referring to me as a feminist blogger that I sat back and thought, “Wait, is that what I am?” Don’t tell anyone, but I actually didn’t know that much about feminism at the time!
Petra Collins: No, same with me! I feel like we went down the same path, because I just started taking photos to work through my own person frustrations, but I didn’t really know what I was doing, and it was through being defined as a feminist that I discovered feminism. But that was only in my last year of high school, which isn’t that long ago.
Karley Sciortino: What frustrations were you working out?
Petra Collins: Well, in the beginning my images were very sexual, and at that time I was dealing with my emerging sexuality. I remember thinking that my worth as a person was based on my looks, and basically being a sex toy. That sounds bad but it’s really what I thought, and it felt very confusing, and I guess I was trying to combat feelings of the male gaze through my images. I wanted to create images that represented my own sexuality, not a sexuality that was dictated by someone else–like, “How do I make this mine?” But it’s a long, hard process to figure that out, and I’m still figuring it out.
Karley Sciortino: I recently interviewed Marsha Rowe for Dazed – she was the founder and editor of the iconic second-wave feminist magazine, Spare Rib. She told me, “What strikes me about modern feminism is that it focuses quite narrowly on the body. So much anxiety gets centered on the woman’s body, and it feels somehow detached from what other things are going on in the wider world.” We went on to talk about the obvious connection of girls’ obsessions with their bodies, and the unrealistic, airbrushed images of perfection we are bombarded with in advertising, in magazines, on TV, etc.
Petra Collins Yeah, it’s so fucked up. It’s almost hard to realise that those images aren’t real because we see them so much.
Karley Sciortino: Right, so we hold ourselves up to these unrealistic standards. It’s strange because as a society, we look at these super retouched images in the media and we’re angry, because we know it creates unhealthy aspirations for women, and just makes us feel bad about ourselves. But simultaneously, whenever we see an unretouched paparazzi shot of a celebrity on the beach, we relish in the opportunity to criticize them for having cellulite or whatever. Rather than appreciating it as a realistic depiction of a female body, we print the photo in a tabloid magazine and draw a big red circle around any imperfection, underneath a headline like, “Scarlett Johansson’s cellulite beach nightmare!” or whatever. So as a society we are very hypocritical about what we want. We want to see images that are at once aspirational and relatable, and yet we condemn them for being both.
Petra Collins: Honestly, I don’t think there’s an hour of the day where I don’t think about my body, which is really messed up. I actually find it weird when I meet a girl without body issues. I just think, “Where did you come from?!” And it makes me so sad to see my sister and her friends, who are all so amazing and beautiful, just hating themselves.
Karley Sciortino: As someone who’s curvier, I sometimes feel insecure about my weight. But then at the same time, because I understand that I’m in a position of even a small amount of influence to young girls, I feel it’s important to project a body-positive image in my writing and in my videos, because obviously I think girls of all sizes can look amazing, but I still can’t escape the harsh self-critique. And then I get anxiety that I’m projecting this confident imagine that isn’t entirely sincere, ya know? But anyway, keeping on the subject of body, your Instagram got deleted recently after you posted an image of yourself in a bikini with a visibly unshaved bikini line. Given that there’s millions of photos on Instagram of girls in bikinis, it was obvious that your photo was censored because of the hair. Quite awesomely, everyone from Vogue to the Huffington Post wrote stories about how Insta censored your pubes.
Petra Collins: Right, the issue was that the image of my body didn’t meet society’s standard of “femininity.” It’s an example of the pressure to succumb to society’s image of beauty literally turning into censorship. I actually did this giant research project about female body hair in my first year at university. I was beginning wonder why I felt the need to remove my hair, ritualistically, almost every day, without ever considering why. So as a little social experiment for myself I decided to stop shaving, just to see how uncomfortable I would be with exposing myself in that way. It was partially about training myself not be affected by what other people think. And now, three years later, I still have the hair. And I still get so many stares. It’s so funny how shocking armpit hair on a girl is to people–they spot it and they just like can’t look away! But I love it now, it’s such a cool accessory. I love the combination of armpit hair and a slutty dress.
Karley Sciortino: That’s hot. Maybe I should stop shaving, both to look more edgy and to just avoid getting ingrown hairs. Literally, sometimes I feel like my life is just one giant ingrown hair. So, who are some female artists that you love?
Petra Collins: I love Lauren Greenfield‘s work. She did that photo series Girl Culture, about girls lives and private rituals, and she made that documentary Thin, about a rehab center that treats women with eating disorders. What about you?
Karley Sciortino: I love Camille Paglia – she’s a very controversial feminist who writes largely about art, sex and pop culture. She’s very pro-sex, pro-porn, and she can be pretty harsh, but she usually just says what everyone else is thinking. And of course, I love Joan Didion, who somehow is able to perfectly articulate everything I’ve ever thought and felt and wondered about, and even some things I didn’t even realize I thought or felt until I read her words. So… should we talk about the fact that we both made shirts with vaginas on them? Mine was a photo of my hairy vaj, and yours was a line drawing of masturbating, menstruating woman with pubes, sold at American Apparel, and it sparked some backlash.
Petra Collins: I know. I find it funny that with all the sexually violent, disgustingly derogatory images we see everyday in the media, that a woman’s period is still something people find so shocking. Menstruation is a natural part of growing up and becoming a sexual person, and yet it’s so hidden, so I really wanted to put it on a shirt and bring the power back to vaginas. That’s what I love about your shirt too – it really demands attention, and calls attention to the fact that the vagina is its own sexual organ. It’s not, ya know…just for dicks.